“There is an art, or, rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss” begins a memorable passage by Douglas Adams, the witty, absurdist spirit who wrote the radio plays and books of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. (It has five parts).
Adams, a contemporary and companion of Monty Python who combined that style of irreverent comedy with a penchant for science fiction, died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of 49, but by then had already managed to make an indelible mark on popular culture.
He was a famously procrastinatory writer. His publisher Sonny Mehta in 1984 all but locked Adams in a hotel room for a week to finish a manuscript, an incident so steeped in myth that it has even been turned into a play. Journalist Rod Stewart, writing in The Bookseller, called his piece about the event “The Berkeley Hotel Hostage,“ though it becomes clear from context that Douglas went willingly, more guestage than hostage, carting along a typewriter and a guitar. He would use the former to hammer out pages that overwhelmingly ended up in the paper bin, and the latter to play Dire Straits songs to himself and what I have to assume was an only marginally enthused Mehta.
I own neither a typewriter nor a guitar, and save for occasional trips aboard helicopters and airplanes, have never attempted to fly. But when I read the lines about flying (placed among the first couple of pages of Adams’s So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, the book he finished in that hotel room), they spoke to me. A few more:
The first part is easy. All it requires is simply the ability to throw yourself forward with all your weight, and the willingness not to mind that it’s going to hurt.
That is, it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss the ground. Most people fail to miss the ground, and if they are really trying properly, the likelihood is that they will fail to miss it fairly hard.
Clearly, it is the second part, the missing, which presents the difficulties.
One problem is that you have to miss the ground accidentally. It’s no good deliberately intending to miss the ground because you won’t. You have to have your attention suddenly distracted by something else when you’re halfway there, so that you are no longer thinking about falling, or about the ground, or about how much it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss it.
It is notoriously difficult to prize your attention away from these three things during the split second you have at your disposal. Hence most people’s failure, and their eventual disillusionment with this exhilarating and spectacular sport.
I’ve never attempted to “throw myself to the ground and miss” in order to float, but I’ve always believed there was more than a little about the process of writing in Adams’s words. Call it “getting into the zone” or achieving a state of “deep work,” writing happens when most other things in the world fade away. You fly by forgetting to fall.
Procrastinator extraordinaire Douglas Adams surely knew about that. He knew about distractions, too. Don’t be misled by his use of the word here. The distraction needed so you can fly is not the same as all the distractions that keep us from whatever needs to be done. Here it is, rather, the key that lets you enter a mental state in which you are writing and thinking about how to best write rather than thinking about all the many other things going on. It is a distraction from the regular din of the news that nudges you into a comfortable place.
Much like Arthur Dent, the unlikely hero of Adams’s best known work, I’ve found myself more often than not in casual clothing, facing something quite unusual. (If you don’t understand this reference, do yourself the favor and find any visual representation of Dent). Much like Arthur Dent during his first adventures, I’ve been reeling from the newness of it all rather than formulating a coherent strategy of adaptation.
I haven’t been writing much.
It is of course normal in this situation that our “productivity,” for whatever life is still left in that soulless marker of a Protestant Work Ethic™ gone global, has tanked. Not for everyone individually. One friend reports from Californian quarantine that writing is going better than ever. We all deal with uncertainty differently, and as with the world in general, some of us do so in a manner that society will ultimately reward while others do not. Yet I suspect strongly that in aggregate, the doing of things usually considered necessary to be done has gone down. Other things have taken their place.
While I berate myself for terminal laziness (and yes, there’s that discussion to be had as well, about whether laziness is even a useful way of framing this), I have still learned new skills and done days upon days of research. The skills are more technical and organizational though, and the research often devolves into watching YouTube videos on how to wring what I need from an obdurate piece of technology. They are different skills for a different life in another society entirely. Such a society is what we have, so they are not for nought. They appear superfluous to myself from three months ago, but that person was adapted to three months ago Earth.
I’ve become proficient at setting up microphones and cameras and software, and much more proficient at directing and editing myself and integrating that media into virtual classroom environments. All of these things needed to happen and all of these things needed to be done. But I cannot escape from both the knowledge and the feeling that in order to move forward, in order to even have a career after the pandemic hopefully one day soon has run its course, I have to do something else. I have to write.
Unlike Adams, I can’t afford to lock myself away with room service and a hot tub, but I am trying to create such an environment, both physically in my home and mentally in my work habits. It’s slow going. It’s hard. And I have it good, comparably. I have no toddlers to entertain or eight-year-olds to homeschool. But writing is hard, just by itself. For every day of serene flow that puts paragraphs on the page by the dozen, there are weeks of reading and thinking and making notes and that creative technique known as wanton couch-sitting. Writing, for me, is even harder when it is so difficult to miss the ground, difficult to distract myself from the gestureswildly of what is going on to find that little spot of sparkle that sways me into the stream.
As Stewart wrote about the final product of Adams’s luxury confinement: “The patchwork alternates between the surreal and the everyday.” And so it does. Quite by accident, that is also an astonishingly accurate description of how the world has worked itself out these past five weeks.
Yet, even in this new world, writing will have to be done. When we no longer communicate in ways we have become accustomed to, some new ways must emerge. And some old ways will need to come back. Writing is thinking silently but forcefully into the ether. Ideally, it is communicating with the benefit of forethought. That is a worthy thing do be doing, and I will be doing more of it again. Just, please, dear editors, collaborators, students, and friends: I’m still learning to fall and miss the ground accidentally. But I am developing the willingness not to mind that it’s going to hurt.