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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

When unhappy, it is all I can think of doing. When anxious, it literally saves me. When excited, I anticipate using it to conceive, chisel, and free the thought. This is writing: my life so far, and by now all I am fit --I hope and trust--to do.

Though I did want to be a veterinarian for quite some time. And before that, a princess.

I am opposed to the notion of writing as therapy, although it has performed that function for me. No, I employ a flesh-and-blood therapist to do the kind of work that only a therapist can do, to listen to the tears, and at times provoke them. It's the way the structure of the mind works, and even if you would like it to be true that you can "do it alone," that won't do anything to alter an immutable fact. You can't. Just like wishing the apple would float up instead of fall. Gravity is a law; so is the need for outside corrective to the damaged psyche. And I'd love to meet the person who doesn't have one of those. In order to get off the damnable gerbil wheel of repetition most of us get stuck on, we need someone else to stick a pencil through the bars of the cage. We might go flying and land with a bruising thud, but at least we're off. Not getting right back on again is the real trick.

There is a great bonus, too. Psychotherapy is one of the most enthralling intellectual pursuits there is. It encompasses virtually every strain of thought we have yet come up with: philosophy, biology, the mysteries of art, the literature of narrative, metaphor, and fable. And puzzle: It's as if, at the first meeting, the world as you knew it was broken up and dumped on the table before you as a 1,000-piece picture for you to reassemble. And so nothing will ever again look the same. The front page of the newspaper, even, reveals itself to enumerate the same patterns of behavior you yourself are beginning to realize are the result of a buried motivator that propels you every waking moment, and every dreaming one, too. I imagine this little thing as looking something like a mine. A hard metal sphere with a few wires sticking out. At once improbably innocent and radiating malevolence. And look, on the side--something stenciled, though fading. The owners, perhaps? The ones who hid this under a light layer of soil, waiting for a slight disturbance? Yes, now I can read it: "Mom and Dad."

Learning about how this was set in place--or at least it was for me; let me speak only for myself, since I write in the self-serving egotistic form that is called "slow blogging"--was like a repeat of the most exciting classes I took in college. And there were many; they hopped me up as if delivering speed directly to a vein. I'd want to collar strangers in the quad and shake them till they saw stars--exactly what I was seeing when I read Hawthorne and Melville, Heidegger and (now I cringe) Derrida. The world was shaking under my feet, re-forming itself.

Not that it's entirely pleasant, though. Sometimes it feels like being slapped upside the head by someone much bigger than you. And sometimes it feels as though you're back on that gerbil wheel, only now you're in the chair revisiting, again and again, the same shit you thought you had identified and thus washed away sixteen years ago. Not. It just keeps coming back, in ever new inventive disguise. But your kind, wise, compassionate shrink says it must be repeated. As many times as it takes for you to get sick of it, or to finally see it. The first three hundred times were just warm-up, apparently.

I thought of this again as I was reading (quaintly, on the printed page, that which is about to be phased out completely, which makes such people as writers very, um, nervous) The New Yorker. I can't remember what it was exactly, but it made me reach for a pen and one of those flighty scraps of paper on which I write all these disparate notes and then tear my hair out over when, three years later, I'm trying to corral them in their thousands and make some sense out of them so I can start writing a book. Whatever it was, it struck me as a long argument predicated on something fictive. A false originating motive, which then makes the conclusion false too--like the notion of a whole-cloth substance called "evil," or the dominance myth of dog behavior (on which Cesar Millan has made his empire, but which is woefully faulty and functionally ends up as actually near to evil for the dogs on whom it's perpetrated; hmmmm). Something someone wished to believe (as to why, I must refer you back to psychotherapy) but wasn't in fact true. So the elaborate argument was a house built on a foundation of whipped cream.

This then dovetailed with my beginning to read, finally, when I should have done this two years ago before life threw its spanner into my works, B. F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Oh, how I wished he hadn't titled it that. Because what he says about what motivates human behavior, in just the first couple of pages, is so patently true that one can easily believe all of human life would be vastly, immediately improved if we could just make this "paradigm shift" from wishful thinking. The worldview would change, just as it does on that first day of psychotherapy. And it can never go back, which is a good thing: let us evolve, in our thinking, just as we have done in our bodies.

Writing is like therapy, even though it is not therapy, because writing feels good even while it pains one deeply. I actually feel itchy, short of breath, uneasy, needing suddenly to do the dishes or the laundry, or go take a walk mid-sentence. I'm dying to get away from it, even as I'm dying to get the next sentence down, see if it is one of those sentences that takes off like a kite with you at the end of the string pulling back with all your strength. That's what feels good: the appearance on the page of a line or two you didn't know you had in you. A thought that actually sounds smart, when you were feeling dumb. A rhythm that comes out like the percussion line of a driving dance song.

This is what feels good about writing, and why I keep doing it, why I've let myself go unfit for any other employment. So now I am undiversified as General Motors. With the same financial outlook.

To further clarify, I am, I just decided, an "ostensible writer." That is, I never write about what it is that I am ostensibly writing about (yeah, baby: check these blog posts! a whole new genre!). There are always other things that fit themselves in sideways, or insert themselves underneath the thin film of the surface. --This is the way I think, too; I wander through the woods looking at whatever, or I see my dog holding up her hurting paw from the snow (is she asking me for help, and if so, what does this say about her ability to intend, or posit results?), and a dozen new spokes are suddenly radiating out from the center of the thought. Jeez, it's a miracle I end up finishing anything I start writing, come to think of it. Or maybe I'm just ostensibly a writer.

This does tend to lead to a problem, though I experience it as a richness. "Prolix" was a word I first encountered on the top of one of my grad-school papers, meant to be a slap of a rebuke. It certainly is that. But it means that I will always be able to sit on top of a mountain of words, and that, at least, is a form of luxurious soft cushion. From it I see even more.