As I write this, I am finishing my so-called writing retreat—little more than a social media sabbatical—and finally I have hit my groove, so to speak. I had a Eureka! moment, and came up with a great way to work on my memoir, and I continued to work on a shitty first draft of a novel. But up until this morning, nothing was happening.
In other words, I haven’t been getting a lot of my own work done.
I haven’t been writing. A strict definition: writing The Project. The Monster in the Box, as monologist Spalding Gray (pictured below, one of my early writing role models) called his creative endeavor he created and then stashed in a box.
I’ve been rearranging furniture. Cleaning up piles of paper. Staring at too much text. Inside my skull far too much. Typing on Ernest, my Underwood Standard Portable, in order to feel my fingers, moving. So they didn’t atrophy. To be fair, I had a camping trip last weekend to the Kentucky Lakes for the Fourth and I’ve had to wrap up Spring quarter classes, prepare for Summer quarter classes, do laundry, run (!), be a husband and puppy Daddy, and create my second workshop of three for local veterans. So it hasn’t all been navel gazing.
I’m no slouch. Summers have been for some time now a key period of time to get some work done on The Project. Time was, summer began in early May and lasted until early September; times have changed. For the past three summers I have taught right through summer, in some cases teaching more sections of a course than I’d done in a Fall/Winter semester. Go figure. But the summer habit of cranking out the pages on The Project remains, a legacy. When summer came there was the usual two-week decompression period where I could barely speak in complete sentences and then a period of work would begin and I’d go at some kind of project and somehow I managed. Under the current tutelage, somehow, I got it into my head I need to Produce Big Time… and instituted or demanded an insane writing schedule. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “A Realistic Summer Writing Schedule” <link: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/1044-a-realistic-summer-writing-schedule> made me feel a whole lot better about myself. I wasn’t nuts or going freaking batshit crazy, I was being unrealistic. Instead, the author of the article suggested to:
- Stop thinking in terms of large projects (Derp: The Project)
- Set up a realistic schedule and stick to it—mostly
- Find out what kind of schedule works for you
“It’s possible to feel like you’ve used your summer months wisely, I promise. But not if you’re starting out with impossible goals and a completely unrealistic writing schedule. Professional writers don’t write all the time. In fact, many of us goof off a fair amount and yet still manage to churn out essays, talks, grant applications, op-eds, and books. The secret sauce is that we’ve discovered sustainable writing practices and we stick to them.”
I knew these things.
Practiced these things.
Did these things.
And yet. Still.
Wracked with self-doubt, I spent far too long (of late) seriously doubting my ability to write anything. Ever. Again. Not a Dark Night of the Soul. More like I’d fallen into a pot of the blackest squid ink and couldn’t see or breathe. In Orlando: A Biography Virginia Woolf writes:
“Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”
Right about the time I thought myself the greatest fool in the world—after all, I am grown man who sits in a basement most of the year in various guises of the tortured worrying over the stupidest things and typing it all up for human consumption—when I hauled my dissertation off the shelf, which sighed in relief having been unburdened of such a dead weight, cracked it open and began to read portions of my work. And dang.
It was pretty good. Downright brilliant. I was the divinest genius!
My dissertation is called The Eight Leaves and it is a memoir, of sorts. Having reread portions of it, I thought it deserved another round of terse not-quite-right-for-us missives and sent it out! It’s there now in the ether of possibilities alongside my other book The Smallest Universe, which apparently is being read by the slowest readers on the freaking planet.
The realization that I’d done good work (albeit work often rejected) in the past, work that pleased me then, and still does, allowed me to admit that while I was not the divinest, I was not a complete fool, and began to think that the élan that produced those two babies still resides within me and I should simply ask it out on a play date.
And then things began to click.