Whenever writers die, there is one sentiment that never fails to move me. RIP, Writer X. You finished your work. My reasons for thinking that this is the most poignant thing that can be said about a writer are self-interested and twofold: first, I have a fairly standard-neurotic, non-Stoic, non-Heaven-believing fear of death; and second, my work at present is extremely unfinished. If I were to get fatally T-boned at the traffic signal or suffer very bad luck at take-off, or, as is increasingly more likely, get mowed down in a mass shooting by a psychopathic virgin, I’m sure they’d find many fine things to say at my wake and on Twitter, but RIP Chris Brunt, you finished your work would not be one of them.
The meaning of life is what we make it, of course, and for me it is the doing of meaningful work. And how much sweeter if that work can traffic in all the other things we value: family and justice and community, history and the sacred, art, adventure, politics, sex, freedom, the journey within and without. I became a writer because I loved to read and was drunk with designs on that whole catalogue. My work would countenance all of it. I’d be professionally obligated to access the whole damn castle and ransack every room. It should have occurred to me, somewhere near the outset, that the gluttonous curiosity and restless passion that had made me a writer would also be the exact qualities that could keep my work from reaching its fulfillment. One year, as a PhD student in Mississippi, where there was fuck-all to do but write, read, and argue, I started thirty-one short stories, produced over five hundred pages of drafts, finished nothing, published nothing. When the Cheka dragged Isaac Babel off to the gulag, he was heard to say, “They didn’t let me finish.” If I finish as much as Babel did, even if the novel I’m writing now has only a fraction of the power and beauty of Red Calvary, I’ll have done what I came here to do.
What I’m trying to say is this: my imagination is an infinite labyrinth and if I’m not able to give it permanent literary form before my finite body expires, it will be very embarrassing. So the work hangs over my head, a specter pointing at its watch all the day long. In the early morning as I coax/harangue/bribe my three-year-old son into school clothes and high chair and car seat, I’m mentally targeting the work hours, inflating their number, overestimating how productive I’ll be, underestimating how drained, sleep-deprived, distracted, or otherwise engaged with the daily miscellany I’ll be when those hours actually arrive; in the evening while I make him dinner and play with him and get him ready for the epic ordeal that is his bedtime, I’m squirreling away little units of energy, hoping against all recent evidence that when the house is finally quiet and lamplit, around 9:30 pm, 10 pm, 10:30 pm, depending on his battle stamina, I’ll still have just enough juice left to open up the work instead of Twitter, or Netflix, or as is lately the case, YouTube clips of “Between Two Ferns” from 2009.
The obsessive drive to work, to live in one’s work, to live for one’s work, has obvious and well-documented costs. I will not pretend to have something new to say about it. The nice thing about children is that they elevate themselves to the holy status of work pretty much instantly, right there in the delivery room—by being adorable and triggering all kinds of splendid evolutionary instincts and filling you with overpowering love. If and when children arrive, one suddenly has two life works, and these can be brought into balance, however grueling and difficult, because they must be.
In Harmen Steenwijk’s painting “Vanitas stileven” of 1640, the usual suspects litter the table: a skin of wine, a bejeweled silver cup, the frightening skull, but most prominent on the canvas are the tidily bound books and the manuscript pages underneath them. The vanity of unfinished work beneath the vanity of work fulfilled. Of course, Steenwijk, being a painter and not a writer, may have intended those books and pages to symbolize learning, the vanity of knowledge and not artistic labor, but again, consider the source. It’s a worthy thing to spend your life crafting ingenious ways to remind others that they will one day die in order to teach them to live. To remember your death is to know a powerful clarifying truth: this ain’t no dress rehearsal. My favorite Stoic, Epictetus, suggests we teach our children this as we tuck them in bed each night. “What harm is it,” asks Epictetus, with a straight face, “just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?” To which I think, have you ever met a child?
Friends, do not take my career trajectory for a model. I spent four years becoming a poet, then four years becoming a short story writer, then four years becoming a college professor, and in the last four years I’ve been writing a novel about the birth and death of the modern world. It’s as if my obsession with U.S. politics has infected my artistic development with the idea of term limits. Or maybe, less mysteriously, every four years or so, I become enthralled by a new dream of how my work can meet the moment politics has brought us to. When Obama was our new, young, beautiful Black president, I wanted to sing. As his era came to its uneasy close, I had many dark little episodes to explore, and so I turned to the unforgiving form of short fiction. Most of those stories, like most of my hopes for the body politic, turned out to be busts.
Over those eight years, too, while I collected the oddly flimsy degrees of the creative writing track, I did a lot of personal work: growing up, getting married, becoming a father, reversing the flow of all that student loan debt. I got my first teaching job at the University of Houston fresh out of the PhD and felt I had arrived, foolishly believing I could bring a book of poems or a book of stories into the world while I spent nearly all my time in faculty meetings, writing lectures, worrying over my students. I moved cities and states five times in ten years, and even as I published poems and stories and finished at last a collection of poetry, I could feel that something far more grand and ridiculous was on the horizon. Something bigger was in the air, wasn’t it, around 2016? Something far more enormous was about to be asked of all of us. What else would meet that moment which began in 2016 and that we are still living through now, than a very long book about the end of the world?
I’ve been almost finished with this novel for over a year. Like most of the writers I know, I’ve had a hard time keeping my focus on the work, when checking Twitter real quick before settling down to write can turn into a daylong bender of rage-tweeting, stress news consumption, the dutiful calling of senators. Even now, as I write, the governor of Virginia has been revealed to have been, at minimum, an accessory to blackface/Klan cosplay and amid that grotesque train wreck of a story, I come across the tweet of a Black writer of the South whom I love and admire, admonishing all white writers in this country to drop what they’re doing and write essays to other white people about our complicity in white supremacy. And yes, that seems like a fair ask to me at this juncture. My half-finished essay to white people is drifting around here somewhere, and meanwhile I can fire off a sermon to the Facebook faithful. But earlier this morning, I finished reading Emily Raboteau’s magisterial piece in the New York Review of Books about climate change and its own fierce urgency, and when she asked why we aren’t all talking nonstop and loudly about the species-grade genocide now imminent, I thought to myself, “Shit, Emily, I don’t know. I guess we’d better?” The moral imperative to say something, do something, write something, grips me by the collar until I scroll some more and am forcefully reminded of the humanitarian catastrophe our government is inflicting on people at the Southern border, or the ongoing scourge of mass incarceration, or the gun violence epidemic enabled by the NRA. And that’s just here in the U.S. There are famines and migrant crises and natural disasters happening right now overseas that are arguably more dire and worthy of our immediate attention—our work—than anything happening in our local sphere of influence. Twitter has taught us two things: Chrissy Teigen is delightful, and everything everywhere is a genuine goddamn emergency.
To do work that traffics in all things interesting is not the same as sustaining a commitment to all noble causes. How do you ignore the noise of politics long enough each day to get your work done, while at the same time keeping your ears and eyes and heart open enough so that your work speaks powerfully and truly to the politics of the moment?
In Edward Collier’s 1696 “Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes,’” the artist shows us the things of this world—its vanities—which we cannot take with us, which must be put down in this life if we are to truly live it well: the silver cup of riches, the grapes of appetite, the viola and flute of sensual pleasure, and here again, the open book. In the painting’s left foreground is a collection of poems on the theme of mortality. Directly above it, but in the background of the canvas, is a Latin scroll with the haunting lines from Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Behind the scroll, even deeper in the shadows, the obligatory skull, to remind us what we are, and where we’re going. The novel I’m writing is partially set in the Dutch Republic exactly twenty years before this painting was made, so I know a little something about what Evert Collier lived through as he labored to make his art. My novel’s 1676 setting is four years after the Rampjaar, or “Year of Disaster,” when all the hope and promise of the upstart republic came crashing down at once. The Dutch Golden Age had given us Descartes, Rembrandt, and Huygens even as it gave us the multinational corporation, central banks, and the first stock exchange. It ended in invasions by England, France, and the German states, and the savage lynching of the republican Grand Pensionary of Holland Johan DeWitt, most likely at the behest of the ascendant William of Orange, who would soon take power and stifle with authoritarian terror the seventeenth century’s most liberal society. Seems, I don’t know, familiar.
What troubles me in this memento mori painting is not the genre’s pitiless insistence on the brief candle of life, but the object the artist insists on placing most prominently of all amid the clutter of vanities: the book, finished, published, open, its pages on the mysteries of death and life slaved over by its writer and worn with love and study by its reader. Even if in the year of disaster you find a way to finish your work, the painting says, even if you bring us succor, joy, a little wisdom, you cannot stop what’s coming.
The morning after Trump’s election, I was on my balcony in Houston, speaking on the phone with my friend the writer Mik Awake, who was on his balcony in Brooklyn, both of us watching our city skylines for signs of the great change. On the surface, everything looked the same. I remember asking him, “How are we going to write?”
“From now on,” Mik said, “every work of art has to have a liberation strategy.” Keep open the eyes, ears, and heart, because beauty alone, in times like these, is vanity. And yes, we have to say it—not to our littlest ones but to each other—tomorrow may be the end.
“Serious Work” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.