The Work Itself*

How do you tell the difference between procrastination as such and the dithering that would seem to be necessary to any work of the imagination?

The mess (or, at the very least, my perception thereof) has subsided; my son has arrived safely at camp where he will be for the next four weeks (gasp! my little boy isn't so little any more); the floor in my office on campus has been swept (mostly) and the rug cleaned (sort of); I have my new glasses so can see clearly again (even if this pair is supposed to be my spare; my proper frames are now being fitted with, yes, progressives); I am rested, well-fed, not too battered by Sunday's tournament; I've read that book about Mary that I've been carrying around in my book bag for months. As the baboon said to the lions, "It is time."

But I'm scared. It's hard being both melancholic and the one who has to do the jump-starting. Much better to spend the morning reading this amazing webcomic about The Lord of the Rings (really, follow this link if you click on no others!) and wishing the next volumes of Finder would arrive than to come into campus. Except that I finally made it here [that is, yesterday; I'm at home now], only to spend the next several hours cleaning up my email inbox, taking some books back to the library, answering requests for manuscript reviews ("No"; I'm still on leave, after all) and talks about Mary (that one I had to accept! plus, it's not until December), and wondering when and how hard it is going to rain. Tomorrow, really, I'll write the first few sentences of chapter 3. I promise.

Or will I? [Probably not.] Part of the problem, I know, is that somehow I got ahead of my own schedule and my melancholic self doesn't work very well without a deadline. I need to be convinced that there is only a certain amount of time in which I will be able to write in order to get myself over the hump of beginning. Given that the deadline was only ever my own, I can't really fool myself into thinking that I've missed it. I was supposed to finish chapter 2 sometime around the second week in June, just when my son would be getting out of school. Then I would spend the next couple of weeks with him, getting him ready for camp and taking care of things around the apartment. At this point, I was supposed to be reading the sources for chapter 3--but I've read them already, way back at the beginning of June. So here I am, with a week or so before Summer Nationals, trying to get myself back to work and not being able to scare myself enough into doing so.

Which makes me worry: why, after all, do I write? Is it, as my friend Vinita says, something I simply have to allow myself to do because I want to? But that is what I am doing here, on my blog. My academic writing seems to inhabit a rather different psychic and creative space. [Now it's tomorrow, that is Wednesday. Just so you can follow the composition of this post in real time.] Perhaps it is simply as my husband always says, "Anything you do for a living, i.e. money, gets old." But this is, in fact, one of the things that is, paradoxically enough, distressing me about my academic writing: the last thing that I do the writing for per se is money. Academic books are hardly ever best-sellers, even when they become relatively popular amongst fellow academics. I am paid to teach, not, strictly speaking, to write. Nor is it likely that, writing about the things that I do, I could ever actually support myself with my writing. So what, after all, is it for?

Reputation, for one. I may not be paid to write as such but I am paid to be who I am: a published scholar. You've all heard the phrase, I'm sure: "Publish or perish." Publish or you won't get tenure. Publish or you won't get promotion. Publish or you will have no place in the conversation of scholarship. Publish...or else. Publishing just to make a buck may be corrupting, but what about publishing just to have published? Not that I or any of my colleagues would, for example, publish slightly reworked versions of the same book or article over and over simply to pad out a curriculum vitae, not at all. But what about the work itself? I've tangled myself up here. Yes, I am angry that certain colleagues in my profession seem to publish the same thing over and over again without anybody appearing to notice anything other than the number of entries on their c.v., but that's not what I'm actually worried about. It's rather what the pressure to publish simply to have published does to the integrity of our work; more particularly, to the way in which I think about mine.

We've all asked ourselves this question from time to time, I suspect: "would I write this if I didn't have to?" Probably, yes, but sometimes I'm really not so sure. Define "have to". Does the world need works of scholarship that only a few hundred specialists will read? Yes, of this I am absolutely convinced. No worries there. Does the world need more books on the medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary? Yes, again, of this I am sure. There is still so much that we do not understand about the way in which the devotion to Mary developed; even more important, for hundreds of years, thanks to our ignorance, Christianity has been locked in a caustic and misguided battle over the place of the Virgin in Christian devotion, to the detriment not only of ecumenicism but also (as I see it) of our understanding of God. This must end. Does the world need the book that I am writing now? Um. Possibly, but it seems somewhat presumptuous to say so.

Would I write this book if I didn't have to? If it had no hope of getting published, if it made no difference to my professional status, if nobody other than myself ever actually would read it? Ideally, the answer should be yes, shouldn't it? But why? It's good advice: "write because you want to," but whence comes the wanting? I want to convince other people that what I understand about medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary is right. It makes no sense to write about such a topic without hoping that somebody else will want to read it. Still, is this what I would write if I didn't have an academic reputation to uphold? Here's the real question that I'm struggling with. Clearly, I want to write; I am, whether I like it or not, a writer. Not, perhaps, a very good one; certainly, not as good as I would like to be. But certainly a compulsive one; witness this blog. I think best as I write; I feel better after I write; I must need to write. But am I actually writing what I want to?

Bear with me; there is a point I'm trying to get to in all this, it's just taking me a bit longer than I thought it would. My friend Vinita says, "Say yes to your gift." Okay, yes, I'm a writer. But why am I stuck writing things even I'm not sure I would read if I myself hadn't written them? You all know the jokes about academic writing: how dry-as-dust it is; how obscure; how alienating of its audience; how in-bred. Why, if I want to make an argument about devotion to the Virgin, can't I make it in some other form, a novel, say, or a screenplay? "Real" writers write stuff that other people want to read, not just stuff they themselves want to write, right? There is a craft to this "writing business," after all. Surely, if I am a "real" writer, I should have some say in what kinds of things I write; I should get to choose whether I am an academic or a novelist if the only thing I need to do in order to write is "write what I want."

The problem is that "what I want" would seem to be at odds with "what I can" as well as with "what it occurs to me to write in the first place." I don't actually remember ever consciously choosing to "write about the Virgin Mary." Rather, the topic chose me. Moreover, every time I try to write about something else, there I am, back with academic arguments about the history of devotion and prayer. I'd love to write a novel (okay, yes, I've said before I wouldn't, but I would); I'd love to be an essayist like Marilynne Robinson or David Foster Wallace; I'd love to be writing almost anything--well, maybe not anything, but you get my point--other than what I am trying to write now. And yet I can't. This may not be what I "want" to write, but it is, inexorably, what it occurs to me to write. I don't really seem to have much choice in the matter.

Here's the point I've been trying to get to: the work itself seems to want to be written--one might even say, born--and it's using me as its conduit. I can try fighting it, but it won't do any good. If I don't say yes to this book, this argument, this writing, then I won't be able (or allowed?) to write anything at all. I'll be blocked not because I have no ideas about things that I would like to try to write, but because I am blocking the idea--or Idea--that wants to be written by me. Okay, that's way more profound than I thought it was going to be. Let me catch my breath. Do you see what I'm saying? It's as if I were in the very position that the Virgin Mary was in, when the angel came to her and said that she had been chosen by God to be his mother. Mary could have said no--God was not going to force Himself upon her, whatever Mary Daly might say; all the medieval exegetes are very clear on this--but if she had, then she would have blocked the expression of the very Word to whom she had been chosen to give birth.

I'm not entirely on my own with this argument, even if it has just now startled me with its force. It came to me, albeit not, as just now, in its full, Marian form, while I was rereading Dorothy Sayers' The Mind of the Maker (1941) last week. Creatures--Sayers would argue (pp. 140-41)--like books, human beings or worlds, both resist and demand their creation, as everyone knows who has had the misfortune to live with a writer "during the period when his [Creative] Energy [the analog of the Son in Sayers' description of the Trinity] is engaged on a job of work. The human maker is, indeed, almost excessively vocal about the perplexities and agonies of creation [e.g as here, in this blog] and the intractibility of his material. Almost equally evident, however, though perhaps less readily explained or described, is the creature's violent urge to be created. To the outsider, the spectacle of a writer 'taken ill with an idea' usually presents itself as a subject for unseemly mirth.... But that a work of creation struggles and insistently demands to be brought into being is a fact that no genuine artist would think of denying. Often, the demand may impose itself in defiance of the author's considered interests and at the most inconvenient moments. Publisher, bank-balance and even the conscious intellect may argue that the writer should pursue some fruitful and established undertaking; but they will argue in vain against the passionate vitality of a work that insists on manifestation" (my emphasis).

Upon reading which, I wrote myself the following notes: "Write it [the academic book that I am working on now] because it wants to be written by you--that's why the Idea came to you. It's not about forcing it into being, although birth is difficult--but about its wanting to be born." I could try quitting, I suppose, but it's unlikely that it would work. One way or another, the book would make its demand on me, most likely by making me miserable until I gave in. No, that's not quite it. I would be miserable because I would be using all of my energy negatively, to resist the Idea's desire for expression, its desire to become incarnate, as it were, with all of the sweat and passion that such engagement with matter requires. To write the book, in other words, all I have to do is say yes ("Fiat mihi," as it were), and it will tell me what it wants to say. No need to worry about whether it is publishable, no need to worry about whether anybody else will want to read it. The book wants to be written--and that is enough reason to write.

So why, then, am I fighting it now? Because I'm tired of being in its grip; because I've been working on the book, in one way or another, more or less non-stop since September and nine months is a long time to be pregnant with an Idea. Because there are things that I need to do to replenish myself in order to have the strength to continue the struggle. Because I want my life back, even if only for a few weeks. Of course, my book is my life; it is the thing that gives me purpose and energy. But every mother needs a break, once in a while, from caring for her child. Perhaps it is, therefore, appropriate that this block--or, rather, need for rest--comes to me just as my physical child has gone off on his own for the first time in his life. For the moment, I should relax and be confident that both of my children, book and son, will eventually come home. It's not like I really want to stop them, quite the reverse. I just need some time to catch my breath.


  1. For the record, posting the link to the DMotR webcomic was really not fair. I was going to be productive (including prepping for the D&D adventure I'm running on Tuesday), and that's just not going to happen anytime soon . . .


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