When you talked to that student, full of anxiety about finishing a draft of the report on the lab experiment, that’s how you felt, isn’t it? That’s how you were able to remain calm and say what you did. “It’s okay. It happens. I know you are capable.” And then you added, “There are strategies.”
Both are true: a writer can be filled with doubt and fear, and a writer can employ strategies to keep going. You believe this.
And yet lately you are not practicing what you believe. In fact, you may be starting to believe that your work as a teacher of technical writing — planned, precise, organized — is dismantling your skill as a writer of the exploratory, the awkward and searching, the digressive.
In sum, you may be losing your strategies. “I fear that I have become so practiced at academic writing that I can’t do any other kind than that,” you tell your friend James. He says you are still capable.
You could write every day. You could freewrite for 20 minutes. You could have no goal. You could enjoy it.
But: what is the goal? what is the genre? what are the audience expectations?
These questions, ones you teach all the time, they stop you.
Here is a first sentence that you wrote on scrap paper and put in your underwear drawer last week because every day you open your underwear drawer at least once and surely you will see the paper there and want to act on it.
I didn’t realize until I was in college that the majority of Americans were not Roman Catholic.
You had recently re-read Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (that’s such a great book, isn’t it?), and it scratched up your own memories of the kneelers in church pews, priests with guitars, youth groups, donuts in the church basement after Mass, and more. The memories have aroused both nostaglia and dread. You could write about them. In fact, you have interviewed people in your family, like your mother and siblings, about their own recollections of times in the company of priests. There are plenty of notes. There is no lack of material.
You don’t have a thesis. You feel therefore that you don’t know how to begin.
And yet you do because at one time you wrote essays, you published them, and you knew how to begin. Oh, you didn’t know how to begin the essay, but you knew how to write a sentence, ask a question, fret, and even sit down for 30 minutes or more and force yourself.
Your friend Leanne, a scholarly writer, had prompted: “Two pages a day.” You were capable of writing two pages a day, and you didn’t even mind if it was shit. You had a lot of confidence in yourself for being able to produce at least two pages a day of nothing. It added up sometimes to 30 pages of shit and 10 pages of good.
In September, you spent hours writing a personal statement for your lecturer portfolio. It was worth the dedication and worry because in December you found out you had been promoted.
In January, you co-wrote a 22-page conference paper with a colleague. That was at least a week of your life but you did it. Later you re-read it and found the paper coherent and interesting. See?
A more serious concern seems to be that fear has outstripped desire. You are more afraid to write, or at least intimidated by the bigness of what it means to write an Essay or a Story (incorrect capitalization intended), than you want to write. You would rather read. You’re a reader, yes, that’s it. Reading is noble.
You are also great at research. Last night you sat on the couch and gave yourself an hour to search the Internets for insight into why you have plateaued at figure skating and for so long. You are convinced that your skates, purchased three years ago, are holding you back. You searched and searched and searched until you found corroboration. You might be right. Permit yourself to buy new skates.
Ha! Interesting: there might be a lesson in that. Even if you are right, and even if your stalled progress in skating has something to do with a mismatch between the equipment and you, it’s noteworthy that in all that time you have not stopped skating. You skate, you feel both frustration and pleasure, and you keep skating. You have not stopped. (Admittedly, there have been lulls.)
So… why has the writing stopped? What do you want from it? Perhaps you want something from writing that it cannot give. Ease. Achievement. Angels singing.
Eli, your 22-year-old musician son, told you in December that he was going to try to adopt a new relationship with his bass. He was going to befriend it instead of trying to force and master it, a kind of stance that often leads to disappointment.
Have you given that any thought: making your writing, at least for now, into a friend?
Photograph by Jimmy Guterman, taken Saturday February 28, 2015 in our living room.