“Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia; lyrics to tooth-ache.”
– Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill
So, recently, as you know, I’ve been ill. And as such haven’t really been working much at all. So, on reading your letter I wondered – when do we chose the times when we don’t turn the page? When do we let our fingers hover over the keyboard, and then draw them back? When should we choose to rest rather than wrench yet another sentence from our befuddled minds?
Part of the problem is attempting to be objective about when to plough on, and when to stop – as lined out in your post, the sirens of temptation sing loudly, and discipline is about ignoring them. However, there must be a line at which we should step away from the work, and say stop right now, thank you very much.
Some of this is about consciousness re: the work at hand. Amis is damn right when he talks about stepping back for a moment, and going to do something else: not slamming one’s face endlessly against a wall of words.
Some of this is about mental health (or is it wellbeing?), and physical health (or is that wellbeing?) and knowing when enough is enough: Bro, go home. And when you are home, don’t do the same thing you do at work: stare into a screen and play on your phone. The interesting and moving Andrew Sullivan essay you sent me about devices and connection is pertinent here, and I may address this in a later missive.
Health has infected the news somewhat over the last few days since the announcement of Hilary Clinton’s pneumonia (why, says Woolf, are there no odes to pneumonia?). Clinton tweeted: ‘Like anyone who’s ever been home sick from work, I’m just anxious to get back out there. See you on the trail soon’ which certainly sounds like one of the most stereotypical US of A sentences ever. See that moronic Cadillac ad that did the rounds a few years back. Now, I admit, I have been wanting to get back to the writing grindstone (novels don’t edit themselves, and apparently, nor do short stories). And it’s also to be admitted that I was very anxious for HRC to get back on the trail, as she has the job of plugging the new alternative dimension that Trump is attempting to open up: an update of Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America (2004) – don’t think it couldn’t happen, because it totally can: the stars are in conjunction, and it could totally be like that moment in Hercules – except instead of Zeus, Zeus, Zeus the Titans are shouting Hilary, Obama, Muslims, Mexicans. Clinton needs to get out there and defeat the likes of Dee Jay Trump, Gary And-What-Is-Aleppo? Johnson, and Dr Joan Who–now Stern.
But plugging nightmarish alternate histories aside, it should be remembered, perhaps, that people should have more sick days, or strictly more rest days: more days off full stop. As James Baldwin puts it very simply, (and in a more agonising context):
Time is not money:
Time is time.
The question should be: how much work is needed by a society to work? Maybe the more important question: how much rest is needed? There seem to be studies (I haven’t checked them out though, so . . . you know) that suggest shorter working hours is the way to go for the sake of, well, everyone’s health.
So stop . . .
Stop . . .
Now get back to work.
Yours steadily recovering,