depression & discernment

December 4, 2013 § 1 Comment

Courtesy of my midday puttering about the house, wondering how it might be possible to write convincingly about depression in this space, some thoughts, in sequence:

It is impossible from the outside to tell the difference between depression and lazyass self-indulgent whining. Discernment is all the more difficult because depression is also unknowable to anyone who has not experienced it.

But how much does it cost, really, to be forgiving of lazyass self-indulgent whining? To consider for a moment that the field of conditions for lazyass self-indulgent whining might be broader than the failures of a single person?

The alleged dilemma of discernment is a smokescreen for arrogance and failures of empathy. The desire for the other’s* bad affect to turn out to be merely lazyass self-indulgent whining and not real mental illness is the desire to be absolved of having to care for the other. (It is also a category mistake to posit a binary of false and real: this too is a trick played for absolution.)

Conclusion: I am going to spend less energy trying to justify the legitimacy of my bad affect.

* (You should always assume that I am thinking ‘otter‘ for ‘other’. … The mood here is zanier than you think.)

writing & sustenance

December 3, 2013 § 1 Comment

I have been struggling with writing in a way that is more fundamental, and more protracted, than that struggle – otherwise familiar – has ever been before. It has impeded my work in new and dramatic ways – with the result that it has sabotaged my applications for non-service research fellowships for next year. That is not, exactly, the topic of this post, though it will be the topic of others.

The topic of this post is that the moment arrived, shortly before Thanksgiving, when I would have to reveal the real effects of this wordless, almost aphasic difficulty, this despair, to my advisor. As though I did not know her at all, I worked myself into a real terror of having this conversation with her. She will give up on me, I thought. She will see at last that I am not what she once thought I was. I will at last have disappointed her, tried her patience, one too many times.

I should have known better. (Another topic that lurks behind this post is this: a good mentor, a real mentor, can be at these moments the difference between surviving and not. That too is for another time.)

I told her, haltingly as though the words were stuck in my throat, just how bad it has been; just how important are the things I have failed at. She did not say the things I feared she would say.

She said: if the applications are killing you, screw ‘em. (She didn’t say that – she would never be so casually vulgar, and she has never in her life decided on a strategy so quickly.) She said, let’s find you a job that is suited to you, that will enliven you. Let’s find you a teaching job.

And then she said, Do whatever you have to do to sustain yourself while you work on this project. She said it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Just do what you have to do to sustain yourself.

I didn’t understand her at first, because it didn’t seem possible that she was saying that. No one ever says that. But she did.

So I am passing this on to you, in case you need someone to say this to you as much as I do.

Do what you have to do to sustain yourself. Be as material or as metaphysical as you wish in your commitment to your sustenance. But do what you have to do to sustain yourself.

It is frightening that this should be such a radical imperative – that it is not only nonobvious as a first principle, but nearly unheard-of as any principle at all. So it is worth repeating: do what you have to do to sustain yourself. And believe in that as a valid priority.

This is also my purpose in returning to this space: to seek the means to sustain myself. I said in my last post that what we need is honesty. I’d like to be honest here, and see what that can do to sustain me.

hashtag writer reeducation

November 29, 2013 § 2 Comments

I have been sending banal tweets about my writing process into the void.

First, simply, just to motivate myself. To declare to someone outside this room, even a projection of someone, that I am about to do something, that I am engaged in something. To hold myself a little bit accountable. And to observe my own process, to generate however small an archive of having paid attention to my writing and its process.

But in part, too, because I have a reputation as a very good writer – and I want to document the cost of that.

Selfishly, I am sick of receiving the perceptions of others that because I produce good prose, I must not suffer in the doing of it. That because I produce good prose, I must do so easily. That writing must never feel bad, unless I am engaging in some kind of insecurity-posturing, fishing for praise. (The syntactic ambiguity of ‘must’ here is lovely, isn’t it – imperatives masquerade as suppositions. That is exactly how it works.)

Less selfishly, I want to show other people what it is like for me to write. Other writers who suffer, who might be receiving too many messages of chipperness, too many imperatives to transcendent, lucid writergenius, too many prohibitions on their suffering. Or other writers who suffer who are told that because of their suffering – because they are disordered in their work environments and their time, because they cannot regulate their writing like well-behaved laborers, because they are often unable to write at all – they do not belong in any company of writers and cannot succeed in any writing profession. If I am a good writer and I have to train myself in banal, seemingly childish tasks, and if I have to play tricks on myself in order even to sit at my desk long enough to begin, then maybe that is helpful to someone else. If I report that an hour’s work consists in only a few sentences, and that I call that an achievement, then maybe that is helpful to someone else. The word is ‘demystification.’ Maybe it can pry open some space between supposition and imperative.

There are many forms of honesty that this profession needs more of, and not least about writing. So, I want to be honest. And, as my last post from many months ago suggested, I want to pay attention.

I hope I can use this space again, too. For paying attention, for writing my way through the problem of writing. We’ll see.

here lies moria. she paid attention.

February 22, 2013 § 2 Comments

Kristin Cashore nails it again: ‘writing improves with breaks; breaks show you the errors in what you thought you knew.

And she doesn’t stop the insight before the follow-through: that learning about writing can teach you things about how to live.

These are lessons I find myself learning over and over (and over and over and over and over). The same again, always the same and always new.

I needed to relearn them again especially today. If I were feeling optimistic, I would call it something lovely like ‘renewal.’ Since I am not feeling optimistic, I’ll call it a timely lesson and have done.

Tomorrow, I will either begin a new thing or return to an old thing after a long break, depending on how I choose to consider it. I’d like to believe it can be both – I’d like to turn my mind to something like renewal.

Most of all, I’d like to pay attention.

of fellowships and felaweshipe

February 5, 2013 § 5 Comments

I have been making a lot of Hunger Games jokes lately.

In this season of watching my friends and my colleagues claw their way through the elaborate rituals of the job market, of watching my own department’s searches unfold, of applying for funding under pressure of the knowledge that as of July I don’t know where my rent and food will come from, and of reading for Ph.D. admissions, it’s difficult to avoid the sense that everything is a fight to the death. Because while that figure is an extreme one, it remains true that nearly everything in my present landscape is a contest over scarce resources.

And it is also true that we need to put paid to the lie that a thing like a good job, a thing like a year’s dissertation-completion fellowship, is some kind of merit award. It is not. It is not our ambitious pride that is at stake. It is our livelihood, at the most basic rent-and-food level. And we cannot all have the resources we need to continue in this profession, because there are not resources enough for all of us.

On the other hand, there is something about this landscape of scarcity and its attendant traumas that has managed to make my world more vivid.

Especially in reading for admissions, I’ve had occasion to remember why I’m here. These applications – in their sheer number, in the surprising degree of accomplishment that so many of them exhibit, so many more than can possibly find a home here, in the simple warm beauty of the letters admiring teachers write to promote their students, in the verve with which so many of those students themselves write – they remind me, necessarily, of my own process, five years ago. Many of you were there with me during that process, and you may remember how wild and dizzy a thing it was for me. These applications now remind me that I am now where I then wanted to belong. They have taught me to want it anew.

I sit on the admissions committee now with the man who phoned me, almost exactly five years ago, to inform me that I’d been admitted to this program. That, too, is a wild, dizzy thing.

Last night, I taught the opening of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales to the fifteen bright, animated students who populate my early-English-literature survey. There is, of course, that amazing first sentence, with its virtuoso act of syntax and suspension. It dazzled them, as well it should.

But my favorite is the second sentence, which begins, ‘Bifil.’ From the figurative and rhetorical gymnastics of the first sentence, Bifil performs a shift into a homely little literal register. So there I was in this place and these people showed up. It befell that, it happened that, it chanced that. Bifil. Homely little word; little narrative tic. So it happened. The simplicity of everyday chance. Blink and you miss it, chance and word alike.

But here is the best part: the company who enter are by aventure yfalle / In felaweshipe.

By aventure.

By risk, by chance, by hap, by circumstance, by venture-forth, by simple little romance trope, fallen into fellowship. Tumbled into company, thrown in amongst each other, yfalle, homely little participle, blink and you miss it.

The joke of course is that in Chaucer’s highly-wrought verse, nothing happens by aventure.

But thinking of my path into the place where I sit now, I can’t imagine a better way of understanding it than that I was once, and am continually, by aventure yfalle in felaweshipe.

And such fellowship it is. I am competing with my colleagues – many if not most of whom are also my friends – for funding, both internal and external. There are cultures in which such competition could at the drop of a hat turn vile. It has not, here. I believe it will not. By aventure, I found myself in a place where collegiality and kindness are the order of the day. Where generosity and rigor are not antithetical terms but generative collaborators. Where we giggle ourselves stupid in the office, one hour before the application deadline we all share, the application for the thing that only one of us can have. The thing to which it is almost obscene to apply the word ‘fellowship,’ because the thing and the means by which it is distributed are antithetical to that name.

Because it’s us, here, laughing, it’s this, that brings a richness equal to its sound to felaweshipe.

By aventure, I found myself in this company. I was of hir felaweshipe anon. Homely little copula; homely little adverb. Just like that.

It could have happened otherwise. By a hairsbreadth, by the difference of one miniscule circumstance, by aventure, my life might have taken a very different path. Aventure is not naïve adventure; it is not fun or easy; it is not happy, except in the most splendidly literal sense that it lives by hap, by happenstance. It’s chaotic and a little amoral – it must be guided, lest it go off course according to the bias that will roll any chance askew, given the opportunity.

It makes it easier, thinking this way of what might befall by aventure, to turn my attention to those many contests. It’s all bloody arbitrary; we all know that. I would have thought that having my sense of arbitrariness confirmed by this pile of applications would be an occasion for despair. It isn’t. It’s an occasion for a sense of aventure.

The odds are never in our favor. But when we know this, we can shape ourselves to meet those odds – and what comes by aventure is not always quite so dire as it might be. That seems so slim a thing to stake a life on, but I am happy, in all senses, to have found it.

a becoming whose arc may extend no further

December 3, 2012 § 4 Comments

Emma J is forgiving things.

Two years ago, she taught me to be thankful to the living and the dead. This year I need to learn from her this capacity for forgiveness. My favorite thing about these posts is how sensitive they are to the stark fact that forgiveness isn’t a particularly nice business. These acts of forgiveness, like everything Emma writes, reject always the easy fluid gesture in favor of the hard, knotty path – forgiveness not as absolution but as an act of knowledge, with all the intimacy and difficulty knowledge always entails.

I am trying to wrangle twenty-five pages of dense readerly prose into twenty minutes of loose oratory. I am terrible at this. For the first time in my life, I want to speak from notes. I can’t, because I must send an advance copy of my “paper” (and why do conferences imagine that an act of oratory is a written document?) to the panel’s respondent. I hope that she is like me, and will compose her remarks in the train on her way to the conference, day-of. If she is not like me, I hope she will be able to forgive me.

This work requires a lot of something that I won’t call forgiveness, because I am by nature an unforgiving creature and I would have to battle myself too strenuously to manage it. I don’t, honestly, really believe in forgiveness at all. Repair is the word I prefer.

I am writing about Eve Sedgwick, and about how she knew – though many who’ve followed her don’t know – that repair, like forgiveness, isn’t very nice. It’s not comfortable or easy and it doesn’t really make you feel better. What it does is enable you to survive the present without making claims on the future. The reparative gesture allows you to cohabit with damage, loss, and failure without being destroyed by them.

Not being destroyed might seem like setting the bar a bit low. But at this nadir of term-time, with one deadline or another or all of them at once suspended over all I think and do, investing my time and my energy in this work that is steeped in sorrow, walking through the devastated landscape and remaining whole – even as an ad hoc, patched-together, seam-revealing reassemblage – seems a worthwhile goal for life and reading and writing and relationships alike.

I’d like to say that on Friday. We reassemble ourselves, and sometimes it hurts and sometimes we can’t find the right parts and the wrong ones, good-enough-for-now, chafe against our skin and our spirit, but we reassemble ourselves, and we do it in reading; what little we have to offer each other we find by reading together.

I am translating, here, from this twenty-five page document. Now I must translate it back into something it is possible to speak.

a valediction: of writing

November 2, 2012 § 3 Comments

I joke that becoming a professional student of language has made me functionally illiterate. That’s hyperbolic, of course (I’m writing a blog post, aren’t I?), but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

I’ve forgotten how to read.

I used to be an avid practitioner of research reading as a way of putting off writing. Then I began to be inundated with all the messages about what a noxious practice that is. Write first thing! Write every day! Safeguard your writing time! Your writing time is precious to you; your writing time is even sacred! You are a writer! Write!

If you’re not writing, it’s because you’re procrastinating. It’s because you’re afraid of writing, so you’re avoiding it. If you’re not writing, you’re not being productive.

In the time since I became ABD, I have radically overinternalized these messages. And I have forgotten how to read.

And you know, it’s funny, but it turns out that it’s really hard to write when you haven’t read anything to write about.

Part of this is a task-management problem that comes with the transition from coursework and examinations (where one is either having one’s hand held or having an axe held over one’s head, or both). Part of it is the result of a semitraumatic prospectus experience. Part of it is the same old problem I’ve always had about self-motivation and accountability.

And part of it is a really shitty definition of “writing.”

In my capacity as a writing tutor, I spend a lot of time coaching students on how to prepare to craft an essay. Marking up the texts they’re using. Pulling quotations and playing with them spatially. Drawing out every possible meaning of a given word in a given passage. Scribbling notes. Making diagrams. Figuring it out. This is reading. But obviously, so obviously I forgot how to see it, this is also writing. We who are students of language know that reading and writing often amount to much the same activity. We know it because it is immediately, observably true. But somehow, I forgot.*

Writing is not reducible to essaycraft – to the late stages of rhetoric in which paragraphs begin to form and connect to each other. This is the message I need to internalize now.

I have a few serious deadlines coming up very shortly, for which I need to generate some very good writing, and generate it very fast. (And reader, it is a serious understatement to say that fast does not appear anywhere in my skillset.) So this strategy is counterintuitive – but in order to write what I need to write, I am going to forbid myself to write. At least, for the next several days I will forbid myself to write in the sense of “crafting prose.”

I am going to read. And it will not be avoidant and it will not be procrastination. It will be productive. And I will not let my jerkbrain tell me otherwise.

* This – well, this and cold hard cash – is also why I dedicate four hours of every week to my tutoring job. Helping my students with their writing helps me to remember what I need to know about my own.

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