Monday, April 27, 2009

Writer's Block

When I was a kid, I wrote constantly. At least, I remember I wrote constantly. I know I wrote almost a much as I read. In second and third grade, I would write page-long essays about my family or holidays, and illuminated the margins with illustrations. In fourth grade, I moved on to novels. I still have the spiral notebooks, laced together at the spine with yarn to make them larger, filled with my meandering science fiction and fantasy tales. From age 9 to 14, I was always at work on one of these novels, the words and stories flowing out of me as easily as if I were reading them.

They all, of course, were crap. No one would publish them, and I never had that aim. Publish one day, sure, but not this novel. This novel was practice. Publishing, at that age, was not the point. Writing was the point. I loved writing.

When I was in 10th grade, I had a nasty woman for an English teacher. She was despised by most, and barely tolerated by the rest. One of my friends made a chart, tracking the weather, her hairstyle, and her mood. All were usually bad. I think I pitied her then. I know I do now.

She was not impressed by my writing. I don't remember her comments at all. I don't remember if she was trying to help me become a better writer -- although I doubt that she was that kind --or if she was impassively grading yet another 15-year-old's murky writing. She did give me the first negative reaction to my writing after 10 years of praise. Because I always tried to please, even if I despised the person exacting pleasure, and because I had to have As or I would just die, I tried to change to meet her demands. Still, Bs and Cs instead of As. I tried again and again. No success. I became so caught up in trying to write the way that she wanted, and so frustrated at my constant failure, that I ended up with my first case of writer's block

Incidentally, two years later, my brother took her class. He and I decided to try a little experiment for which we both should have been expelled. She required the class to write a series of poems. My poems had earned a disappointing grade of 72. My brother, who thought poetry was that "stupid, frou-frou shit," would have been quite happy with that 72. I gave him my poems from that class, and he turned them in as his own. He made an 88.

Meanwhile, I myself had stopped writing unless required. Every word that I put on the page conjured up imaginary criticism. I doubted my ability to construct a simple sentence, much less the more effusive Dickensian lines of earlier years (which I have to say, upon review, weren't half bad -- they weren't half-good, but they weren't half-bad). Worse, writing ceased to be fun and become a chore. Not "challenging," which implies a struggle to attain a higher level, but a "chore," a task thrust upon me with no reward. The words wouldn't fit together any longer, and eventually the stories and the desire to document in a diary my own ideas and experiences or the silly things around me dried up.

In 11th grade, I took a journalism class and regained my confidence in my ability to write. The sparse prose of reporting helped clean up some of the bad techniques I had learned in trying to please my 10th grade teacher. The fun did not return for a long long time, but I seldom again doubted my ability to put words on a page and communicate an idea. I might doubt my grasp of the idea, but I never doubted that I could write out whatever muddled muck might be shifting about in my head. I ended up being a pretty good editor for other people as a result.

I did have a couple of close calls with the doubt in graduate school when two professors gave me contradictory messages. One praised me and my writing and gave me high As on all of my papers. Then, I watched him give an A to a woman whose literacy I questioned based on the work she passed out to the class. (Just to clear up any doubts about potential race or class assumptions, she was a lovely, middle class, native-English speaking white woman who went to the same grade schools as I and a better undergraduate institution. I found out later that she just didn't care about the assignment, so pieced together her notes at the last minute.) That same teacher also gave a brilliant, star graduate student an A-. I would have been shaken to my core had I not realized that, when the situation was appropriate, he based his grades on his desire to bed the student if she was his own, or demonstrate his power to the student's advisor if she was not.

The next professor told a class that my paper was one of two in our course that could easily be published with little revision. The other was written by a student who was universally considered brilliant both as a thinker and a writer, so I about burst out of my skin with pride at the compliment and comparison. Hoping to pursue that publication option, I revised and returned the paper to him for suggestions. He responded that he could not see why he gave my paper an A since it was so terrible. Terribly written, terribly researched, terribly conceived. I did revise it, but not so much that it went from "publishable" to "barely worth reading."

His comments jolted me, and I wasn't certain what had happened. I finally granted that he had his own issues in general, but that my tone (all about my tone, right?) was far too non-chalant for the topic, and that some of the leaps that I had made in my conclusions were quite broad. I was confused by the vast change in his evaluation; but I did understand the problems with that paper. For a few years, this made me hesitant to revise, which made the first draft seem so much more important, which in turn made writing more of a chore on which I would procrastinate. Yet, I still knew that, when necessary, I could write what I needed and write it well.

The fun returned to writing with blogging. No one knew me personally. No one was reading it initially. I could write anything and everything. I could try different styles, forms, voices. The words have been pouring out of me for over three years now (with, of course, some breaks due to time, not lack of desire to write). Sometimes, like today, I can't seem to shut them off.

I never stopped loving words or the way a writer crafts a story, fiction or not. I doubt if I could match some of my favorite writers; but the challenge and joy came in the trying. I even once took a creative writing class back in college to at least try. While the class deepened my appreciation for the craft of prose, I quickly learned that I no longer had those stories to tell. I joked that I really wanted to become a novelist, but the lack of original plots for a story drove me to become a historian instead because, in history, the stories are essentially already there.

With the help of history, my own stories have been returning. They are not yet entirely formed, but they become more distinct if I focus on them for any length of time. I'm going to take a creative writing class this summer to see if I can help them. If I discover that the stories still won't emerge, then I will have the practice of improving my prose that can be transferred here or anywhere else that I would like.

In this whole fellowship ordeal, I haave been transported back 10th grade, frustrated and furious and unable to please either myself or the person demanding pleasure. I feel as if I am being asked to express myself in an alien way to suit someone else's agenda and without my approval. I also feel entirely off balance because their perception seems so different from mine and because I am beginning to wonder if I am delusional about my own assessment of my own writing.

As in 1oth grade, I begin to feel unable to write. I have written and re-written and revised and re-written about a thousand replies to the latest e-mail from the coordinator. Yet, I can't seem to express what I mean because every word that I write down creates a million little debates. "Is that word too strong? Is this word inappropriate? Will that sentence be interpreted as 'angry'? Will this other word derail my point when it becomes a source of contention? Am I dropping a bomb instead of making a point?" So on and so forth. It's an insidious trick, one that plays directly into my million insecurities outside of writing. It's threatening to me because my writing has been the one part of me in which I have the least insecurity.

In general, I'm still not insecure about the way that I write. In fact, I take perverse pleasure in knowing that my words can be "strong," that they can provoke reaction. My words haven't been shut off altogether, as they were in 10th grade. They keep coming and coming and won't stop long enough to let me go work out or grade papers or even go to the grocery store. Only in this specific situation, in this fellowship, I feel like I can no longer write to suit the circumstance. I feel as if I should have all of my words vetted, revised, and vetted again before I can express an idea. I do, in fact, begin to doubt my ability to judge the use of my own tone and the tone itself. In that direction, the words are clogged; but, in general, they are bursting to come out everywhere else.

Perhaps when I use "write" and "words" what I really mean is "voice." Voice is the extension of a person's perception and experience into the written word. In that fellowship, I feel like my voice is being shut down, that I'm being asked to change not just the order and use of my words, but the perception and experience behind it. I feel this because any effort on my part to get beyond the tone to the content gets diverted back to the tone, which naturally makes any correction of that tone more difficult each time.

I think I react so strongly to the request that I change the way that I use words because the words are integral to my voice and to my perception of myself. In my world of self-loathing, writing has been the one thing that I do not loathe. That will change as I change, but only I can determine when, how, and at what pace. When someone tells me to entirely change my voice to meet their own unspecified terms on their own time table, I take that personally, and I find myself feeling gagged.

19 comments:

bitternsweet said...

Oh Clio, ungag thyself! You are an amazing writer -- we, your loyal readers, are here to attest to that. Of course, I understand why, under these difficult circumstances with the fellowship, you want to be particularly careful with your words. It sounds like, given the reaction of the fellowship folks, you need to be. But, there is a difference between being politic and silencing yourself. It just makes me so sad to see someone I think of as having one of the strongest, most original, and most ethical blog voices doubting the power or efficacy of her writing.

Clio, you are a writer. Embrace it.

Belle said...

Absolutely, what Bittersweet said. You are a writer. The fellowship has not destroyed you - you are stronger and more articulate because they challenged you. Unfairly and cruelly, but that's their issue. I soooo understand the process that you've gone through. My own path had similar blocks on the path, and like you, blogging has given me a space for my own 'true' voice.

It's important that you get this experience out of your head and onto the screen. Your readers that are teachers need to be reminded that our most causal comments or offhand remarks can wound deeply. The worst case of writer's block I ever had was caused by somebody's attempt to 'show' me what was wrong with my writing. He ripped apart the fist words of an essay, and with it my confidence. For years afterward, the process of writing went from being a joy to a terror. Now, my fiction comes easily - and is enormous fun. But no longer is it my favored pasttime. He ruined that for me, and I've never been able to get back there.

I have found other outlets, but oh, do I miss the joy of words and voice.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Wow, thank you both! I wasn't fishing for compliments, and now there is a bounty!

You take your gifts where they will be appreciated and used to full advantage. They aren't useful in that circle, but clearly they are in others!

Clio Bluestocking said...

P.S. Belle, that really sucks that that guy took that from you. Jerk.

Dr. No said...

YES. I third the previous comments! Your "voice" consistently speaks to me...I mean that in a good way of course (not in a schizophrenic your voice talks to me through Peeps kinda way)!

Clio Bluestocking said...

Dr. No, thank you!

Wait, are you saying that those voices that I hear aren't coming from the Peeps? Uh-oh.

Dr. No said...

Do the Peeps ask you to chomp their heads off? I thought it was just me...

Clio Bluestocking said...

YES! I figured that their voices were all o.k. because they didn't ask me to bite off anyone else's head and because, you know, Peeps are yummy.

Ann said...

Sorry to have missed this thread so far. This is why I think it's pointless to write back to the fellowship director. You expressed yourself and your position quite clearly when you wrote, "I feel as if I am being asked to express myself in an alien way to suit someone else's agenda and without my approval." There is no authentic way in which you can make your point to this woman--she's not listening. You're doomed to fail because she won't let you win. It wouldn't matter if (as you did last weekend on the listserv) you apologized and said that she was entirely right--she'd still find a way to correct you or urge you to express yourself differently. You're in a mindfrack now--it's best just to keep your words to yourself and on your blog.

Don't let a self-interested bureaucrat get to you. She's got her little fiefdom to protect because it makes her feel important. In the end, it doesn't mean as much to you as it means to her. Let it go and get her out of your head.

Historiann.com

Clio Bluestocking said...

Thank you, Historiann! I think you've hit the nail on the head with "she's got her little fiefdom to protect." It's more important to her than it is to me, so let her have it.

I actually just got off of the phone with her, but found myself able to chuckle quietly to myself at her comments about controlling my language and how I can take classes through the teaching and learning center to learn what language is appropriate where and so on. Since we were on the phone, I could roll my eyes and make faces for myself, which is childish, I know, but helped me to keep my focus on "this is really stupid and patronizing and worthy of laughter."

In my office, I have a framed poster of the cover of my first book (a friend had it made for me). I have my second book on a shelf, cover out, in full view of the door (yeah, I'm a little egotistical; but, damn!, I wrote a book!). As she spoke to me today, I looked at those and thought, "woman, you haven't a clue." I also remember that, during our meeting last Friday, as she lectured me on my use of language and tone, I could see that poster over her shoulder. Inside my head, I could comprehend how ridiculous this whole scene was; I just couldn't translate my contempt for the scene into any sort of action or words that would get this point across to her -- well, I could think of a few that might convey the contempt, but not the comedy.

So, yes, like you suggest, Ann, I'm keeping my words to myself. I also understand a little more about the politcs of this school in the process.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Another thing that happened in the phone conversation: I tolde her that if I did stay in the fellowship (that's another blog post), I couldn't promise to do what she wanted. "Well can you really really try?" she asked. Chuckling to myself, I said, "sure, I can 'try;' but I can't promise results."

She went back to the whole "growth experience" line (chuckle to self again). "I said that I can't promise that will happen in the necessary amount of time," I said again, "I can't promise that I won't inadvertantly step on someone's toes or hurt someone's feelings." (Who can, ferchissake!)

The way she stammered and repeated the whole "growth" and "try" line of argument conveyed to me that, again, she's not interested in anything but obedience to the script. I almost told her that I already had been trying and that some people need to realize that every comment is not about THEM; but remembered the "teach a pig to talk," and just said, "ok, sure, I'll try."

My inner teenager said, "What-EVER."

Clio Bluestocking said...

One last thing, before I just write another post: she wouldn't let me quit! After telling me how "destructive" I am, she invoked "contracts" (we actually didn't have a contract), obligations, and "consequences for departure" to tell me that I am required to continue in the fellowship. Now, I could go ahead and say, "damn the consequences," but this is really not a big enough deal to risk alienating who knows how many more people in powerful positions -- and I think enough people are provicial enough to consider failure in this internal fellowship a bigger deal than success in some of the other, external stuff that I do, like chair conference panels or participate in NEH institutes and so forth.

Ann said...

I find this internal fellowship completely baffling. You should do what you think best, but I just don't get where she thinks she can lecture you on all of these issues. I didn't realize you have written two books--is she faculty? What kind of authority does she have in general, let alone over you and how you're evaluated?

All of her behavior suggests that she's much more afraid of you than the reverse (and IMHO, rightly so.) Now she's afraid that you're going to quit the program? I suppose they can make you give money back--but per the 13th Amendment, they can't actually make you participate in something you don't want to participate in. This fellowship program is run like an alcoholic family--the drunk isn't the problem, it's the child who speaks up and tells the truth about what's going on who's the problem and that's when people take action--to shut her up! But nobody bothers the drunk.

If you're stuck with the fellowship, I suppose one way to deal with her comments about how you should try to change your tone is that you can ask her personally for permission every time you speak, and then ask her if you're doing better at modulating your "tone." (She probably wouldn't like that--she's looking for a seamless, unironic internalization of her message.)

Historiann.com

Clio Bluestocking said...

Ann, "baffling" is the right word for it! The whole mess has become downright comic.

Someone actually did just come out and show some support for me today -- others had privately, but this person did so openly. This was via e-mail. Not even two minutes after his mass message hit my in box, hers followed. She tried to implement damage control on his message, warning us about what we say and who might be listening in. I almost fell out of my chair laughing. You are right on: she's afraid. I'm not sure of what, but it's very real to her.

I also fell over laughing at the image of anyone raising their hand in a seminar, asking for permission to speak, speaking, then asking for approval of their tone. That's brilliant! I can only dream of having the guts to be such a smart aleck! Instead, I'll probably just knit and outline my next chapter in the meetings.

(Yeah, 2 books. One is the academic one, the other doesn't go on the c.v. because it's my "tourist book" for a tourist audience -- sadly, that's probably the better one. It is certainly prettier!)

Ann said...

This fellowship director sounds like a piece of work. I think it's hillarious that she's in such damage control mode that she can't let anyone else say anything that suggests they might have valued your contributions. (Kudos to everyone who showed you support, but I like this guy's style--the one who wrote an e-mail to everyone. As we used to say in elementary school, in your FACE!!!)

The way she has handled this just points to her incompetence--instead of sweeping you under the rug, her strange behavior has attracted the attention of others and now shines a spotlight on you and her, and I think I know how you two compare.

I'm glad you may be able to see the humor in this. My bet is that if you re-read this series of posts and comments 6 months from now, you're going to be amazed at how completely crazy it all looks. I think that woman is seriously unhinged.

And, hey: two books is two books! I hope to get there some day myself.

Historiann.com

Ink said...

Wow, Clio. She sounds oddly like a robot, repeating the same buzzwords over and over. Like Ann, I do not get it.

And I think you should totally say, next time she presents the same old material, "What-EVER."

Am glad you were able to laugh about certain parts, though! Hooray for blog venting in preparation! :)

Clio Bluestocking said...

Ann, you'll be at the two book mark -- then three and four! -- before you know it!

Ink, if it gets any worse, I just might do so reflexively.

Blog ventilation not only helped me work through it, but all of the kind feedback and support helped me regain the balance required to reject her description of me. So, all of your input has been invaluable!

Gradualy, since my public apology (subsequently deleted), half of the other fellows have contacted me either by e-mail or in person. All of them indicated that they could not understand why anyone would complain about my "tone," that they thought my comments had merit and contributed to the conversation, and that telling me to change the way that I express myself or what I expressed is akin to censorship. That word, "censorship," was specifically used. So, this "everybody" who considers me destructive is becoming a smaller and smaller group every day.

Ink said...

Glad to hear that the others are contacting you and showing support! That must feel good. Support from your colleagues = yay!

Bavardess - said...

I'm with Ink - it's good to hear the other fellows are starting to back you up, even if not all of them are prepared to go public with their support. From what I've read here, you are an accomplished writer who expresses herself with clarity and sensitivity, so I was stunned when you mentioned "her comments about controlling my language and how I can take classes through the teaching and learning center to learn what language is appropriate where". I think my reaction to those comments would have been much less measured that yours!

 

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