Writing in an indifferent universe

Studying the looking glass

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One of my favourite television series is “Mad Men” — I watched it with the utmost attention, enraptured by the doings of those with lots of money, power and very little conscience. I find I’m most impressed by Don Draper, the stoic yet morally grey protagonist of the show. 

Caught in a room of flower-toting, anarchy-preaching beatniks — as one seems to have found oneself in the 60s — Don proclaims in disgust, “There is no big lie, there is no system, the universe is indifferent.” 

Don is a creative in his own right — his copywriting is evocative, almost evocative enough for you to forget that its sole purpose is to sell you some kind of ubiquitous consumer good. He is the classic rugged American individualist. He’s able to turn the simplest of items into larger, powerful symbols — he evokes the bittersweet pain of nostalgia as he sells a camera or the allure of familial togetherness with a fast food commercial. 

Don may be a brilliant writer and in the business of persuasion, but what always impresses me is that he isn’t fooled into believing that his creative contributions to advertising are bigger than they are. Ideologically, his character is simple — he doesn’t fall prey to great, romantic ideals of love or happiness. His firm brand of existentialism makes the beatniks around him seem foolish; his beliefs, in contrast, seem starkly grounding and real. 

These are classic principles of existentialist thought and the idea of the absurd. Penned by Camus, absurdity exists in the conflict between the human desire for meaning from life and the randomness — or in Don’s words, the indifference — of a universe that does not serve its human projects. 

I think about why I write, or when I’m at my most creative. I’ll admit that I don’t really like people reading my articles and that I bristle slightly when my mum shares them with family and friends. At my ballet recitals, I was always most confident when I didn’t know anybody in the audience, often secretly hoping that no one I knew would show up. Unlike Don, I don’t consider myself to be in the business of persuasion: Those who chance upon my work are welcome to read it, but it feels slightly self-important to push my work onto other people. I think of the ‘absurd’ — that ultimately, I am but a speck in the grand scheme of things, and that to inflate or exaggerate my importance equals nothing more than arrogance. 

It’s difficult to pinpoint why exactly I like to write. I like savouring the analysis, the slow and steady process of organizing my thoughts, refining each phrase to make sure I’m not being redundant. It feels like a mental exercise in patience. 

However, one of the first things you learn when you dream of becoming a writer is how few actually make it — how few get that coveted piece in the New Yorker or how few manage a book deal. Accepting that you’re likely very average, especially as an artist, is excruciating. I feel constantly torn between feeling like I have some sort of value to add through my writing and the belief that there really is nothing new under the sun, that ideas are constantly recycled and repurposed; our eyes as consumers are drawn to whatever feels flashy at the moment. 

Perhaps more than the existentialist confirmation that my work doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of the universe, it is the acceptance of the fact that I am average. Even, dare I say, mediocre

I used to walk into my ballet studio three times a week crushed by the knowledge that I was far from the best, that I wasn’t even average. But what followed this devastation was a realization where I understood that if I did something enough times, it became enjoyable and therapeutic. I even got slightly better at it along the way. Life can sometimes be that simple. 

I often wonder about artists at their prime — they lack the gift of anonymity, the safety net that people — me, for example — can revel in. How does Scorsese know that his next film, cushioned by the assurance of producers and big “don’t think twice” budgets, will be just as nuanced or just as interesting as his independent work? How did Pynchon, after high critical acclaim, not question whether his prose was too experimental for his audience to comprehend?

It is really quite powerful to write without worrying about people reading it — to pour one’s heart out on an internet column that barely anyone will chance upon. Like whispering your deepest secret into a tree a la Wong Kar Wai, it feels like that knowledge will exist undisturbed, preserved in the ethos somewhere. 

I don’t create for other people, I conclude. Does art, good art, always need to have an audience? Maybe. But I’ve made peace with my mediocrity. I now look to it as a position of power — I have the power and the space to experiment, to confess, to fail without expectation and to grow without restraint. If the universe is indifferent, isn’t that freeing?

Megha Ganapathy writes the Monday A&E column on learning and growing from experiences with art. Contact her at [email protected].