“Do you ever have dry spells?” a student wants to know.
Do I ever have dry spells!
Ask not if they exist, ask what form they take. My recent writing life has been one extended dry spell, though I wouldn’t say I’m literally not writing. I’m plugging away at my novel in progress. The real problem is that I seem to have lost my nerve when it comes to finishing. It’s as if discouragement has built up in my bloodstream, and now I’m finally feeling the effects, like a friend of mind who accumulated a lifetime’s worth of copper that his body couldn’t handle before finally being diagnosed with Wilson disease.
I don’t want to be a whiner, so my instinct has been to ignore this, telling myself I’ll eventually get the problem under control. Until it finally hit me: this is really hard. Maybe I ought to look more deeply into the difficulty.
So I’ve been writing about it in my journal. And what I’ve figured out so far is that maybe this isn’t just a dry spell, but more like a full-blown crisis. Such events are luckily rare in writers’ lives, but can crop up at any stage of the journey. For young or new writers, symptoms typically include those bouts of indecision and low self-confidence that feed on negative social messages about one’s personal worth. “Who am I, a poor Chicanita from the sticks, to think I could write?” as Gloria Anzaldúa puts it in “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to 3rd World Women Writers.”Seasoned writers who’ve found a readership may be stymied by expectations arising from past performance. Take E.L. James, author of Fifty Shades of Grey, which sold at a rate that exhausted printers’ paper supplies. According to The New York Times Ms. James has been hampered in writing her new novel by fans’ “impossible expectations” and the pressure of running her franchise, involving the sale of merchandise like “Fifty Shades” branded wine, floggers, and teddy bears. “I need to get a hobby,” she tells the interviewer. “Writing used to be my hobby.”
For poet CAConrad, crisis came in the form of recognition that the practice of poetry, which once beckoned as a refuge from a life of drudgery dictated by his family’s precarious finances, had somehow become a matter of rote production: “I had an epiphany that I had been treating my poetry like a factory, an assembly line, and doing so in many different ways, from how I constructed the poems, to my tabbed and sequenced folders for submissions to magazines.” (“Introduction to (Soma)tic Poetry Rituals”)
Through my exploration of the mental and emotional factors involved in my own writing crisis, I keep coming back to an old recognition: I belong to a society, a capitalist society, that is in very many ways the enemy of both beauty and freedom. I am not meantto exercise my art unless, like CAConrad doing lyrical shift work, I can turn that art into something that rhymes with the spirit of capitalism. I could do that, for example, if I managed to use my writing talents to generate a product that the market would anoint (“How many copies sold, what’s your ranking on Amazon?”). I could do it by writing latter-day agitprop, understood to be useful if not lucrative (“art is a tool,” “art is a weapon”). I could do it by building a platform and amassing followers.
Instead of doing any of these things, I’ve long finessed my problem by teaching writing, which has meant that no matter the extent to which my art achieved or did not achieve recognition or success, I could point to the fact that my labor as a writer contributed to my material survival. And if there’s one thing a capitalist society inculcates in us all, it’s that material interests justify behavior. “It’s my job,” I would say, and that shut people up. If it was my job, it had to be real.
But now I’m going on leave from that job–and, given my age, it seems likely that the end of my teaching career isn’t far off. So my crisis is this: I’ve run out of options for silencing the small, anxious voice that says art making is futile–at least those options that depend on my role in some larger structure. I am right up against the awful nakedness of my writing, the brute fact that its only justification is that I choose it. I make these structures of words because I want to.
I need to finish my novel, which began as a love letter to the glory and the folly that is Goddard. I need to keep faith with poetry, my oldest literary language. I need to work on my impossible book about life in the shadow of species suicide, not because my words will lessen peril or grief, but because, as Audre Lorde famously wrote, “it is better to speak/remembering/we were never meant to survive” (“A Litany for Survival”).
This time around, I’ll address my writing crisis not by trying to reconcile my work with society’s standards–as though an excuse were needed, or possible–but by refusing to throttle my deep-seated impulse to make new shapes the way the universe does, out of the depths of its generative nature. After all these years of referring the question “why write” to something external, it hits me that I’m excited as well as daunted by the prospect of writing into this difficulty. I must defy the art-hating values I’ve absorbed, in order to bask in my freedom to emulate the practice of gratuitous creation that the world itself affirms.