categories: Cocktail Hour
Does such a thing as effort even exist? Or are we humans genetically predisposed toward a certain amount of trying, with the oomph we put into our endeavors as predetermined as our height or eye color? Anyway, don’t most of us try more or less the same amount, with some of us making more of a show of it, like grunting tennis players?
I grew up with a man who was a great believer in effort. Let a basketball bounce out of bounds without diving after it and you found that out pretty quickly Trying was everything and he liked to spell out the word that he believed held the answers to most of life’s questions: “W-O-R-K.” At the same time he abhorred what Red Auerbach called “false hustle.” If you asked him “Is effort predetermined?” he might snort (or maybe, if he were too busy working, just wouldn’t answer).
But I have been chewing over this question since I started reading Robert Richardson’s wonderful biography of William James. James–philosopher, teacher, author of the Varieties of Religious Experience, father of modern American psychology–was a contradictory mix of soft and hard, a Harvard professor who attended séances because he didn’t want to exclude any aspect of life, even the possibility of the supernatural, from his thinking. James, born in 1842, invented the phrase “stream of consciousness,” and one of his gifts was for describing certain eddies and backwaters in that stream which we all live in. For instance, Richardson quotes James on the subjective experience of trying to remember a name we know but have forgotten: “There is a gap therein: but no mere gap. It is a gap that is intensely active. A sort of wraith of the name is in it, beckoning us in a given direction, making us at moments tingle with the sense of our closeness, and then letting us sink back without the longed-for term.”
A subtle and playful thinker, James seems at first glance an odd choice to be a great believer in will or effort, and in fact this advocate of habit was surprisingly habit-less himself, taking twenty years to write his first real book. Meanwhile his brother, Henry (whose bio by Leon Edel I am reading concurrently), embodied the notion of effort, focusing in on the task of becoming a great writer like a bulldog (though an effete, Anglophile bulldog), cranking out book after book.
But in the end William James, perhaps because he spent so long brilliantly brooding on the notion of will and perhaps precisely because that for him, unlike his brother, concentrated effort did not come naturally, gave us some of our most profound insights into will. Surprisingly, after all sorts of mental gymnastics, he came around to a philosophy not entirely unlike my father’s. The effort, the act, the gamble, the thrust, was everything. He writes: “We measure ourselves by many standards. Our strength and our intelligence, our wealth and our good luck, are things that warm our heart and make us feel ourselves a match for life. But deeper than all such things, and able to suffice unto itself without them, is the sense of the amount of effort we can put forth…He who can make none is but a shadow; he who can make much is a hero.”
It would be easy to say that Henry James was a maker, while William was a thinker. But William was no slouch as a maker himself, creating books that have lasted, and he also had what Richardson calls “a great experiencing nature.” In his thinking he never strays far from what experience has taught him. Experience has taught him that effort and will are not myths, that at some point ideas and theories must be put aside and a great un-nameable lurch must be made. We feel this on a small scale when we begin anything new. It is a hurling of oneself into the unknown. An effort. Can we control it? Perhaps not but sometimes it feels like the only thing we can control. And it is that feeling that James zones in on. Perhaps it is not true that our effort can have an impact on events, or that we can have an impact on our efforts, but it certainly feels true.
Richardson quotes James: “The deepest question that is ever asked admits of no reply but the dumb turning of the will and the tighteneing of our heart-strings as we say, “Yes, I will even have it so!’” And: “’Will you or won’t you have it so?’” is the most probing question we are ever asked….’” The implication is that the answer “I will” is vastly preferably to “I won’t,” and that we have something to do with which it will be.
If this sounds too vague for an advice column on writing then let me end with this truly good bad advice from Mr. James:
“Sow an action, and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”