Think about those whales. There’s something pretty badass about them. They’re like, ‘I used to be a land creature but I’ll become helpless on land so I can go down under the sea. And I have no gills but I’ll just come up to breathe when I have to.’
Really? Are you guys nuts? I mean, you can’t survive on land. You drown if you stay under too long. It’s a TERRIBLE IDEA. You live in two worlds, but you can’t live in either of them completely. What were you thinking?
Whales are like, ‘Oh yeah? Watch me.’
You know what I’m going to say, right?
Being a writer is like being a whale. Leaving aside the getting-hunted-to-extinction part (we can talk about that another time). It is about diving down, repeatedly, into the dream world and bringing what you can to the surface. You can’t stay down there in the imaginary world. But if you stay up in the dry real world too long, you start to wither.
I am writing this post for a friend. I hear her despair at the state of the culture she is working in, its hailing-as-spectacular the mediocre and unoriginal, its blatant disregard for her existence because that culture only recognizes certain kinds of phenomena as being worthy of attention. And I want to say to her, use your whale powers and dive down.
Working on a book is like a series of dives. Periodically you have to come up—not just to eat, sleep, converse, earn money, do the laundry, but also to take soundings with the upper world. To take your bearings in the air. This means checking in with the culture and taking a look at the environment you are going to release your work into, and hopefully getting some oxygen from it that you badly need in order to keep going.
To write well requires an amphibious nature. I think it requires an ability to stand the depth pressure, to hold one’s breath against the desire for the opinion of the collective. I can’t do good work if I’m plugged into the mains of the overculture. I need silence for that. I need to go down and not come up for as long as I can stand it.
This is an act of faith. What if you run out of air and die down there? What if you come up and the world has changed and what you were doing is no longer apropos? The longer I go without checking in for the world’s approval, the more panicky I become.
There is a real and valid tension in the desire for connection and social reinforcement, and the need for silence and solitude. It is a tension intrinsic to the nature of writing. But there’s more going on. Writers are increasingly asked to be interactive outside the already-profoundly-interactive process of our work. This expectation is freighted with consequences that I personally don’t yet understand. Some of my closest friends are people I met online. I wouldn’t know them if I hadn’t come up gasping for air. Yet I can tell you that I’m out of my habitable zone when you throw me up on the beach.
We can’t stay down all the time but we don’t belong in the air, either, my whale friends.
For my friend who inspired this post, the problem is that sometimes the air will be good. But sometimes it make you choke. And sometimes it will make you light-headed. And you never know what you’re going to get when you come up and open your lungs. If a writer is working in a politically hostile environment, she may come up for air often in search of support because there are friends up there with oxygen for her. But there is a price to be paid if the support also means engagement with political battle on a daily basis. Because a person who is having a political fight cannot dive down at the same time.
I want to say to my friend: We have to be amphibious. Whatever else is going on, we have to find a way.
Whales breathe this way their whole lives. They make an art of it. So can we.