Pilgrims, Paxil, Progress
A few minutes on tourist traps, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and turning your compulsions into something healthy.
Some synchronicity this week. The other day I saw a tweet asking “if money were no object, where would you go on pilgrimage?” I said Bora Bora.
Shortly after, Lawrence Wright shared a picture of Plymouth Rock and said “Plymouth Rock has to be one of the most unremarkable artifacts of American history.”
He’s not wrong.
The LARPing at Plimoth Patuxet (formerly called Plymouth Plantation) is great. They haven’t broken character (or kayfabe) since the 60s. But the rock? It feels kind of shammy. By all means, go to Plymouth. By all means, see the rock. But don’t expect a transcendental encounter with history.
I remember being somewhere once, some tourist destination, and they were advertising free pictures with then-President George H. W. Bush. The father of the family ahead of us in line was incensed at the big reveal: an unconvincing wax figure with River Phoenix hair. Plymouth Rock is not that experience, exactly. It is a rock, after all, and it is in Plymouth, and it doesn’t take much work to imagine that the shore enshrined beneath the 1880’s granite canopy was, indeed, the first ground William Bradford trod since leaving Holland.
In any case, Plymouth is lovely and has many points of interest.
I did a big haul last weekend from 2nd & Charles. One of the books I picked up was the Dover Thrift Editions Great American Short Stories edited by Paul Negri. 19 stories for a dollar fifty, and some great ones. The first entry is “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, early luminary of American letters, writer of The Scarlet Letter, hung-up great-great-grandson of unrepentant Salem witch judge John Hathorne. Hathorne (Nathaniel changed the spelling for greater distance) was also made, by reputation, the fiend-appointed judge in Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”
It’s hard to read “Young Goodman Brown” (written in 1835) from anything but a modern perspective. And so the journey into the woods, the meeting with the devil, the damned-to-hell-ness of everyone he knows (his minister, his deacon, his catechist, his father, his grandfather, and so on) reach us through lenses curved by later figures (Jung and Freud, Marx and Bryan, many more). We have, of course, the young person’s native instinct for exposing hypocrisy and bullshit. We have Hawthorne’s greater literary project (deeply psychological, deeply personal). We have, of course, New England Calvinism. We have, I suspect, the echoes of personal trauma, moral failure, family shame. Which is to say, we have in this old work a modern writer and a modern story.
Speaking of Which
As far as I can tell, there are two essential things a writer has to do to be a writer.
A writer has to write.
A writer has to read.
I doubt writers have more hang-ups and compulsions, per capita, than other people. Everyone has something. Some things are idiosyncratic. Some are ticks we share with millions of other people.
In my quiver? OCD. If you have it, you know it’s a massive, intrusive, often-maddening pain in the ass. If you don’t have it, I hope you’re not one of those people who throw the term around like it’s some kind of Marie Kondo superpower that helps you power through your chores. It is absolutely not that. Not by any means.
OCD is usually treatable. If you have it, treat it. I treat mine. The ticks and pulls and triggers are no longer all-consuming, thankfully. There are vestigial habits, the temptation to think magically, and so on, but, for the most part, these needless organs seldom burst. I just said they aren’t useful for keeping house or paying bills or finding the remote, but I do wonder if, now that I understand them, they’ve begun to help in other ways.
Last year, I decided I was going to read the most books ever. I started strong with James Baldwin, Willa Cather, and Bessel van der Kolk. I read a good bit of Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens and other poets. But somewhere, let’s call it March, I lost my zeal. Something happened somewhere; something else took precedence, I got distracted, I forgot about my big plans as the demands of every other (needful) thing took over. My writing also suffered.
People engaged in creative work talk a lot about flow. It’s real, circling back to pilgramic, it can be ecstatic. It turns out my flow state is best primed by really good reading. I suspect as much is true for almost any writer. Sometimes I feel out of words, completely tapped. Reading fills the cistern with new images, new idioms, new ways of seeing things.
I’m reading a lot this year. There’s something decidedly different about my approach and appetite. I am more energized and more committed than I was last March. I think there are three reasons:
I’m reading more widely. Great literature, stellar nonfiction, books on craft, even the kind of motivational books I’ve tended to avoid.
I don’t force myself to finish one book before starting another. I keep a relatively even pace across a few different titles and genres, and I’m incrementally getting closer to finishing them all. If I start a book and hate it, I don’t force myself to finish.
To keep track of my progress, I use an e-reader. Knowing exactly how close I am, percentage-wise, to my goal of finishing a book allows me to redirect idle, time-sucking compulsions toward a goal I actually want to achieve and actually helps me. Seeing my progress helps my subconscious mind create and recreate the compulsive itch into something actually worth scratching. I started the year with a hunch that this would work, and now, halfway through September, I see how I’ve been able to gamify my progress with physical books as well.
I’m not saying these will work for everyone, and it’s not some cure-all suggestion for managing your mental health. I’m not making light of compulsions worse than mine. I do, however, think that learning to rewire our neural pathways through positive habits is a good thing, and I know how it’s helped me. A word about those self-help books. They basically teach the same thing. The reason the habits of highly effective people work is because neuroplasticity is real.
If you struggle with compulsions, depression, anxiety or other things, please seek proper care. The right help will make a world of difference, and you’ll be freer than you’ve ever been to train your mind to work in tandem with your heart and spirit.
That’s been my experience. What’s yours?
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