It seems that the best way for me to figure out what I actually think about something is to write about it. This is true not just for personal matters, but for almost anything. Thoughts alone are too ephemeral and ill-behaved. This is the sense in which, for me, writing is research on the self.
This post contains a history of my relationship to writing. There’s probably more personal information in this post than will ever appear anywhere else in this blog. This is a blog on the self, not a blog about my self. Although, of course, indirectly and unavoidably, it is.
Invasions of privacy
When I was eleven, my mother read my diary. Not only did she read it. She read it out loud to the neighbors, apparently featuring the passages she found most amusing.
I found out about this when I was teased by a neighbor girl about something she could only have learned from my diary. She was the youngest of those neighbors who regularly lounged on the lawn of our apartment complex (and apparently not old enough to realize she should have been more discrete). I subsequently wrote nothing except assigned school papers until I left home, when it felt safe enough to write in a journal.
And then it happened again! An ex-boyfriend kindly offered to store my trunk while I traveled during the summer after college graduation. He not only read my journals and letters, but unashamedly told me he had done so. (Despite this, we remained good friends for many decades.)
I recovered completely from these early incidents and feel fortunate to share my life with someone who I know would never open my private journals or digital files.
To get a PhD, I had to write a thesis. I postponed this for two years and then sat down and did it. It was challenging because, until I actually started writing, it seemed like an unimaginably overwhelming task. When I finished, it felt like the most difficult thing I had ever done. And perhaps, in retrospect, it still seems that way, since it was the first time I had written something that long. It was published, but only because it came out in a year that was commemorating some milestone in the life of Copernicus.
How I came to write a book on anxiety is a long story. But, briefly, it involved: Losing my academic job (along with every other non-tenured faculty member employed by the city of New York). Disenchantment with the subject matter I would need to write about if I wanted to satisfy the expectations of those whose recommendations would determine my future employment. The influence of a new live-in friend who wanted to make a living as an artist (which sounded like an appealing idea to me too). And the fact that the one thing I had done in my life was write something book-length.
While the anxiety book was being published, the artist and I worked together on a proposal for another book. It was about the impact of technology on society, with a heavy emphasis on the role of media. We submitted the proposal – over 100 pages – to several literary agents. One of them replied: “The only thing you could do after reading this book is commit suicide.” The artist was delighted that the ideas had made such an impact. I decided not to pursue it.
I turned down an academic job at the University of Nevada, largely because I wanted to hang out with the new artist friend and see if that turned into a long-lasting relationship (which it did). I was able to stay on for an extra year of teaching in New York, and I then spent a year as a fellow in Princeton. I held out as long as I could financially, living off savings, while I wrote the book on anxiety. Before long, however, I had to face the fact that I was not going to make a living as an author of non-fiction books.
I took a series of jobs. Having a job pretty much sapped the concentration, energy and motivation I needed to undertake a book-length project. But when I was downsized by an employer, I cached in a modest 401K, and — with the help of unemployment insurance — spent close to a year not working at a daily job. I wrote a novel, but decided not to publish it. I’ve started several other novels, but that was the only one I finished.
What I liked about writing fiction were those exhilarating, unpredictable moments of spontaneous creativity. It was different from writing non-fiction. With non-fiction, when an idea comes to me, it seems to have logical origins. With fiction, a moment of creative inspiration seems to come from a part of my brain I’ve been unaware of. Those moments were a great source of pleasure and satisfaction, though not as easy to generate as non-fiction ideas.
If you had asked me as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have drawn a blank. As far as I can recall, that was not something that ever crossed my mind. Nor did it come into focus in my adult life. (This is where I find my Chinese horoscope helpful and reassuring.) Unlike some children and young adults, I had no ambition to be a writer. (Or to be anything else.)
Pets and the Magic Link
At one point I wrote a weekly column on pets for a local newspaper – the column served as free advertising for the town’s animal shelter. When I was asked to do this, I immediately agreed, so I guess I assumed that writing was something I could do.
Around this time my job put me in charge of beta-testing the Magic Link, a precursor to more successful PDAs and (eventually) smartphones. Alpha-testing is when the engineers determine that the product works in the lab. Beta-testing is when you get real people to give it a workout in their daily lives. As the person responsible for keeping the beta-testers busy, I experienced the need to be always available to receive and respond to messages. I definitely did not like this. I place a high value on lengthy periods of uninterrupted solitude.
I wrote the user manual for the Magic Link. And, subsequently, I wrote user manuals for other computerized consumer products. Like the prospect of writing endlessly on the internal history of science (which contributed to my abandoning an academic career), user manuals were not my preferred subject matter. They were my job.
Creativity and the job
I spent many years working at one job or another. Sometimes they paid well, but – lacking a creative element or sufficient intellectual stimulation — they were never personally satisfying. I acquired books on subjects like how to write a mystery by getting up an hour early every day for a year. That never seemed to work out for me. To write something book-length, I wanted uninterrupted time. That’s not really necessary, I know, assuming one is sufficiently self-disciplined and motivated.
When I was working at a job, I craved a creative outlet. I found myself taking painting classes in the evening. I was in an Artist’s Way group for several years with a wonderful teacher and interesting people who became new friends. I was in a writing group for many years with another gifted teacher. I wrote poetry and short essays and read them at an open mic. I took a great photography class called “The Self as Subject.”
In the early 2000’s I had an opportunity to take a severance package from my employer – it amounted to several years’ worth of my living expenses. I took it. I can still remember what it felt like the day I woke up knowing I would never go back to working at a day job.
Gradually I noticed that, without the job, I felt less of a need for a creative outlet. It seems the creativity had been an attempt to compensate for the frustration of not doing something personally meaningful. A lot of my time post-severance was spent anxiously pursuing various forms of self-employment – things that might provide future income. But I had time to read Deborah Lupton’s The Imperative of Health and was excited by the subject matter. It led me to Robert Crawford’s writings on healthism. Motivated by this subject matter, I started a blog in 2008.
And now, here I am starting another blog, where I plan to explore subjects that have interested me for decades, but that I haven’t had time for. Blogging seems to be all I need to satisfy my desire to write. I love to read, but when I simply read one book after another, I start to feel that all I’m doing is taking in information without giving something back. Also, I need a way to process what I’m taking in – a way to turn it into useable knowledge (knowledge that’s “good to think with,” as Nikolas Rose once put it). For me, as I said above, that only happens when I write.
I no longer aspire to write something book-length. For one thing, I don’t feel I have anything to say that’s sufficiently original. Although, on the subject of originality, I’ve always taken comfort in a comment by Kenneth Atchity: “What makes every book original is the unique intersection in space and time of an author’s mind with the subject matter.” This is something I thoroughly believe. And it’s as true for blogging as it is for books. Of course Atchity also says: “The writer engages willfully in the one activity most people hate above all others: re-examining values, then searching for a clear expression of new vision.” That, unfortunately, is the hard part.
Image source: Essential Vermeer Time
Deborah Lupton, The Imperative of Health: Public Health and the Regulated Body
Robert Crawford, Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life, International Journal of Health Services, 1980, 10 (3), pp 365-388
Nikolas, Rose, Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self
Kenneth Atchity, A Writer’s Time: Making the Time to Write