My Big F-You to the Writing Rat Race

A few weeks ago, I posted this blog post. It was all about my need to get off my butt and get some real writing done, my sense that the space I’d rented needed to serve as an imperative to produce, produce, produce—and about my difficulty getting started, in part because it was summer, hot and gorgeous, and my work schedule had drastically slowed down. But also because after spending eight years writing a memoir, and being in that limbo state before the route to publishing it has become clear, it was hard to even think about The Next Big Thing with a clear head. After I published that blog post, I got a few comments of congratulations on starting a new project and some encouragement to keep going.

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My kid flipping the bird

And then I encountered some resistance from two people: one, my friend slowmamma, who is on a one-woman crusade against the American rat race. The other was a therapist I really should be seeing more often. Slowmamma reminded me that the nice weather wouldn’t stick around, and that I should enjoy it while it lasted. The therapist reminded me that when any project is finished, it’s essential to take some time to sit with it. She talked about how, in the school of thought she follows, after any big life event (like finishing a memoir and an accompanying book proposal) there is a stage called “completion” and a stage called “rest,” and that if you shortchange the rest, you really don’t feel the completion. Take a break, she said.

For about two days, I kept the words of these wise women close. I reminded myself that breaks are good. I tried to quiet the voices telling me to keep pushing even when I wasn’t feeling it. I meditated. I sat in the sun and thought. I fully believed that I would honor the promise I had made in the therapist’s office: I was going to take a week off from writing. I would read some comedy, watch some comedy, jot down ideas as they came. Freewrite, perhaps. Rest. I said that on a Thursday.

But I lied. The following Monday, I’d convinced myself that I was ready to start work again. I tweeted that I was going to write 750 words a day, no matter what. I opened a new file, and I started again on the novel. I fantasized about having a completed draft in six months. I diligently put down those daily 750 words for about a week, though they seemed to come more and more painfully each day, and then something happened: the words just wouldn’t come anymore. So I wrote a poem instead. I stared into space, I washed some dishes, I cleaned the bathroom, I checked my email, I graded papers, and I wondered if I should have honored that rest period after all. And then I began to feel intensely guilty.

And afraid. 

All summer, trying to write and failing to write, trying to give up and failing to allow myself to give up, I have been ruminating on what it is I might be afraid of. Put most grandiosely, I think it’s fear that if I take a break, if I don’t produce, produce, produce, I will disappear off the face of the earth and never write again. That I’ll disrupt this trajectory I have wanted to believe myself on, a trajectory where I’m publishing regularly and going to writing conferences and connecting to other writers and “building a platform” and adding likes! And followers! And friends! And fans! And while some of this is the kind of garden-variety, free-floating anxiety I always feel when the writing isn’t happening, it’s also what we 21st-century writers are told we have to do if we ever want to get ahead, if we ever want to be widely read: Don’t. Ever. Stop.

I do want to be widely read, but lately I’m finding it hard to swallow the bitter pill that an act of creativity has become so tethered to consumerism and to getting ahead. When did it become the reality that books are merely “content” to be produced? When did I begin to feel that there weren’t enough hours in a day or years in a life to explore, to try new things, to think a little, to make mistakes, to pause, because if I did I might not get enough, say, Twitter followers? Didn’t I just blog a few months ago about not wasting my life? Why do I feel like I’m wasting my life by worrying so damn much about whether I’m producing enough?

I don’t know, but I do know I’m not the only one who’s obsessed. The voices are everywhere, and they’re loud. On She Writes the other day, the blog post The Art of Submission debated the finer points of quitting “being” a writer (in other words, stopping submitting and platforming and just, well, writing). No, the blogger declared. She would not do that. She needed to keep submitting, to write like her life depended on it. She needed to remain hungry to be published. And then there were the comments; one reader reminded everyone to push through and keep going at all costs—”try for 175 rejections!” she intoned. “Here I go.” Meanwhile, over on Twitter, every second tweet is about building your platform or improving your brand. Whole businesses are built on marketing for authors, social networking for writers, blogging to change your life. How to get more followers, more likes, more tweets. Even my trusted writer friends are at it: “What’s your hustle?” one asked me the other day.  In that moment, I just wanted to hustle myself to my bed, pull the covers over my head, and sleep—for days.

I’m not a naïf; I understand that we live in a different world than we used to. I can see the merits of social media for writers. I love that the blogger on She Writes is hungry—good for her. I always want to work hard, even when it feels difficult. At different times in my life, I’ve embraced those tools and that ethos and excelled. I’ve been hungry. But right now, I’m craving a much more innocent, and unplugged, space. I’m wanting to feel more like I did on the weekend I moved into my new writing studio, when I put my iPod on shuffle, sang along to every song, and slowly and happily applied a new coat of paint to the walls, thinking, I’ll finish this when I’ll finish it. I’ll hang pictures when I want to. And then I’ll sit at that desk and remember what it is when words are good and hard and raw and beautiful.

I’m a lucky woman; I have created the kind of life where I get to spend hours, sometimes, alone in a room creating. (To some of you, that may sound like hell, I realize.) But with that kind of life comes a lot of pressure and many voices, not all welcome. And here, today, on this blog, I’m calling it: I refuse to make my writing about the rat race we Americans make everything about. I don’t, ever, want to conflate producing and publishing and platforming with the much more fulfilling work of WRITING.

Which, sometimes, requires a break.

A break.

A break.

 

It’s lovely to get this off my chest. Thanks to Jesse Taggert for the encouragement. What’s YOUR experience with the rat race, writing or otherwise?

 

I Have Wasted My Life

The view from my hammock

The view from my hammock

Lately, everything has felt busy. Sometimes I think this is the mantra of my generation, at this time in our lives: we’re working parents, we’re social beings, and we’re ambitious, and many of us feel like things are about as full as they could be. In the past year, my life has amped up in several ways, and it’s left me simultaneously dizzy from the excitement of it—I’ve felt, finally, like a real adult, a real breadwinner with a real career path—and overwhelmed by the day to day.

In general, I’ve been proud of the way my family has adjusted to me working more and L starting Kindergarten and all the other things we’ve added to our plate. B has become an extraordinary caretaker, making bread for us every week and planting the garden with veggies and folding all the laundry. L is a pain about doing anything to help out, but he’s five, after all. And I’ve loosened the reins on certain projects and I still manage to get a good dinner on the table most nights and keep us in groceries and a clean bathroom. Our life together has felt very manageable, and very happy, if at times a little too…full.

But something small can throw a huge wrench in the gears, and that’s what March was: this weird cold/flu I had that migrated to my ears and became a double ear infection. For the past month, I’ve had tinnitus (no fun) and this constant sensation like a valve in each ear is popping open, closed, open, closed. I missed a week of classes, which I had to make up, and once I felt a little better I found that my work ethic was shattered: it didn’t feel like much fun to sit at my computer and listen to the roaring in my ears, so I started to postpone grading and planning until the last possible second. And of course, when you get sick, you end up having doctor’s appointments, which means time away from work and writing, and then there are those bills to pay and meanwhile everything else continues unabated. I’m not complaining—it’s been an interesting reminder to me about the nature of life, and in particular the nature of my life, and now that’s it’s all getting a little better I’m much happier seeing it in a different light—but nonetheless, all the worry and sickness and anxiety and discomfort have been…disorienting.

And so, on the most practical level, I had a few days there where I felt quite firmly that my life was spinning totally out of control. I worked a lot over the weekend, just trying to get caught up with a book proposal and all the grading I’d been neglecting, all the while feeling like I was barely making a dent. Hardest were the liminal spaces, the hours and minutes in between classes or events, when I’d expect to accomplish small tasks or phone calls and for whatever reason, utterly fail. Finally, on Monday night after a full day, I spent a few hours catching up with travel plans and my son’s school activities (oh, how I had been neglecting the various appeals from the PTA) and filing bills and paying bills and generally trying to get my head to clear.

It was amazing how much better I felt once I’d done all that.

But one thing I still hadn’t managed to do was blog, here in National Poetry Month, of all times, when I always feel I should be blogging.

And then, a certain poem came barreling into my consciousness yesterday and I knew exactly what I wanted to blog about.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
© James Wright, from Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Vision (Random House, 1987)

When I read this poem in college, the professor asked us to interpret the last line. And I recall many of us, then on the cusp of becoming adults, saying that the last line meant that lying in the hammock, looking around, was a waste of life. I felt quite firmly that what Wright had meant when he wrote this poem was that he had been lazy in his life, that he should have been more ambitious.

How wrong I was. Now, saddled with all the things I’m saddled with at 41, bills and obligations and worries, I see clearly that what Wright meant was that all the noise we fill our lives with is, truly, the waste. Now, this poem speaks to me in a way it never could have when I was twenty-one.

And so, yesterday, after I’d taught two three-hour classes back to back, and used all my liminal spaces for phone calls or emails, I came home to a quiet house. I calmly washed the dishes, changed my clothes, and sat quietly at the table filling out raffle-ticket stubs before picking up L at school. And when we came home, and he decided to run off to play with the neighbor, I sat in the hammock in my backyard for fifteen minutes, reading The Remains of the Day and listening to the birds and the sounds of the guys working on the house across the way.

I will not waste my life.