Sunday, August 10, 2008

Welcome To Your Own History: Brief Thoughts on Writing Doldrums

(The following is a rewrite of a letter to Elisa Gabbert, whose excellent recent book co-authored with Kathleen Rooney, That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness, has been out for a few months now, and is reviewed here.)

Hi Elisa:

Your comments on your writing slump made me think of a few things. I don't know if they'll be helpful or not, but they're things I consider whenever I feel like I’m in a slump.

I commonly go through periodic writing doldrums, although the good thing for me is that I've been at this long enough that I always have something unfinished I can turn to when new writing feels impossible. I also think (and please don't take this wrong, because I'm the old old person here and always will be, compared to you) that it comes from being a little older and a little farther along in your own development as a writer. It does get difficult to maintain enthusiasm at times, especially as life becomes, if not more complicated, more requiring of a consistent daily effort to maintain jobs, love relationships, families, friendships, social or political commitments and so on. I think there's a lot of thrill that comes from those first few years of writing and publishing success: "I can really do this, I 'm really good at this, other people think so too," and all that goes along with that feeling. But then, for the first time, you get to a point where you have to do it all again. You're always starting over but it doesn't feel like a start because it feels like you've started before, and how is it fair to always have to be starting again? A great Elvis Costello line: "I had 20 years to make my first album and six months to make the second." From your letter it almost sounds like that's where you are, at the start of the second (major) push. I know we have many phases and many pushes, but it's probably true that you've never been at the point where you've been a successful writer before (chapbooks, the collaborative book, so on) and now have to try to be a successful writer again. Congratulations: you've reached that great moment when you have a public writing history and it has the chance to burden you.

If you're at all like me in this regard, adrenalin is important when it’s time to write. Feeling and trusting the energy is important. But how to get to that energy when it seems like other things are taking it away? I don't even have a good answer for myself, but asking yourself that might come next. It's weird what things will work for me: somebody gives me a writing assignment, or I pick up a wave of energy from something I haven't finished, and that speeds me into something new. Those are the good ways. Sometimes I’ll get a surge of energy from internet annoyance that’ll pick up my pace. Anything to avoid the leadenness, the feeling that I just don’t give a damn about my writing or anybody else’s. It may be that some writers can work within that leadenness, but I can’t, at least not often or well. I need to believe that I care about what I’m saying and might say, and it can be hard to convince myself of that.

My guess is that it’s not so much about revising your current manuscript, although I know you have some issues about it that feel unresolved, but how to take the next steps in becoming the writer that you already are. Your life is probably different than it was, your concerns are different, and that means that the likelihood is that your tone as a writer is going through changes too. So it sounds like maybe you might want to think about new ways to give yourself the energy you need. I don’t have a suggestion for that, except to ask when you might find half an hour, or an hour, in a day, maybe only a couple of times a week, and find ways to create energy for yourself. Who knows what it takes? I wrote almost all the Felonies of Illusion poems while reading Clark Coolidge’s book The Rova Improvisations and watching re-runs of the sitcom Friends simultaneously. Or not quite simultaneously. I’d read a poem on the commercials and write my poem when the show came back on. I could bounce off the language differences between the two in a way that made it possible for me to write words down on a piece of paper. So any weird habit will do (and mine are very weird) if it gets you where you’re trying to go.

I hope this doesn’t sound too much like advice. It’s not so much that as yeah, I think I know what you’re feeling and here’s how I’ve tried to think about it. For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure that you’ll be writing again soon enough. Easy for someone else to say though, huh? The writer herself or himself is the one who has to get geared up again to go.



Any thoughts on how to get past the writing doldrums, yours or anybody else"s? I'd love to hear about that or anything else having to do with the issue.


Anonymous said...

Writing doldrums! Yes--that's just the metaphor: no wind in the sails, no means to get to the port of call. Though my mode is normally nonfiction prose, the affliction is (I think) much the same, whatever the host organism. Here's something that helps me. Just read in related areas. Then jot down reactions in the margins, on scraps of paper, etc. One the most effective, for me, is to send myself e-mails. All these tiny bursts of writing seem so much easier than a big blank page or screen. But if I can collect them together, I have all I need to start assembling the page. But brute force? Not for me.
- Peteronymous

mgushuedc said...

Mark, this was a very thoughtful and, I think, accurate picture of what cycles creativity (or something or someone) goes through. Leaden describes it perfectly. It's a lot like depression (maybe it *is* a kind of depression); you can't imagine being out of it. We don't know where we're going, and it's an act of faith to say we *are* going somewhere. I'm not much for faith, but I am for help, which your post is. And before she knows it, Elisa is going to be going gangbusters.

and...I feel a little guilty for pointing this out, but there's an interview with Elisa and Kathleen [Rooney]--their answers are so sharp and good I have to mention it--here:

Matt said...

I'm thinking it's sort of like insomnia (which I also have sometimes). The only way to defeat it is to give in to it. If you say to yourself "go to sleep, go to sleep", you won't go to sleep. I just say, "fine, I won't sleep tonight. Fuck sleep. Who needs it? It's overrated anyway. I'll just lie here doing nothing for several hours until the sun comes up", then I'll lie there doing nothing until I'm so bored that sleep comes naturally. With writing, I just say, "fuck it, I just won't write anything today. What's the rush anyway? I've done it before, so I know I'll be able to do it again eventually."

Ridiculous Human Things said...

Hi Mark,

I'm with mgushuedc on this one. Writing doldrums are very similar to depression. Sometimes it really does feel like this is it, "the muse" (whoever or whatever she is) has skipped town and left you a hollow shell of a writer. Super pathetic. Muses aside, here are my favorite ways to work through or against the self-pity that is the writing doldrums:
-Car rides (I'm like a dog that way)
-Editing old work. The process of just moving words around can shake something loose or just remind me that I do know something about what makes good poetry. This also helps me remember that as a writer I have other jobs: reader, editor, publisher, debater etc that are important to spend time with too.
-Ask a friend for a writing assignment.
-Wait it out, like Matt said. Remember the last time this happened and take comfort.

Thanks for starting this discussion. Writers helping writers. I like it.

Dan / Daniel Gutstein said...

I would like to offer a serious reply for once in my life. Your blog is excellent and this topic is of tantamount importance. I wholly underscore the need, as a writer, to maintain a kind of "triage" -- items that are in need of much repair, some repair, and nearly finished, so when the doldrums arrive, and they do, arrive, the writer has projects to which she or he can turn. So one always feels that one is *working*. That sense of working is very important, and there are many ways to work: creating anew, editing, and seeking influence, for example The real challenge may be, however, the reservoir of ideas. Many poets, for instance, are conditioned to write from "experience" and that's fine, but when the experience doldrums arrive ("I've written about that already" "Is this really all that important?" "Does experience trump language?" etc.) and they will, arrive, the writer really needs to have the confidence to turn elsewhere. Language, sound, form, projection, performance, hybridity, subversion, and the like. To condense: There's nothing for the doldrums like options, number 1, and number 2, confidence in one's ability to master another area. A poet, for instance, might think to herself or himself that "I'm best at this kind of poetry so even as I might spend time at another genre or idea set, I'm not likely to produce anything of value." Oy! So go the doldrums. Ted Berrigan would advise us to write hundreds of poems a week. "Say ooga booga" he said, once, "and see if you can say anything in response to that." Perhaps it's just best to "practice influence." Practice the allowing of other materials -- jazz solos -- impressionism -- theory -- to spur a writing impulse. The music says "sound" so record "sound." And I will cease my rambling here. Great post, my man. ----BA