|By Merri-Lisa Johnson||
What they don't tell you about the writing life is how hard it is. I don't mean putting words together well, the search for the striking turn of phrase-these things can be learned. I remember shuffling papers around as a child, playing with manila folders, paper clips, fresh lined paper, banging out some messy lines on an old typewriter at my grandmother's house. I felt this drive to put something meaningful on paper, to organize my world through words in horizontal lines, to name and categorize, to invent and inform. Sitting there in the half-light of a desk lamp all to myself, no pressing deadlines that early in life, what I was missing was something to say. I knew there were things to be said, and that someday I would have them somehow at my fingertips, but I sensed it would be years before they came to me. Writing, its practical uses and evocations, like menarche, would not come to me yet because I simply was not ready. I played word games with my grandfather and bided my time. I never imagined that, upon having something to say, I would hit other unforeseen brick walls of writing block smack in the face. What is it that keeps me from writing now?
I live inside the belly of the whale: the dissertation. Last step in the arduous trial of earning a Ph.D. in English. Its arching ribs surround me, pen me in, its wet cavernous guts make it hard for me to breathe. I am sucked in by it, and often spit back out. Being in this space of suffocation, confinement, and alienation has led me to consider, by necessity, what it takes to do this writing thing, and, more than just live through it, to write as a celebration. Because at heart, I know I love writing, know I am "a writer," yet I find myself in constant battle with writing's evil twin: not writing. I know there's no secret formula, no step-by-step guide to being the writer of your dreams, but I also know that certain basic platforms have been established by women writers over time, and that their perspectives, insights, and lessons bear dwelling on. In fact, nothing soothes me more as a writer who has trouble writing than listening to the voices of other women writers with trouble writing who find ways to write anyhow. They are like lulling waves and bugle cries at once.
I go to books to explain myself to myself. Some critics call this way of reading a colonization. I call it a survival tactic. Funny how books fall into your hands at just the right moment. I had just heard back from my dissertation director, a woman who once professed to adore my work, and she had had some negative things to say about my newest draft of what I swear to god will be a kick-ass dissertation by the end of this school year. My grandma says, "so she's not rejecting it then?" No, no, she wasn't rejecting it, just had some concerns about style here and there. Why, then, was I, to borrow a colloquialism from my stepmother, "in a jerk"? Why was I, to be more specific, in the floor in tears? I didn't know, and in the white space of this not-knowing, I turned off my phones, made some peppermint tea, and went to bed with a book by one of my favorite authors, Nancy Mairs, a favorite because she goes so bare in her writing, tells the truth and tells it straight on.
Towards the end of Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer, Mairs writes of her experiences applying for writing fellowships. Knowing the odds and the matters of timing and luck involved, she asks why she still finds the rejections so painful. And like an oracle she reveals me to myself: "Invariably, as I unfold the rejection letter, disappointment and shame explode in my gut and for days I can't draw a full breath. I feel spurned, degraded, hollowed out, tossed aside. Something more grievous than the withholding of funds haunts me here: the scene of (failed) seduction" (141). She gives shape to the days I spent curled fetal in the face of criticism from my dissertation committee, gives a reason why it hurt so bad, felt so inadequate: I had failed to turn them on. The tears and anxiety, the deep abiding sadness-these are the signs of a love affair gone wrong, a one-way obsession. My committee definitely plays the man in this relationship. I dress up all slinky in my fancy theoretical garb, hot chapter titles in a plunging neckline. He (the committee) drinks beer in front of the TV, looks at other women over my shoulder in the grocery store. Times like this I hate being the girl, always putting on a show, feeling only halfway captivating, never quite able to stop, rest, be myself.
Diane Freedman describes the dissertation process in similarly subordinating terms; in the introductory paragraph to "The Creatively Critical Voice," she writes:
I admit I have climbed walls and become bed-ridden periodically throughout this process partly because of the same tension Freedman describes, between wanting to write in a manner "in keeping with the women I was writing about" and having on the other hand to consider "what would I do when asked by a prospective employer for a writing sample?" (189-193). Freedman advocates using the personal voice in literary criticism to avoid this schizoid sensation. The use of autobiography in scholarship has been historically devalued by Western philosophies of knowledge, but part of the feminist movement has refused this artificial split of mind from body, experience from observation. Jane Tompkins responds to the injunction to disconnect with the rallying cry: "I say to hell with it." So do I.
Tompkins and Freedman are both anthologized in The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism, a collection of essays in which the lived connection between story, theory, and life is made central to an understanding of literature. Works like this have been collecting around me, enacting feminist epistemological revolts. I found Private Voices, Public Lives: Women Speak on the Literary Life at a conference I attended in May, looking idly over the book display tables for something to take back with me to the pool by my hotel. Its sort of unpleasant deep peach-colored cover caught my eye, and as I thought to myself what an unattractive book design it was, I say the subtitle and fell in love immediately. I had written in my reading journal a year earlier how I wished for writing that described the link between literary critics and their interpretations; why, I wondered, did Shari Benstock see in the image of the scarlet letter a representation of the vagina? What led her to this insight? Why was it important to her? I longed to hear the stories behind the theories.
I appeal to my students in composition courses for essays that make clear their investment in the topics they choose. If I know why something matters to an author, it begins to matter more to me, because the intimacy it allows between reader and writer establishes a sort of friendship pact, a recognition, an exchange of something more than disembodied information. I love to see a slip of real life here and there in scholarly writing, evidence of a real person behind the words, pulsing through them. The editor of Private Voices, Public Lives solicited essays written in the first person on literature, believing that this mode of communication would allow them "to explore the deepest part of ourselves as we relate to the texts which have shaped our lives" (xvii). The deepest part of ourselves is what I want to hear about; the rest is chaff.
In the classic feminist psychology text, Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind, Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule call this epistemological stance "passionate knowers, knowers who enter into a union with that which is to be known" (141). "What we are calling passionate knowing," they continue, "is the elaborated form connected knowing takes after women learn to use the self as an instrument of understanding" (141). And further, "there is a capacity at the position of constructed knowledge to attend to another person and to feel related to that person in spite of what may be enormous differences. . . . This empathetic potential-the capacity for what [Simone] Weil calls 'attentive love' (1951) and what [Sara] Ruddick identifies with 'maternal thinking' (1980)-is particularly characteristic of constructivist women" (143). This sensation of love that passes between researcher and subject and, by extention, the reader, compels me, seems to hold the key to moving the writing block aside. This positive energy, this commitment to real meaning-making, deeply invested communication, seems to mark a cornerstone for me in doing writing as an act of feminism. I remember the words of Judith Fetterley in the introduction to Provisions, how she changed her approach to literature from antagonist to lover when she moved from studying men's writing in The Resisting Reader to studying women's. She made provisions for other women and for herself, brought nurturing into her work in place of playing always the adversary.
Platform number one, then, is this: get intimate with your subject. Find the personal connection and write it out. Maybe it will stay in the final draft, maybe not, but it will have served its purpose by getting you back to the page, turning your subject over in a new light. There may be few more powerful questions to ask of a project that overtakes your life as completely as the dissertation or other similarly immersing works, than: why does this matter to me?
Hot of the presses at the University of Georgia Press comes a whole book devoted to the intricacies of women writing in the face of cultural subordination, self-doubt, and the daily grind of families, failing health, and bitchy muses. Sleeping with One Eye Open: Women Writers and the Art of Survival has become another book I go to bed with, looking for some answers, some comfort, support. And I find it here and there. First, the nuts and bolts of writing need to be acknowledged. Judith Ortiz Cofer, one of the book's two editors, solicited essays in reponses to her piece, "Five A.M.: Writing as Ritual." After describing the hectic day of the working mother, shuttling between ballet lessons and campus lectures, Ortiz notes that her "typical superwoman's lament" meant for her "being in a constant state of mild anxiety that I could not really discuss with others" (50-51). (Mild anxiety-did I mention I've had butterflies in my stomach for five years now?) In a textbook example of mind over matter, Ortiz invents a writing ritual: "I get up at five and put on a pot of coffee. Then I sit in my rocking chair and read what I did the previous day until the coffee is ready. I take fifteen minutes to drink two cups of coffee while my computer warms up-not that it needs to-I just like to see it glowing in the room where I sit in semidarkness, its screen prompting 'ready': ready whenever you are. When I'm ready, I write" (51). Ortiz locates a missing piece for many women, certainly for many graduate students: "This apparently ordinary choice, to get up early and to work every day, forced me to come to terms with the discipline of art" (51).
Sandra Benitez strikes a similar note in her essay on how her first book served her as a writer: "Hadn't it taught me the discipline of keeping faith each day with the empty page? Hadn't it shown me that the true writing method was placing one words after another, one sentence, one paragraph, one chapter after another, until you wrote, 'the end'?" (47). When I am watching "Law and Order" for the third time in a single day, or writing an article purely for the purpose of manipulating my resume for the joy-killing job market, I have to admit to myself that the writing is not blocking me, I am blocking it. Lucy Ferriss reframes the experience of writing to emphasize pleasure in immersion: "I learned to operate in the land of no-time, and I did some of my best work-not as product but as process" (59). With my eye on the finish line, I let images of the winner's ribbon strangle the writing out of me; picturing the completed dissertation overwhelmed me with the enormity of the task and the pressure to produce. The joy of the process is something I have to rediscover repeatedly in order to continue. Second platform of Dissertators Anonymous: One day at a time, one word after another until "the end."
Like the Serenity prayer so treasured by the families of alcoholics ("God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."), platform number two is more complicated than it seems. How do you draw the line between things you cannot change and things you can? How do you know the difference? The same problem applies to drawing the line between times you should be writing and times you shouldn't. I wrote so doggedly last year I made myself sick-gave myself headaches, languished in abysses of anxiety and desperation. I suffered, the writing suffered. Then I came across this line from May Sarton which warranted copying out on a sheet of paper and hanging over my desk at home: "The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever" (89). May gives me permission to be still, something I rarely give myself.
Even when I am physically still I am too often racked with guilt and skating mentally over the piles and piles of work to be done, tiring myself out even as I seem to rest up for another plunge. I am busy inside myself so relentlessly I've been told I buzz. I learn, in May's Journal of a Solitude, how life resembles art, in that each requires careful and intuitive interplay between rest and invention. "Each day, and the living of it," she writes, "has to be a conscious creation in which discipline and order are relieved with some play and some pure foolishness" (109). In addition to embracing down time as a natural part of the creative process, women writers need to be encouraged to choose subject matter for themselves, and not for others-dissertation committees, internal censors, your husband's imagined voice in your head. Benitez commands, "Write only about what's precious to you" (47). Tess Gallagher echoes the importance of this self-counsel: "Gradually I, too, would form this habit with my writing, reading, and musing-to do my own bidding, which is one of the primary mandates of any writer or artist" (170).
In the introduction to The Confidence Woman: 26 Women Writers at Work, Eve Shelnutt describes the essays as joined by their shared "felicity": "A joie de vivre permeates them and, in many, an almost sly humor that celebrates life itself-deftness, agility, the quick move, opportuntiy seized" (2). "The collection is," says Shelnutt, "a celebration, not only of the writers' having overcome, in many instances, great odds against their becoming writers, but a celebration of how compelling expression in imaginative forms can be" (5). I realize now that you have to fling yourself at joy-at rest and at work-not dip a toe in it and hope no one's watching. Linda Parsons Marion reveals, "Now, in my forties and living alone, I understand that rescue, like prayer, comes from within" (206). Rescue is a way of being in the world as a woman writer, a way of holding the self out of drowning waters, pulling it back from steep cliffs with the strength of a woman's body in the process of doing what it wants. Platform number three, on this note, is best articulated in Annie Dillard's words: "let rip and dance where you can." I am coming to realize even as I write this, that living well cannot wait until the dissertation is finished, or I will be finished long before it is. I am thankful for the women writers writing about writing as women, collecting around me in book after book, whispering to me in the dark moments of night sweats and holding me on their shoulders as I win the first of many battles for pleasure, voice, and connection in language.
Belenky, Mary Field, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule. Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. 10th Anniversary Edition. New York: BasicBooks, 1997.
Benitez, Sandra. "Fire, Wax, Smoke." Ortiz 44- 49.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: HarperPerennial, 1974.
Ferriss, Lucy. "Writing in No-Time." Ortiz 55-63.
Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader; A Feminist Approach to American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.
---. Provisions: A Reader from 19th-Century American Women. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.
Freedman, Diane P., Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar, eds. The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.
Freedman, Diane. "The Creatively Critical Voice." Bucknell Review 36.2 (1992): 187-94.
Gallagher, Tess. "The Pure Place." Ortiz 167-83.
Kallet, Marilyn and Judith Ortiz Cofer, eds. Sleeping with One Eye Open: Women Writers and the Art of Survival. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1999.
Mairs, Nancy. Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer.
Nelson, Nancy Owen. Private Voices, Public Lives: Women Speak on the Literary Life. Denton: U of North Texas P, 1995.
Ortiz Cofer, Judith. "Five A.M.: Writing as Ritual." Ortiz 50-54.
Parsons Marion, Linda. "Rescue from Within: Do You Wish to Save?" Ortiz 200 08.
Sarton, May. Journal of a Solitude. New York: Norton, 1973.
Schweickart, Patrocinio. "Reading Ourselves: Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading." Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Eds. Robin Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1997. 609-34.
Shelnutt, Eve, ed. The Confidence Woman: 26 Women Writers at Work. Atlanta: Longstreet, 1991.
Tompkins, Jane. "Me and My Shadow." Freedman, et al. 23-40.
Yaeger, Patricia. Honey-Mad Women: Emancipatory Strategies in Women's Writing. New York: Columbia UP, 1988.