It's a new year, and I need a new bid. Maybe we all do.
I just read "The Art of Bidding, or How I Survived Federal Prison," a long essay by Eric Borsuk. On his first day of a seven-year sentence a cellmate told him, "Man, you gotta get a bid." A bid, he learned, is how you do your time. Not just a hobby, it becomes your purpose, a raison d'etre. For some in prison it was sports. Or gambling, religion, weightlifting or body building. For some it was sex, or art, or prison jobs. It's a way to, "Do the time. Don't let the time do you."
A year can be like a prison, especially for those who feel trapped by their circumstances, but even for mostly happy people who either don't have enough to do or too much to do. Many fall into the latter category. Not to minimize the awfulness of prison life, but it does give inmates plenty of time, which, to some too-busy people, sounds almost attractive.
I'm not too busy, but busy, and most people think that is a good thing, as I do most of the time. Being busy is a ready excuse for not doing anything I don't want to do – sorry I can't do that because I'm doing this. But it's also a reason I don't do important things I want to do, or at least want done. Should I arrange to go to prison for awhile, I mean a nice prison with nice people? I'd probably just get busy.
Everybody says to get things done you have to keep your butt in the chair. I can relate to Robert, an elementary school kid I once mentored. He was a smart jokester who couldn't listen and learn in class because he couldn't sit still. With the cooperation of his teacher, I duct-taped him seated in the chair attached to his desk. It didn't work. To the delight of his classmates, he promptly got up and walked around with his chair-desk taped to his butt.
In prison Eric Borsuk bonded with his two friends who had been his partners in crime during their freshman year in college. Picking up where they left off, they made self-education their bid, using standard textbooks for math, science, history, economics and foreign language. Each took a subject to lead the others through, even assigning homework, or, in this case, cellwork. When they met in the exercise yard, gym or library, they would compare notes, discuss their intellectual progress and plan the next lessons. It worked fine until they authored an article for Vanity Fair about what a good time they were having doing time. Embarrassed authorities separated the group, sending each to a different prison. Class dismissed.
Only later, after solitary, after moves to different prisons, Borsuk renewed his lifelong passion for writing, which became his main focus. He read about writing, and read writers like Dostoyevsky. Then mostly he wrote. "I wrote all day, every day, year after year." He wanted his writing to be good, to be profound, while knowing that he was hardly the first to write from within a prison. Still: "The compulsion to do something original was vital. It makes the work constant. It became a pursuit." After his release, his prison memoir, American Animals, was published and became a major motion picture of the same name. More importantly, he had found a new bid.
I get suggestions to move in that direction. For Christmas I received from my daughter a blank journal inscribed, "Il faut écrire" – You must write. And some writers I know say that to me, I think not only to flatter, but to get me to share their pain. So far I have always busied myself getting others to write instead of doing it myself.
It's sometimes difficult to get others – better writers and reporters – to write what I want written. Besides, there is plenty enough that needs to be written to supply subjects for both them and me. I've vowed before to write more, only to fall back into busyness, or varieties of self-doubt. So don't hold me to this, but I want to make it a bid.
Anne Lamott, the California author and writing teacher, is famous for two pieces of writing advice. "Write really terrible first drafts." And "bird by bird." The latter is the advice her father gave her brother, who was having trouble getting started on his fourth-grade term paper about birds. "Just take it bird by bird, buddy. Just read about pelicans and then write about pelicans in your own voice." And then chickadees, and then geese. ...
In a TED Talk, she added this: "You're going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart: your stories, memories, visions and songs – your truth, your version of things – in your own voice. That's really all you have to offer us, and that's also why you were born."
Fletcher Farrar is editor of Illinois Times.