I’m at Legend Upper West because it’s the only establishment within a one-mile radius of campus that isn’t swarming with undergrads. It’s the first day of school. Their excitement is too exciting. It’s a humid day and it feels like summer, and there’s too much libido and lust for learning in the air. I’m sitting here with a bowl of plain white rice.
This self-interview form seems especially fitting for you since early readers have described the experience of reading your book as being trapped in a toboggan with a highly neurotic person as she narrates her terror throughout the descent.
I interrogate myself a lot, it’s true. And I subject the reader to that same experience in the book. My internal monologue feels like this avalanche of impossible questions that are impossible to answer. Actually, the earliest sections I wrote of the book are almost entirely made up of impossible rhetorical questions.
Why are you so scared of everything?
There’s a mysterious book on the shelf in my parents’ house and nobody knows who bought this book, or at least no one will admit ownership. The book is called “Feel the Fear…and Do it Anyway.” Oh, I just googled it—it’s a popular self-help book from the 80s by Susan Jeffers. I’ve never read the book, but every time I pass by that corner of the house I see the spine and the message. I’m not sure what this has done to me psychologically, but I think it’s responsible for leading me into many uncomfortable, scary situations. I’ve jumped off high places. I did theater in college. Most of what I do is completely against my nature. And I wonder about writing as a career. It seems strange and cruel to expect the most introverted, sensitive, and fearful people that exist on the planet to routinely expose themselves to the public and do readings and stand before a classroom, things like that. I really wonder why I do anything. If the book “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway” hadn’t been on my parent’s bookshelf, would I have ended up in this situation?
How did you end up in this situation?
I ask myself this question several times every day. And my friend was just talking about this question last night—this tendency to blame ourselves when we realize we have made a bad decision. Like becoming a writer or loving a bad person. All of my friends are wise, but this friend in particular, when she speaks, I take notes. She says the question comes from anger at ourselves because we feel our faculties have failed us. But it’s unfair to be angry at ourselves for this reason because it assumes that we are perfect, perpetually able to make the best possible decision, like robots, and that the people we love should also always be perfect, perpetually worthy of our love. But once we realize that all of us are flawed, lovers and the beloved alike, we can let go of some of that anger. Sometimes we make bad decisions, and that’s okay.
Do you have what it takes to keep going?
“Keeping going.” What a weird injunction. Just keep going. For what? Until when? Until we die? Even though I don’t understand or agree with most of the mantras that I live by, I still follow them unquestioningly. Just like “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway” the mandate to “Keep Going” is one I keep close. I think I’m especially susceptible to mantras and sayings because on top of being naturally fearful, I’ve always been an obedient child. These mantras really make a bigger impression on me than they should. My piano teacher used to always say “No Pain No Gain” because I hated practicing and would cry a lot, but that phrase also stuck with me and caused me a huge amount of distress; later, when I started swimming I picked up other ones that would make me feel even more guilty, like “No excuses” and “Never later; only now.” I’m used to self-abnegation, but at the same time, I don’t know. Is it always necessary to ignore pain, to let the superego rule everything all the time? It doesn’t matter. I’ve incorporated all of these mantras by now so I can’t escape them. The only hope I have is to learn other, kinder ones. Yesterday I saw a woman on the train reading a book called “A Complete Guide to Not Giving a Fuck,” so I think that’s what I’m going to try next. Not giving a fuck. Giving zero fucks. Memes are excellent for this sort of brainwashing. One of my friends regularly sends me memes from an account called “Zerofucksgirl.”
Why are you so obsessed with self-improvement?
Maybe because I am a godless person, I have had to find other ways of trying to be a “good person.” In the absence of religion or spirituality, people like me end up cobbling together a personal code of conduct, a way of orienting our actions in a way that feels right and moral. The problem is that since there’s no real rubric, there’s no way to know if you’ve arrived at being a good human being. You just need to keep guessing; maybe what you’re doing is enough, but maybe it’s not. In a way this kind of seeking coincides nicely with sports-think, where the athlete is on a never-ending quest to be faster, stronger, better. There’s no limit to these exertions because it’s never a settled state of salvation. Nobody is allowed to “rest on their laurels.” Just because you’re the champion now doesn’t mean someone isn’t trying actively to unseat you. So self-improvement is like a competition with yourself, and it’s never-ending, because at any moment you can back peddle into mediocrity.
What is the point?
I don’t know what the point is to all of this. On top of being naturally fearful and obedient, I’m also a cynic hiding in an optimist’s body, one that’s been buffered up with all of these self-help mantras. I make all the movements of positive living while questioning what the point is all the time. Just keep going. The earliest section in the earliest draft of the novel was actually called “What is the Point.” I tried to describe—I’d just read Proust—an early, recurring fight I used to have with my mom about cleaning my room. She was a busy woman, but every once in awhile she would burst into my room, look around, and then demand that I clean it. Then I would clean it perfunctorily, but since living is messy, the room would revert back into its messy default state until the next time she would burst into my room. After several months or years of this, the routine got to be so repetitive I eventually figured out that if I didn’t clean my room between these high-stress moments when she would burst into my room, everything would remain in the same general state of disarray, which was fine with me, and on top of that I’d be spared the sense of loss. My room was bound to be messy, so the effort I expended was always already a waste, because after cleaning, my effort would immediately be undone, order would immediately be replaced by chaos, and unless I devoted myself to constant vigilance I was never going to be able to hold back the tide of entropy. I think what I’m trying to say here is I’ve always been plagued by a sense of futility, this deep conviction that ultimately, nothing I do will make any difference, because everything done is bound to be undone, sooner or later.
ANELISE CHEN is the author of So Many Olympic Exertions (Kaya Press 2017), an experimental novel that blends elements of sportswriting, memoir, and self help. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, NPR, BOMB Magazine, New Republic, VICE, Village Voice and many other publications. She teaches writing at Columbia University, and writes a column about mollusks for The Paris Review.