Creatures of a Day

Irvin D. Yalom


Dr. Yalom, I would like a consultation. I’ve read your novel, When Nietzsche Wept, and wonder if you’d be willing to see a fellow writer with a writing block. —Paul Andrews

No doubt Paul Andrews sought to pique my interest with his email. And he succeeded: I’d never turn away a fellow writer. As for the writing block, I feel blessed by not having been visited by one of those creatures and I was keen to help him tackle it. Ten days later Paul arrived for his appointment. I was startled by his appearance. For some reason I had expected a frisky, tormented, middle-aged writer, yet entering my office was a wizened old man, so stooped over that he appeared to be scrutinizing the floor. As he inched slowly through my doorway, I wondered how he had possibly made it to my office at the top of Russian Hill. Almost able to hear his joints creaking, I took his heavy battered briefcase, held his arm, and guided him to his chair.

“Thankee, thankee, young man. And how old are you?”

“Eighty years old,” I answered.

“Ahhh, to be eighty again.”

“And you? How many years do you have?”

“Eighty-four. Yes, that’s right, eighty-four. I know that startles you. Most folks guess I’m in my thirties.”

I took a good look at him, and for a moment our gazes locked. I felt charmed by his elfish eyes and the wisp of a smile playing on his lips. As we sat in silence for a few moments looking at one another, I imagined we basked in a glow of elder comradeship, as though we were travelers on a ship who, one cold foggy night, fell into conversation on the deck and discovered we had grown up in the same neighborhood. We instantly knew one another: our parents had suffered through the Great Depression, we had witnessed those legendary duels between DiMaggio and Ted Williams, and remembered rationing cards for butter and gasoline, and VE day, and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and Farrell’s Studs Lonigan. No need to speak of any of this: we shared it all, and our bond felt secure. Now it was time to get to work.

“So Paul, if we may use first names—” He nodded.

“Of course.”

“All I know about you comes from your short email. You wrote that you were a fellow writer, you’ve read my Nietzsche novel, and you have a writing block.”

“Yes, and I’m requesting a single consultation. That’s all. I’m on a fixed income and can’t afford more.”

“I’ll do what I can. Let’s start immediately and be as efficient as possible. Tell me what I should know about the block.”

“If it’s all right with you, I’ll give you some personal history.”

“That’s fine.”

“I have to go back to my grad school days. I was in philosophy at Princeton writing my doctorate on the incompatibility between Nietzsche’s ideas on determinism and his espousal of self-transformation. But I couldn’t finish. I kept getting distracted by such things as Nietzsche’s extraordinary correspondence, especially by his letters to his friends and fellow writers like Strindberg. Gradually I lost interest altogether in his philosophy and valued him more as an artist. I came to regard Nietzsche as a poet with the most powerful voice in history, a voice so majestic that it eclipsed his ideas, and soon there was nothing for me to do but to switch departments and do my doctorate in literature rather than philosophy. The years went by, my research progressed well, but I simply could not write. Finally I arrived at the position that it was only through art that an artist could be illuminated, and I abandoned the dissertation project entirely and decided instead to write a novel on Nietzsche. But the writing block was neither fooled nor deterred by my changing projects. It remained as powerful and unmovable as a granite mountain. No progress was possible. And so it has continued until this very day.”

I was stunned. Paul was eighty-four now. He must have begun working on his dissertation in his mid-twenties, sixty years ago. I had heard of professional students before, but sixty years? His life on hold for sixty years? No, I hoped not. It couldn’t be.

“Paul, fill me in about your life since those college days.”

“Not much to tell. Of course the university eventually decided I had stayed overtime, rang the bell, and terminated my student status. But books were in my blood, and I never strayed far from them. I took a job as a librarian at a state university, where I stayed put until retirement trying, unsuccessfully, to write all these years. That’s it. That’s my life. Period.”

“Tell me more. Your family? The people in your life?”

Paul seemed impatient and spat his words out quickly: “No siblings. Married twice. Divorced twice. Mercifully short marriages. No children, thank God.”

This is getting very odd, I thought. So affable at first, Paul now seems intent on giving me as little information as possible. What’s going on?

I persevered. “Your plan was to write a novel about Nietzsche, and your email mentioned that you had read my novel When Nietzsche Wept. Can you say some more about that?”

“I don’t understand your question.”

“What feelings did you have about my novel?”

“A bit slow-going at first, but it gathered steam. Despite the stilted language and the stylized, improbable dialogue, it was, overall, not an unengrossing read.”

“No, no, what I meant was your reaction to that novel appearing while you, yourself, were striving to write a novel about Nietzsche. Some feelings about that must have arisen.”

Paul shook his head as though he did not wish to be bothered with that question. Not knowing what else to do, I continued on.

“Tell me, how did you get to me? Was my novel the reason you selected me for a consultation?”

“Well, whatever the reason, we’re here now.”

Creatures of a Day Irvin D. Yalom