Saying the Unsayable

I am afraid to write what I'm thinking right now. It's such a jumble. Probably in part an effect of the flu, but it's not really anything new, just what's been oppressing me for the better part of the summer. No, I can't say it, really I can't. I've spent years making myself who I am, it is simply craziness thinking I should be somebody else. But I want to be. The problem is, who?

I can't find my hare. I have a feeling that I've been chasing somebody else's, but how to define it? I am a scholar. At least, I think I am. Sometimes I doubt it when I talk to some of my colleagues. They seem so sure about what they're interested in, so clear about how to go about solving the problems that they are researching. Writing doesn't seem to phase [eek! I mean "faze"] them, it's just something they do, easier than being a lawyer (at least two of them have told me this), not really anything they get stressed out about. Me, I have to go through these elaborate rituals--Morning Pages, blogging, meditation, having my desk and office just right--just to get over the terror of sitting down to the page. They don't; at least, they say they don't. Once, when I was describing how much of myself it takes me to write what I do, the chair of the department just shook her head: "I don't find that what I write has much to do with myself," she said. "I don't really go through all that."

Is it them or me? Am I making all of this harder than I have to? Or am I crippled intellectually in some way that makes it harder for me to do what they find easy? I know for a fact that I am not as smart as some of my colleagues. Well, maybe not as a fact, and how does one define smarts anyway? But it is hard not to be intimidated by some of the folks around here, not folks at all, but internationally famous scholars and scientists who never take time off from their work except to pose for photographs when they win Nobel Prizes. Except that they do take time off, much, much more than it seems than I do. They all have second homes and vacations in Europe and trips to conferences in Hawaii. And yet, still they manage to publish more or less continuously, certainly more than I do.

I've proven to myself this year with my blog that it's not that I can't write that much. Yes, I've been counting, well, sort of. My blog posts tend to run about 2-3 pages, when they're essays like this. And I've written how many of them this year? (Checks archive.) Something a little over 200, if you don't count the quotations and comic strips. So that's around 500 pages, give or take a hundred. Easily a book. Shoot, easily two books. And yet I tell myself that I have difficulty writing. Clearly I don't, at least not in this format. You know very well it's why I've been commenting so jealously about Elizabeth Gilbert's book. I want to write a memoir like hers: spiritually grounded, vivid, true-to-life, open. Having stuck with her over the course of the summer, I really do understand now why her book is a best-seller. It's great! I still don't agree with her theology, but I really can't fault her writing style. If only I could let myself have the kind of adventures she did, going to Italy and India and Bali. Then maybe I, too, would have something to write about.

That's the problem, of course. I have plenty to write about. I just keep editing myself into silence. "No," I tell myself, "you can't say that. You haven't read enough/experienced enough/thought enough about that." I look at some of the things my colleagues publish and know that they did not spend as much time thinking about or researching them as I have with my work. No, that's not quite it. My colleagues work very hard. But they really don't seem to spend as much time second-guessing themselves as I do. It's as if I have to write everything twice, first to convince myself that I have anything to say, then to say it in a way such that I am no longer apologizing for having dared to think what I do.

What would I say if I could write anything at all? That (as my one of my former students has recently commented on Facebook) I'm sick of historiography, always looking over my shoulder at what others have said before me when, truth to tell, I think much of what we've been writing about for the past, oh, five hundred years is nonsense? (There is a reason, after all, that I'm a medievalist.) That the only reason I'm an academic is that I want to find the Truth and that I'm not into all this relativism about what we can know or not? (Which is not to say that I think we will ever find the Truth, just that it should be the object of our quest.) That I see no purpose in studying difference simply for difference's sake? (Except insofar as it helps us meditate on the immensity of God, whose creation encompasses all of us and thus all our differences.) That I really do believe in God but that I find it as difficult talking with people who have no doubts about their faith as I do with people who are certain about their lack thereof? That I am on a quest to find God and that all the details about who wrote what when or who did what why are just incidentals (except with respect to the Incarnation) and that I really couldn't give two figs about when modernity began? That I find much of what my colleagues (broadly speaking) write unreadable because it all seems made up? Um....

Maybe I should be a theologian. Except that I'm really no good at thinking in systems. I like them, but I don't seem very good at sticking to them myself. Again, I suppose, because they ultimately seem so artificial. I'm not very good at sticking to anybody's party line, although (like the dog chasing after somebody else's hare) I can get caught up in them from time to time. But then I get bored or learn too much about them and "theory" dissolves simply into one way of looking at things that is really no more accurate than another. No, that's not it. It's just that whenever I try to write theory (which is not the same as theology, I know, I've drifted here), it comes out sounding artificial (in a bad way), overly contrived. I suspect the same thing would happen if I tried to write theology. God is (or not is) more an experience than an idea, which, I suppose, is one of the many reasons it makes sense that the Gospels are narratives. God is a mystery to be approached, not a problem to be solved. God is my life. Now there's a stunner. I wasn't really expecting to write that.

I want to be engaged with what my colleagues are talking about, I really do. It hurts to be sitting here on the sidelines, watching all of their animated quarrels. But it's like watching a football game: I can see how others find it interesting--the strategy, the discipline, the sheer energy and effort to keep going during training, working as a team towards a common goal--but I'm not interested myself and I can't fake it, at least not for long. At least not without serious effects on my soul. That's the problem, of course: I have been trying to fake it, for decades now. It never works, at least not when I write. If I write anything in that mode, it's garbage and I have to start over. Which is probably why it takes me so long: I have to write through the academic-speak first, then rewrite to find my own voice, then rewrite again to say what I really want to say. You'd think after all these years I'd have the courage to say what I want to say first, without having to go through all the other stuff. But then who is my audience if not other scholars? And if I don't write in a way that they find compelling, who will read me?

This is helping me, writing this out now. But I'm not quite sure now where it's going. Perhaps it's best for now that I did simply try to say what needed to be said. I suspect there's more. But it's going to take all the courage that I have to say it. Thank you, at least, my dear blog readers, for listening!


  1. It sounds as if you should be William Langland.

    On the more local issues, there are many people who have to revise multiple times. Everybody has a different process. Sometimes it's worth trying a new one, to see how it works for you. But in the long run, it's usually faster to do what works for you, even if that means three-part composition (academic-speak, you, your real point) than to try to produce faster by a means that doesn't work for you.

    I'm always dubious about claims of having no trouble writing, even from people who are very productive. I wonder if they have friends or wives to revise for them. Maybe that's just my nasty cynical streak.

  2. It sounds as if you should be William Langland.

    LOL! I was just reading Piers Plowman for the first time last week. Maybe it rubbed off on me more than I realize.

    Thanks for the encouragement on the writing process. My cynical streak tells me that people who publish a lot tend to publish the same thing over and over again, without really rethinking it. On the other hand, I think they are also driven by a conviction that what they have to say is simply right so they don't experience the second-guessing in quite the same way as others do. But again, like you, I also tend to think that when people say they find writing easy they aren't really giving the whole story.


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