Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 30, 2008
Every time I start to do my assignment, I find myself surfing the Web instead!
I am taking a creative nonfiction writing course, and I’m supposed to be working on a piece about what I ate for breakfast. The problem is, every time I sit down at the computer to work, I start compulsively reading the election coverage online, sometimes spending two hours or more on variations on the same five articles. I am ashamed of my lack of self-control in this area. It is really unusual for me, because in my normal life I am a very capable person. I am a stay-at-home mom of two boys, ages 8 and 6, with a great marriage. I keep a neat house, get the kids to school on time, and fix organic, gourmet meals. But in this one area, this writing class, I can’t seem to do the task in front of me.
I have always been a terrific student. I have a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago, and until I got married, I always figured I would finish my Ph.D. and work in research or teach somewhere. Instead, I decided I wanted to be home with my kids and fix up our house. I learned to garden and bake pies, and basically dug my heels into domestic life. It suits me, as I am basically an introvert who likes to take care of people. I am happy here, but I see my kids growing up and not needing me as much, and rather than stifle them with overattentiveness, I decided to take some classes and get a hobby, as they say. The sewing class is going great; I’ve made a skirt and might work on curtains next week. But the writing class, the one I really care about, has me totally stumped. I can’t seem to stop myself from clicking on the Google news page. Cary, is this self-sabotage, or simply escapism? What should I do? I’ve read that all writers need a lot of time to just sit and stare, but the Internet news is just wearing out my brain to the point where I can’t work at all.
I’m afraid that I am not allowing myself to do the one thing I’d be really good at, maybe for fear of failure, or just because it seems too selfish. My mother worked at a high-powered job throughout my childhood, and my parents were divorced, so I have issues about being ignored as a kid. I swore that I would be the mom who made cookies and was always there when you needed her. The problem is, my kids don’t seem to care one way or another, since they’ve never known any different. Cary, I feel sometimes like a doormat or a dishrag, like I am wasting all of my potential, and no matter how many Terence Conran house books I read or Julia Child cookbooks I memorize, I am still not getting what I need.
I think I need this writing thing way more than I will admit to myself. So, how do I let myself just do it, without all of the distractions? On the other hand, am I just kidding myself with this fantasy that I might have great untapped potential? Maybe I should just accept the choices I’ve made and be happy planting tomatoes.
There are certain things you’re just going to have to assume from the outset. Assume that your writing is important. Assume that you have the right to do it and that it’s necessary and important. Assume that something has happened in your life such that you must attend to certain moral, aesthetic and philosophical needs, or that you have reached a certain passage, or phase, or that you have been blessed, contacted by aliens, touched by God, whatever works, however you want to put it. Something has happened. You have received a call. Assume whatever you need to assume in order to answer the call.
That is what I would suggest.
For that’s what it is: It is a call. It might not be clear exactly what it is yet. But something is calling you and you have to answer the call. It might be frightening to answer — it might be asking you to face certain fears about your own competence and value. It may be asking you to take up a challenge. But I believe that whatever it is you are trying to accomplish, it is best to begin with your own motivation and your own desire, and work from that place, rather than concentrate on the phenomenon of distractions and try to eliminate them. You will find more energy in focusing on your objective than in focusing on defeating the distractions. Now, it’s true, as a tactical matter, I often have to turn off my browser. I have to sit in silence. I have to find places and techniques. But the main thing is to find the deep emotional or spiritual hunger that fuels our creativity. Assume that this is important and you will find it easier to take the necessary steps. And as I said, you may be called to difficulty, to facing fears.
In facing your fears, I advise this: Guard against contemporary assumptions about cultural value, particularly our assumptions about what it means to be a writer. You are trained in anthropology. So look at our culture as an anthropologist would look at it. Notice the beliefs we express about writing and writers. Observe how we revere certain writers and vilify others. Notice that we seem to harbor some primitive belief in writing as a magical act; notice how we behave toward certain writers as though they were shamans or gods or priests; notice how as we do this we also devalue our own native abilities and thus become consumers rather than producers. Notice how we devalue our own desires to write, buying into such notions that only a select few are called to do this holy and sacred thing. See how undemocratic that is. Notice how much hogwash we are wading through. Keep all this in mind as you begin to write.
Also pay attention to what conditions allow you to write and what conditions hinder your writing. Where can you go to write? Can you park your car on a lakeside, sip a cappuccino and write? Can you take a trip and write? Can you sit in an attic room and write? How much time can you put aside to write? Can you use a timer? Have you tried free-writing? Is it possible that the nonfiction class you are taking does not offer productive methods? For instance, if you were simply told to go home and write about what you had for breakfast, it might be that such a thing does not work for you. I do not know if I could write about what I had for breakfast. I might feel compelled to think about it too much. Maybe if you started with, “Today for breakfast I had …” then words might follow. You might end up writing, “Today for breakfast I had a fucking hard time of it.” Or “Today for breakfast I had none of your fucking oatmeal.” I don’t know. You might find things arising that you did not expect. It is fun to see what words come. You might find anger and pain arising first. That is often the case. It may be that you do not want anger and pain to arise. That might be why you are not writing at all. If so, you may be helped by the support of a group. You might look around in your area and see if there are any groups that follow the writing process movement, or the Amherst Writers and Artists method.
Oh, here is something else: Part of writing seems to involve rebellion. One challenges the gods; one steals fire; one dares to create; one plays Prometheus. I note that you say you have been a good student. Good students do what they are told. Writers do what they are not told; they have to tell rather than be told, so a bit of rebellion is involved. Being a good student might be holding you back. Being a bad student might be better. It is fun to be a bad student for once. Be a bad student by disobeying the teacher. Try giving the teacher what she does not want. Try being bad. Try writing badly. Just put a mess of words down.
Let it go.
In other words, in order to overcome this habit of distractions, I recommend that you focus first on becoming who you are as a writer, and that you embark on a journey. I recommend that you enact a long-term plan, not just to start writing but to become a writer in the world. Join the worldwide community of writers.
Writing brings great rewards. It makes us happier. It entertains us. It allows us to know others in a unique way. It manifests what is hidden or unexpressed. This makes our lives deeper and more interesting. So, to paraphrase Baudelaire, get writing! Whether by wine, by poetry or by virtue, no matter! But get writing!