The importance of the writer is continuous; I think it’s socially not terribly rewarding, but that’s not the point; his importance, I think, is that he has to describe things which other people are too busy to describe. — James Baldwin (from Nobody Knows My Name. I’ve been on a real Baldwin kick recently after seeing the heartbreaking doc about him. If there’s been a better writer in the last century – as far as eloquent prose that’s as lucid and wise as it is curious and compassionate—I’m all ears.).
Last Thursday, I caught up with my good pal, Kevin, (of Chatroulette and Comedy Night notoriety) at the Harvard Coop bookstore. Kevin was stopping in Boston before driving up to Brunswick, Maine to watch his younger brother race on the track for the last time. (For the record, Kevin’s brother, Brendan, was injured with a torn labrum, but Kevin still made the trip from Lincolnshire, Illinois to cheer with Brendan, and, in spirit, for, because Kevin’s a first-ballot hall-of-fame brother and because he’s a Beat Generation wanderer at heart —only with a sunnier outlook on life and a cooler mustache— who needs little reason to pack a bag and go).
Since he graduated from Midd two years ago, Kevin’s researched birds in Costa Rica and tortoises in middle-of-nowhere California, substitute taught in his hometown in Illinois, and backpacked across Scotland. Like me, he’s living at home now before moving on to the next thing. This summer, he’s researching birds outside Sacramento under the guidance of his big brother, Connor (also an awesome college teammate of mine). He’s also thinking about getting an MFA in fiction. We camped out on the third floor of the bookstore, where the chairs are comfiest and the fellow readers are most OK (re: least annoyed) by cackling, inappropriate 20something dudes.
We caught up and talked writing, reading, shenanigans, Zen and the Art of
Motorcycle Mustache Maintenance. We talked writing goals, professional goals, teaching goals. We talked personal essentials for creativity (mainly, sleep, solitude, and solo exercise). But mostly, we talked boredom—how, for Kevin, there’s no greater creative fuel than boredom; how something like riding the train without headphones (or even a phone) opens our perceptive, creative floodgates and reminds us that being present wherever you are isn’t passive but already active, observational doing; how walking 10 miles a day in the desert (slowly; tracking tortoises; sans screens, distractions, or noise) was the dull monotony he needed to stimulate his most fiery writing; how plodding along gave Kevin the clearest insights into what he wanted to write, how he might write it, and why he wanted to write it.
The desert boredom gave way to clear-headedness which gave way to clear-writing-ness, echoing George Orwell’s classic line: “Let the meaning choose the word and not the other way around.”
(Kevin’s also a really freakin’ good writer, so he didn’t need a whole lot of tortoise walking to get the creative juices flowing. But you get the idea).
* * *
My senior spring of college, I took a class on pre-1800 British poetry where we mostly read tedious, old farts like Wordsworth, Hopkins, and Tennyson and listened to our older professor use unintended sexual innuendo that would make even Michael Scott blush. It was a slog of a semester, but it was my last requirement towards the English major. I was very checked out of school at that point.
It was also my only class in college with Kevin. Our class met Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:30 to 2:45, and each Tuesday and Thursday Kevin and I would make the three-minute walk from Atwater dining hall to class, scheming how we would get through the 75 minutes that day. Some days, we took turns taking lengthy bathroom breaks (I never used the bathroom in the building to extend the break). Other days, we took more acute mental notes of our equally bored classmates (Wack Job Alec drank water out of a used handle of Fire Ball whiskey; Mean Girl skipped every third class). Most days, though, I feigned interest and attention and furiously wrote what our professor must have thought were class notes but were really shitty screenplays, short stories, thoughts, concerns, video ideas. (I wrote a short, really bad screenplay about the origins of mismatched socks. Again, the class was very boring.).
The morning of graduation later that spring, looking a little lot worse for the wear, I saw our professor right after the ceremony. I’d already lost my cap and torn part of my gown and had inadvertendly grabbed my diploma without wearing shoes. I was operating on 45 minutes of sleep. Whenever someone asked me what I was doing after graduating, I told them “jury duty.” Because, I was. The next day. At 8am. In Lowell, Massachusetts.
But when I saw our professor, who was usually stoic if not cold, she wore half a smile, pointed at me, and shook her head.
“There’s never a dull moment with you, Will.”