when you’d rather do anything else

This newsletter serves as a weekly reminder of just how much I hate sitting down to write. It’s a useful exercise in personal development. Think G. Gordon Liddy holding his hand over a candle: “Suffering. That was the key.” Given my druthers, I’d do anything else instead: Shop for groceries. Organize bookshelves. Clean hair out of the vacuum. That’s why I can’t give myself druthers anymore. I will choose nearly any piece of drudgery over starting out on an original piece of work. Then, I’ll complain about how little time I have. This is something that happens.

Growing up, my assumption was that everybody hates the starting and loves the finishing. The real reason I wrote so much in middle school was that the building was surrounded by concentric circles of bullies, thugs, and muggers. Spending lunch in the writing lab was a survival tactic. The fact is, however, some people actually enjoy sitting down to work. They pursue their craft absent the threat of violence. This Japanese figure sculptor, for example, spends all day sculpting figures at the office and then goes home to sculpt more figures as a hobby.

Having met a number of people like this since middle school, I’ve come to accept that, like UFOs, they exist. But I find them—the eager creators, not the UFOs—perplexing and inscrutable, like ultramarathon runners. Dean Karnazes, for instance, got existential at his 30th birthday party and opted to leave the party and run 30 miles. Which he did, drunk, despite having stopped running back in high school. Some people are just built differently. (Come to think of it, I could have turned to running to escape the bullies at lunch. But the writing lab had A/C.)

After college, I moved from New York City to Seattle to get my theatrical career off the ground. (The decision made just as much sense back then.) My behind-the-scenes gig at a regional theater felt just enough like career progress. Then, a musician friend visited me from New York.

“What should we do first?” I asked. “Space Needle? Sit & Spin? Dick’s Drive-In?”

“No,” he said. “You can always do that stuff. Let’s make something instead.” It wasn’t completely out of left field. I claimed to be an aspiring playwright and filmmaker. I had a computer, a video camera, lights, a synthesizer, and various other creative implements in my one-room efficiency apartment. It certainly looked a bit like a creative space that got used. But come on. Seriously? My friend didn’t actually expect us to spend an entire evening in that cramped little apartment making some sort of thing, did he?

Ugh. He did.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather run thirty miles?” I should have asked. Instead, I buckled to peer pressure. Over the next few hours, we collaborated on a short musical combining song and recitative. Then, we performed it for the camera using robot action figures as puppets before editing it all together into a sort of low-tech, high-art techno-opera. Think Tristan und Isolde meets Transformers in fifteen minutes.

This process became fun about halfway through, as often happens with creative projects. Mostly, though, I just marveled at the fact that this guy was choosing to do this over all the many enjoyable things a young person can get up to when they’re finally out of college and out on their own. The fact that he was choosing to do this over all of life’s other options seemed absurd, unreal, fantastical. I always fall for peer pressure but this was self-directed. Impressed as I was, if he’d lost interest at any point and opted for a bar, I’d have chucked all those MPEGs and MP3s into the shiny little Mac trashcan in a heartbeat. But he didn’t, and we finished, and it came out pretty well. Our friends enjoyed it, anyway. This was long before YouTube, so making friends laugh was the bar.

I was forcefully reminded of this little episode watching Bo Burnham’s new comedy special on Netflix. If you don’t know him, Burnham is a writer and performer who came up as a teenager on YouTube before proving his mainstream bona fides by directing the acclaimed film Eighth Grade. Though he surely had options, Burnham spent his lockdown alone in a room MacGyvering a special together: writing, performing, lighting, directing, editing, producing. My nightmare. While I didn’t love every minute of Inside, it’s often brilliant, and above all Burnham has my respect for completing a true feat of solitary, deliberate creative output.

You may recall that in March 2020, at the very start of the pandemic in the U.S., I wrote an essay exhorting you to spend this valuable time inside doing exactly what Bo Burnham did: completing an ambitious piece of work you could never pursue with sustained attention amidst the hustle and bustle of pre-pandemic life. Most of us, including me, did not end up doing that. In fact, I realized how absurd, pointless, and even offensive the suggestion had been about a day after sending it out. (That often happens in the case of the Maven Game.) But through vast effort and concentration, Bo Burnham actually turned this time and solitude into a legitimate work of art: raw, honest, affecting, and, for all its impromptu messiness, beautifully executed. All of this was done while clearly enduring a mental health struggle. In my case, anxiety and depression make it even harder to work, but Burnham pushed through.

Part of me hopes I’ll become an avid creator one day. That the eagerness to create, not consume, is a muscle one can train and develop. But after that night in Seattle, even after many other rewarding creative experiences in my life, I’ve never become anything like my friend. I never, ever want to do, only to have done. At this stage, I’ll probably never change. Which means I simply can’t be trusted with my druthers.

p.s. An astute reader points out that, contrary to my last essay, the month is also based on a natural cycle. Great catch. I do hold fast to my assertion that the week is an unnatural division and far less useful for building creative habits than the day.

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