Other stuff that happened this year

Normally at the end of the year I write about what’s happened in my personal life this year. I suppose it’s been a good year. I’ve signed contracts for two books, and I’ve delivered my third YA novel. If we count my cynical guide to publishing, I’ve got six books out or under contract.

Transition has continued apace. I’ve been looking into my surgical options lately, and my hormone regime has (I hope) stabilized. I still experience significant dysphoria, but that’s life.

I got COVID, like most people, but it thankfully wasn’t very severe. I’ve kept up significant COVID precautions: I don’t go unmasked indoors, even to eat, and we only have a few visitors in our house, and we usually make those visitors test. To some people that seems excessive, but my wife is an infectious disease doctor, and that’s what makes her feel the most comfortable, which is mostly okay for me.

Oddly enough, one of the stories that resonated the most with me this year was Bambi (by Felix Salten), which is about Bambi’s growth and maturity, until in the end he comes to replace his father, the Old Stag. Part of this growth is that he retreats further and further from the world of the other deer, until eventually he starts to live on the other side of the stream, and only return to their part of the forest when they’re in trouble. It’s a powerful portrait of traditional masculinity.

I’ve certainly felt that urge to withdraw more from society, particularly online society. Twitter has gotten more and more boring. There’ve been some appalling online controversies this year that’ve just made me feel exhausted. And I’ve realized that very few people in my part of Twitter are even marginally interested in the things I care about (like, for instance, a new translation of Bambi).

It’s been interesting that so many people are able to create their own community on Substack, and I suppose that’s something I could consider doing, but for now I prefer to write here, where I’ve always written.

Lately I’ve been thinking more and more about what’s eternal. I think reading Schopenhauer and Husserl has really helped. The phenomenological turn in philosophy is really exciting to me (as, I’m sure, it was to many people in the 19th century). Instead of looking for objective truth in the world of ideas, we can look for it in the more concrete, sensory world. The key insight of Husserl, so far as I can tell, was that all ideas have their roots in the ‘life-world’–the concrete, physical world of human beings, seeing and experiencing in a simple way. And that in returning to that physical world, it’s possible to see how this idea arose and what its connection to reality might be. In that way it’s similar to William James’s Pragmatism (which assesses ideas in terms of how they’re useful to human beings). In another way, it’s similar to Marxist critique, which analyzes ideas in relation to their concrete relationship to the means of production and to the replication of capital.

The point is that instead of trying to order the world through reason, one might instead order reason through our experience of the world.

The problem of course breaks down when we attempt to communicate this truth, which one must inevitably do using abstract ideas, to people who then only understand these ideas in the context of other ideas, and never allow the real world to animate those ideas. As a writer, that’s frustrating, and it’s an ever-present technical problem (how to communicate a concept in its fullness). But as a human being, that problem is immaterial, since the point of finding truth is to find it for oneself.

The online world is useful, but only as a gloss for the real world. Too often in the online world, concepts aren’t allowed to live in their full complexity. Instead someone takes a complex idea. Like, for instance, they take the idea that "Nationalism was invented in the 19th century" and try to suggest that nationalism is artificial or unnatural or is entirely a social construct. And then someone else is like, "If that’s true, why did Greek-speaking people regard non-Greek-speaking people as barbarians". And then there’s a lot of tussling and arguing about nothing.1 It’s just tiresome.

For a while this year I wondered "What is the point of this? Why do I do what I do?" And I tested out the idea that I’m doing it for the greater good: to help people. But that just didn’t seem correct. I don’t think my work helps people, particularly, and that’s also just not a goal that motivates me particularly.

But I’m also clearly not doing this for the glory. Although I have as good a chance of success as any mid-career author, that chance of success is still quite low. I haven’t ‘broken out’, in industry parlance, and, moreover, I no longer have the strong belief that I ‘deserve’ to break out. I mean, of course I deserve it, because breaking out is totally random, and my work is better than most work that breaks out. But is it really the best even out of all the work that doesn’t break out?

There is a lot of great unpublished or forgotten work out there. I’ve seen plenty of manuscripts which ought to have done well, but didn’t get agents, or even sell. For a long time, I thought what made me uniquely deserving was that I worked harder and had more grit than anyone else. And that’s true to a degree–it was certainly true during my twenties–but nowadays my financial circumstances mean I have many fewer demands on my time than most of my other unsuccessful writer friends have. I have childcare, and I don’t have a full-time job. Those things alone make it quite easy to be productive, by the standards of the thirtysomething year old writer. Now, do I work harder than lots of other full-time writers? Definitely! But I still am less sure that I am uniquely deserving.

Lately I’ve come, reluctantly, to realize that it’s the work itself that’s motivating. I like reading. I like understanding more. This year, by getting into German philosophy, I’ve started to expand my limits and fight back against the imposter syndrome that used to attack me whenever I wrote about more cultured topics.

I don’t precisely know where my fiction will go. I’ve got a good idea for another YA novel. I really like the YA, and out of all my work it’s certainly the most ‘important.’ I’ve started my soon-to-be-announced non-fiction book, and that’s going really well. And I’m kicking around some ideas for a new literary book. I don’t know whether fiction will continue to be motivating for me. Some days it seems easier to just write in my own voice and to write all the things I know directly.

But who knows! I don’t necessarily think my work is uniquely worthy or important, but it’s certainly the best possible use of my own time. In terms of what I could be doing on a daily basis for the rest of my life, there’s nothing more worthwhile than reading or writing.

My home life is good! My baby bear is healthy and speaking a lot, being a typical toddler. Really sweet one moment, really willful the next. Still, the terrible two’s haven’t proven nearly as terrible as expected.

My wife is also incredibly successful at her work! Very proud of her! And she got a permanent job in San Francisco, so I’m luxuriating in our continued residence in this city.

We didn’t have fires this year, so San Francisco was glorious, with warm weather continuing well into November (something that makes COVID self-restrictions a lot more bearable). After bouncing from the bed to the guest-room and back to the bed, I finally found a permanent office space: Rachel found a really nice narrow desk that fits into our bedroom, and I got a little chair and mounted a monitor on the wall. So now I’m also permanently housed in our bedroom, which is a lot better than having to be office-less whenever we have guests (which is quite often).

Now that I have a permanent home, I’ve been shuffling around my books. I have a bunch of reference books (mostly on world literature and the history of the novel) that I was keeping downstairs, and I moved them upstairs. Then I put a whole bunch of other books into boxes, but I made little inventories of what’s in each box, and the books might live in the boxes for a while, or in storage. And I of course have some books in the living room to make me look smart.

I cracked the DRM on my whole ebook library and started using this fancy chinese e-reader, the Hi Reader and a 3rd-party e-reading app KOreader, which has reinvigorated my text reading practice.

Oh, and I also got really into meditating and mindfulness. I don’t have a ‘practice’ or anything, but I’ve been getting better at doing just one thing at a time. And if I’m ever feeling hurried or anxious, I just slow down and walk slower or read slower or act slower. Paradoxically, that gives a feeling of abundance and helps me feel the endlessness of time. I realized that boredom is actually kind of a gift. Boredom is what happens when nothing is distracting me from the essence of life. It’s fun sometimes to just sit quietly, alone, and watch time pass.

Of course, things can still be difficult when I’m forced to concentrate on a task that I find really dull or unpleasant. For a while my baby bear was obsessed with this board game that had a Where’s Waldo element where you try and find things in a picture and put little magnifying glasses around them. I found it SO boring. There was no way to make it not-unpleasant. But I just did it.

Lately I’ve realized that I’m just always going to have certain thoughts and feelings. I’ll always feel anxiety, always feel envy. But I also don’t need to always inhabit the mental space where those things matter intensely to me. But it’s an ongoing process, and I can’t say that I’ve experienced enlightenment or inner tranquility yet (or that I ever will). Mostly I’m learning to just focus on what’s directly in front of me.

I’ve also learned to not get too stressed out about tasks and objectives. Everything takes time, and it all gets done eventually. Feeling overwhelmed and behind is just part of life, but when I step back and think Is there any chance that this won’t get done?, the answer is almost always no.

And that’s it, that’s my life. See you next year.

  1. In reality, nationalism was a political ideology–it was the notion that the proper way to organize states was as collections of linguistic / ethnic / cultural groups. So, for instance, all the German people would be in one state and all the Italian people would be in another state. Once the peoples were organized into states, there would be no reason for war, because conquering territory would become conceptually meaningless: why would you want to add the people of another ‘nation’ to your own ‘nation’. But of course, nationalism instead for the first time allowed ordinary people to identify themselves strongly with the fortunes of the state, so instead it allowed mobilization of the nation’s populace on an unprecedented scale, leading to heretofore unimaginable levels of war. Nationalism was an ideology that came from observing the world, however, and seeing that these proto-nationalist groupings existed already and had some power. The way ‘nation’ is defined, it’s almost impossible for a pre-modern state to be called a ‘nation’, but that’s mostly a matter of definition. That doesn’t mean that pre-modern states couldn’t also be ‘imagined communities’ where the populace identified itself with the state. Which is to say, everyone who argues about nationalism is basically correct, if they just took the time to think about it. 

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