One day years ago, I woke up around ten in the morning with a slight cough. Because I was scheduled to work two hours later, I decided to drink several cups of coffee and tough it out. Of course, my awareness of the situation was somewhat imbalanced. My body undoubtedly knew that some urgent action on my part was required; those pre-conscious bodily systems were performing their duties competently, but their competence resulted in my having to blow my nose every two minutes. My conscious mind revolted against all this—for financial reasons. I suited up and hoofed it to work at my office job, only to be sent home with the flu an hour later.
Thinking about this mundane event after many years, it seems that such a process—the process of getting an inconvenient feeling and then shrugging it off—has repeated itself in many of my life’s non-medical situations. In most of those, my conscious mind has played the fool.
If you can accept sickness as a process in which something suddenly goes wrong with us far beneath our consciousness of the situation, then intuition, specifically artistic intuition, might be seen as a more positive but essentially similar phenomenon. I still ignore my body much of the time. I’m in my thirties and sometimes stay up all night for recreational purposes. But in the morning, when my mind is hovering like a doomed eagle over a hostile land of social concerns, I often find myself wishing that I had access to better guidance. Then I remember that my intuition and my relationship to the body that sustains me are the sacrificial victims in this degenerate scenario. A hangover is an adult sense of entitlement run amok. At such moments, I daydream about having a career that doesn’t involve creating things, one that doesn’t force me to monitor how out-of-touch I can be with my deeper motivations. At moments, like these, I consider going into advertising.
But I think I am often too eager to give up any responsibility for knowledge of my own psychology. Some sort of in-born navigation system does seem essential to the project of keeping the body together, and there are many factors—from personal poverty to social belonging—that test that sense of direction. All this is to say that deep and prolonged investigation of our conscious motives is important, but it’s also very hard to have prolonged contact with those own motives if we find that they are ugly and mostly involve flat screen televisions or killing the parental disappointment inside.
That is where having a job that forces you to pay merciless attention to yourself most of the time comes in. The work of writing literature, or really that of being an artist in any sense, is the work of discovering your own psychology. The precision of that discovery might be the real precision of living, and the various, daily embarrassments of the adult routine can seem small when placed within a context where such psychological investigations are really valued. After a lot of thought, I have decided that taking three years to get an MFA in poetry, learning about a field in which my own motivations are seen as ripe for inquiry, is not simply navel-gazing; it’s not simply an ethical matter either. It’s effort in service of having a life where I can keep tabs on the aspects of myself that are most likely to get crushed under the weight of fear or financial obligation. I think the sort of self-observation one has to cultivate as an artist can really help develop the senses that alert us to how happy we can be, or how sick we might become.