My Personal Demon

“My nemesis is dead. Now what?” – Michael Cunningham

The intriguing part of that six word story is the second sentence. But I couldn’t get past the first.

What is my nemesis? My own, personal demon that trips me up at every turn. That haunts my days and nights, threatening always, never resting. What is it that defines my existence by virtue of my constant struggle against it?

I’m thinking about this as I sit curled up in my comfy chair, notebook in my lap, pen in one hand and a mug of hot chocolate in the other, staring up at the ceiling. The latest manuscript attempt sits open on the computer, untouched for days. Laundry looms in a teetering pile next to the bed. Paper and scissors and glue lie scattered across the floor, detritus of a half-finished christmas gift.

Perhaps laziness is my nemesis.

And guess what, there’s a demon for that.

In Zoroastrian mythology, Bushyasta is the Demon of Sloth. The wikipedia entry describes her as ‘long-handed’ and ‘yellow, golden and green.’ There are hints, woven through the words of the entry, to hitting the snooze button in the early morning, and to the unproductive hours of the late afternoon that drag into days and weeks and years. “She is the cause of procrastination as she strives to keep the righteous from performing productive tasks.” She is also said to ‘weaken the breath,’ apropos for a person like myself with crappy lungs and no stamina.

Can Bushyasta help define me? Can a mythological invention add depth and shadow to the image I have of myself? A nemesis should be inescapable, implacable, and worthy of a lifetime of struggle against. Bushyasta could be that for me.

In an episode of RadioLab, Elizabeth Gilbert spoke of the benefits of having a muse, something external to oneself to blame for the successes and failures of any creative endeavor. I don’t feel the need for the muse, the inspiration part anyway. I don’t lack for ideas. I just lack the will to do anything with them. But maybe by anthropomorphizing and externalizing the obstacle, I can do something about it.

Be Gone Demon! Can’t you see I’m working here?

Thing is, I know exactly how to banish my demon, I’ve done it before. It’s simple: all I need is a deadline. The laundry will get done very soon because I am leaving in a few days and need clean clothes for the trip. The christmas present will be done by the 25th because it must be done by then. I’ve never missed a deadline imposed on me by another person or event.

But I can’t seem to set a deadline for personal projects that I will take seriously.

In that same episode of RadioLab, Oliver Sacks tells of setting a deadline to finish his first book. He said to himself, “You have ten days to write it and if you’re not finished by ten days, you’ll commit suicide.” Harsh and scary, but it worked. He finished the book in nine days and survived to tell the tale.

For me that would be an empty threat. I’d laugh at my own brain for even suggesting it.

And for the same reason, Bushyasta isn’t going to work either. It is all me. I don’t want to do the thing that I want done. And I’m not talking about the laundry or the christmas gift anymore – there are tangible consequences for not doing those things, so they will get done. But when I am the only one who wants it done, who needs it done, when there are no consequences for inaction, I find my wants are not important enough to motivate me.

My nemesis is not laziness or sloth, it’s something I can’t externalize. It’s just me, just my strange, little brain. I can’t fight that nemesis, all my weapons are tricks and fakery. As the source of those tricks, I see right through them. Bushyasta dissipates into nothingness, and the manuscript remains untouched.

I remain in my chair, sipping at hot chocolate, ignoring the computer. I wonder if, in some sort of masochistic way, I enjoy the anguish of the uncompleted task. I must be deriving some sort of pleasure from this moment, a pleasure that outweighs the assumed pain of the work.

And this is where I derail my own train of thought. Because there is nothing painful or difficult about my self-initiated tasks. I like working on my book. Once I get started that is.

Imagine a beautiful park with lovely, manicured paths, trees and flowers where the weather is always perfect. There is a babbling brook with a comfortable bench near by, and the wildlife isn’t wild at all. But to get to this place you have to climb a long, steep, rocky, dusty hill. That is what working on my long-term projects feels like to me.

Perhaps I can take that analogy one step further. What if the park had seasons? What if the trees and the brook and the non-threatening squirrels all represent the elements, (the plot, the characters, etc.) of my story?

Like Oliver Sacks, I can use the threat of death as a deadline. The death of the story’s season. If I don’t finish writing down the story, all the elements will shrivel up and die in the winter cold. (I’m not going to complicate this with the possibility of hibernation – it’s insane enough already.)

It is still just a trick, and I can still see right through it, but it is a new trick. A novelty, a new idea-toy to play with. My nemesis is the wintery, frozen death of uncaptured ideas. And when that nemesis is beaten, when the story is written, maybe then I can move on to the last two words of that six word story, ‘Now what?’

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun.

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