All or Nothing

by Todd Walton, January 20, 2011

“Every day: meditation, chocolate, a glass of port wine, and flirting with young men.” — Beatrice Wood at age 98 on her secret to longevity

“I’m never drinking coffee again,” said my friend, reciting his New Year’s resolutions. “And no more alcohol. And I’m off all sugar. And I’m joining a health club and I’m gonna work out for at least an hour a day, every day. Without fail.”

“Wow,” I said, having heard similar declarations from this fellow before. “Sounds draconian.”

“Look,” he said, piqued by my hint of sarcasm, “it’s all or nothing with me. One cup of coffee, I’m hooked again. One piece of chocolate, I’m a goner.” He glared at his big round tummy. “Moderation doesn’t work for me.”

“There can only be one winner, but isn’t that the American way?” Gig Young

I’ve often thought ALL OR NOTHING could be our national motto, for the concept infects virtually every aspect of our political, economic, social, and emotional lives.

“The only way I can figure out what I really think about anything is to write about it.” — Norman Mailer

Throughout the 1990s I worked with hundreds of writers to help them improve their writing. Some were beginners, some were advanced, and several were published authors, but they all began their time with me by confiding that they felt like failures because they did not write for at least two hours every day and produce piles of inspired prose as prescribed by those iconic books about how to be a writer. I will not name these bestsellers, for you may own one or two of them and believe they possess some value. I will only testify that these tomes have dampened the spirits and aspirations of countless writers rather than helping them in any meaningful way.

To those who have been wounded by such knuckleheaded all-or-nothing strategies, I offer the following insight. The most straightforward way I know of to establish a writing practice is to make writing your habit. There are many ways to become habituated to writing, but the underlying mechanism for developing any habit is to do the thing, the would-be habit, on a regular basis. For instance, I have a habit of making a cup of herb tea every morning after I get the fire going, and then I drink the tea whilst considering what lies ahead. This making and having a cup of tea every morning became my habit because I did it almost every day until the making and drinking became routine. The same holds true for establishing a writing practice.

“The most beautiful words in the English language are “You’ve lost weight.” — Christopher Buckley

My father helped establish a clinic at Stanford Children’s Hospital for psychosomatically ill children and adolescents. These kids are so ill they have to be hospitalized or they might die. The vast majority of the patients in this clinic are starving themselves to death for fear of being fat; or as one psychotherapist put it, for fear of not being skinny enough.

What I found most interesting in learning about these anorexics was that nearly all of them quickly improved once they got away from their families and schools and television, and many of them just as quickly relapsed when they returned to the outside world. What could be going on in our society to make so many young people feel they cannot be skinny enough, while so many other people are eating themselves into morbid obesity? I see the twin epidemics of anorexia and obesity as symptoms of the all or nothing nature of our society.

“There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.” — George Bernard Shaw

There is a movie by Cameron Crowe called Singles. I haven’t watched the film since it came out in 1992, but the scene I remember most vividly (and my memory may have rewritten the scene somewhat) involves a character played by Bridget Fonda who wants to have her breasts enlarged because she believes her boyfriend played by Matt Dillon will love her more and not be interested in other women if she, Bridget’s character, has much larger breasts.

So she goes to a doctor who specializes in breast enhancement and the doctor falls in love with her at first sight and thinks she’s perfect just as she is. Oblivious to the doctor’s romantic interest in her, Bridget and the doctor stand shoulder-to-shoulder staring into a computer screen where a drawing of a woman’s torso and head can be manipulated with a dial to make the breasts grow larger or smaller. At first the drawing displays girlish breasts the size of Bridget’s breasts, and Bridget turns the knob to make the breasts grow larger and larger until each breast is nearly as big as the head of the woman in the drawing. Then the doctor spins the knob the other way and the breasts shrink to the size of Bridget’s breasts, and then Bridget commandeers the knob and makes the breasts bigger. Back and forth. All or nothing.

“There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.” — Saul Bellow

“Todd is a writer,” said a hostess introducing me to a well-heeled couple at her party. And then, winking ironically, our hostess fled.

“Written any bestsellers?” smirked the man.

“Honey,” said his wife, nudging him. “Don’t be rude.”

“What’s rude? Maybe he has. Have you?”

“No,” I said, feeling a strange admixture of shame and a desire to punch the guy in the nose. “Not yet.”

“Get on Oprah,” said the man, nodding authoritatively. “That’s the way to do it. She tells the world she loves your stuff, you’re a made man.”

“I’ll give her a call,” I said, looking for the nearest exit.

“You wish,” said the man, snorting.

A silence fell and the chasm of all or nothing opened between us.

“The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.” — John Emerich Dalberg-Acton

I will never forget a long ago conversation I had with two writers, a woman from France and a man from Germany. This was in 1982, but the scene is still vivid in my mind. We were sitting in a modest café in Santa Monica, sipping wine and discussing our shared passion: movies. The next thing I knew, these charming people were sincerely trying to convince me to move to Europe because, as the woman put it, “Your government is doomed to fascism, and as your government goes, so goes your culture. Can’t you see? If you have only these two identical parties, there can be no voice for socialism. This is why the big corporations are buying the movie studios. To promote their agenda.”

“Besides,” said the man, who admired my stories and plays, “there is no place for your writing here. You will have an audience in Europe. Your work is character-driven, as the agents like to call anything even slightly nuanced, which is the kiss of death in Hollywood. But in Germany we love stories about real people. Everything here is a cartoon now. You should come to Europe.”

“Your work is too subtle,” said the woman, sighing. “And your characters are not predictable. They hate us to be unpredictable here.”

“You will be ignored. Come to Germany.”

“Or France,” said the woman, smiling assuredly. “We will sponsor you, and within a year you will have a play produced, I’m sure.”

“You can make a living as a writer in Europe,” said the man, nodding. “You might not get rich, but you can make a living with your craft. Isn’t that what you want?”

But I was too enamored of the vision of rising from nothing and getting it all — uncompromising art and riches; so I stayed in America and rode the rollercoaster of my career up and down, mostly down, to this roughly level ground where I stand today, a habitué of these hinterlands, writing because it is my habit and my passion, sharing these words with you through the auspices of our instantaneously reactive Universe that loves everything from the tiniest Nothing to the grandest of Alls. Or so I like to think.

“It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice — there are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.” — Frank Zappa

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