In two weeks I’ll be having open-heart surgery, which comes with a 2% risk of death. The risk is low enough to not cause too much worry.
This comes with its own problems. Knowing I’m about to go through substantial surgery without substantial risk causes some rather dissonant thoughts.
It’s bad news, sure. Not bad enough to, say, empty my bank account and get on the next plane to travel somewhere exotic and tell someone I love them.
Still, it is sort of bad. Bad enough to warrant doing something. When faced with the reality of having your heart opened up and fiddled with, it’s impossible not to wonder how to best use the time before that happens.
So what does one do? Swim with dolphins? Travel around the country visiting old friends and apologizing to those who’ve been wronged over the years? Rewatch all of “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” and “Back To The Future” in one go while gorging on leftover Easter eggs?
All good ideas. But all rather impractical.
For inspiration, I thought I’d look through my bookshelf at the adventures in my favorite works of fiction. Could I travel down the Mississippi on a raft to escape the sivilisin’ of my aunt? No, how about having a love affair with a young, Chinese businessman? I could stay with a suitor in a disappointingly non-Gothic old house and find myself spooked by the Gothic novels I’ve become obsessed with. Or maybe camp out on the moors in Devon investigating the rumors of a giant hellhound. Becoming a psychopathic sheriff in the old west could be fun. Or would I enjoy wondering at the beauty of a young bullfighter in Spain? I know, I’ll follow Muhammad Ali around documenting how he prepares for the Rumble in – wait, that might not work.
After these ideas came to nothing, I realized with dismay just how many books there were that I hadn’t yet read. Briefly, the thought of trying to speed read as many books as possible came to mind, before I remembered that that’s not a skill I have. Besides, is reading a book an actual substitute for real adventure?
It is often said that the value of reading is connected to escapism. People like the feeling of temporarily inhabiting a different world, or, more likely, leaving this one for a while. To me this has always seemed closer to wishful thinking than reality. Of course, it could be something lacking in my imagination, but a book has never managed to transport me anywhere, no matter how much I enjoy it.
So reading for two weeks is out of the question. So what else does a writer do for two weeks? Well, the answer was right there. The complaint heard most often in any circle of writers (certainly in mine) is that ideas come thick and fast but finishing them is a path less trodden.
Morbid thoughts exist in my mind anyway, as I imagine they must be for most creative types. They motivate me to complete big projects when nothing else does, because nothing is better for a writer’s work ethic than the idea that something unfinished has no chance of being read.
The 2% risk is looming, however small it might be, and it has put the fire under me to complete what I’m currently working on.
Kate Chopin, Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka were all relatively unrecognized talents during their lifetimes and only found fame after their death. Being a writer is a terrific gift, because even non-existence can’t stand in the way of your ambition.
Rather than worrying about the minuscule chance of the end, which is present every time we walk out of the front door, and rather than jumping to the strange conclusion of thinking swimming with dolphins is the peak of human fulfillment (has anyone’s awe ever outweighed their fear and discomfort while doing this?), or adventure is the best way of appreciating life, I’ve decided to simply carry on. I will avoid trying to escape, and, ideally, finish one more thing that will find critical acclaim if I succumb to the dreaded 2%.
Josh King received his MFA from Adelphi University in New York, and now lives in the UK. He divides his time between writing fiction, non-fiction and drawing comics.