If I were a real writer...

I wouldn't be sitting here blogging, right?

My husband is concerned that one of the things that is making it difficult for me to get back into my academic writing is the distraction (my word, not his) of keeping this blog. It's not "real" (again, my word) writing, he insists, by which (I think) he means, not publishable; it is too easy, not critical enough, more to the point, not criticized enough. I write what I want when I want, to no deadline but my own. Nor am I subject to either editorial or (that mixed blessing of academic writing) peer review. Each blog post is short, ephemeral, as on- or off-topic as I please. While I may take risks personally, if not professionally, in writing about some of the things that I do, I risk nothing in the way of formal criticism.

To be sure, I had fantasies the first year I was keeping this blog of (heaven forbid) "being discovered," but I have long since laid those to rest. No "Stuff White People Like" or "The Julie/Julia Project" here. I suppose I do still harbor a fantasy about becoming another Elizabeth Gilbert (more on her in a moment), working my way through this or that spiritual crisis and finding that others actually enjoy or (even better) find it helpful reading about it, but I accept now that simply keeping a blog is not going to make me internationally famous. No, to be famous (if, in fact, that is what I really want, about which I am not entirely sure); rather, to be a "real" writer, I would need to write something, shall we say, more substantial, more (as my husband has pointed out) focused. Something, in fact, more like a book. Which a blog, however regularly maintained, simply isn't.

So there. I'm kidding myself. My husband is right. If I want to be a real writer, I need to get off my butt and get down to work on The Book. Any book. Anything that requires me to sustain a single thought for longer than the hour or two that it typically takes to compose a long post. Except I can't. Won't. Don't want to. Enter Elizabeth Gilbert. This time she is writing about marriage (see? That's me, wannabe E.G.) and about how ambivalent she had been about it until the Department of Homeland Security intervened and insisted she and her lover have their cohabitation recognized by the state, but being Elizabeth Gilbert, she is also writing about much else, including, yes, writing, and about how she sees herself as a writer more so than a wife or, rather, a Wife-and-Mother as the institution would traditionally suggest she should be.

As usual, I'm paraphrasing because to quote accurately (as I should, were I writing as an academic) I would have to get up and go inside and get the book when what I should be doing is sitting here on the porch finishing reading the book that I have actually been asked to review, but I'm hoping that if I just keep writing now, this blog post won't take me too long and I'll get back to my real work. Which is...what? Elizabeth Gilbert knows that her real work is as a writer; she has no question about it. Even before she was internationally famous, she knew herself to be a writer. She even made her living as a writer, not, as do we academics, as teachers who also, given a sabbatical and the odd weekend, also write. And she's good at it. Very, very good at it. Staggeringly so, when you come to think about it. How else could such a personal story of traveling, eating, meditating and falling in love become an international best-seller? Because, yes, Eat, Pray, Love really is that good, frustrating as it is to have to admit it.

And I'm never going to write anything even marginally as good. Not here on my blog; not elsewhere, for example, in a book. Why not?

See, I have this fantasy of being a writer--a "real" writer--too. I've kept the diary, pretending to be practicing for when I would actually have something to write. I've done the Morning Pages, exorcised my demons and faced the page. I've even, wonder of wonders, managed to maintain a blog for over two years, posting on average two or three times a week (which, if you're wondering, does take a certain amount of discipline, even if it is purposefully ad hoc). And, oh yes, I've published. Why, then, doesn't any of it feel real? By any objective standard (e.g. my husband's), it should. Look, I'm even cited in that other book that I'm reading right now about which I am supposed to write a review. Apparently, or so my colleague asserts, I've even written a "magisterial" book. No, that couldn't be me, could it? Surely anybody who has written a "magisterial" book should be able to write another. Certainly, such a magistra should no longer harbor any doubts about whether her writing is "real."

I wonder if Elizabeth Gilbert ever has doubts such as these. She seems so sure of herself in describing what she wants out of life, why she was hesitant to get married for fear of what it would do to her work. Okay, I'll go get her book; I need to quote this. Gilbert is talking about how she realized that she really did not want to have children (she has some great things to about the importance of aunts) because, in her words, "as I aged, I discovered that I loved my work as a writer more and more, and I didn't want to give up even an hour of that communion.... I wanted to work. Uninterruptedly. Joyfully. How would I manage that, though, with a baby?" Well, I can tell you: with difficulty.

And yet, I did it, spending the first six years of my son's life alternating feeling guilty about going to work with feeling guilty about staying home with him. But he's 14 now. I don't even have to cook for him any more if I don't feel like it (plus, my husband has been doing the cooking of late--yum!). Moreover, our son's been off at camp these past three weeks, presumably even doing his own laundry. Okay, so he can't drive (gulp--yet!), but he takes himself to school in the mornings. What is there left for me to do other than worry about whether he's happy (and safe)? Indeed, it's one of the reasons I wanted to get a dog: to give some structure to my day now that it is no longer constrained by my son's schedule of going to and from school. Maybe, in fact, I don't really want to be a writer at all. Maybe what I want most is to be a wife-and-mother, taking care of our home, cooking and (no, that can't be) cleaning and creating a space in which others can work (and play).

But I like being a teacher, I'm sure about that. And I think I like being a writer, it's just that I wish I were better at it. The problem is that what I like writing is, well, what I write here: musings on life, observations about things that I've been reading, occasional poems and comic strips. That's what "real" writers do, isn't it? Write what they know, what they love? Do I love medieval history? Do I love what my colleagues write? Or would I rather be writing something more like Eat, Pray, Love? Except I couldn't; I am nowhere near as good a writer as Gilbert. And round, and round. I know that I've written about these anxieties before. More than once. Which does make me worry: maybe if I stopped keeping this blog, the anxieties would go away; perhaps, as my husband seems to fear, I'm just feeding them by writing about them here.

Perhaps, indeed, I was wrong to think that keeping a blog would be a way of keeping the words flowing; maybe I'm using them up. Certainly, it takes a great deal of time writing posts such as these--going on two hours now for this one. Wouldn't this be time better spent reading or writing something, yes, more academic? Now there's a depressing thought: I'm a "real" writer only if I write something other than what I most want to write. So much for the Great American Novel. Or Memoir. Or How-to Book. Or Blog. See, "real" writers aren't stymied by genre; "real" writers simply write what they know they have to write, viz. Elizabeth Gilbert.

As she explains in the prefatory "Note to the Reader" about her new book: "The fact is, I do not know how to write a beloved best seller on demand. If I knew how to write beloved best sellers on demand, I can assure you that I would have been writing them all along, because it would have made my life a lot easier and more comfortable ages ago. But it doesn't work that way--or at least not for writers like me. We write only the books that we need to write, or are able to write, and then we must release them, recognizing that whatever happens to them next is somehow none of our business." Lucky her. But, of course, yes, she's right. And yet, lucky her. What if what one "needs to write" or "[is] able to write" is a blog, not a book? What if what one needs to write or is able to write doesn't really count as writing? Does it still count? Is it still worth spending the precious hours of one's day on? Or should I really just close up shop as Fencing Bear and get a grip and acknowledge that if I want to be a "real" writer, it isn't going to be here?


  1. What you're doing in this blog is more like what a "real" medieval/monastic writer would do, perhaps? Writing is like wandering in a dark forest of words and thoughts. We dabble, linger, constantly get lost, but also run into the marvelous. I assumed that this blog, with its monologue and contemplation, was part of your academic project, in which the aesthetic and personal experience is an important subject? Sorry for speculating on your authorial intention, but I have been exceedingly enjoying your blog. Please do not close it up. Maybe shorter posts??

  2. Thank you thank you thank you! And no apologies necessary for speculating on my authorial intention, you have described it better than I have been able to do for myself in some time. Yes, I had hoped that what I was doing on the blog was "real" in a different way from my scholarly writing. Perhaps this is what the monks and scholars were arguing about in the twelfth century: the relative value and/or significance of "monastic" vs. "scholastic" theology. I am feeling the draw of the scholars, but I should allow the monks to fight back. Thank you so much for the encouragement to stick with this vision!


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