In the mind’s eye hangs a poster of a discomfitingly adorable orange-and-white kitten clinging perilously to a tree branch by a single paw. In thick bubbly script are the words "Hang in there, baby!”
I don’t know much about what my friends have accomplished this year, but we are all exceedingly familiar with what we’re in the middle of doing, and more obliquely, what we intend to do.
We know exactly how hard we’re working.
Eight undergraduate students nurse Monday morning coffees, shuffle papers, idly click pens; gray faced, eyes bloodshot and bagged.
“How’s everyone doing today? Are we okay?” the professor asks.
Seven voices mumble some assent. One student sighs more audibly, more deliberately, and in a manner more solicitous of inquiry than the rest.
“What’s up with you?” the teacher asks.
“Oh, me?” the student replies, “Nothing, I’m just really tired and I have a thing due tomorrow.”
“You’re tired and you have a thing due tomorrow? Everyone is tired and has a thing due tomorrow. What makes you so special?”
Charles Sheeler’s Aerial Gyrations is a little oil painting from 1953 in the permanent collection of SFMOMA, not currently on view in the museum but hanging around nonetheless. It is sized to disappear even when on display. I first saw it tucked into a corner of some show of the permanent collection, a backstock of greatest hits sagging under a long and mellifluous title that invariably included the word “selections.” Passersby noticed me staring at the painting before they noticed the painting itself.
Aerial Gyrations was composed by overlapping negatives from photographs Sheeler took of the U.S. Steel Plant in Pittsburgh, which he reversed, superimposed, and rearranged to satisfaction before copying them on canvas in flat, un-layered, candy-hued colors—licorice blacks edge up against soft caramels and gumdrop blues in near-perfect alignment (in engineering the term is “aircraft tolerance”). The fallibility of the artist’s hand is only caught in careful examination: the slightest wiggle of line here, a smidge of overlap there. Overall, the picture conveys ease, lightness, efficiency; the complexity of the process made evident only by the accompanying wall label, which also reads:
“I favor the picture which arrives at its destination without the evidence of a trying journey rather than the one which shows the marks of battle. An efficient army buries its dead.”
I think about the painting when I am tempted to fish for a few premature pats, to advertise yet again my progress on unfinished projects.
I’ve made the mistake, time and time again, of following writers I admire on one or more social media outlets—usually Twitter—only to be disenchanted by what turns out to be a steady stream of neurotic logorrhea; sentences spent wringing hands over a sentence, wounded mewings about reviews, rejected pitches cathartically sent out into the ether. Anxiety over a writing practice almost entirely devoted to the anxieties of writing is not a life most starry-eyed go-hards imagine after discovering they can turn a phrase. It feels like an emotional feedback loop.
I finished Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own during a lunch break at an old retail job, during a protracted stay at community college. By then I was already settled into the habit of blaming my lot in life to the penury of my oeuvre, resenting the work that paid (most of) the bills, kept me roofed and shod, leaving a sliver of time to write had I not filled even that with brooding. I pretended to empathize with the parable of Shakespeare’s sister, feeling absolved of any responsibility to work for myself, because my checks were bouncing and I shared a bedroom. “But,” Woolf ends her book with a crucial caveat, “I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.”
Clinically depressed, a narrow avoider of multiple suicide attempts, Dorothy Parker had trouble getting to work. “I hate writing, I love having written.” Though she never made it through a novel, she did make it to age seventy-three, dying of natural causes.
What’s left to do after that, but promise to show up? To do my best? To bury my dead?
[Image on top: Charles Sheeler, Aerial Gyrations, 23 5/8 in. x 18 5/8 in. (60.01 cm x 47.31 cm), Acquired 1974 / Collection SFMOMA / Mrs. Manfred Bransten Special Fund purchase; © Estate of Charles Sheeler 74.78.]