Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

I'm tired. Writing a book is hard work. Here I've been doing it for not quite a year (counting the preliminary research I did last summer before going to England and Belgium for August), and I'm exhausted. And yet, it is only a quarter done, if that. That is, I have my original New Year's goal of 30,000 words out of a projected (for the moment) 120,000, not including the footnotes that I still need to formally write and all of the revisions that will inevitably have to occur. I wish I could say that I was feeling a greater sense of accomplishment, but, sad to say, today, at least, I'm not.

30,000 words is a lot of writing. My first year in graduate school, it would have been a whole diploma (aka Master's) thesis. At Cambridge, where I started my doctoral work, it would have been nearly half of the 80,000 word limit for a dissertation (and if I include just the draft footnotes I have now, it's easily half*). Now, it's just a quarter of a book that I can't see when I'm going to have the time to finish, given that I have to go back to teaching in the fall. To be sure, there is still the summer ahead and hopefully another 30,000 words still to come, which will put me at halfway before the term starts. But when after that will I get this kind of time again, to think, to delve deeply into sources I have not read before or even known about? The answer, of course, is the next time I go on leave, but that won't be until after I've done another three years of teaching. Three whole years, during which the only way I will manage any writing will be at the expense either of my teaching or much-needed rest.

But that's not the worst of it. Today, it's hard even to care. After-effects, I know, of the flu, but sometimes there is wisdom in melancholy. Writing books is hard--and thankless--work. One sets goals for oneself (so many words today, so many pages this month), but in the end, they are fictions; nobody else cares, nobody else will be even interested until there is a complete manuscript to review, at which point one's ever-so-helpful but anonymous colleagues will find something to nitpick about, some reason that this is not the book they would have written, some reason to say, "No, I don't think the field needs this book." And then what? More revisions, more writing, more anxiety about whether one has spent years of one's life on something meaningful or on a chimera, a nothing about which nobody else is remotely interested.

Okay, maybe not an accurate impression of what I've actually accomplished to date, but it's always there, lurking: the prospect of rejection, of indifference, of arguments with editors about how important one's work really is, about how of course no one else can see the value of what one has written--if they could, it would already be common knowledge. But it's not only that, not only the agonies of trying to get one's work published. It's the realization that even if one does, very few people will read it; even fewer understand why it seemed so important to write. No, that's not it either. That's just feeling sorry for myself. It's knowing that even I won't think it's very good in the end, no matter how hard I feel like I've worked on it. I don't work hard enough, I know. I don't write on weekends, I don't write in the evenings at home. I could finish this book by the end of the summer if I just didn't take a break. Mind you, I'm not sure how good it would be if I wrote it that way, but what if I could?

All writers go through periods like this, I know. But why? Why is it that writing is something that seems to make us so vulnerable, leave us weeping and terrified about whether what we've done is any good? Can't we tell? But, again, I'm not sure this is what is oppressing me just now. Ambition for audience? Hope that what I write might actually make some difference, e.g. bring back devotion to Mary in contemporary Christianity? Wanting to have the feeling that I have found the Answer for which I, at least, have been seeking all these years? It's interesting to note how many authors say that they wrote something only because somebody else asked them to. It's a great comfort feeling that somebody needs you to write, that you are answering a real question that others have had. Why don't one's own questions carry the same authority? Of course, in modern academia, that's the whole point: we are successful only insofar as we define our research, see questions that nobody else has seen, show the world something new that it never suspected was even there to be asked about. By definition, what we do should have no audience until we make it so.

And I say I have a hard time with faith. Every day I sit down at this desk is an act of faith. In myself, in my material, in the work of scholarship. I wish I were making art, something that would stand alone, for itself; something of beauty, not just argument. Instead, I am a ventriloquist for the past, speaking on behalf of others, a speaker (as Orson Scott Card put it) for the dead. I don't even know if I'm very good at it. Sure, sure, there are those awards that my work has received and I have been able to get some of my work published, but I see a lot of stuff in print that really isn't very good. Hard as it is to get published, somehow it isn't that hard, strangely enough. Nor, in fact, should it be: not everything that is written can be the best; it really is important that we just keep writing. But it does leave one thinking, is this really as good as I want it to be? What if I'd worked harder? What haven't I seen?

Somebody has chalked hopscotch patterns on the pavement outside in the quad today. One of them asks, "When was the last time you played hopscotch?" The other says, "Try something new!" It's hard to say which of these two questions is more irritating to me today. Sure, I would love to go back to fourth grade, when the only thing that I really remember worrying about was whether I could do the jump pattern for 9-square (a variant on hopscotch--do you remember it?) all the way to the end. And, yes, I try plenty of new things all the time, thank you very much. The hard part is doing the same thing over and over and over again: do my yoga poses, say my prayers, sit down at the desk for the hundredth time this year. Perhaps I really do just need an Artist's Date, a chance to do something different. But art is long, and not for the reasons that Hippocrates meant. It outlives us, but it also takes a lifetime to create. I suppose this morning I'm just not willing to give. I want my life back and all I have is this stupid book.

Come to think of it, this is probably the blog post F.B.'s friends were trying to prevent her from writing last week. Too bad all the toys are at home.

*I checked: with footnotes (in draft), I have 40,310 words, which is half of a Cambridge dissertation. Mind you, most everybody lies and they're longer, but in theory at least I would be halfway done.


Popular posts from this blog

One Angry Judge

Would you sign a letter in my support?

Why Dorothy Kim Hates Me

Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men

A few words of advice to Trigglypuff--and her teachers