Monday, November 24, 2014

The Hair Shirt

"Fuck, I dunno.  The fuckin' speech is always about having the courage to break free from conformity and be yourself or whatever.  I got no problem being myself - the real issue is how do you break free of hating existence once it's become clear that who you've courageously become is unlikely to pay the rent."

Winston Rowntree, Make a Sound

Hah.  I could have written that.

Somewhere out there (where I can find him on twitter, but I don't) is a great artist and writer who is thinking over and resolving in his mind the same issues I have. This is a good thing.  This sorts out the universe for me.

It's been four months and a collection of days since I released How to Run.  I find myself thinking about my head space six months ago, my thoughts at the time containing the usual nightmare of "Is this any good, how much is the internet going to dump on this, maybe I should force myself to do another draft, etc."  It feels good to lay those fears to rest.  It feels good to know that the reviews on Amazon give me five stars three times.  We all know how cruel and heartless the internet can be, thus the necessity of courage.  Not to be myself, but to put on the hair shirt and make the thing happen.

Hair shirt?  I'm speaking of the Latin cilicium, the garment made of goat hair that has been seen traditionally as a religious self-flagellation.  Tradition has it that, like wikipedia says, a devout would wear the hair shirt to prove their repentance and willingness to atone.

Reading Dante's Purgatorio a few days ago, I found myself rethinking that tradition.  There's no question that working on my role-playing book this last spring was an experience I would equate with discomfort and mental pain.  Those who had to put up with me those few months could bear witness to this - not only had I become intolerable to others, it had grown quite impossible to live with myself.

I remember saying in March that I was trapped.  I had to finish the book.  If I had withdrawn, if I had quit, if I had put the book off endlessly, then the reputation I've built up on this blog would have been cast away.  At the same time, producing a bad book would have had similar consequences.  You readers who have bought the book and found it worthy, you know what I mean.  Some out there must have wanted me to fall on my face.  Certainly in March I couldn't be sure I wouldn't.  But I was trapped.

So I wore the hair shirt and finished the book - and these four months have worked out fine.  It's a shame there are no atheistic phrases to indicate how profoundly relieved I am about that.  Imagine, if you will, that I have been able to take the hair shirt off.

But there it is, still hanging in the closet.  Pretty soon I'm going to have to put it on again.  Soon, I will have to really dig in with the next book, the next risk, the next opportunity to fail to pay the rent.  This is how it goes.  This is how art gets made.

I am convinced that the hair shirt isn't a punishment, but a means to an end.  The key is in understanding that shirt isn't forced upon us, but rather it is something we choose to adopt - to compel us towards an achievement.

I find myself realizing that Thomas Aquinas did not wear the thing to prove his devotion, but to acquire his devotion.  Subtle perhaps for some.  It seems as wide as the universe to me.

Perhaps I do beat the drum for hard work loudly.  When I stood to pitch my book at the fundraiser last July, I stood on the stage and said, "This book will challenge you to work; it will drive you, it will get under your skin, it will push you to look deep inside yourself to find the labour it demands of you."

When I stepped down and found my friends and family, my daughter leaned over to me and told me that I talked about 'work' way too much.  "People won't like to work," she said.

Then I find myself looking at the 5-star reviews on Amazon, where the readers talk about the inspiration the book gives them to work.

Work is a hair shirt.  It is a willingness to suffer in order to produce value.  It is a suffering we pursue, not for the sake of the suffering, but because humans are built in such a way that comfort - while pleasant - leaves nothing to show when it's done.

As per yesterday's post, I don't say this because I want it this way.  I haven't chosen - wouldn't choose - to have fruitful creativity depend upon the wearing of hair shirts or any other similarly unpleasant process.  It's only that this is the way the process works.  You've got to consciously accept that you're not going to enjoy the next few months.  You've got the consciously accept that if you try to enjoy any part of those months - if you take the shirt off - it is only going to be a bitch and a half to get that thing on again.

Once it's on, you've got to leave it on.  Even if it makes you scream.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Well, give me a little time and there will be another 5-star review. I'm trying to sort my thoughts out on the matter, because the book requires far more thought (and yes, work) to understand the concepts than normal gamer-related literature requires.

There's something like earning a PhD in this book. Instead of saying "do this, do that," you've pushed onto the reader the philosophy of running a game at a high level. Not content with Chemistry 101 (where the atomic weight of carbon is 12 and nitrogen is 15), you've asked us to understand the functions of each component in order to understand how carbon and nitrogen interact in a sample of high octane gasoline.

I've already forgotten the first half of the book as my brain tries to incorporate the information from the latter half, so I'll be rereading it (likely many times).