The more a man hath unity and simplicity in himself, the more things and the deeper things he understandeth; and that without labour, because he receiveth the light of understanding from above.
Thomas à Kempis, Imitatio Christi
It is early evening in Busan: a strange spate of cool, wet weather has doused the city in cold rain, and it’s all rushing in on the wind through the open windows in this long gray linoleum corridor on the eighth floor of our apartment building, where I’m sitting in an uncomfortable chair that’s propped up against the wall, distracted from my work by the echoes of an ajumma who is shouting into her cellphone while she waits for the elevator just a few footsteps away.
It’s 5PM: I got up at 7, and between now and then I’ve had no time to write at all, no time to devote myself to the central purpose of my existence. The baby (whom, you say, should be the central purpose of my existence!), and a little work late in the morning, have eaten up ten hours of my life, and reduced me to this foul extremity—I’m out here now because if I stay in the apartment I get sucked in.
If the baby is asleep I pick up cups and plates and all the little towels soaked in cheesy baby vomit, I wash dishes, clean tables, sweep, straighten up, look for more teaching jobs, and by the time I think that I should be laboring on my great magnum opus the baby is starting to wake up again and that means at least another hour will fly out the window and all my precious straightening-up will be undone. Domestic chores devour the writer’s valuable time. Everything important, everything vital, vanishes.
And so I’m out here late in the evening struggling to describe something in my book that is incredibly simple: two people staring at a blank television screen. But I can’t, because this is the beginning, and when I first start to write in the late evening it’s always difficult to draw words out of the artistic abyss. In the mornings they flow quickly and freely with my ideas, especially if I can focus without any distractions, but the muse fades with the daylight hours, and makes writing seem to resemble work much more than lovely play, by five in the afternoon.
But the real question I wanted to ask here (and the reason I posted that quote from Mr. à Kempis) is this: regardless of how easily these words come, where do they come from? My wife asked me how much I think about what I’m going to write during the day, how much I plan things out, and the fact is that my thoughts are flying everywhere at every moment in a tornado of random bullshit, usually fixated on women when I stray outside, usually wandering over something equally ephemeral when I’m indoors.
To answer her question, I must think about my writing for less than one minute every day, and fifty seconds of that minute revolve around wondering if I actually have what it takes to create something beautiful.
But if I’m lucky I’ll get to devote a few hours of each day to my work, and the only reason that work is even slightly productive at all is a result of years of relative discipline. So many times in my life I have not felt like writing, and so many times I have forced myself to do so regardless. In a way, I am receiving à Kempis’s “light of understanding” from above, even if you think the product of that light is total trash (and it may very well be total trash!).
I sit, I focus, I write. Just reading the previous day’s work, just letting my mind roam over the keyboard freely. This is where I plan things out, and edit, and wonder if what I have written is good or not, and turn phrases and words this way and that.
I have not thought about any of this at all in the outside world. Sometimes I try to. When I stand up from the computer and walk away to pee I’ll often think that I should plan out the next few pages while I do so, but of course I don’t.
The beast is set loose from its keys and allowed to roam freely when this happens: it prances the jungle, it delights in the blossoming of vermilion orchids drenched in raindrops, it lifts its leg up nice and high and pisses all over a mossy treetrunk, the stream glittering healthy and clear with hydration.
Then I sit back down to these troublesome words that will not come, the dull inanities related to lounging on a couch while watching a blank television screen. I remember that I completely forgot to think about my writing: then, I write.