Writer's Block

I am here at my desk rewriting page 5 of chapter 3, again. This is the third time I've made it to page 5 in this draft; both other times I found myself having to cut everything that I'd written after page 4. I'd made it this far by Monday last week: "But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart." Since then, all I seem to be able to do is stumble.

There was a stab last Tuesday at explaining the tradition of medieval Scriptural exegesis that started promisingly enough (or so it seemed at the time): "It is a curious feature of the Christian tradition that it should depend on the one hand upon a rich, complicated and, indeed, for many, impenetrable practice of reading the Scriptures, whether, as in the ancient and medieval tradition, as a tightly-interlocking system of symbols or, as more recently, according to highly-developed historical-critical methods; and on the other upon the conviction that true understanding and, presumably, devotion comes not from intellect, but affect, 'out of the mouths of babes and sucklings.'" But this high-flown gibberish degenerated fairly quickly into an apology for trying to write my book at all, albeit it took me three days--and three more pages--to realize it. CUT!

Then there was this Monday's effort. I'd made it past the next paragraph on Friday, only to find myself mired in trying to explain how it is that we know relatively little about how medieval monks actually said the psalms: "In his instructions on how to order the psalmody for the course of the week, St. Benedict was careful to designate the day and hour for the recitation of every psalm, but as to the practice itself, given its importance for the life of the monks, he was almost suspiciously terse." Again, disaster, as I fell into apologies about whether it was the mind or heart that should be kept in harmony with the voice or tongue. CUT! I'm supposed to be writing about how medieval Christians understood the Office of the Virgin Mary, but I keep getting tangled up in questions about whether we can know anything at all.

I thought that I had made it over the hump yesterday, when I finally got myself to say something about how medieval Christians took Mary as their model for prayer. That, at least, is getting a little closer to what this chapter--"Antiphon and Psalm"--is supposed to be about. But here I am today, back on page 5, trying yet again to figure out how to say what I want to say: "In the absence of explicit recommendations on how to say the Office, it is the Virgin herself who must be our guide, the star of the sea lighting our way through the stormy seas of exegetical and historical imagination." That's pretty good and, indeed, fairly close. But what do I mean? Is this chapter going to be an exercise in fiction? That's not quite what I mean, but some of my more, shall we say objectivist colleagues might find it a little hard to swallow.

What I want to write is a commentary on the texts of the Office--the actual texts of the Office--as they might have been understood and experienced by at least some of the thousands who said the Hours of the Virgin every day. Nobody in the Middle Ages ever did this, so I'm pretty much on my own here, making it up as I go along. But I'm worried that it's going to be, well, boring; certainly, even I found it hard to get through Ethelred Taunton's laborious, blow-by-blow 1903 effort to do pretty much the same thing. And if I'm bored by Taunton, who meant to be writing for those already saying the Office, then what hope do I have to make this whole thing exciting for the majority of my readers who, more than likely, won't even know what the Office is? Okay, so I'm a little bit worried about whether it's going to be accurate, but what, really, does that mean? Colleagues in art history and literature write commentaries on images and texts all the time that do pretty much what I am going to do: find other examples in the sources that seem to speak to the same questions and show how this image or text helps us understand that image or text. It's called "putting things in context," perfectly SOP for academics. But I want to dig deeper. I want to know what it's like to pray to the Virgin.

She's sitting here on my desk. Have I shown her to you? I found her last summer at the old beguinage in Bruges, now a Benedictine convent. She's about 8" high, possibly hand-carved, but I'm not very good at telling about these sorts of things. Unpainted, except for a hint of gold around her mantel and on the roses at her feet. She is technically, I suppose, an image of the Immaculate Conception because she is not holding the Child. I have decorated her with some beads that my son strung for me when he was in kindergarten, a pearl-beaded book mark, and a small ten-beaded rosary that I bought in Brussels at the cathedral. I chose her because she has such a beautiful face, very gentle and sweet. To help her see over the books, I have set her on a upturned candle-holder decorated with pressed flowers, one on each side. I offer her a little prayer most mornings, usually just an "Ave." But I really do mean it: "Hail, Mary! Please, can you help me know what to write?"

I really don't know why I'm so scared. This is chapter 3, after all. I've done the first chapter on the history of the adoption of the Hours: five hundred years' worth of religious, literary and technological reform condensed into a mere twenty pages, with another twenty on the meaning of the various hours and the variations in the Marian Office. And I've done the second chapter on the recitation of the "Ave Maria," how it was adapted from the invitatory antiphon for the Office, and what all of the titles of Mary mean. It should be plain sailing from now on. After all, I've got the Star of the Sea to guide me, don't I? But I'm floundering. Oh my, how I'm floundering. Weeks and weeks and weeks of being to scared to get started, excusing myself by saying it was just nerves over Nationals. My friend Lynn reassured me it was better to rest, that if I didn't give myself a break, I would never get the energy back to get back to the page. But Nationals are over, my son is back from camp, and it took me until noon to get to campus today, not a good start--yet again.

What do I mean "it is the Virgin herself who must be our guide"? Do I really hope Mary is going to help me? Or is this just a rhetorical device, a way of pointing to the argument that I want to make about the way the Marian antiphons interpret the psalms while at the same time indicating that we do not have actual evidence for how the authors of the Office intended the antiphons and psalms to be sung? I want Mary to help me. She's always there in all the miracle stories, after all, helping all her other devotees. Of course, I'm not as devout as I should be, I know it. Thinking about her still feels too much like an exercise, not praying to anybody real. I might as well pray to the other image on my desk, my Ganesha, my Remover of Obstacles. Except that the biggest obstacle I have is that I don't believe.

Oh, to be one of the simple ones, one of the "babes and sucklings" out of whose mouth God has "perfected praise"! That's from Psalm 8, the first psalm of the first nocturn at Matins for the Virgin: "Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings you have perfected praise because of your enemies, that you might destroy the enemy and the avenger." But I am the enemy, the academic who wants to explain things that should be left simply as mysteries. Of course nobody in the Middle Ages ever wrote a commentary on the Hours of the Virgin; why should they? Yet another instance of "those who can't, teach." If only I could say the Hours of the Virgin with attention and proper devotion (I tried last autumn for several weeks, no luck), I wouldn't be trying to write this book, now would I? And yet, Taunton thought that it was useful to say something about why it was important to say the Marian Office and he was a priest.

Clearly, I'm just going to have to keep struggling with this. That's the thing about writer's block: it's not that you don't have anything to say, otherwise there wouldn't be the feeling of being blocked. It's that what one is trying to say is so big, there simply aren't words for it. Yet.

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