The Usual Angst

I have no idea why writing should be so difficult. See? Here I am, doing it right now. Write, write, write. Nothing to it. I've had these opening lines running through my head now for the better part of an hour, just waiting to get to the keyboard so that I could write. Write, write, write. And yet, I am in knots over trying to get back to work on my book today.

I wonder what it would be like not to have this compulsion to write. How peaceful it would be, simply living through the day, no urge to pull out the notebook and scribble something down, no need to make note of something that simply demands to be written and won't let me go until I give it form. It's like a hunger or an addiction: if I don't write, I just feel worse and worse, snapping at my family, angry at the world. Conversely, the relief at getting the words down on the page! It's like I can breathe again, the burden lifts and the day opens out into possibilities. It's an illusion, of course. The hunger will only return.

But is hunger actually the right metaphor here? It's not that I feel empty when the urge to write hits, but overfull. Being hungry is what it feels like when the words refuse to come and there is (or so it feels) "nothing to say." And then I flail around, frantic, trying to force the words to come even out of the emptiness. Again, maybe hunger isn't the right metaphor for this either. Curious how hard it is to find words to describe what it feels like to need to find words when they won't come. There's that need pressing down to have written something today that only finding the thing that wants to be said will satisfy, and yet, nothing seems to be presenting itself to be said, only a void of anxiety. Perhaps there isn't a word for it, ironically enough.

I wish that working on my book felt more like writing my blog. The blog is, relatively speaking, easy, although often the posts take several hours to write. But typically the writing does not feel like it does when I'm searching for what to say with my book. It's as if it comes from some place altogether different, more accessible, and yet, oddly deeper and more real than the place that it often feels my book resides. Not, of course, when the writing is going well on the book; then it does seem to come from the same place as the blog: my deepest, truest interior, the place where I don't pretend to be anything other than my self, perhaps even my Self. Which means most of the time with the book, I must be simply blocking, because my Self is really always there for me, waiting to speak.

It's the Editor that I have to get past, I know. And her friends: the Critic and the Censor. They're coming out now even as I try to write this, jabbering over my shoulder about how I should make reference to Julia Cameron, who named them for me. "You can't say that!" "That's not really what you mean!" "You know, this is going to seem banal!" "Everybody knows this already!" "You can't really write, you're just pretending." And so on. My Muse weighs in: "No, don't read back over what you've just written, keep going." My Ego: "Ah, but I want to double check, what if it doesn't make sense?" Muse: "Just let it go, have confidence in yourself to keep going." Ego: "But...but...but...." [I just read back over what I've written thus far. Editor: 1. Muse: 0.]

The blog is easier for a number of reasons. It's not my "real" writing, not the thing on which my career depends, just something I want to do for myself and my readers. There is, of course, nobody editing my blog other than me; it doesn't have to go through peer review and be nitpicked to death with irrelevant objections. As soon as I write something and feel like it's finished, I can publish it. ("Post!" as the B*G Cylon hybrids might say as they make their ships jump.) There is no right way to write a blog post; more or less anything goes (except, of course, great length). But, above all, my blog is what I think. In my book, I'm supposed to be describing what other people think. That's my job, after all. I'm an historian.

I don't want to write about what other people think. I want to write about what I think. It's the only thing I really know, for one. But it's also what I really care about. "Write what you know," as the saying goes. I would say, more accurately, "Write what you care about." It's not that I only want to write about myself (even I would find that fairly boring after awhile; believe me, I've done it. The diaries are in a box in the closet for a reason). But I'm tired of trying to write what I think other people want to hear. Okay, so I've never actually been very good at that--thus the struggles with writing the first book. And, of course, in the end, what even my colleagues want to know is what I think about the material I've been studying. But they ("they") want me to...well, what? What do they want me to do that I don't?

I have a vision of the book that I want to have written that never quite matches the book that I am actually able to write. A common experience, I'm sure. Our translations of what our Muse shows us are always imperfect, never quite what we saw in that first glorious glimpse. Almost immediately we start trying to improve on the Muse's suggestions, adding turrets and gazebos and other extras that we don't really need. Much better to stay with the flow, just write what comes without trying to dress it up, make it sound "more professional" or "more academic." Not that I want my prose to sound "academic." Most "academic" writing puts even me to sleep. But I do get pretensions of sounding more learned, insightful, bigger thinking that I really feel that I am. Which, of course, always comes out fake.

I'm afraid. There, I've said it. As usual, facing the page, I'm afraid. But of what? What could possibly happen other than that the words don't come out quite the way that I want them to? Wanting would seem to be a large part of the problem. If I want to have said something particularly clever, I'm doomed. But if I just say what comes, predictably, if ironically (can I use that word twice in the same post?) enough, it's okay, sometimes even better than okay, weirdly often better than the thing that I had originally imagined I was going to say. It's actually how I write most of my best posts; it's how I'm trying to let myself write this one. Just saying what comes, trusting that whatever comes next will make sense. Allowing my Muse to nudge me to say just the right thing at the right moment, remember the right example, know what needs to be said.

Argh! But can I really do that with something that isn't already in my head? Can I do that when what I am trying to say has nothing strictly speaking to do with me or what I think? And yet, it is all only ever about what I think: what I think about the importance of the devotion to the Virgin. What I think about how prayer works. What I think about why medieval Christians prayed the psalms day after day in honor of the Mother of God. Anxiety! But what if I'm wrong? What if somebody else comes along and says what I am trying to say better than I can? What if I miss a crucial piece of evidence that changes the whole picture? What if I haven't read the right sources to make the argument that I have? What if...what if...what if?

Goodness, it's easy to freak myself out. Okay, Eeyore, enough dithering. It's time to plunge in. Eeyore: "No, no, I'm not ready. Really. Let's proofread that article first. You need to go the library and pick up that book. Wait! You haven't read everything that you need to!..." [Fades into the distance, still struggling.]

[Update: So I've proofread that article now, and it's f*cking brilliant! Who wrote that? Not me. Couldn't have been me. Really, was it me? Gotta savor these moments. Hopefully the volume in which the article appears will not take another two years to come out. Or has it been three since that conference? I can't remember. It really is a great article. I can't wait for you to be able to read it!]

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F.B.

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