Dani Shapiro
April 9, 2012

On the Fleas of Life

I just came across this phrase in a Paris Review interview of William Styron, conducted in Paris, in 1954, by George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen.  When asked if young writers of that time were at a greater disadvantage than writers of previous generations, Styron responded: “Hello no, I don’t.  Writers ever since writing began have had problems, and the main problem narrows down to just one word––life (emphasis mine).  Every writer since the beginning of time, just like other people, has been afflicted by what a friend of mine calls ‘the fleas of life’––you know, colds, hangovers, bills, sprained ankles, and little nuisances of one sort or another.  They are the constants of life, at the core of life, along with nice little delights that come along every now and then.”

Are you nodding in recognition?  The fleas of life.  It’s so easy to let them get in the way.  Or to become so busy swatting at them that we get nothing else done.  To be honest, I have just had one of those days.  Oh, I accomplished a lot, if you consider making dentist appointments, arranging upcoming travel, answering emails, taking care of a few literary obligations, and collecting the mail to be accomplishments.  After having been away for the past three weeks in Europe (I know, cry me a river) I’m wary of my manuscript, which has assumed an air of danger in my absence, like a caged and feral animal I have been neglecting.  As Annie Dillard has written about neglecting work: “You must visit it every day and assert your mastery over it.  If you miss a day, you are quite rightly afraid to open the door to its room.  You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, ‘Simba!'”

The fleas of life are always buzzing about.  On good writing days, we’re able to ignore them and get to work––and once we do, they miraculously vanish.  But on bad writing days, the fleas take over.  They become a thick, grey wall that we can’t see through, and we get distracted by them, we give up, we lose the day.  It’s a parodox I think about a great deal.  In order to write, we need to push past our own frustration, resistance.  We don’t begin in placidity.  We begin, most of us, most of the time, feeling like our heads are about to explode.  We feel surges of energy running through our bodies; we are barely able to contain them.  But then––once we have begun, we settle down at some point.  The fleas disappear.  When asked in the same interview whether his emotional state has any bearing on his work, Styron responded: “I guess like everybody I’m fouled up most of the time, but I find I do better when I’m relatively placid.  It’s hard to say, though.  If writers had to wait until their precious psyches were completely serene there wouldn’t be much writing done.  Actually––though I don’t take advantage of the fact as much as I should––I find that I’m simply the happiest, the placidest, when I’m writing, and so I suppose that that, for me, is the final answer.”

If we wait for the fleas of life to disappear––or if we succumb to our own frustration, our own fouled-up-ness, the discomfort that goes hand-in-hand with sitting down to write––we will be waiting a good long time.  And we’ll be in danger of forgetting the feeling–– ironed-clean,  lucid,  clear, even hopeful––that visits us at the end of a day spent writing.