Maybe it’s the turn of the season—and what a winter this one promises to be—but I’ve been thinking about the meaning and importance of my work. What-am-I-doing-here questions.
Lately, I’ve been dipping into A Mathematician’s Apology by G.H. Hardy. Hardy turned to writing late in life, long after he was able to make meaningful contributions to mathematics. This passage caught my eye:
Good work is not done by “humble” men. It is one of the first duties of a professor, for example, in any subject, to exaggerate a little both the importance of his subject and his own importance in it. A man who is always asking “Is what I do worth while?” and “Am I the right person to do it?” will always be ineffective himself and a discouragement to others.
For Hardy, only mathematics was truly worthwhile. With that option unavailable, all he was good for was writing. And it didn’t suffice.
Maybe I shouldn’t ponder my lot too closely. My wife and I finally started watching 63 Up, the latest installment in the British documentary tracking the lives of a group of individuals at seven-year intervals since they were seven. This one’s been an interesting preview of life two decades ahead. Like Hardy when he wrote his Apology, the participants’ work is now largely behind them, whether it was science, law, or cab-driving. They’re all edging toward retirement and, unlike Hardy, who was profoundly bitter over his lost creativity, they’re not all that unhappy about the prospect of putting the work of their lives down. Creators, the writers and mathematicians of the world, seem more likely than most to carry regrets later on, over the work they didn’t do or the work they can do no longer.
An episode of the Reply All podcast resolved a mystery for me. For years, I’ve wondered about Perfect Crime, the longest-running play in New York City history. Positive reviews plaster the door to the rundown building where the small theater is located. I’ve always wanted to give the show a shot. From the description, I’d assumed it would be a fun crime farce like Accomplice. As we learn in the podcast, however, this is anything but the case. Apparently, the play is terrible, both confusing (audience members receive an FAQ afterward) and dull. In fact, the podcast’s hosts only investigated the play because they couldn’t reconcile its abysmal Yelp reviews with its extraordinary longevity.
The solution to that mystery, unlike the one in the play itself, turns out to be pretty interesting. The play’s lead, who holds the Guinness record for most performances in a single role, has carried Perfect Crime on her shoulders for three decades, not only starring in the show but doing nearly everything else: cleaning the theater, taking tickets, promoting the show. Whatever it takes to keep Perfect Crime going despite abysmal ticket sales and unhappy audience members.
What struck me about the Reply All interview with Russell is that she seems to be constitutionally incapable of introspection, let alone depression. A year or two into starting the play, her then-boyfriend ended their relationship—eight shows a week makes a normal life impossible. Since then, it seems like she’s been mostly alone, monastically devoted not only to performing but also producing the play. This willingness to do it all is the only reason Perfect Crime is still around—pandemic aside.
You might wonder why Russell perseveres, why she didn’t eventually leave the role to tackle something new, oh, I don’t know, twenty-nine years ago. Well, she doesn’t. Wonder, that is. She’s working and she likes working. Her father, a lawyer, instilled a truly adamantine work ethic in her. Should she do a new play just because most people hate the one she’s in? “Why?” she responds to the host’s question, as though the thought had never occurred to her. You’re always going to have haters. To paraphrase Russell: Even if it’s successful, some people might not like the next play I choose, too. Besides, what am I going to do? Ask all the people who hated Perfect Crime what play I should do instead?
She might be covering up her true feelings, but Russell strikes me as a happy and satisfied person. Maybe that’s her problem. Yes, writers and other creators tend to be plagued by self-doubts, and Russell’s attitude stands in stark contrast to the default. But what happens then? When, for whatever quirk of brain chemistry, we can’t run aground? What happens when we don’t question our work and our place in the universe every time the days grow shorter, as I happen to be doing now?
It’s one thing to practice the law or drive a cab for forty years like the plucky Brits in the Up series. But to write the same old crap day after day, year after year, without ever questioning its worth? Our writerly doubts and gloomy thoughts are gifts. They let us know when it’s time to cut our losses and try something new. We can’t let our doubts paralyze us but, like physical pain, they serve a crucial purpose when we heed them in the right measure.
Despite my own doubts, and the state of the world in general, I will persevere for now. This isn’t our first apocalypse. On May 19, 1780, the daytime skies over New England went dark. No one is sure why it happened—it might have been smoke from nearby forest fires combined with a thick fog—but one way or the other, the residents had to grapple with the possibility that the end of the world had arrived, something they’d been anticipating with religious fervor.
In Connecticut, the Governor’s council took one look at the sky and decided to call it quits. Go home and wait for the angelic hosts to roll in. “Close it up. Lights out.” One of them, however, wasn’t having it:
I am against adjournment. The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.
The skies are dark. So are our prospects. Let’s get back to work anyway. Bring the candles.