do something pretty while you can

by s.

“I should’ve fought harder for you,” someone said to me a couple of weeks ago. This has stuck to me like brain lint ever since, and I don’t want to get personal about it but I do want to advise everyone in the universe to never say this to someone. It is one thing to admit that you have failed to recognize the value in another person; it is entirely another to acknowledge that you understand that value and still neglected to act on it.

I would spend the rest of my life protecting everyone I love from this sentiment if I could. If you asked me, “do you think I am worth fighting for?”, I would hope you’d know the answer is “Let me just get my sword.”

There’s another thing I’ve felt fiercely protective of in the recent past, and that is everyone’s ideas. In an addendum to her wonderful essay on her friendship with Joan Didion, Sara Davidson writes that the most important thing about writing that she’s learned from Didion is that everything can improve. She writes:

Whenever Joan was working on an article or book, she downplayed it, saying things like, “I’m having trouble,” or “It’s not going terribly well.” She never said, “It’s flowing,” or “This is a great subject.” Then, when it was published, it invariably would be a jewel. Joan gave a name to the anxiety I felt every morning. She called it, “Low dread.” It was fear, she explained, “fear that you won’t get it right, that you’ll fail.”

There are many reasons that you should read Davidson’s essay on Didion. It sheds light on the aspects of Didion that she doesn’t herself touch on, it is an important work on the nature of good friendships, and it is good writing. Most importantly, though, it reminds us of this: the difference between people who make great things and those who don’t is that those who do are able to push past the low dread, and usually they do so with the help of friends. Sometimes you need another set of eyes, sometimes you need a good conversation, and sometimes you just need to switch gears momentarily and look at some other pretty things.

To this end, I have found it helpful to compile brief and informal lists of things that I can’t stop looking at each month, things that become touchstones for me every time I find myself straying from whatever path it is that I see myself on. This month, one of those things is the aforementioned Davidson essay; another is Didion’s fantastic and brutally heartbreaking new book Blue Nights; a third thing is Sloane Crosley’s NYPL talk with Didion, which you can watch on the internet here because the internet is amazing and the only person I possibly talk more about than William James is Joan Didion. “The thing you are doing is separate from your life,” Didion says here in writing about difficult topics, and this is a salient takeaway. Also, Crosley refers to editing as “having a conversation” with the work, and that makes me want to high five her pretty bad.

A few more things that seem wildly important to me:

  • Leonardo Da Vinci’s To-Do List: a fabulous and brief look inside the mind of Da Vinci and the wonders of not focusing, beautifully illustrated by Robert Krulwich. It will make you want to make all of the things and totally give up at the same time.
  • Guillermo Del Toro’s sketchbook from Pan’s Labyrinth: Seriously, sit down and look at this. Then get really drunk because it is okay to wonder why the inside of your brain doesn’t look like that.
  • The National, director’s cuts from the AmEx-streamed show @ BAM: I have watched each of these clips at least twice, and I am not someone who sits around and watches YouTube videos. Matt Berninger is certainly my favorite modern poet, and there’s something really special about the behind-the-scenes band interaction that is hard to explain unless you’ve been privy to millions of terrible band behind-the-scenes videos. People who click together and who say interesting things, that is some magic right there.
  • Three Poems, by Bill Yarrow: I just really love the way the language moves in these. In addition to being a really strong writing in his own right, Danny Goodman at Fwriction: Review is publishing some really wonderful pieces of writing. (I say this in spite of, and not because of, the fact that he’s also publishing one of my essays in the next few weeks.)

I had a conversation this morning about one of the topics I am most afraid of: whether or not we (being people over the age of 30, really) are too old to make remarkable things if we haven’t already. I believe the answer is no, but I am also of course afraid that I am wrong, because I also feel too old to stop believing that there is something remarkable inside of me. I like to believe I am a humble person, and that I don’t need to be remarkable myself, but I do need to believe there is something remarkable inside of me. I also need to believe that I am valuable enough to fight for, and that if you refuse to draw your sword on my behalf, that I am smart enough to walk away. At the very least, I know that even if I never make anything remarkable, I would fight forever to make you believe that you can, and that is probably a thing that makes me worth keeping.

There are so many pretty things around us. It is a shame if we give up on the ones that might come out of us because we’re in such awe of the ones that already exist, or because of low dread, or because someone should have fought for you and did not. “Do something pretty while you can!”, I want to yell, quoting Belle and Sebastian, and you can bet damn well that my sword is drawn as I say this.

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