Ups, Downs, Nitpickers



My friend Larry is an either-or guy. He buys only ground beef or filet mignon. He is a former middle-manager turned entrepreneur and actor, who thinks about what he wants, makes multi-year plans, and methodically works for them. He is doing well. We have known each other for twenty-five years and speak daily by phone.

As a result we know the rhythms of each other’s professional lives. His ups and downs look like two independent sine waves, one for his business, the other for acting. I can expect to have to deal with these swings at times—when his business is booming, for instance, and everything is peach fuzz, or when internet sales stall over a holiday weekend and he believes he will be living under a bridge by next month. When he has gotten a better agent, or when he has bombed an audition due to a headache and says he will never act again.

My own emotional peaks and valleys as a writer are so predictable, Larry tells me, that he knows my deadlines by where I am on the curve. He reminds me that near the end of long projects I tell him I understand now I will never write again, that no one has ever written so badly in a long history of bad writing, that in fact I have never written anything that can be called writing, and there is no hope for it.

We support each other by countering these narratives with calm and refutations. We work through the details and what they mean. We remind each other to celebrate victories. We mock each other’s hyperbolic moods. We have laughed so hard, so often, it has marked my face.

But sometimes, when things are all right, we force the other to defend his ambition. Usually these calls start with some performance of sloth, such as the sound of obnoxious chewing. (His tends to be moist and gummy; mine is all crispity-crackling crunching.)

Lately he told me I had been spending too much time getting some piece of writing right. I justified it by saying it was not only for periodical publication but for a book.

There’s your problem, he said. Give it up. Whatever shape it’s in, it’s good enough. No one reads books. Relax. Have an easy life.

I said trying to do real work around people like him was like navigating a boat up a golden river to Heavenland, while he and his kind screeched from the banks for me to stop and pick nits with them. I expected him to threaten that his troop would jump from the branches, commandeer the boat, and force me to give in, but he was after all in lazy mode.

Yeah, he drawled, but for every piece you write, you’ll lose a chunk of your own flesh by the effort, while we lie in the shade and call you a pathetic fool.

I agreed that if I reached Heavenland it would only be after having lost most of me, which is a fair metaphor for process. I might arrive shivering in agony and drop as soon as I got there, but that would be as worthy as anything else I am suited to do.

He had to agree it would be a win in the ledger of either-or, and that his troop would howl, Oh, he made it to Heavenland and aren’t the chunks good!

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.