Threading the needle
Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
When people find an idea disturbing, especially if they have no choice but to trust its source, they’re often perversely eager to twist themselves into knots to avoid its implications. The quotation above provides as striking an example as any I know. Over the years, there have been many attempts to make this image from the New Testament seem less nonsensical or extreme than it initially appears: we’re told, for instance, that the eye of the needle was really a gate in Jerusalem through which a camel couldn’t fit without removing most of its baggage, or that “camel” is a faulty transcription for the Greek word for “cable” or “rope.” In fact, there’s no evidence that this passage means anything else than what it clearly states: the earliest attestation of the gate theory, which I remember hearing in Sunday school, dates from many centuries later. It’s a strange picture, but that’s why it lingers in the imagination. The Jesus Seminar, an imperfect but ambitious attempt to recover the historical deeds and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth, gives it high marks for authenticity, for the very reason that later readers found it so problematic. In their words:
The fact that this saying has been surrounded by attempts to soften it suggests that it was probably original with Jesus.
But it isn’t hard to see why many listeners would prefer to wave it away, even to the point of distorting the original or taking refuge in an apocryphal explanation. If it really refers to a camel squeezing through a gate, it seems that much more possible: if the camel can get through simply by unburdening itself, it implies that you can be just a little rich, but not too rich, and still push your way inside. The history of Christianity—and most other religions—consists of taking an uncompromising original message and looking for ways to pay homage to it while keeping things more or less as they already are. We’d all like to have it both ways, and the implication that reconciling wealth with eternal salvation isn’t just difficult, but physically impossible, makes most of us uneasy. But even those of us who aren’t conventionally religious would benefit from taking those words to heart. However we envision our own happiness, whether as a form of fulfillment in this life or as a reward in the world to come, there’s no denying that we’re more likely to reach it if we’re unrelenting about renouncing everything else. And this applies as much to something as modest as writing stories for a living as to trying to save one’s soul, which, to a writer, amounts to more or less the same thing.
I’ve been pondering this a lot recently, particularly in relation to making a living through art, which is often compared to threading a needle. It’s a phrase we see tossed around frequently, especially with respect to navigating our way through a world that seems ever more hostile to the idea of creative careers. If you want to be a novelist or freelance writer or critic, you soon find that the eye of that needle has grown increasingly narrow, as publishers are squeezed by declining sales, magazine circulation continues to fall, and websites search for sustainable business models while readers expect to read everything for free. I’ve been writing for a living for close to ten years now, and I don’t think I’m any closer to threading that needle than I ever was: if anything, the environment for writers has become so challenging that I’m not sure I would have tried to write professionally if I were faced with the same decision today. A few weeks ago, Todd VanDerWerff of Vox wrote a long article about the pitfalls confronting anyone trying to make it as a writer online—or anywhere else—in this climate, and if it peters out in the end without a solution, that isn’t his fault. Nobody, including people whose job it is to think about this stuff all the time, has yet managed to come up with a good answer. And the clock is ticking for all of us.
But the first step is to honestly acknowledge the challenges at stake. We aren’t dealing with a rope and a needle, or a camel and a gate, but a camel and a freaking needle. And it’s likely that anyone who pursues this life with any kind of seriousness will have to be just as methodical about stripping everything else away. I’ve always been heartened by what Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, had to say about voluntary simplicity: “What I find far more interesting [is] the sheer practicality of the exercise.” Anybody who tries to make a living as an artist soon finds that scaling back everything else isn’t just practical, but essential: threading that needle demands time, as well as many failed attempts, and you have to give up a lot to buy the necessary number of years it takes to get there. It doesn’t mean that you have to go up into the garret at once, as Thoreau advised, but it does mean that you can’t fool yourself into thinking that you can get there with half measures, or by pretending that the needle is a gate. The needles of the art world come in different sizes, but they’re all getting smaller, and if we can’t control the top line, we can at least control the bottom, by sacrificing as much as we can to buy the time we need. If we aren’t willing to do this, there are plenty of others who will. A compromise here and there may seem harmless. But sooner or later, one of those straws will break the camel’s back.