‘The more I look, the more I see nothing to joke about. Is comedy over? Should I leave you alone because really, who’s going to go for joking at a time like this?’Bo Burnham Inside (2021)
Who among us hasn’t had a moment where we turned to ourselves in the mirror to ask: what the fuck am I doing? The world is on fire and I just spent an hour reorganising my underwear drawer. Or two hours in a meeting that could have been an email, not even an email because it didn’t matter and pretending it mattered is driving you to an early grave.
Last year, I was interviewing author and environmental campaigner Padraic Fogarty for a podcast and he mentioned a moment of crisis while washing out yogurt pots to put into the recycling. Does it even matter? Why am I bothering? Staring at the tiny, statistically meaningless thing you’re doing if the face of problems that require huge system change and resisting the urge to scream.
“Yogurt pot moments”, as I have subsequently been calling them, come for us all, but perhaps particularly for people who have made the idea of doing something a part of their personality, of their self-identity.
Since I was little, since before I could read or write (which admittedly was later than most people), I just wanted to write fantasy stories. I wanted to take the adventures I made up in my head and put them on a page. I’m not a wildly consistent person, so when something sticks around that long, I figure it means something. Even my work on biodiversity, my love of woodlands, comes from a relationship with nature I developed through stories as much as science.
At the same time, I always wanted to matter, to be important somehow, to have my influence on the world mean that it was worth it. Whatever worth it is meant to mean.
It’s not a nice thing to admit. We’re not meant to want to help just to give ourselves a reason to close the door on self-loathing. But I challenge you to find me a healthier coping mechanism that isn’t some thinly version of just stop being mentally ill.
So the yogurt pots are still sitting beside the sink, waiting for you to rinse them out and put them in the recycling. It isn’t going to save the world. No one’s going to give you a medal. You should do it anyway. Equally, though, it’s alright to ask yourself what the point is.
I use Bo Burnham as an example at the top because in Inside, as in some of his earlier work like Art is Dead, he touches on two key ideas that I’m circling around; that artists must be a little narcissistic, and the question of whether the art created is worth it. The narcissism of artists is to think that what we’re making, what we’re saying, should matter enough that we build our lives around putting it out into the world. The logical follow on of that is that we do think it matters.
It’s ultimately something without an easy answer. In fairness, Burnham doesn’t claim to have one. The next obvious question is, so what? If wanting to write stories about witches while other people suffer is a little awful, what do you do? Should you just stop writing?
Rebecca Makkai wrote ‘The World’s on Fire. Can We Still Talk About Books?’ back in 2018 and this section in particular stood out to me.
“There has never been a moment in which it was the most direct course of action for Americans of color to write or paint or make movies instead of protesting. There has never been a time when it was politically expeditious for LGBTQ+ artists to put down their banners and pick up their pens. And yet you’d be hard pressed to argue that James Baldwin’s talents would have been better used registering 20 more people to vote than writing The Fire Next Time.”
This is a good point, but ultimately one that will only ever be convincing in hindsight. I’m not sure I’ve met more than one person who advocated seriously that we should stop making art. I have met many people who thought it hinged on whether it was real art. They will say that artists have the capacity to speak to people in times of crisis, to give shape to feelings and fears and social change in ways so little else could. But is that the definition of real art? Art that is worth something?
For every person I’ve met proclaiming the necessity for real art, I’ve met at least two more people too terrified to share their passion. Asking a young writer, still trying to find their voice in a world of such infinite mass media and “content”, to compare themselves to James Baldwin… That seems unfair. Either shape a generation or shut up? Should we be joking at a time like this?
We can quote Emma Goldman’s “If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution” all we like. We can repeat again and again that the point of life isn’t always to produce and that we’re not machines. Deep down, though, I think the idea that we could be doing more is hard to shake, because it’s usually true. Statistically speaking, you could be doing more. Very few of us have devoted our entire lives to improving the world on some vast scale. Even those of us who try to organise on specific social or political issues, to focus on the problems in front of us, can easily burn out in the face of apparently insurmountable odds. I have, several times, walked away from worthy causes not because I thought I’d made enough of a difference but I just couldn’t anymore. I still want to save the world, but most of the time I can barely save myself. I’ll let you know if I ever figure out how to square that circle emotionally speaking.
I decided to make 2022 a year where I made a go of writing full time. It’s been something I’ve thought about for a long time but I was always working or studying or both and the risk was too high. It probably still is, but my retirement plan is still functionally to wait for the sea to swallow my house.
I don’t know exactly how it’s all going to work out, maybe it won’t, but it might give me some time where I’m doing things that feel, not useful or worthwhile, but at least good for me. I’ll probably end up finding other things to do that make me feel more useful and worthy in the in-between moments, it’s still part of how I self-identify, and the world is still burning.
Should I just be writing at a time like this? I don’t know, but I’m going to, and hope that it looks like art in hindsight.