#7. The Energy of Delusion (and Kyrie)
On Tolstoy, Shklovsky, Adam Sandler, and an Unusual Point Guard
Before I quote Tolstoy, by way of Viktor Shklovsky, please keep in mind that one of my favorite movies of all time is the inane Adam Sandler debut Billy Madison. Tolstoy:
“I know this feeling very well - even now, I have been experiencing it lately: everything seems ready for writing - for fulfilling my earthly duty, what's missing is the urge to believe in myself, the belief in the importance of my task, I'm lacking the energy of delusion; an earthly, spontaneous energy that's impossible to invent. And it's impossible to begin without it.”
The belief in the importance of your task as a necessary delusion.
We all need that, right? We have to trick ourselves into believing that what we’re doing is important, and worth our time and energy, or at least stop ourselves from thinking too much about whether a story – or a job - is truly necessary or essential.
I’d never write anything if I couldn’t conjure the energy of delusion. My first book was an office novel. Early in the writing process, someone asked me if it was like the movie Office Space. The question shattered me. That movie was a pitch-perfect satire of cubicle-bound existence. Why would the world need a novel on the same subject?
Well, judging by my sales numbers, the subsequent but supposedly unrelated extinction of my publisher, and the fact that my agent chose a new career path (he’s doing very well), I’m not sure the world did need that book. But I stirred up a cloud of delusion, walked around in it for a few years, and turned out a novel that my older brother swears he’ll read one day.
With any project, you can conjure countless reasons to give up and move along. If you listen to the negative voices, which are often the loudest in the chorus, and have delightfully minty breath, you’ll never get anywhere.
So, plug your ears. Channel the energy of delusion. Summon, create, or invent that belief in the importance of your task, even if you’re some useless doctor who cures the sick every day, and get to work.
To quote Tolstoy once more, “Stop looking at me, Swan!”
Or maybe that was Sandler. I forget.
This marks the end of the relevant portion of the newsletter. The rest has nothing to do with books, writing, or creativity, but I wanted to write about it somewhere. So…
Kyrie Irving is a basketball player, but lately I’ve started thinking about him as an artist. I don’t mean to exalt or even mock him. I’m trying to make sense of his repeated refusals to conduct himself like a normal NBA superstar, the latest of which centers on the vaccine.
Another young star, Andrew Wiggins, didn’t want it, either, but he eyed the problem as a businessperson. He noted that he has an opportunity to amass generational wealth by maximizing his earnings as a basketball player. So, he got the shot.
Kyrie’s different. He’s not about business. Or even basketball, really. The sport, to him, is just a medium of expression. Last year, during a social media chat with his sister, he said, “It’s about on the court, look at my resume, look at the classics, look at my art. I’ve created it for going on 10-plus years now.”
The sports media mocked him for this “art” quote. Charles Barkley was especially critical. (Kendrick Perkins will forever own the greatest takedown of the mercurial point guard: “If you put Kyrie Irving’s brain in a bird, it would fly backwards.”)
But here’s the thing: Once you look at Kyrie as an artist, everything starts to make a little more sense. The incense before games. The shifting allegiances. The need for adulation and approval, the incredible performances in the spotlight. Of course he loves the All-Star Game! The rules are relaxed. It’s all about performance.
His game is performance art. In the photo above, his foot lies flat on its side, effectively inverting the classic ankle-breaking crossover. What?! His jump shot is beautiful, yes, but watch the way he moves when he plays. The soles of his feet stay strangely close to the floor when he’s walking or jogging, as if he’s gliding. It’s deceptive. Almost slow. Then he accelerates from this casual flow to insane speeds. He’s languorous one second, then all bursts and sudden stops, and all the while he’s completely in control. Especially when he rises for his pull-up jump shot. Time stops, or slows, to let him do his thing. And no one can stop him when he’s on target. That ability to shift between a relaxed, almost passive floating style to absolute force and speed, is mesmerizing.
In the NBA, though, and in the sports world in general, there’s this weird idea that athletes are supposed to be warriors, not artists. You hear players talk about their brothers in arms and going into battle. Here’s superstar shooting guard Bradley Beal on newly acquired teammate Spencer Dinwiddie: “I know I can go to war with him.”
But they’re not going to war. They’re playing a game, and war and sports require very different skills. I think about this in terms of my own friends. I’ve been close with the same group since 3rd grade. If I had to pick three of them to play in an important game, I know which ones I’d choose: the three All-American lacrosse players. If we were going to war, though, I’d pick the two guys who were in the Navy, and the doctor. Not the lacrosse stars. And not merely because at least one of them would probably end up selling arms to the enemy.
Games are entertainment, not war. And Kyrie is supremely entertaining. Think about him as an artist and everything starts to fall into place.
We don’t expect artists to be on time.
We don’t expect artists to be dependable.
We don’t expect artists to be consistent.
But we do expect them to produce moments or works of beauty - and he does that. He plays beautiful basketball. Will he be there if you buy a ticket to a Nets game? Maybe. Or maybe he’ll be riding in a Blue Origin spacecraft instead. If or when he does play again, though, watch the performance. Enjoy the art.
And come to think of it, I’d actually love to see a bird flying backwards, too.