Yesterday I sat down for breakfast with a friend of mine, a fellow journalist, at a posh bakery in Vienna’s 3rd district.
It was a chance meeting. We rarely ever have time to catch up. In the 20 months I’ve known him, we’ve arranged to meet only three times.
He is very intelligent and a great journalist and writer, albeit in prose I mostly can’t read. We often jive about the latest financial musings, writing habits, projects, plans, and the state of journalism. Sometimes, there’s an odd mix of social commentary mixed in.
He described to me the unfortunate story of a good friend of his, also a journalist in Vienna. He said the work was so unbearable he had to be perpetually intoxicated to cope. The stress built up and it ultimately dominated his life. It began with drinking a few bottles a week. Then turning to smoking, pack after pack. Then, snorting cocaine on a regular basis. My friend was witness to this, and saw how much he was being worn down. His fate ended when he was found dead his girlfriend’s bed at 41. What a way to go. A tragedy.
While he was telling me the story, I had it implanted in my mind that the work of this particular journalist was a terrible, stressful job. Smoking, drinking, and binging on powdered cocaine just to stay aloof in the creative process. The demands, the deadlines, the constant need to produce, and to type out thousands of words per day.
But I was wrong. He was actually a former journalist who had gone to politics, as a spokesman. “Oh now I get it,” I proclaimed. And how could I not?
Of course, politics is a dirty game. And it’s a virulent garbage disposal, sucking souls away one at a time and wearing them down to their finest grains. Until they’re a speck of sand in the crevice of the devil’s armpit.
How was my mind so convinced that this was the fate of a fellow writer of ideas? For the 90 seconds I heard the story, why did my brain process the decaying fate of this poor man and assign its cause to the noble cause of journalism? The amount of sympathy I had for the poor guy wasn’t completely lost because I found out the true origin of his misery. But it sure was less than before.
I don’t think that’s necessary a cruel thing to say. I can empathize more with a struggling writer, having to type out words while staring at the clock and the constant stream of G-chat notifications from editors who are the masterful Grim Reapers for the living. The inability to feel that spark. That inspiration to take the playful, bouncing combinations of words in your head and commit them to paper. The complete loss of original thought and the utter disappointment that comes with becoming too actively involved in the world in which a journalist is supposed to masterfully observe. When you jump into formation and join the crowd with pitchforks, the assembly line of the everyman.
It’s something that has been happening to me a lot recently. I become so involved in the tiny minutiae of existence that I lose that observatory sense most needed to write intelligently. It’s as if I’ve become the character of a story one could actually write rather than serving as a constant witness to the present. It’s quite a damned experience for someone who is paid to write for a living. Paid to organize thoughts and facts in a certain way as to achieve a certain, desirable result. At least for journalists, that’s really all we’re supposed to do. All the other details, the style guidelines, the media, the presentation, the sharing, are for show.
If I’ve begun to lose this observatory sense in favor of realizing my potential as a practitioner of ideas in the 21st century, rather than merely a witness, it means I’ve beginning to drift from the trajectory of journalism. Or perhaps it just means I’m evolving. Of course, I gave up on the idea of journalistic objectivity long ago, the second I learned why bad ideas must be stopped. But perhaps taking that idea to its obvious end has forever changed the manner in which I analyze the world around me. The rhythmic writer’s block could actually be an inspiration for ideas yet to come. Quite the conundrum.
But instead of this new era I gleefully describe, maybe I am just sliding into the same fate as the poor journalist who lunged himself into politics. Maybe I’m my own version of Willy Loman, the sad old man in the Death of a Salesman, who has lost his grip on the present and completely invented a new reality blended with the past. I doubt I’m there yet. I still have a present to unwrap, it hasn’t yet fallen from my fingers.
Besides, I haven’t turned to purposefully asphyxiating myself with cigarettes, or drowning myself with the brown booze of the budget shelf.
Not yet, at least.