On NTR's "Beta," our list of guests have achieved extraordinary feats--creating, inventing, or influencing events in ways that have had a huge impact on the world, and on the lives of everyday people.
Today, I thought we would take the program in a different direction, and interview someone whom we might describe as an amateur, or under-achiever.
Jess Barmack spent three years writing a novel that is not yet fully developed. And, for the time being, she has set it aside.
Let's see how she's coping with that gap in her resume. Does she feel like a failure? Is she disappointed in herself, or does she simply chalk it up to experience? Is it really better to have tried and failed, than not to have tried at all? Or, if one has put an endeavor aside indefinitely, can we say that one has yet to achieve even failure?
Gordon: Jess, do you see yourself as an amateur, an underachiever?
Jess: Only when compared to professionals and over-achievers.
Gordon: Fair enough. How is your novel coming along?
Jess: A novel is a published work of fiction longer than 100 pages. What I have written is a Word document.
Gordon: I see. Do you always use humor to deflect questions about your writing, aspirations, and unrealized dreams?
Gordon: Would you describe yourself as the classic would-be novelist with an all-but-forgotten manuscript moldering away in a drawer? Are you the would-be chef who can't boil an egg? Are you the consumer-artist who buys expensive brushes, and never ventures outside to paint a landscape?
Gordon: Because that's what this interview is about. That's what makes it so special.
Gordon: So, this is refreshing. Would you describe for us a goal that you have currently set for yourself?
Jess: Sure. Um, this weekend, I hope to gather up all of my clothes into a big pile on my bed, and see whether any of them spark joy.
Gordon: And, does tidying up your home, being tidy, finding clothes that spark joy, does any of this mitigate how you feel about yourself?
Jess: What do you mean?
Gordon: Does it chip away at your disappointment in yourself for failing to publish or even finish your Word document? Does tidying up...
Jess: I understand the question. The answer is yes, it makes me feel better when I have a tidy house.
Gordon: Great! Say more about that!
Jess: It's a clean, well-lighted space. It's a room of my own. You know.
Gordon: I do! You're comparing yourself to Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. And are you also saying that the benefits of having a tidy house go beyond mercurial popular trends?
Gordon: Do you ever conceive of a practical plan for accomplishing long-term goals?
Gordon: Say more about that!
Jess: Sometimes, I feel a surge of motivation to get back to the Word document.
Gordon: Did you know, very sick people feel a "surge" in the hours right before they die?
Gordon: Go on. Say more about that.
Jess: Sometimes, I'll plan to set aside an hour every day, or maybe every Thursday, to write. I may go sit at my computer, dig up the Word file, and key in some words.
Gordon: Did you know, people used to call that "typing"?
Jess: Yes, I did.
Gordon: And then what happens, after the surge?
Jess: Well, sometimes there's a polar vortex, and I can't walk the dog, and she's still a puppy, so she's really agitated all day, and that makes it impossible to write. Or, I may have to go outside several times a day to make sure that the horses have enough to eat, so they're not too cold, and I muck out their stalls.
Gordon: You aspire to keep their stalls tidy, too?
Gordon: Is it possible that you spend so much time tidying up that you don't have enough time to write? What would happen if, say, you didn't spend that time tidying, and you spent it instead at your computer, typing?
Jess: Well, the horses would get a yeast infection in their feet. And my family would get impetigo.
Gordon: So, do I have this right? You're not talking about achieving feng shui in your home or barn?
Jess: No, I'm talking about a base-line of cleanliness that fends off opportunistic diseases, like thrush and impetigo.
Gordon: I see. So, would you say that you have achieved a level of tidiness that prevents your family and horses from contracting disease?
Jess: It doesn't guarantee that they will remain healthy.
Gordon: Say more about that.
Jess: A couple years ago, a horse died of a rare disease.
Gordon: Oh. And what did you do to cause that?
Jess: Nothing--it was idiopathic, like an allergy. Her body over-reacted to some unknown element.
Gordon: It was not because her stall was untidy?
Jess: No. I kept it tidy.
Gordon: Interesting! So luck, then, plays a part in achieving your modest goals, would you agree? And keeping your home and barn tidy only gets you so far?
Gordon: You have a blog in which you write that being a woman is "impossible." If being a woman is impossible, at some level, isn't everything impossible, for you, as a woman, and as a writer who is a woman?
Jess: Yes, I think there is an element of that. There are so many layers to my life. My priorities are constantly shifting. When I think about it, keeping one goal in focus all the time is a huge privilege that few women can afford, or allow themselves to impose on everyone else.
Gordon: But there are women writers.
Jess: Yes, and I met one of them. She doesn't have a husband or a kid. She has one dog that she takes with her to writers' retreats.
Gordon: You're saying, she isn't responsible for the care of a family, or horses, the way you are.
Gordon: And you also have paid work, like a job, isn't that right?
Gordon: But this woman you speak of, she has committed both her personal and professional life to writing. For her, it's a calling.
Jess: Right. When I made my big life choices, I never considered the implications for writing. I imagined that writing would curl itself up around whatever shape my life assumed; that it would, somehow, always be there.
Gordon: Like a loyal dog.
Gordon: But, in fact, your choices meant that you would remain an amateur, an artist doodling in the margins of your life. Or, maybe, you're using this writer acquaintance as a kind of excuse. Is that possible?
Jess: It takes a lot of chutzpah to consciously devote your life to one avocation.
Gordon: And, to pour hundreds, if not thousands of hours into a single activity that may or may not yield a profit? Does that sound about right?
Jess: Yeah. It's like choosing to be a nun, or an astronaut. Not everybody has that kind of single-minded focus and determination--or the support they need to do it.
Gordon: Or the talent.
Gordon: Do you think it's innate, that single-minded focus and determination? Or is it something that could be acquired, maybe, in other phases of a person's life?
Jess: I like to remember Anna Mary Robertson Moses, "Grandma Moses," who didn't begin to devote her life to painting until she was 78.
Gordon: Does thinking about Anna Mary Robertson Moses give you hope that in the future your life could have a different focus?
Jess: Yes. And I think about Cesaria Evora, whose singing I love. She wasn't discovered until she was in her fifties.
Gordon: Wow. And how old are you?
Gordon: I see. Would it be fair to say that this period of your life is about the health of your horses, and about your family not getting impetigo?
Jess: To some extent. I wouldn't say entirely.
Gordon: But kids grow up, don't they? And horses can't live forever, can they? How long do horses live?
Jess: They can live into their 30s, some of them. The little one could live into his forties.
Gordon: Wow. And how old is he now, the little one?
Gordon: So you'll be, what, 93, when he passes, when you can devote yourself to writing full-time? Or are you planning to have him shot at some point?
Jess: I hope to give him to my son's cello teacher in ten years or so, or whenever she gets a farm. Because the little horse and my cello teacher love each other.
Gordon: The little horse loves the cello teacher, but not you?
Gordon: So, you look after his feet, while he loves the cello teacher?
Gordon: Do you have any other pets that have don't like you, or prefer the cello teacher? Is that a silly question?
Jess: No, that's not a silly question. Edith, a cat, doesn't like me or the cello teacher.
Gordon: Does she hunt mice in the barn? Is that like, her job?
Jess: No, she doesn't really have a job.
Gordon: I see. Huh.
Gordon: So, what were you planning to do you this weekend that would make your life seem more meaningful?
Jess: I was going to gather up all of my clothes into a big pile on the bed, and, uh, see which ones sparked joy.
Gordon: And that's the end of our program. Next week, we interview a twelve-year-old child prodigy whose research in genetics may point to a cure for Alzheimers and Parkinson's disease.