Let’s Change Topic, Shall We?

March 11, 2009 at 1:05 am (Uncategorized)

I’m reading Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy at the moment (City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room), and there’s nothing like the evocation of the peculiar, isolated life of the writer to give me a good, hard slap across the face, because it’s clearly a shortcut to madness. There’s the savant-like repetition of the primary task, there’s the time spent cultivating an inner rather than an outer life, and there’s something, at least in Auster’s trilogy, that reeks of… I don’t know… it’s something other than loneliness…maybe it’s… maybe it’s an indulged desperation. 

There is something horribly needy about writers, and I at least have learned several cunning ways to exacerbate my own clingy insecurity. For example, I’ve developed a habit of refraining from talking about the manuscript when I’m with non-writing friends unless I’m asked directly about it. On the surface, this could look like something I’m doing for them, but really, deep down I suspect it’s just another weapon in my insecurity arsenal (which I furnish lovingly with all manner of grenade), and that therefore is really all about me. It started because I figured that they’ll ask if they’re interested, and I don’t want to bore them with it if they’re not. It was innocent enough in the beginning, motivated by a genuine desire not to hog the conversation. After a week on my own, come Saturday night I have a tendency toward unchecked ranting, so I have worked hard over time to reign in my blabber mouth by whatever means necessary. I also reasoned that some of them might keep up to date with the trials and tribulations of my writing via this blog. Although I have no way of knowing this if they never mention it, perhaps they then feel there’s no need to discuss it in person. Doubtless others simply don’t give a shit, and still more secretly think I haven’t a hope in hell and would rather talk about belly button lint than look me in the eye and tell me so (on being told by another friend that I’d made the short list of the Varuna HarperCollins thing, one friend turned to me and said “That must be a relief – that means it’s not completely shit!” – yeah, I guess it does, but interesting that ‘completely shit’ was such a distinct possibility!).

So you see where I’m going with this. The real fruits of my indulged desperation start to flourish when I spend a whole evening with a group of people and not one of them asks me what’s happening with the writing. I don’t offer anything unless I’m asked, remember, so it’s fascinating to me in a sick, sick sort of way waiting to see if anyone asks me a single thing about the manuscript or, in some cases, anything at all. You should try this one at home or next time you’re out with friends – it’s addictive in that shameful, revolting way that picking at and squeezing the human body is addictive. It’s like I’m trying to catch them out. “Aha!” I think to myself. “There it is again! Nobody cares! I knew it!” A weird thing to feel jubilant about, I grant you, but there’s undeniably an element of glee in my misery on the way home from these nights. I feel like my desperate insecurity is well-founded – proven, even – and is therefore a worthy investment of my time and energy. I swaddle myself in hurt like it’s bunting. 

Maybe no one asked because they know I didn’t win. Maybe they thought it would make me uncomfortable talking about it, and having to admit failure. Failure makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. Maybe they decided I’d talk about it if I wanted to (ah, glorious impasse of the great unsaid!). Maybe. Who knows? And why would I care when I can harness all these unknowns and turn them into a searing song of self-pity? Why wish my friends showed more interest when I can assume on their behalf that they have absolutely none at all? 

It’s all pretty self-obsessed, if you want to get right down to it. It turns out that the mean guy who said the shitty thing on the blog a few weeks back wasn’t so far from the mark. I really am “self-obsessed and actually think people are interested in the mundane arrogance of my life.” In my defence, though, aren’t we all guilty of this? As Stephen King says in On Writing, we’re all the star of our own show (or something to that effect). I can’t help but be caught up in my own dramas. But one thing I’m not enjoying about my writing life is this uncomfortable but pressing sense that it’s cultivating a kind of block between myself and the rest of the world. I seem to be filtering things differently, and relating them much more to how they affect me. I don’t think this is a good thing. Even celebrating my darling Darkling’s win yesterday (she had a call back from Australia’s biggest literary agency about representation – MASSIVE!!), which I did with all my heart, I could still hear that whining little voice inside that was bemoaning the fact that nothing of the sort had happened or ever seems likely to happen to me. What’s with that? It wasn’t about me, it had nothing whatsoever to do with me, and that whining little voice had no right to hijack the celebration of my friend’s fantastic success. It was good catching the whining little voice right in the act – mid moan, as it were – because, like Auster’s mirror-on-the-wall trilogy, it allowed me to give myself a much needed reminder that it’s not – and never was – all about me. So… enough! I promise to reacquaint myself with the outside world and stop this forever looking in.

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8 Comments

  1. Grad said,

    I wouldn’t call it self-possession; I would call it passion. I am not a writer; but, I think the passion has to be there in order to commit yourself to any difficult task. Otherwise, why bother. My college roommate is a writer. After she published her second book, she sent me a clipping from the Minneapolis Star Tribune that contained a very good review. Over the top of the clipping she wrote, “So what have YOU published lately?” I didn’t know how to take that cryptic question. But it sounded arrogant and self absorbed. You, on the other hand, do not.

  2. Pete said,

    I agree with Grad on this. And I think it’s natural to be self-absorbed when you are concentrating intensely on your book. Sure it’s good to change gears when you’re with your friends and just forget about the writing you for a while, but it’s still there in your head and maybe the trick is not to berate yourself for this but to tune the voice out for a while until you’re in the writing (or editing) zone again. I feel a similar way about psychology sometimes – only fellow intense psychologists will be able to get me and I’m frustrated at the shallowness all around. But then I get over it.

    BTW, I’m sorry you didn’t win (if that’s what your post is saying) but I’m also very excited for you (and quite jealous) that you’re doing what you’re passionate about. Maybe the writing anxiety could benefit from some therapy! (always looking for work hey?) But seriously, from what I’ve read from other bloggers, writers veer between ecstasy and despair as much as anyone (perhaps more). There’s always that nagging doubt that “I’m just not good enough”. If you learn how to switch that off, let me know!

  3. doctordi said,

    What an extraordinary thing for your roommate to say, Grad… I am by turns perplexed and repelled by it – I guess you’re the same. Makes it hard to feel glad for her positive review, though, doesn’t it?! It’s really quite incredible… and graceless. And thanks, I do agree, Grad and Pete, that a certain amount of self-focus is required just to… do what is required (is that circular? Maybe). There’s no question I won’t fix this manuscript or write another unless I do concentrate intensely, as Pete says, on my book. And that intense concentration requires that I spend a lot of time in my own head. But I do worry about the extent of that, and I’m soooo glad I have so many non-writing friends who allow me to really forget about it and myself when we’re together, even as I sulk to myself when those same friends fail to ask how it’s going. Never satisfied!!!!

    I didn’t win.

    And therapy?! What do you think this blog has become for me?! I constantly vent here and you guys constantly pick me up and give me perspective and dust me off and admirably resist judging me… it’s the best therapy going around town!

  4. davidrochester said,

    Writing is such an intensely isolated art … and people who don’t do it just don’t “get” it, even when they do think to ask about it. It can be very frustrating and upsetting to have a passion that the world in general doesn’t understand.

  5. Jenny said,

    Hey Di. BTW I love you. Do you remember when a particular agent asked for your complete manuscript? The one that said that she didn’t like animal stories and anyway, my writing left her cold? Well. Even though I was thrilled for you, I was still jealous. Again when Peter went into bat for you, in a way he didn’t for me. Jealous. It’s not a begrudging kind of jealousy, but a wishful thinking kind. It’s human and last time I looked (sorry for the cliche) YOU are HUMAN! A flawed, whining, disatisfied, self-absorbed human JUST LIKE THE REST OF US. Although you’re not just like the rest of us in some ways. You have a killer way with words. Remember I blitzed the agents? Statistics here. 17 agents. 5 requests for partials. 1 full manuscript read. And if I swing this deal I’m damned lucky, because if this agent hadn’t been there it would have been a clean sweep of rejection. I’d actually given up on the aussie agents and had started lurking on OS agents blogs, trying to understand their shadowy world. At least you’ve got a heap of agents left. I’ve run out. Writers are obsessive by definition or we wouldn’t do it. But self-obsession? We don’t have a monopoly on that one. We share it with each other human being on the panet.
    Finish whatever manic rewrite you are performing and send the manuscript out into the world again. And I have not yet given up on those new Varuna programs. Patience my friend.
    Jenny

  6. doctordi said,

    David, I think that’s really true. It is necessarily isolated, but it veers sometimes into being isolatING, too, and I think that’s where my own centre of gravity goes haywire. I realised about a year ago that I do need to break up intense periods of writing with physical contact with the outside world. I went a little loopy. It was all a bit red rum, red rum and I created a problem that didn’t exist, the scars of which are still all over one of my best friendships. Disaster, but a good thing to go through because now I know the warning signs that I’m slipping off the edge of the world.

    Jenny, I LOVE this comment more than I can tell you – thank you, Darkling, for making me laugh as well as making me feel a little less deranged. Well, maybe just as deranged, but in MUCH better company!!

    Manic rewrite? How the fuck did you know??

  7. litlove said,

    I’m catching up here, after discovering that my feed reader has been lying to me all week and you HAVE been posting. Grrr. And I also have to say that I think I have a girl-crush on Grad who is so lovely that I want to take her home with me. Okay, now down to business. I found over the years that there are very, very few people with whom I can discuss my writing. When you actually do get people on the subject, they simply have nothing to say. It’s not that they don’t care, but that they have no vocabulary whatsoever to deal with the conversation. Still, now, I sometimes hand my work over to my husband and he instantly destroys it with some dismissive comment. If you find one or two people over the course of a lifetime who can actually discuss writing, then you are lucky. You need a private blog with the darklings, or some kind of more regular contact. They are the people who understand and whom you could talk to. But I say cultivate the writing conversation inside your own head. Write the conversations you are having with yourself down. It sounds like madness, but it can be helpful. Also, think what you are after with those conversations – what do you really want from them? Another perspective on your work? You’ll get that better from a run, some shopping, a night’s sleep and a read through on another day. If it’s support, you can ask for that without writing being the central topic. If it’s proper, specialised technical writing talk, you need other committed writers. Good luck with it all!

  8. doctordi said,

    I don’t do that feed thing, Litlove, and I don’t think I’ll start after it KEPT YOU FROM ME. I’m feeling quite put out about the feed thing telling fibs. I just click on everyone’s blogs from my blog roll every day, and sometimes you’ll have updated, sometimes not, but at least I’ve stopped by and left a card on the silver tray. It reassures me that I’m not missing anything, and it’s become my coffee-in-the-morning ritual.

    Yes, Grad’s great, isn’t she?! A top find! I have been actually bragging to Llew only this week (repeatedly, he’ll tell you) about the standard of my blogging friends, I’m really shameless about putting all your names about. I feel very lucky – such calibre! And Grad is a bread baker to boot – what’s not to love about this woman?!

    These are good questions. Very good questions. I don’t know what it is I’m looking for from friends… sometimes it’s as simple as plain old reciprocity, but other times it’s more complicated. I guess I want or need my closest friends to engage with the process with me – an unfair expectation or wish, as it turns out, because this isn’t a road they embarked upon and they’re only ever witnesses to it, not active participants, so of course their input is necessarily very limited. More limited than I expected it to be. I also crave their encouragement and reassurance. When good friends don’t ask, I turn that into a criticism or a lack of confidence on their part about my ability. This too is something I create totally apart from whatever the reality may be. It’s a dangerous thing, my mind – I can do lots and lots of damage to myself and others without even leaving the room.

    The Darklings are obviously a godsend for me. I am also fortunate to have a few other writing friends in Australia, Miriam one of them, and you guys – my blogging compadres – also genuinely help me feel less alone. It’s a synthetic community in some ways, but in all the important ones it’s very, very real, and I can do my strange job better for your company, virtual though you may be.

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