In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I didn’t sleep well last night. I think I’m coming down with a cold. But I’m up early because I made a vow, and the Muse expects me to keep it. It doesn’t matter that millions of other writers around the world are prostrating themselves to her right now in Mandarin and Spanish and Hindi and Arabic and Portuguese and Bengali and Russian and Punjabi and German and Japanese and Javanese. The Muse still expects a few words from me this morning. In English, she says. In writing.
Why it matters to me that I write every morning: 1. Because writing is hard, but not as hard as not writing. 2. Because a good sentence can rise from the ashes of a bad sentence, and someone needs to write those bad sentences, and who can write bad sentences better than me? 3. Because when I sit down to write, a door inside me opens. I may just stare at it, unable or unwilling to take a step toward it; still, a door opens. 4. Because sometimes I walk through the door.
Holy smokes! I started writing today’s date as October 10, 19—, then realized I’d absent-mindedly slipped into another century. Thankfully there are no hidden cameras here recording my every misstep. At least, I don’t think there are. In 2013 anything is possible. For all I know, there’s a microchip in my pen that allows the government to track all the swoops and loops of my handwriting. It’s a good thing I’m not one of America’s sworn enemies; certainly I’m less dangerous than the right-wing ideologues who forced a government shutdown last week. They, too, seem to have slipped into the past. I wonder if some of them aren’t wandering around in an antebellum fantasy in which Barack Obama is someone’s property and not the president of the United States. Since it really is 2013, however, I’ll be checking the news throughout the day, hoping for a resolution of this latest crisis in a 237-year-old republic that has always had a problem governing itself. Then again, the same can be said of a sixty-eight-year-old man who couldn’t remember what year it is today.
With another deadline approaching, I’ve been working later than usual, not sleeping enough, drinking too much coffee. But I’m not going to complain about what a busy editor and publisher I am. And I’m not going to pretend, as I sometimes do, that it could be some other way — say, if I were better organized, or if my guardian angels spent a little less time in rapturous contemplation of the Godhead and a little more time looking out for me. So I can’t say I was surprised when I got pulled over yesterday for doing forty-seven miles an hour in a thirty-five-mile-an-hour zone. The policeman let me off with a warning, which was more mercy than I deserved. What do I think I’m doing, rushing through these precious, unrepeatable days? Faster than a speeding bullet! Able to leap tall piles of unread manuscripts in a single bound! But I’m no Superman, just some fool living on a planet that apparently isn’t moving fast enough to suit him. A thousand miles an hour on its axis? Too slow. Sixty-seven thousand miles an hour in its orbit around the sun? Step on it, pal.
In our fortieth-anniversary issue I was interviewed by Gillian Kendall. As Gillian notes in her introduction, “getting Safransky to grant this interview took two years of polite, persistent persuasion.” My hesitation was nothing personal, of course. I almost invariably turn down interview requests. That’s because I find it impossible to be succinct and coherent when talking about what’s important to me. I never learned to think before I speak. I just start talking, trusting that I’ll figure it out as I go, and my thoughts tumble out, and instead of finishing a sentence I spring from one idea to the next, and then double back to clarify something, and then I’m off and running again. If you think that last sentence jumps around, you should see the interview transcript. You might be perplexed by my embarrassingly vague and discursive answers to Gillian’s thoughtful and concise, if occasionally nosy, questions — especially when she grilled me about my spiritual beliefs, and I led us into such a thicket of turgid metaphysics that God himself must have been rolling his eyes and wishing that this well-intentioned but hopelessly inarticulate advance man would just shut the hell up.
As a consequence, I spent many more hours editing that interview than I did talking with Gillian. We edit all our interviews at The Sun, often quite heavily, but I may have gone overboard on this one, losing sight of the fact that an interview is supposed to read like a conversation. I was trying to make sure that I got it right — when talking about LSD, for example, and about God — and, God forgive me, I forgot that I wasn’t answering questions on a final exam.
I read some ninth-century Chinese poems to get inspired this morning, but it’s not working. I’m not up there on Cold Mountain with Hanshan, in his tattered coat and worn-out sandals, waiting for the sun to burn the mist away. I’m here in North Carolina, in the twenty-first century, watching the sun rise on a world Hanshan couldn’t have imagined. Then again, maybe an eccentric Chinese poet born to privilege who chose to live in poverty would understand the world of 2013 all too well. Maybe humanity isn’t as different as we’d like to think after more than a thousand years of progress. Now, as then, political dynasties rise and fall; people squabble over money and status and power and possessions; everything changes and nothing changes. Now, as then, a boy goes to sleep at night and wakes up an old man.