Not Dibble-Dabbling

There’s a false assumption, particularly in U.S. culture, that if you aren’t famous, you’re a nobody: for example, if your writing isn’t widely known, you aren’t a writer at all, except maybe the kind who writes for satisfaction, empowerment, and the like. There’s a split perception at work: you’re a writer only if you’re famous, and you’re a writer if you call yourself one. Neither of these is true. To be a writer, you have to do it, continually, critically, searchingly, for dissatisfaction even more than satisfaction, for that thing that’s just beyond your words at a given time. This work may or may not result in publication and wide readership. Or something in between: it does, but over time.

If you are a writer (or artist, musician, actor, director, dancer), you know what this means, what it takes. You might focus on one kind of art within your art (for instance, novel-writing, or story-writing), or you may try different forms and directions. Sometimes you take a break or work on things in your mind. But the longer project is never finished, except for those who say, at some point, “I am done,” as some do. And therefore your life must make room for the presence or the absence.

I just finished the forty-eight translations for the manuscript that I will soon send to the publisher. Hooray! There’s still lots to do: manuscript preparation, careful proofreading and editing, reading aloud, rereading. But this is probably the largest project I have accomplished while also teaching. In the past, I left two different teaching positions, in 2009 and 2016, to write two books. Both were approximately two-year projects; they could have taken longer still. Because I left my jobs to write them (a teacher’s sabbatical was not available for this sort of thing, and a leave of absence could not have lasted that long), I gave up seniority within the school system. This time, though, I wanted to keep on teaching; it seemed a little more feasible, since the workday isn’t as draining here as it was for me there.

But it required steady work, not only week after week, but during vacation time too. This year, because of Covid, I had more time at home than usual during the breaks. In the summer, I was working on several projects at once; I didn’t know yet that these translations would be accepted for book publication. But the other writing and translating was essential too. This winter break, the stretches of time allowed me to finish the manuscript. Without this time, I wouldn’t be done until February or so. And it was a great stretch; I enjoyed the project to the bones, as did the cats, I think.

This reality gets lost in the Covid-talk. There are so many articles about how people should go off on their dream adventures, and get together with everyone they can think of, as soon as it’s safe to travel again–and close to nothing about having something to do, right now. That’s understandable, precisely because such work isn’t seen until it is made public. But its being unseen does not render it nonexistent.

And there is the nugget for the day. Do not assume that what you don’t see doesn’t exist. Maybe babies love the peek-a-boo game for the surprise involved: the discovery that the one you can’t see for a second or two is still there. I find that my cats play hide-and-seek; if they can’t see me, they come looking for me, and if I hide repeatedly, they will keep on playing along until I stop. They realize somehow that my not being in sight doesn’t mean I am gone; they just have to investigate a little. But as adults we forget this sometimes. We think, obtusely, that the only things that exist are the things we see (or, worse, the things seen by a crowd). Everyone makes this mistake; but the still greater mistake is to mistake this mistake for correctness.

And so, with minimal dibble-dabbling, this break has been fun so far. Not that dabbling is bad either. It has its place. I dabble as a bike rider, albeit one who takes long rides, and as a photographer. But there are things we don’t dabble at, and precisely because they aren’t dabbling, they need an unseen component, or a time away from the seen, a time to figure things out, practice them, and shape them into something.

I took the first and third pictures on a short bike ride and the second one when translating Gyula Jenei’s “Iskolaudvar” (Schoolyard).

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