Watching Usain Bolt in the 100-meter dash at the 2016 Rio Olympics, got me thinking. I’ve always been fond of sorting the world into my own odd Aristotelian categories. For example, Iliad people v. Odyssey people. Do you see life as a battle, or as a journey? Novelist or short story writer. Is your temperament better suited for the rhythms of real life, or for the stop-time of the transcendent moment? Heart v. Head Artists. Is your work a sincere attempt to communicate something about the human condition, or is it an in-joke, a you-get-it-or-you-don’t-and-fuck-you-if-you-don’t provocation? Of course, the categories are binary, and clearly rigged according to my own tastes and proclivities, but I think they can illuminate something interesting about character. The way we define, and display, ourselves.
I realized, in the 9.80 seconds that it took Usain Bolt to win the gold medal in Brazil, that I have always been a sprinter, (metaphorically, of course; it would take me 9.80 minutes, probably, to go 100 meters). Marathon runners need to marshal their energies, to regulate, to modify, and to think ahead. There’s no time for that in a sprint, beyond a split-second, maybe; otherwise it’s just full-out, flat-out, the end.
Being a sprinter, to me, means that you prefer the kinds of projects that require a burst of inspiration, a lightning zap of energy, over the ones that demand a more prolonged and patient course. It means processing things quickly, sometimes, hastily, and coming to fast judgments. I think of sprinters as hating small talk, as being easy with their intimacies, and intense in their likes and dislikes. They are Blake’s “tygers of wrath,” and not his “horses of instruction.”
As a writer, a sprinter is a poet, or a short story writer, a control freak who likes to see the shape of something all at once, to contain it in two hands, and mold it into as perfect a configuration as they can. I would be a poet, if I weren’t stupid about meter and line breaks. I had to trick myself into writing a novel, by accumulating three- to four-page vignettes, an idea I stole from Evan S. Connell, and his great novel, Mrs. Bridge. I just kept writing until I had a book-length manuscript, then spent a long time arranging them in coherent sequence. I suspect one of the reasons I got bogged down with The Fetishist, is that I was pushing myself to write a more conventional novel, with long chapters, following many characters, across long periods of time.
The truth is that I have always been impatient with real life, with its tedium, and its pettiness, its flossing and flushing, its what’s-for-dinner, and how-you-doing. In so far as novels successfully mimic the rhythm of day-to-day, I quote Virginia Woolf: “Art is not a copy of the real world; one of the damn things is enough.” It is why I was not so good at marriage, and better at having short affairs. You got the passion and the yearning, the magic and the mystery, the heightened emotion, and the febrile love-making, without garbage, dishes, or casual flatulence. Perfection and transcendence, in so far as these things are achievable, (and, of course, they are, by their very natures, not), is what I craved. The sublime, in all its swirling, cloud-lit, overwrought, mountain-top, Gothic ruination, with all its silliness and pretension, its awesomeness and sentimentality—I wanted more of that, please. And, never mind its ridiculous, adolescent jerk-off tendencies, I never really outgrew it.
Being a sprinter means that you are not in it for the long haul. What you lack in stamina, you make up for in speed. Short, but intense. Fast, but not far. It occurs to me—and I know this will sound strange—that having Stage 4 cancer might suit me, temperamentally. I know that the disease has changed me, has made me a much happier, more focused person, more attentive to my loved ones, more present in the small moments. The switch from long-form fiction, to these short, personal essays, seems right for me; I can write one in a sitting, then turn it on the lathe to work it into symmetry and proportion. Faced with another thirty years of sprawling, nebulous time remaining, I doubt I would have found the discipline, the concentration, that a few years, (two to ten, on the outside), makes manageable.
Because the other side of being a sprinter, for me, is that all my flurries of activity, my brief, spurts of attention, are followed by long periods of indolent languishing, of procrastination and naps, Netflix and Amazon Prime. And knowing that my timeframe is shorter forces me to get my shit together. I’ve been winnowing down my material possessions for a while now, getting rid of clothes I keep thinking I will wear, but never do; dispensing with nostalgia, tossing out college papers, old love letters, and literary juvenilia. I need to sort out my will, and my advance healthcare directive, make sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to do not resuscitate decisions. (I go back and forth on resucitation. It seems so dependent on the situation, doesn’t it? Tomorrow, sure! A hard two years from now, forget about it.)
Believe it or not, I am organizing a playlist for my memorial service. I expect G. to DJ, and to put up with any choices he does not agree with. And I want to record videos for my grandchildren (TBA)—I want to read them Little Bear, and Owl Moon, Frances, and Frog and Toad Are Friends, A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears, and The Phantom Tollbooth, all my children’s favorite books; I want to goof around, tell them jokes, funny stories about their parents when they were little, give them advice they will disregard—pay attention; think for yourself; find something you love to do—and generally, squeeze in sixteen or seventeen years of grandmotherly wisdom, onto a few days of video footage. (In this strange and fast-changing digital age, why not stick around awhile, offer up an eyewitness account of your life for those who might be interested, throw in a cooking lesson, or two, trample all across the mysterious border between the living and the dead?)
I believe that having cancer has made me a better person. Less impatient, more caring. Less inclined to grumpiness, more to appreciation. The habit of virtue is new to me, and it’s easier, because I don’t have to keep it up too long.