Life isn’t a support-system for art…the tale of Simon the writing desk

Back in April, I read Stephen King’s On Writing (the year 2000 version with three forwards).

The first time through, I didn’t even stop to blink. I soaked up his snapshot autobiography and gazed wide-eyed at his advice, like it might crawl up out of the page and burrow into my ear. I feel like that’s something King’s advice might do.

Some of the book, I found instantly relatable. His imagery and creative thought process resonated with me in some important ways, which I’ll write about eventually.

But, perhaps more importantly, other parts of the book unsettled me—stirred me up. I took a couple of weeks to just sit and be antsy. I felt like King had called me out on my writing habits, leaving me to cower in my apartment trying to decide whether I would respond to his jabs or, alternately, just let him pace in the front yard for a while and hope he went away.

He did not go away. I knew damn well that if I didn’t take him up on his challenges it would be a lost chance. So, I went back for a second reading, vowing to stop and reflect on the things that made me raise an eyebrow or lean back in my chair and stare out the window in thought (my favorite place to stare when I’m thinking).

And the first thing that got me was his maxim that “Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”

Following a soul-bearing expose on the way drug and alcohol addiction fueled his writing, it makes sense that King feels this way. He woke up one day and realized he did not need a gigantic, crack-laced desk in the middle of a sky-lighted study, so much as he needed a family room. He needed to put his writing desk in the corner and resist the temptation to make it the sole focus of his attentions. Because even if your writing is good, you can’t sit around building egotistical castles out of your finished pages—your relationships, your life, will suffer.

Well, it turns out I’m not a crack addict. And it also turns out that my desk was already in the corner. It was there before I read this book. So when I read this advice the first time through, I thought to myself rather smugly, well shit, Steve, I’m right there with you on this. Which is why we’re on a first-name basis obviously.

Upon second reading, I started to feel guilty.

See, King makes it clear that he doesn’t put his desk in the corner to hide it. He puts it there, I assume, because it gives him a place to go every day to feel whole and alive—because he wants to protect his work and lend it a humble excitement. Then his writing can bolster a feeling of healthy euphoria, which sustains him as he engages with family and friends and whatever else it is with which Stephen King engages.

Speeding vans…?

You kidding me right now?

Anyway, if it’s actually that “art is a support-system for life,” then each of our respective cornered desks cannot be forgotten.

And they so often are.

Hence the guilt.

In the time between my MA and PhD, I had basically been using my desk to pay bills. I was typing papers there on occasion, but mostly because I liked the breeze coming in off the balcony, not due to some greater meaning. I jammed its drawers full of stuff—correspondance, post it notes, tobacco jars, scratch paper—and used it as a filing cabinet. And more often than not, I simply walked past it on the way out the door and contritely felt it waiting to be exuberant and extraordinary. I only ever gave it a taste of that enthusiasm at night when I was too tired to work on other things or I’d had a couple of beers.

So when I got back to this part of the book in May, I apologized to Mr. King for previous informalities, and thought to myself…why don’t I let my art support my life the way he’s suggesting? Why do I keep it locked up when I know I feel better when I’m writing? Where has all my eagerness run off to?

Complicated questions.

But as you might have guessed, this website is part of a sincere effort to make supportive, lovely art, and to learn to set it free. To rekindle my eagerness. Because I didn’t get to this point in my life by being consistently lackadaisical about writing. And my earlier passion never really died. I just hid it, or put it off to the side. I allowed myself to forget the quiet and confident assurances that good writing offers.

So, I started considering a website as a form of accountability by May. It grew into something more magical over the summer. By its launch in September, I was straight up shrouded in anticipation.

I was finally going to use my desk again.

And right as I published the first pages and started to feel the itch of responsibility between my shoulder blades (oh god, don’t let me fall into ‘sorry I haven’t posted anything in a while’ rut), serendipity struck.

An email from one of my good friends, Ben of my “about page” and other fame, popped up in my inbox offering me the opportunity to join a month long commitment to discipline group. The idea was that everyone in the group would consider their goals, and then pick one task to perform every day in order to jump start their path to improvement.

Perfect. I committed to writing for half an hour every day. Note taking wouldn’t count. Staring out the window in thought wouldn’t count. Only writing that really served a purpose would do. Working on a chapter of my novel, composing a book review, writing sections of my current seminar paper, finishing a post, etc.

I was nervous. I could think of a thousand ways I might fail to meet my goal. But I had other people depending on my honest participation—if one person fails in their commitment, everyone fails…built in, terrifying, and totally necessary responsibility.

But the nerves, in the end, were just empty jitters. Five days in to the month of commitment, and I already felt more alive. Ten days in and was carrying post-its with me on the bus in case the urge to write overcame me in the five minutes it takes for semis to just go ahead and frigging park their asses at Fulton Market. Fifteen days in, and my productivity was through the roof. Twenty days in, I met with a few difficulties—late nights and early mornings and very little time between the two—but learned to overcome the fatigue.

And on day twenty-one, the infamous crux in the path to habit formation, I finished this very post, which had been sitting unformulated in my document folder since April. I hadn’t known how to finish it then. Which is silly, because it makes such perfect sense now.

All I had to do was sit down at my little corner desk on Sunday morning, sleepy after a previous day of weddings and joy and hilarity with friends, and write.

In fact…I think art and life must be mutually supportive, in the end.

I kinda love both.

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Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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