November 17, 2018

Me, myself and the blue couch

I must be the only person in the world who works so hard at doing nothing all day. I think about this from time to time. Actually, I think about it every day, with varying degrees of consternation. And I thought about it in the days leading up to Yom Kippur this year — how I may well have wasted the last 25 years, why I’ve done this “nothing” so assiduously for so long, whether I continue to engage in it out of constraint, or love, or lack of courage and imagination. 

Most days, I’m at home for nearly 20 out of 24 hours. The longest distance I travel is from the bed in the morning to the fading blue sofa 10 feet away, where my laptop is. Once in a while, I go downstairs to the kitchen and press the little button on top of the mini Nespresso machine, but I’m too busy to go out and buy coffee. If I want to live dangerously, I’ll drive to the gym and walk on the treadmill and chastise myself for wasting so much of what should be “work” time. 

But what work? One of my sons, when he was very young, described my so-called occupation as “tapping on your computer.” That pretty much conveys the truth. People who work produce or generate something of value for themselves or for the world. I order stuff on Amazon, look at my little niece and nephew’s pictures on the screen, read The New York Times online. Then I read a book or an article, write a few lines that, inevitably, I’ll have to rewrite someday, order something else on Amazon, write a few more lines that I’ll probably trash — hence, I’m embarrassed to say, the seven-year gap between each of my novels. If work is supposed to generate income, I can tell you I spend more on Amazon on a given day than I earn from selling books. 

Then again, I don’t enjoy the benefits of being unemployed either. Unemployed or semi-employed people find a hobby or volunteer at dog shelters or run for political office. Or they make dinner for their spouse. Or they train the maid to make dinner. I wait till my husband gets home, then wonder which one of us should boil the eggs or toast the bread. I’ve been too busy doing nothing of consequence to even contemplate dinner. 

If this sounds like a joke or an attempt at false humility, rest assured, I’m dead serious. I started out, back in my teens, wanting to be a war correspondent, to show the world the suffering of others and the savagery of enemies to each other. By my early 20s, I had realized I didn’t have the backbone for that kind of work, so I decided to become a lawyer and represent the helpless. Very quickly, I realized I didn’t have the temperament to talk to and argue with other people for a living, either. While I figured out what to do next, I wrote a story.

I wrote that first story on a manual typewriter, wrote a few others on an electric, a novel on a massive desktop that weighed a good 30 pounds. While the world spun forward at ever-faster speed and other people built and discovered and invented and dreamed ever greater, more useful, or at least more lucrative creations, I kept doing the same thing, at exactly the same pace. Even teaching at USC, my part-time “day job” for the past 19 years, has been about writing. 

That, at least, got me out of the house and interacting with other humans for a couple of days a week. But then the school shut down the MFA writing program, saying closing it was better for business. Now that I’m retired from that, too, it’s all home, all the time. And for what?

With my first couple of books, I thought there was value in recording the previously unknown history of Iranian Jews. That’s been done now, by me and about 10,000 other writers and historians and bloggers. The last thing this world needs is another 400 pages of my stories. 

And the last thing I need — or my family needs — is another seven years of my doing next to nothing with such seriousness and at the exclusion of so much else. I could have started college and completed a Ph.D. in the time it has taken me to write one book. I could have entered the work force as a junior attorney and become a partner in a law firm. 

I do love a good novel, but book readers always have been a tiny minority of any population. And I believe in the transformative power of literature, the way it can inspire and educate, but I’ve never written anything with the intention to do anything to the reader. All I’ve wanted to do is to tell a good story, which is why I wake up every day as if called to battle by some inner tormentor and take to the computer like it’s supposed to save me from drowning. I “tap” each word as if it’s of some monumental importance, and I re-tap each sentence and paragraph and manuscript as if it’s worth another year of my life. 

But to do all this, give of myself to this extent — this is what I increasingly wonder about. Is one more book, even a very good book, worth this kind of sacrifice? 

Often, the answer is no.

I start every novel telling myself this will be my last; publish it convinced that I’m going to find something more productive, beneficial, easy, fun, profitable, you name it — something else to do with what remains of my working life. I promise myself this and declare it to my family with sincere conviction, then go back to the blue couch and, by now, less than 3-pound laptop. 

We spend the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur reflecting on our transgressions against others.  But what about our transgressions against this most precious of blessings — the life we’ve been given? What about our transgressions against what little time we have during which to do something of value to other mortals? This year, it occurred to me that, as much as I’ve struggled with this question for myself, I’ve never posed it to anyone else, not even those closest to me. Am I the only person so committed to what often seems like a mostly useless endeavor that I devote at least half my life to it? If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll take a moment to answer this question.

GINA NAHAI’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”