My 9 year-old daughter sits at the kitchen counter writing an essay for her 4th Grade Language Arts class, urging herself on by withholding a snack through unbearable late afternoon hunger. She tells herself she can’t have a cracker with goat cheese spread on it — her favorite after school treat — until she finishes a paragraph. When a sizable group of sentences are written, she slowly nibbles away at just one smeared cracker, takes a sip of milk, and bows her head over her composition book to crank out paragraph two. I watch her with amusement, feeling mildly guilty while tossing back large quantities of goat cheese, as she tortures her way through the assignment.
She has also been known to withhold bathroom breaks, cuddles with her dog, calling a friend for a romp in the park. I could probably borrow a page from her book: no coffee until the laundry is folded and put away, no cold bottle of Becks beer until you write the chapter on the construction of Edgemont Pond, no sustenance whatsoever until the pile of research papers on my desk that tips from its bulk is lessened, made orderly.
In a Radiolab Program that aired last weekend on NPR, Oliver Sacks, the author / physician / neurologist who wrote the philosophically eye-opening The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, spoke about his shockingly radical way to self motivate, to ignite the creative process to a fervor. Struggling to write his first book entitled Migraine, he told himself that is he had ten days to finish. If he did not finish, he would commit suicide. He threatened himself with his own death in order to unlock a book that was in a state of suspended animation for months.
Sacks played both Sultan and Scheherazade in this masochisitc creative endeavor. The irony of the tactic was that his fear disappeared after the self threat; he instead felt joy as an “associative engine” took over his writing. The book was “dictated to him, as he acted as a transmitter.” 1001 Arabian Nights — the clinical book version — were reduced to ten (actually nine, as Sacks finished a day early). Sacks speaks of a creative bargain that must be made with ourselves: by facing the fear of our unproductive selves by masking it with a much more grave one, our own death, we find joy. Our creative selves are unearthed and freed by facing the fear head-on.
Scheherazade, like Sacks, feared her own death by the hand her Sultan husband. This quest for life — and joy — was achieved by her telling tales of great creative fabrication for 1001 nights. Ending in a daily cliffhanger, to envelop him in creative beauty she ultimately caused him to lose himself in the tales and forget the executioner.
Death and fear are perhaps the ultimate motivator. Overcoming it results in joy and life. One can make an argument that the creative process is a metaphor for life: it is a great travail but great joy and beauty are acquired by it. So what doesn’t kill us will actually make us stronger. And grateful. And joyful. And alive. My daughter’s goat cheese on crackers is joy in miniscule. Withholding it might result in some delightful essay that will charm the cockles a fourth grade teacher’s heart: a smidgen of truth as perceived by her 4’10” protégé.
I will continue to die to finish my piece of non fiction that sits in pieces on my desk, reams of paper that hold town council minutes, proposals, newspaper articles, Library of Congress files, and dread. The enormity of the task is killing me. Perhaps I should just let it.