Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Laughing to the grave

From a writer’s perspective, this article in the New Yorker might just be the most depressing thing ever:

Let’s get real: writing is not a “fucking great” job. It does not attract happy people, nor does it make its unhappy practitioners any less unhappy. God knows this is a well-documented phenomenon—and one that [Elizabeth] Gilbert herself talks about. For writers who have found neither inner peace nor boatloads of cash, and certainly not both at once, for those just trying to get health insurance and scrape together some hope for the future, it feels somewhat inaccurate to hear the writing life described as having “everything to recommend it over real work.” And if telling stories is, as she puts it, “marvelously pointless”—a description that her own earnest readers would certainly deny—why does it matter whether or not a young writer is encouraged to keep at it? Go be a professional snowboarder—that’s also marvelously pointless, and the parties are better.

I’m trying to agree with Gilbert when she celebrates writing for the way it allows you “get to live within the realm of your own mind.” But I know plenty of writers for whom living in their own mind is a far from pleasant experience. Writers are very often miserable people: some thrive on unhappiness, others don’t. But few are immune from feelings of deep and avid dissatisfaction. We write because we are constantly discontented with almost everything, and need to use words to rearrange it, all of it, and set the record straight.

I’ve often wondered at how being unhappy or upset inspires my best work. Sometimes listening to sad music will put me in the mood to write. My angst comes through in my writing, and I’m embarrassed to show some of my best work to friends and loved ones because I’m afraid they’ll see deeper into me than they care to look and get the wrong idea of who I really am.

Is it a compliment to Daniel Greenfield that no other writer more often makes me want to kill myself? Seriously, is it a compliment?

Marriage rates have dropped sharply. Not only is divorce more commonplace, but many couples aren’t even bothering to marry at all. And many of those who do marry don’t bother having children. Childfree is the new Zero Population Growth, not on behalf of the planet, but on behalf of the self. Modern society has made the price of children extremely expensive and many couples have found it easier to end the family with their own deaths.

The future of the West has been aborted or never conceived. It has been broken up, divorced and never married.

The state gave its citizens the impression that it could fulfill all the functions of a family far better than the real thing. Its appeal was the power of bigness, the stability of a system too big to fail and rooms full of experts working night and day to improve on the fallible family. With its vast industrial social services bureaucracy, the state would be able to provide a more stable social safety net, save everyone money on health care, educate their children, care for their elders, perpetuate their values, protect their income, safeguard their way of life and usher in a bright new future.

Unfortunately not only can’t the state do any of these things better than the family, but it can’t do them at all without the family. And the family has collapsed, falling apart into disassociated lonely individuals, looking for their father and mother, their children and their future, in the great soulless body of the state.

I hit all the same notes here, here, and here.

As writers, Greenfield and I often use the same playbook. My blog style probably resembles his more than any other essayist I read on a regular basis. I’m a sucker for worrying about the existential crises that face the most well-off people in the history of the world. If I had to summarize the theme of my writing style in one word, it would be “decline.” We had it all, and we blew it.

There’s something to be said in favor of Mark Steyn, who is a truly brilliant writer in how he lightly and lyrically tracks the trajectory of Western civilization’s collapse. He effuses the personality of someone happily resigned to his fate, an endearingly cranky armchair philosopher you wouldn’t mind sharing a bomb shelter with while the world tears itself apart above you.

On an emotional level, I suspect Steyn’s positive attitude is a benefit of professional success insulating him from the impending doom and gloom he writes about regularly. But the truth is he has always been this jovial, and it has been integral to his success, not a product of it. People don’t want to cry their way to the grave; they want to laugh.

Greenfield and I—if I may lump myself with him—take ourselves more seriously than Steyn. Maybe it’s a reflection of our dour personalities or dissatisfaction with life. Maybe we’re less sure of what we stand for, so we oversell our premises with apocalyptic imagery. Maybe the source of our creativity is the siege-like mentality of working behind enemy lines, like counter-countercultural insurgents. This last I believe strikes closest to the truth.

For the benefit of readers and myself, I am going to be more upbeat about the future. Because in fact I do look forward to the future, which has never felt closer. I am finally at home here in Texas. I look forward to achieving recognition for my work, to falling in love, to getting married, to becoming a father, and to strengthening my bonds with Christ and my community.

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