I don’t know why, maybe it’s one of those anniversary things, you know, the kind where the sun is at a particular angle or the air smells just this way or the insects’ chirring reaches a certain pitch, and you find yourself inexplicably in mind of past events or people you once knew, and the next thing you know you’re leafing through old photos or picking up the phone or or listening to a song you haven’t played for awhile. Or sending an email, and asking that person you’ve been reminded of how he is doing, and why he, not known for taciturnity, has been silent, and wondering if he is okay.
Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just coincidence. Or just that there’s some circadianish rhythm to these things, that at regular intervals a writer writes, and when he doesn’t the absence is noted. And people ask. Whatever the case, relative to my inbox traffic, I’ve been getting a huge number of inquiries into my wellbeing, along with gentle encouragement to pick up the quill.
Which is both surprising and strangely gratifying. I mean, I’ve never been too sure just why I write. It’s never been a huge crackling fire in me, the kind that some writers experience and sometimes complain about, that leads them to live in whatever they’re working on while the bills pile up and the spouse and kids go unloved and their armpits stink. My urge is more like a little sparker, the kind that drags a flint across a rasp to ignite a torch. It happens pretty much every day, usually in the morning, and sometimes it sets off a little flame, but it’s also really easy to ignore. There is so much else to do. So when I hear that people are wondering what has become of me, and even wishing that I would write something else–missing my voice, I suppose–I am momentarily confused. “Oh yeah,” I say to myself. “I write stuff.” And sometimes, evidently, it moves people. That’s the surprise, and the gratification.
I haven’t been entirely not-writing. I had a nice little essay about The Confidence-Man, Herman Melville’s last novel (if you don’t count Billy Budd as a novel, which is one of those debates not worth having) in The Believer, and which I like to think predicted the rise of Donald Trump, although it never mentioned him or presidential politics. But it was all about how precious confidence is, and how eagerly we will hand over autonomy, common sense, money, and integrity to the person who promises it. Another essay came out in Harper’s, about religious conversion, Islamic and otherwise, and there’s one in the queue there about chickens, the weather, and the war on terror. (All of which are what are known in the magazine biz as evergreen topics, meaning they are always relevant, meaning there is no particular hurry to publish articles on them.) A piece in the Times’ Couch feature about why therapists should not write about their patients; more than one friend counseled me not to read the comments section, so I did not, but I gather I upset some people. Plus I helped my sister with her book, Rogue Justice, which is about the rise of the national security state, and worth reading so you can get depressed and buy another copy of Manufacturing Depression. And I kept adding to my little memoir, Scotland, which started life as a kindle single (and a #1 bestseller at that), got expanded into a paperback and, after a week of fevered writing in the highlands of Chiapas, is up to 40,000 words. It’s also, so I am told by both my agent and my editor, unpublishable, but I’m thinking about making it available somehow anyway, because I am fond of it.
I suppose that sounds like a lot, but that’s pretty much my entire output over the last two years. And really there’s nothing on the burner, front or back. At least nothing book-like. Or, for the most part, magazine-like. Or, to judge from my silence here, even blog-like. I haven’t retired exactly, and it’s not quite right to say I’ve lost interest, at least not in the enterprise of putting words on paper and showing them to people. But something in me has gone quiet. Like a few months ago, when I was talking to an editor at a major magazine about a story that would probably have been a good one, and in which they were quite interested, but he asked me a series of questions, all of which were totally reasonable (and mostly answerable), and I just found it impossible to spend the shoe leather on answering them. I looked for my ambition, and discovered, as Gertrude Stein did in Oakland, that there was no there there.
Speaking of theres that aren’t, that story would have been about the mental health industry, which may have been part of the problem. I think I’ve said what I have to say on that subject. I’m glad I said it, but it does not bear repeating, and there really isn’t much more to say, at least not without becoming an annoying little lapdog yapping around psychiatry’s cankles. Peter Kramer just came out with a new book. I didn’t know it was coming out until I read Jen Senior’s review of it in the Times. (And by the way, Jen Senior is the best book reviewer the Times has right now, and maybe ever. She’s funny and smart and irreverent, and I have a huge writer crush on her. If I ever write another book, it may only be in hopes she will review it.) Evidently, my ear is not to the ground. The book is a full-throated defense of antidepressants, which is sort of like mounting a full-throated defense of ketchup. I had a few vague thoughts about the book, and about what it means that Kramer is flogging Prozac again, and a moment of pity for him that he’s got to go out on the hustings and field the usual stupid questions, that he is chained forever to this topic. But mostly I was like, meh. And grateful that no one asked me to review the book (and that I didn’t know about it in time to pitch a review), because I might have been tempted and that would just be soulless work.
So maybe I just haven’t found anything else to write about. Or maybe I just like doing other things more than I like writing. I’ve been spending a lot of time building an apartment above our garage so our son can move out of our house. I’m much worse at building than I am at writing. I can’t visualize in three dimensions, I have shitty eye-hand coordination, I’m not particularly muscular. I’d fire me if I were my contractor, especially if I watched myself and saw how many 2x4s I waste, how much time I spend redoing things that came out wrong the first time. I’ve also been playing in a Grateful Dead cover band. I’m probably a worse musician than builder, and God knows the world does not need another bunch of guys wanking on China Cat Sunflower, but I play with really good musicians and it’s really fun, plus when you can see the connection between your fingers on the keys and the pelvises of the dancing girls, well, that’s as close as a happily married guy is going to get to the joys of adultery.
All of which is to say that I appreciate the concern and I am deeply flattered that anyone would want to read another word of mine, but that while I can’t fully explain my not writing, and while this has been a very challenging year for all sorts of non-writing-related reasons, I’m basically okay. And while I am swearing off writing about psychiatry, I’m not swearing off the whole word-jockeying thing. So I will probably write something else sometime. Meantime, I’ll get those recent pieces put up on the website and figure out a way to make the whole Scotland megillah available.
And thanks for asking.