One Foot After the Other: writing when things are generally shitty

from here

from here

I posted a couple of quotes on writing the other day, to accompany a Difficult Writing Time. I think everyone can sympathize with this, regardless of whether or not they consider themselves “writers”, because although too many writers like to get misty-eyed and emotional about how very differently important writing is from everything else, when you get right down to it, it’s work, and everyone reaches points with work wherein they just cannot even anymore, where everything is going wrong and nothing is easy and it all just seems unbearably crappy, and motivation has been eaten by a sullen cloud of horrible. But in those moments you don’t actually have much in the way of real options besides the simple task of dragging yourself onward, one foot after the other – not in front of, because that implies more momentum than you actually have – and trusting in spite of all the evidence to the contrary that things will get better, that they will somehow maneuver themselves back into where you vaguely remember them being.

Yeah, that’s me right now.

I should say at this point that I honestly haven’t once suffered from writer’s block in the half decade I’ve spent trying to write for money. I have not yet been locked into a period where I wasn’t producing anything at all. But I do go through long periods where I’m convinced that none of what I’m producing is very good, and often that feeling is actually correct, though it’s still something to be regarded with healthy skepticism. Interestingly, these periods often also coincide with the completion of large, long-running projects – usually novels – and I think that makes a degree of sense.

I used to think I would feel a sense of accomplishment upon finishing a novel, but as it turns out, at least for me, that’s not true at all. What I feel after typing the end is instead a kind of exhausted hollowness, an utter lack of any sense about what to do next. To be sure, there is a bit of YAY I’M DONE, but it never lasts more than a day or so, and then the blankness asserts itself. I had no idea what to make of that, until I took – and passed – my doctoral qualifying exams, and suddenly it all made sense. When you’ve spent months doing something very difficult – maybe doing it every day, maybe for hours – your brain, on a fundamental level, has no idea how to deal with the prospect of not doing it anymore. It panics and shuts down. It’s so burned out that continuing is more than it can deal with, but it’s forgotten how to function without that daily energy suck around which to orient itself.

I fell apart after my qualifying exams. It took me a few months – mostly because I had a semester of teaching to provide structure – but once that was gone, I broke down. We’re talking nearly-paralyzing-anxiety-with-sensory-triggers-trip-to-the-ER-back-on-meds-after-15-years level of breakdown. The point is that we need to be ready – as writers, as workers, as human beings – for our brains to be assholes, and for that assholishness to bleed into all aspects of our work, as well as to come from the work itself. Sometimes even from what looks, on the surface, like major productivity.

I don’t think that’s exactly what I’m going through now – though I did just finish not only a novel but the final novel in a trilogy – but I recognize something similar. Thanks to the loss of my departmental funding and some other things that fell through, I’m not teaching this semester. Next semester is also doubtful. I remain uncertain regarding whether I can finish my doctoral dissertation. I’m very angry at my department, my university, and academia in general, because I think that last is devouring itself and I hate being in a position to watch it happen. I’m now unemployed, and so far the job hunt is less than encouraging. On paper a lot of my life is still pretty good, but almost everything on which I’ve relied for structure and momentum and security – for nearly a decade, counting college – is going away.

That’s not a comfortable place in which to find oneself.

It can be very difficult to write when you’re wrestling with emotional and mental issues – I think many people find it almost impossible when things are at their worst – and it’s certainly true that it can be so much harder to produce your best work when your head and heart are not at their best. But I’ve also found that writing can be a refuge when everything else is difficult, because at least writing is something over which I can exert almost complete control. I may not feel like I’m doing it as well as I can, but I can still create a world of my own populated by people I’ve made; I can invent my own escapism and retreat there, tell myself a story and – upon emerging – have something concrete to show for it. It helps. Sometimes it’s almost the only thing that does. Sometimes it’s what you need.

But then sometimes even what you create doesn’t feel like the right kind of escape. The joy fades and it just feels like work again, and it doesn’t feel like work you’re doing well enough to take real pleasure in.

And that’s where I am now: this thing on which I rely to keep myself together isn’t doing what I need it to, which means it’s just one more thing that feels like it’s slipping away, and that is so, so terrifying. Everything else I’ve accomplished in the last months and years – the books sold, the short stories published, the good reviews, the people who have said nice things, even the goddamn money – all fades into the background and provides no comfort at all, because none of it makes the words work any better.

So what do you do?

If you’re a writer – if you’re a person – you have two options: a) go fetal and cry, and b) suck it up and, to the extent that you can do so and still take care of yourself, keep going. One foot after the other. Drag drag drag.

I’m writing another novel right now – one of three currently waiting to be written. I have no idea if it’s working; I thought it was but now I’m really not sure. None of the prose feels like it’s smooth. None of the pacing feels sharp. The direction is hazy. I’m hoping that this – finally – will be my Agent Book, but I’ve also written less than stellar novels before, and I’m filled with dread that this might be one of those. But what else is there to do? I’m 41k words into it; I can’t really stop now. Drag drag drag.

I was talking to my friend and Long Hidden ToC-mate David Jon Fuller about this on Twitter the other day, and we were commiserating about the feeling that nothing is going right and none of what we produce is good. I said something to the effect of why the hell did we ever start doing this, and he said something that isn’t necessarily a big secret but is therefore one of those fundamental truths so obvious that it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it now and then:

He’s right. Nothing beats it, when it’s really happening. When it’s happening, it feels like the most amazing thing in the world. Get a taste of it once and you’ll never stop wanting it; call us addicts chasing the next high if you want, because that probably isn’t very far off. And maybe it does have some kind of deeper, broader significance as an act, maybe it has some kind of grand universal meaning, and maybe it really is something worth getting misty-eyed and emotional over, but me, I think it’s ultimately about healing, about getting well, about being alive. It’s about you, and me, and really no one else, not at its core. It’s about being reminded that there’s something good about existing, and that you can find that again, no matter how shitty things are, because your head is a house of treasures.

And that doesn’t make you special. It just makes you human.

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

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One response to “One Foot After the Other: writing when things are generally shitty

  1. Thanks for the shout-out! I enjoyed our convo the other day as well.
    I love your way of putting this: “It’s about being reminded that there’s something good about existing, and that you can find that again, no matter how shitty things are, because your head is a house of treasures.”
    Writing, for me, is how I have gotten through every difficult period of my life. Not necessarily journalling (though that can help), but by creating new worlds, people, characters and making something new. Sometimes you get a good story or a great one, or an absolutely terrible one, but it puts a distance between you and the awfulness that just mere busy-ness does not. Maybe it’s because by writing you’re confronting what’s within you and giving it a form you can see. That can take a lot of the terror out of despair. The act of creation is intoxicating — but I wonder if what resonates with the writer even more is the act or feeling of transformation.

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