It’s a little scary. At the very least it’s disorienting. You don’t know what time it is. You don’t know where you are.
It passes quickly, of course. The last time it happened to me, I found myself on NJ Transit. I was somewhere between Secaucus and Newark. It was around 5:30. I was on my way home.
Though it happens fairly frequently, it always catches me by surprise. That day, I had just settled into my seat on the train at the end of the day. I was pulling my book from my bag when I saw a copy of the play I am working on for Blue Coyote. An idea for the scene I was currently writing had been
kicking around in my head all day. Impulsively, I grabbed the script and set to work.
That’s the last thing I remember.
What does it mean to “lose yourself”? Why is it considered desirable? It is the stated goal of every ecstatic experience, from revivalism to raves. But why do we want it?
My guess is it’s not a matter of losing your self so much as it is losing your self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is like the booby prize of sentience. Without self-consciousness, you’re just an animal. With it, however, you are dogged forever by a self that hovers just outside of you; it is often a judging self, a critical self.
The only time I lose self-consciousness is when I write. There’s nothing ecstatic about it. My eyes don’t roll back in my head. I see no visions. I just become completely and totally involved in the thing I’m doing, namely writing.
It doesn’t last long. For me, it rarely goes longer than a half hour at any one time. And it doesn’t feel like much. To be perfectly honest, it doesn’t feel like anything. When I write the part of me that is usually records experience for future memories is writing, too. So there is no trace. The process of writing is forgotten the
second it happens.
Why then does this experience, which couldn’t be more ephemeral, lately feel like the single most important part of the life’s work that I’ve chosen?
Immersion is what’s about, I suppose. It is that totality of immersion that makes you lose your self-consciousness. There are many things to lose yourself in (just pick an addiction), but the pleasures tend to be short lived and have nasty side effects. The difficulty is in finding something worthy, or even capable, of such a deep immersion.
Most jobs do not provide this. My job certainly doesn't. My job does not want my whole self. It wants a self from me that accomplishes certain tasks while acting a certain way. It is an easy self for me to put on. I wear it like clothes. My job wants that part of me and that part of me only.
I don't mind that my job wants only a fraction of me. I don’t need every moment of my life to be spent in the pursuit of deep personal fulfillment. But I am able to not care about this parceling out of myself because I have this other thing, this writing.
Sometimes I see people in my office, good and smart people, and I feel like I can see them looking for something. They have a desire to do something more, to pour their passion for life into something that can hold it. Their failure to find this thing for themselves can leave them looking distracted. Sometimes, they look scared.
Most days, being a writer feels like a very poor career choice. Most days, it all feels impossible. It is impossible that the scene will come out the way you want it to, or that it will work into your idea for the play, or that the play will come together, or that anyone will want to read your play if it even does, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. In most writing careers, indeed in most careers in the arts, five disappointing things happen for every encouragement. It can, and often does, feel like a ridiculous way to spend your life.
Yet lately I'm feeling very lucky for my chosen profession.
Once or twice a week, I get to get lost. Like falling asleep, I can never pinpoint the moment it happens. I only know it’s happened when I wake up, be it on NJ Transit, my writing space in my basement, or at some coffee shop around town. When the fear dissipates, and I am grounded again in the here and
now, I feel another emotion very strongly.
- John Yearley