In Herman Melville’s story, Bartleby the Scrivener, an exasperated lawyer struggles to make Bartleby, a scrivener who copies legal documents, agree to do even the simplest of work tasks. But no matter what the request is, Bartleby’s response is always the same – “I would prefer not to.”
I have said these same words to myself on numerous occasions when that responsible, adult-resembling aspect of my psyche decides that now is a good time to write. From another corner of my mind I hear these words ringing forth with conviction, “I would prefer not to.”
The lawyer/narrator of Melville’s tale could never get an explanation from Bartleby about why he refused to comply with any request, even when it was clearly not in his best interest to refuse. Eventually, in desperation, the lawyer gives up his own office just to get away from Bartleby, who will not leave.
Alas, I cannot move away from my own, inner Bartleby. If only it was that simple. Just like the lawyer, I’ve asked, and even demanded, that he depart on several occasions, but to no avail. He’s still there, responding to any command or plea with his predictable refrain, “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby is me.
So, if I can’t shoot Bartleby, or even just shoo him away, my desire to write needs to find some way of living with him. I have to find a way to write, even when the thought of preferring not to is filling my head. Just because Bartleby prefers not to write doesn’t mean I have to shut the whole law office down. I would prefer not to. He’s just expressing a preference.
I would prefer to strike up a friendship with Bartleby, sometimes gratifying his preference, but also developing the strength to compassionately override his wishes when it’s time to write. After all, his is just one of many voices clamoring for attention in the office of my mind.