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Unsolicited Holiday Writing Advice: Do Not Reread Your Nonfiction Manuscript from 2008

July 1, 2012

Friends and lovers, I rarely update this site anymore. Last time I posted something it was Victoria Day, and now we’ve arrived at Canada Day, where Vancouverites celebrate kind of the opposite concept but in exactly the same sub-par weather conditions. Why have I not spent the past few months writing blog posts and poetry and getting my manuscript ready for the publication I used to want so badly for it? Why?

I can’t stand pithy writing advice, but one thing I do believe is that in my case, if not everyone’s, writer’s block is a symptom of having too much to say and that too much writing is therefore the only way out of it.

For the first time in my life, I have a job that doesn’t suck the life out of me–or rather, it sucks the life out of me but in a positive way, whereby I give my students everything I have and get in return encouragement and good evaluations and nice little notes and lunchtime coffee deliveries. “I understand grammar because of you!” “I’m so proud of myself because I didn’t know I can write!” These are some of the best compliments of my life, way better-feeling than anything a professor ever wrote on one of my term papers. They prove that I’ve partly succeeded in leaving behind what felt like an unsustainably self-centered life for one where I’m doing my bit for others and can help them for realsies.

Of course there are days when I miss being in a classroom having a conversation in uncensored, grammatically normal English about Indo-European laryngeals or this vs. that translation of a poem, but for the most part, I ain’t romanticizing shit. Almost as clearly as I felt it six years ago, I remember that those moments were islands in a sea of insane competition, unreasonable expectations, and unending assignments in which students spent between three days and three years writing essays that almost literally no one would read. I have not forgotten and will not forget the negative effects that that life had on the character of almost everyone around me, or the dysfunctionally self-destructive, dangerously depressed, borderline alcoholic that I was and probably would have become with or without the family bullshit going on in the background. If I also remember the unqualified, overwhelming hope that I felt on my first days in Seattle and the stunning cherry blossoms in the Quad and the awards and scholarships and the legitimacy afforded by PhD student status, the sense of doing the right thing and moving toward a well-defined future–well, that was part of it too. Very few situations are all bad. Or all good.

And of course I still do too fucking much prep for work and probably always will because I’m anal as hell, but it’s nowhere near the insane overworkload it was earlier this year and it’s lessening all the time. You’d think getting back to writing would be priority one. Lord knows I’ve told everyone it is. And it is. It is. Writing is the reason I live in Vancouver. It’s the reason I chose the job that I chose. But I’m not doing it. I mean, right now I’m doing it, but in general I’m not. Why?

Earlier this week my iPod died tragically in a freak accident. This was the gods’ way of forcing me to feel my anxiety to its full awful extent and do some long-overdue undistracted thinking. Last night, for whatever reason (intuition makes a lot of my decisions; the reasons don’t show up until later), I opened up the long manuscript I wrote the year after leaving my PhD and returning to Calgary, and reread most of it. I hadn’t looked at it carefully for at least a year. I’d thought that if I got into the program I moved here for in early 2010 I’d end up in the nonfiction class and spend that year working on it, finishing it in fact, but the Fates chose differently. In hindsight, I was too tense about job applications and my living situation and money to edit a future book. I didn’t even read more than a handful of books that year; mostly I picked my way through poetry collections. Both writing- and reading-wise, poems were what I could manage at that time, and we did well by each other.

In the background though there was this 300-page motherfucker waiting and waiting for attention. I performed a few pages of it at my first-ever reading and the audience liked it, but I felt like I’d sold out a bit, taken it out of context and performed it as though it was a self-contained short story. This elicited an emotional reaction that was comparatively simpler and wholesomer, I felt/feel, than what would be felt by someone who read the entire manuscript. I was ready to do readings, but I wasn’t ready, apparently, to read the real story.

Now that I think about it, I’ve posted that excerpt on this site in the same irresponsible kind of way, although there are at least other MS chunks to weigh it against and dilute it with, for those who feel like doing so.

The weakest part of the manuscript was the ending. I’d contrived it in mid-2008 after a year of writing because I was at a point emotionally of wanting to end the project as a symbol of getting on with things, of my being a totally different person, of that bleak part of my life being over. I was also eager to try to seek a publisher, something I had no idea how to go about.

Although I was in my writing program partly in order to learn how to get my book published, I became less and less interested in publishing it as the year wore on. It felt like an overwhelming task, in terms of the time, skill, luck, and emotional investment it would demand. I was uncertain that I wanted my entire life story, and substantial pieces of other people’s, to be out in the world, available for purchase. Meanwhile I sent out a few poetry submissions, with decent results, but by the end of the program my interest in publishing in general had faded to near death. It felt unconnected to writing ability, more connected to persistence and connections. It felt irrelevant, partly because I knew it wouldn’t help my money situation.

These days I’m increasingly anxious and sad whenever I’m not at work or doing something for work. I walk in the door on a Friday and feel, physically, the brain-fog roll in. You’re pointless for the next 48 hours, is the message. I have finally achieved the free time I’ve spent the past two years struggling for, spent the past week more than earning, and it depresses the shit out of me. I spend huge chunks of it doing absolutely nothing. There’s no other way to describe it, nor is there any excuse for it, considering that I’ve got a functional pair of legs, a recently fixed bike, a selection of breathtaking outdoor scenes within a few blocks, an apartment full of books, a brain that’s pretty decent at manipulating language, a list of poem ideas, a manuscript to edit…

Outside of work, where for all my strangeness I know damn well that I have this INTJ aptitude for/insistence on connecting with people in a way that transcends our respective “roles” in the situation and that this is the essence of what makes me a good teacher (“You’re the first teacher I could ever know like a person,” a student told me recently) and a good performer at readings, I feel inhuman. That’s a cringingly theatrical word but it’s the correct one to use here. I remember attempting to describe this feeling to my therapist in Seattle,  a “conversation” (I did 90% of the talking in her office) that I tried to reconstruct in the manuscript, which is what I was looking for when I opened it up yesterday.

We’re at 1100 words here, a good place to stop and tell you that I should have told you before that I’m writing this mostly for myself.

Somehow I’ve managed to get to this age (26 in the MS, 32 now) without having what I consider a long list of what I consider normal experiences, physical and emotional, with other people. Without getting into details (is it out of cowardice or consideration that I omit them?), I lost 8-10 years to what I think we can all agree, in hindsight, was extreme depression. It went untreated for whatever reason. I have my own theories on that, which I will also omit. In any case, all of my teenage years were claimed by this exhausting scary bullshit. I spent that whole period doing absolutely nothing, and the fallout is ongoing. The loss of time, the empty space it has created in my mind and in my life, kills me sometimes. The waste of it. The loss of the self/selves I would have been and could have been if things had been different. Mainly what has bothered me is the thought of where I would be as a writer now if I’d been writing back then instead of incapacitated and nullified by my own disordered mind. But as I get older and long-term real-world concerns become more pressing, I also wonder where I’d be financially. And, maybe relatedly, whether I’d have developed whatever the skills or feelings are that allow a person to date/marry/reproduce with another person. No amount of present success or normalcy or friendship has thus far been able to cancel out the worst of my past or change me past a certain point. If you’ll forgive my ending a paragraph with an unanswerable rhetorical question: how much of what I’ve done, felt, and decided in the last ten years has been a direct consequence of what was and wasn’t happening to me 15 years ago?

It often occurs to me, when I think about the considerable time I’ve spent in counsellors’ offices over the years, that this is one thing we never really discussed. It’s difficult to describe year after year of absolutely nothing, and there was always something more immediate or more distant or more entertaining that I felt needed attention. But everything is connected to everything else. You can’t just pick and choose the narrative of your own life. Which is part of my editorial problem when I look at what I’ve written. It all feels important, inextricable from everything around it–but picking and choosing the narrative is the editor’s motherfucking job.

Maybe one shouldn’t encourage, let alone expect, oneself to edit one’s own memoir.

My life as I know it is becoming more and more emotionally insufficient. And less and less explainable to the outside world. The facts and statistics separate me from people, even the ones I’m close to. That’s the actual problem. I had wanted to believe that I was, for the most part, not the same person I was six years ago. That I was moving forward at as quick a pace as could be expected. I want/ed the awesome teacher comments to be proof that I’m a different person, living a life that 2006 me couldn’t have had. And that’s true, to a point, but rereading the damn MS forced me to admit that there’s a hell of a long way to go yet and job success isn’t a foundation to build a life on. It’s the start of something, I think. But not the ending I still need. The identity demolition I chose back then was, in essence, very similar to the literal death I rejected in its favour. Like all construction projects, this one is going to take longer than anyone planned. Maybe forever. And whatever I miss in the meantime will be ungetbackable. These are facts and I need to figure out a way to feel them as acceptable and not give up on the possibility of a more workably human future.

Writing this has been mostly unpleasant and has solved nothing, aside from possibly diminishing a headache (a skeptic would put that down to the aspirin and coffee), but it’s a small something of a relief to see it in words.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. HUnter4086 permalink
    July 9, 2012 1:27 pm

    Remarkable and chilling to read this as you have tidily summarized very similar thoughts/realizations that occur to me in clammy waves, yet I haven’t faced head on. I still won’t – looking back, there’s so much emptiness in that direction. I can only be more ’assured’ about the future, as I articulate where I am weak – but based on my track record of practically zero wins, this is like bolstering oneself with mist.

    Emotionally insufficient life. Workable human future. No clue how to make this happen, to accomplish what I want in the face of feeling so unable to meet more the more immediate energy demands of a dented mind and good people who require attention.

    But in any case. You are an excellent writer and I’ve enjoyed finding your blog.

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