Lately, the idea of writing makes me want to throw up. I’ve coped with severe morning sickness, the kind that keeps you bedridden for months, so a few paragraphs aren’t going to get the better of me: I face down the nausea almost every day. I’m watching myself with a certain amount of curiosity, though. How long will the queasiness last? And why do I keep writing anyway?
Physically, I lack grit, or at least I rationalize myself out of difficult efforts very quickly. My mother used to call me “lazy Lesley,” with some justification. I still don’t like to clean my room, much less shovel snow. I exercise just enough to keep total decrepitude at bay. My spouse and daughter are runners and my daughter, newer to the sport, describes the satisfaction of pushing through the pain. Not me. I hate the metabolic collapse of middle age, but to face the pain of serious exercise I’m going to require a more urgent motive than a little mild self-loathing.
When the efforts are social, intellectual, and creative, though—in teaching and especially in writing—I seem capable of pushing myself beyond all reason. I honestly don’t understand why, though I have an inkling it may have to do with identity investments. I have let go of a lot of old truths that once felt permanent: “I am young,” “I am a skinny person,” “I know a lot of crap about contemporary music,” and, very recently, “I am the mother of young children” (the younger will be a teenager in September). Those changes make me cling even more strongly to “I am a good teacher” and “I write like crazy, or like a crazy person, but anyway, watch me go.”
So, having lost a lot of time last summer to my father’s death and its aftermath, this summer the need to make progress on a long-contemplated prose book feels especially non-negotiable. I decided that May, when I wasn’t teaching but had various end-of-year school obligations, I could clear up a backlog. In June, I would hit the new book hard. May was, in fact, one of the most productive months I’ve ever had as a prose writer. I revised three essays, finished another that had been languishing in a state of near-completion, edited an interview with a poet, wrote two reviews of poetry books, and submitted the lot to various journals. That doesn’t mean they’re done, or I’m done revising and resubmitting. Still: triumph over pain!
Despite confidence, though, about what I have done, I feel totally appalled by what I need to do next. I have no faith that anything I’m writing is worthwhile. In the new manuscript, a book about twenty-first-century poetry but aimed at a general readership, I’m trying to keep out on the edge of what feels safe because at least life is interesting, out on a cliff. At least I’m not bored by the problem of putting sentences together, as I had been feeling when writing conventional scholarship. The new work, though, is challenging me at almost every level. At every juncture I ask: is this transition interesting, at least to me? Would somebody reading this sentence really want to step into the next one? Why does this paragraph matter? Those questions hurt.
And then school ended for my kids and my spouse came home from a difficult trip emptying out his mother’s condo: she has dementia now, he just moved her into assisted living, and a buyer wants the place in late June. I did feel full of the appropriate spousal compassion, but holding down the fort domestically for six days had meant drastically compressed work time. I had become panicky about not practicing my nausea and self-doubt. And then we had our annual argument about how the summer days should get split—who gets to write when—which meant making a case for time to do the sickening work I’m not convinced anyone will ever want to read. My time comes at the cost of his time, and he’s a writer afflicted by existential nausea, too. So now there’s an extra pressure on my time at the desk, an extra reason to feel like puking.
Another question I ask myself when facing down that screen: is there something else I’d rather do for these few hours a day during the short span of an academic summer? Because, you know, I have tenure. I could just stop. I could do volunteer work or spend enough hours walking to compensate for my hatred of that efficient, high-intensity running stuff. Perhaps I could surrender to my stealthily-growing Twitter addiction. After all, there are a lot of highly-disciplined writers out there. I’d have to be delusional to think my own effort was genuinely important.
But I have a strong, illogical compulsion to push through the pain. It’s primary programming: keep writing until the circuits die. It would be handy if I could believe a Master Programmer created this drive in me as part of an elaborate plan. Instead, I suspect it’s just some biochemical feedback loop, a serotonin delivery system or something. Yet here I am.
Two related posts you might be interested in, if you’re thinking about the same things: Jeannine Hall Gailey on whether you can get it done and still be a nice girl; Marly Youmans on creating good vibrations. That’s a nice idea, isn’t it, that all our good lines and sentences might be a way of improving the tuning of the universe? That’s not really why I write, though. I don’t know why I write