15 March 2011

On Writing and Suicide Pacts

I listened to a great episode of Radiolab the other day on the lengths we may go in our quest for motivation. Addicts, creatives, and the mentally ill (mental illness defines all three equally well, probably) seem by far the most likely to go to radical extremes in search of willpower. In one segment, author Elizabeth Gilbert reflects on the fickleness of muses and whether it is possible to "live a creative life without cutting your ear off." In this same Radiolab segment, host Robert Krulwich speaks with the neurologist Oliver Sacks, of "Awakenings" fame. Sacks relates the story of writing his first book. He couldn't push past block, even to start it, and finally, in abject desperation, made a pact with himself to commit suicide if he did not have the book done in ten days. He finished it in nine.

I finished writing my dissertation under a similar cloud, facing professional annihilation. I thought years ago that writing it would be the fun bit of my program. After all, isn't thinking and writing precisely why I was becoming a scholar? As it turns out, there is a grand difference for me between the experience of writing what you want to write, and writing what you have to write. There is more to it than that (I tire of most topics quickly, I don't like my work to be judged, etc.), but this whole experience has has taught me much about myself. It's not only exploded ideas I've long held about myself, but also recast my entire thinking about the nature of both academic and creative activity.

I haven't encountered many truly creative people who are consistently so without great effort, many misfires, and too often, a lot of personal carnage. Most great scholars, the creative community I know best (as far as it is creative), are great because they are compulsive workers with fixed and narrow obsessions. They still have their ears, true, but often amputate from them life beyond work. Up close, it's not all that profound or romantic. Many great scholars are surprisingly dull people, hoarders of arcana more than Renaissance men.

I lack the requisite academic neurosis. I'm a compulsive loafer with obsessions both fickle and many. Unlike many colleagues, I do not have an absolute conviction of the value of my work upon which to draw for motivation, or failing that, at least a bottomless ego to feed or a desire for public praise or a compulsive need to be speak and be heard. Anonymity suits me just fine, and I rarely have something that I just have to say. In fact, I have a half-dozen blog posts written that I have not put up. I write them, I read them over, and then think to myself, "Honestly, why bother shouting into the void?"

So how does one develop a proper writer's ego? I don't know, but I have determined, at the very least, to begin to approach writing as a serious craft. I will always have to write, in my current occupation, and I would rather fall back upon great writing chops than suicide pacts to push me through block. And as an editor, I am constantly working with authors who cannot write well, looking to me for assistance. So, somebody pass me the Strunk and White.

1 comment:

Mister Fweem said...

I'll be brief:

I've written 114,000 words in a novel -- they're not all great words, mind you, but they're there -- in the past year simply because I changed the end product from a file on my computer to a running blog. I don't know why that motivated me to open up the floodgates, but it worked.