In the Belly of the Beast

I'm not going to complain. I'm not. Why should I? There's nothing to complain about. The puppy and I had a nice run (-ish) in the snow, I've cleaned the salt off her paws and now she is sleeping peacefully alongside my legs. The workmen are starting on the second day of installing the floor in our kitchen. They got about a third of the way through yesterday, and it is already looking fabulous. Okay, so the puppy pooped all over the hearth last night because I was too sleepy to notice what time it was when my husband came home from class and asked if she needed to go out. And however long it takes for the workmen to finish the floor, there is no way we're going to have a kitchen again until sometime in early April because it's going to take until the first week of March for our new cabinets to come in.

But puppy Joy and I had a great time on campus yesterday; she even came to our department meeting and did nothing more alarming than chew on the carpet before kipping off at the feet of one of my colleagues. And the kitchen floor really is gorgeous. Even better, now that I'm finished with our admissions committee work, I can stay home again today and get started on the reading for my new course next autumn on "Animals in the Middle Ages." And I'm having lunch with our preacher today so that we can talk about her sermon, among other things. The snow outside is beautiful, it's warm in our apartment, somehow I have time to sit and write for a bit before I get back to work this morning. Everything is exactly as it should be, perfect.

Except...except...except, it isn't. I am still in the grip of this ever-so-ridiculous writer's block with no apparent prospect of its lifting anytime soon. Mind you, it's not as if I've tried to write anything in my book since midway through the summer, so maybe, if I did....no, I can feel the panic rising even as I suggest this to myself. Not that the panic is anything new. I'm still not entirely clear how I managed to survive writing my first book, except that I had to otherwise I would lose my job. But now, with tenure, the only thing potentially motivating me to plow through my fears is either promotion or death, neither of which seem to be able to concentrate the mind anymore. Besides, why should they, if, as Katie insists, everything is exactly as it should be?

I don't want to have to write in spite of my fear. I'm sick of being afraid. What is it about writing that creates this kind of anxiety? It's not as if it is actually that hard. See, I'm writing here now. Except...except...except the only way I seem to be able to write even this is to leave the bar as low as possible. I'm not going to try to write anything substantive, not about what I've been learning from trying to potty train the dog, not from the insights that I've had about the centrality of kitchens to the definition of a home, not from the thoughts I've been having about what it means to study history or the Middle Ages or devotion, not from what I've been starting to realize lately about faith, reality and God. Oh, I want to. I want to so much. Really, I do. But, for some reason, I can't.

I don't like that my blog these past few weeks, maybe even months, has turned into simply a venue for me to complain. Have you noticed how almost every post I've written since Christmas begins with the first person pronoun? It's the only thing I'm absolutely sure that I know: what I think. And sometimes, I'm not even sure about that any more. When is this dark night of the soul going to end? Mind you, I'm not feeling quite as tearfully depressed as I was a few months ago, but it's not like I'm experiencing anything like a great burst of productivity. I can just about manage five or six hours of reading in a day, but then I'm wiped out. And heaven forbid I actually translate anything that I've read into anything even remotely resembling academic prose. What do I know about what people thought or felt or believed five or six or eight hundred years ago? I barely know what people think now.

To be original, one must be an origin. Didn't Julia Cameron say something like that? I am amused and not a little bit relieved to recall that just before I went into the desert of this particular authorial dry spell, I had been reading her The Sound of Paper: Starting from Scratch about living through such creative droughts. In her book, of course, the drought only lasts a summer, during which she manages to write beautiful two or three page essays (i.e. blog post-length) about surviving creative droughts and viola! publish another book. I go into a drought and all I have to show for it is this blog. Does that count? Must it count? Why should anything have to count? Ha. I can't even maintain a consistent stream of thought at the moment about how hard it is for me to maintain a consistent stream of thought.

Here's the current thought: Everything valuable that I know, I've learned from somebody else--Julia Cameron or Byron Katie or Thomas Merton or Elizabeth Gilbert. Nothing that I have to say is even remotely original, even when I write straight from the heart, straight from this place that I've been inhabiting for so long now, maybe even my whole life. How am I supposed to find what it is that God wants me to do if the only thing that I seem to be able to do without having to put myself through psychological boot camp is write long-winded complaints like this one about how hard I find it saying anything other than what is directly off the top of my head? I very seriously doubt that anybody, not even most of my students, is going to find these ramblings at all useful. But does that mean I shouldn't write them? According to Katie, if this is what I'm writing, then this is what I should be writing. Moreover, it is perfect that I am writing this right now. But it's not what I want to be writing. Not by a long chalk.

I'm anxious now because the puppy woke up and has started wandering around her play room in a way that suggests that maybe I really should stop typing and take her out. But by the time I get back from watching her poop, I am afraid that even this pathetic dribble of thoughts will have dried up and I will be even further away from making that breakthrough into what I am supposed to be saying than I was before I started this complaint. Or maybe not. Who knows? See, God, I'm here waiting, ready to be the vessel for whatever it is that you want me to say. But is this really it? Is my authorial originality to be nothing more than blog post after blog post about how hard I find it to write? Why? Why can't you inspire me with something more worthy? Something beautiful and gripping and classic, worth reading a thousand years from now, not to mention tomorrow?

I know, I know. As long as I am worried about the product rather than allowing myself to be inside of the work for its own sake, I am never going to be able to write what I want. It's the wanting that kills it. I don't want to be writing this, so I can. But I do want to be writing that book review about how nannyish I find our field now, with all of its preening presumption about how we (the present generation of scholars) have discovered that people in the past...nope, can't figure out how to say this, the thoughts are still too tangled and angry. And I do want to be writing that other book, the one that my friends have encouraged me to write, about devotion to the Virgin Mary for a non-academic, perhaps more prayerful audience. And I do want to be writing my scholarly book about the Office of the Virgin and what it meant to pray the psalms.

But I'm not. I'm writing this blog post in the only window that I am likely to have today before I tell myself I need to do something else, like write that catalog description for next year's course on animals or start worrying about what books I am going to order for next quarter's courses on monasticism and war. And yet, I know that if I just allowed myself to write for even this long on something important...no, it wouldn't work. I'd dry up, just like I did a few sentences ago when I tried to trick myself into saying even a sentence about what I want to put in that book review. "Write what you know." I've always found this advice laughable. Fine, this is what I know: my own panic, my own egoistic thoughts about how hard it is I find writing about anything other than what I am thinking at the moment about myself. And yet, I have, in my life, managed to write about other things. It's just that at this moment, and for some still-to-be-determined moments to come, I can't.

Which must mean that this complaint is in fact what I am supposed to be writing now, because I am.

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