The Mis[t]ery of Writing [UPDATED AGAIN]

May 28, 2009 at 10:58 am (By Amba) (, )

It’s been long enough since I tried to do any “real” writing (where you conceive something in your head and then try to execute it, and of course it won’t hold still for its portrait) that I’d forgotten the wisdom of my “Note to self:  don’t go there.”

It’s only a blog-essay on the Hubble for my dust-gathering Natural History blog (which died for lack of time and lack of feedback), so it doesn’t quite have to meet the high formal standards of a “real real” essay, to be chiseled into print.  But it sucked me in nonetheless — because I’m enthralled by the Hubble and think its imagery is probably a turning point in human evolution, etc. blah, blah, blah — and I vanished from the “real” world.  The feeling was in every way like nodding off while driving and feeling my hands evaporate off the wheel, the driver’s seat suddenly go empty.  Not least, it’s up to me to keep our life on the road and I can’t let myself be ravished away from the controls.

But there I was yesterday, obsessively reading and linking to more and more, not even caring to tweet or look at my e-mail, struggling to keep formal control of the unwieldy, metastasizing thing, and at the same time feeling driven to be done with it so I could/before I could return to my maintenance and other responsibilities.  Both J and the household deteriorate alarmingly fast when neglected.  Someone I’ve been urging to blog literally for years has finally begun, and announcing it can’t wait either.

Now I remember why I made a pact with myself not to try to “really write” while taking care of J.  Fact checking is bad enough — it has a fainter version of the same obsessive quality, the contradictory drives to overdo it and to get it over with — but while fact checking takes time and attention, it doesn’t take a fraction of the energy writing does.  Writing is like being a spider and spinning a web out of your own guts; it’s like welding with an acetylene distilled by your liver.  It takes it out of you.  To create order that did not exist before defies entropy, which requires a disproportionate input of energy, and that energy is sucked out of your own lower belly. The few times I’ve broken my rule and “really written” something under this regime, I’ve felt drastically drawn and drained.  Dracula is blamed.

Meanwhile, you’re driven by the certainty that any minute, the thing you’re trying to get down will get away, or dissolve and change shape.  (Writing is probably a lot like hunting in the jungle.  If the prey were made of mercury.)  You need to focus on its pursuit with laserlike exclusivity.  You cannot divide your attention or spare a scintilla of your energy.  Interruptions are much worse than annoying, they’re tragic and enraging.  And all this is wildly out of proportion; it’s all for something that doesn’t even need to be written.  (The more I find has already been written about the Hubble in the same vein, the more I have a sense of redundancy.  So then I want to link it all, on the equally false assumption that others are as obsessed as I am.)   At best, a few people will read it and be fleetingly entertained or stimulated.  My need to write it meets no complementary need in the world; if I didn’t do it, no one would know or care.

Meanwhile, J is weak.  A phase?  Or a trend?  Who knows?  All I know is that it’s a vicious cycle.  The harder it is to get him up, the less he wants to get up, and the less I want to struggle to get him up, and the more I yield to escapism.  But the less he gets up, the weaker he gets.

I need a nap.

UPDATE: On the other hand . . .

. . . (and this point almost always comes, always preceded and paid for by misery; why can’t we remember that??) it’s so neat when it starts to come right . . .

UPDATE II: Now it’s done, and of course I’m soaring (probably also disproportionate) and wouldn’t have missed it for the world.


  1. Courtney Haynes said,

    But you really can’t “not” write. A writer is not what you do – it’s what you are. I got this thought because of a writer friend going through tribulations of getting publisher’s rejections. She told me she said a prayer like this: “God, why did you make me want to go and be a writer if it wasn’t going to work out?” I pointed out that, with writing, she really had no choice – “It’s what you are, not what you do”. I don’t know if this makes any sense at all. I must remember to tell artist daughter that if life starts to sidetrack her (which it will), she must always keep doing art because it is clearly what she is.

  2. amba12 said,

    Thanks, Courtney. I suppose that’s even the problem. If it was just something I was doing I wouldn’t get so far into it. I’ve put it aside for a day or two to clean house and attend to J. I really did get pretty far with it, and it can’t be posted till next week anyway because the webmaster won’t be free.

    I’m bad with time. If certain hours were set aside for certain things, I’d get more done and get more rest and not get on these jags where I think I can drive all the way to the end of something if I just keep going. I used to note that stopping writing in the middle of something — while necessary more often than not — felt like stopping in the middle of an operation (on yourself) and temporarily closing up the incision with the instruments still inside. It’s best to stop when you’ve finished some part of it and before you start something else.

  3. Courtney Haynes said,

    You’re welcome. You’ve evolved your writing style over a lifetime, so it is difficult to create a new way that will work for you both in the writing sense and personally. IF you can break things into workable sections, that might work, but as a non-writer I’m on shaky ground to advise you. Take care, and good luck.

  4. Donna B. said,

    I’m not organized to be a real writer. I’m a note-taker, at best. But I do understand about having to put down a project midway — or more often — put it down several times before completion.

    A big project or a continuation of small ones will eventually just burn me out. My daughter married five years ago and I’ve not done any sewing since then. (I made the bridal gown and six bridesmaid dresses and I don’t advise anyone not a professional seamstress to ever try this! Before this I spent years retrofitting ballet costumes and making new costume sets for three productions a year for a non-professional company.)

    However, my daughter’s recent visit and her newly found interest in sewing is beginning to revive the urge in me.

    Quick… bring me the antidote!

    Amba dear, you are tired and probably overwhelmed. You have no idea how impossible what you are doing sounds to me. You probably also have no idea how I admire you for it.

  5. amba said,

    Thanks, Donna, good thing you can’t see how badly I’m doing it all just now!

    To sew the dresses for an entire wedding party? EXTREME!!!

  6. Ennui said,

    “My need to write it meets no complementary need in the world; if I didn’t do it, no one would know or care.”

    You can’t miss people you never meet. That’s a fact. Which is somehow depressing.

    That said, the experience that you describe reminds me a little of “transcendence by art” in Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos. I don’t think he thought that there was any way to avoid the sense of being gone (in orbit) when you’re really writing (he thought it was a feature, not a bug). He actually uses the term “re-entry” to describe the feeling of coming back to now.

    I read somewhere that Philip K. Dick used to write his novels in a white heat, practically at a single sitting, chomping on amphetamines all the while. Later, he stopped taking the amphetamines but said that the experience was pretty much the same.

    It sounds like pretty heady stuff.

  7. amba12 said,

    You can’t miss people you never meet.

    Yeah, you can if it’s your own kid that you aborted. But maybe that doesn’t count as not meeting. Anyway, off topic.

    It’s heady stuff with highs and lows and very hard to fit into a life where you have to show up. You can set aside certain hours for it, if you have them to set aside.

  8. Ennui said,


    Poor choice of words on my part. To say the least.

    “It’s heady stuff with highs and lows and very hard to fit into a life where you have to show up”

    You fit enough in to have made more than a fleeting impression on me. Perhaps because you do show up.

  9. amba12 said,

    Well, you’ve made an impression on me, too.

  10. Donna B. said,

    I’m sure I once sent you a photo of the bride and bridesmaids. I’m sort of proud of my accomplishment (the dresses all stayed in one piece throughout the reception) but it ended and I rest on my laurels… so to speak.

    It’s the same with the ballet performances. The photos I have of the dancers in the costumes I designed and made are wonderful to look at occasionally.

    However, these things ended and I could relax with with glass of wine when it was over. (Or the bottle, I’m not proud…)

    Caring for J doesn’t allow you that, so it’s not realistic to think of them in the same breath.

    As for writing – you do it for yourself and maintaining yourself is what makes you able to care for J isn’t it?

    If I’m the wrong track here, and wow… is that ever possible, then just ignore me.

  11. amba12 said,

    I do it for myself but so incompletely that it’s more frustrating than anything — therefore the “don’t go there.” For the time being and for the foreseeable future. It’s so frustrating to do it badly, halfway, to be unable to see things through, to have to deal with interruptions and fatigue and guilt. Writing is like deep-sea diving, and interruption is being yanked up before you can get down to where the work gets done. (“Get down to work” — never thought about that expression before.) I am really happier not doing it right now than getting halfway in and being unable to get through and out. Writing is like wounding yourself and healing. Writing in this situation is like wounding myself and not healing.

  12. wj said,

    “My need to write it meets no complementary need in the world; if I didn’t do it, no one would know or care.”

    A decade or more ago, that may have been true. But now…? I think you must realize, at least on some level, that there are a bunch of us who keep coming around precisely to see if there is anything new from you to read. Granted, it’s not the best seller list (yet). But our egos (at least mine) insist that it is a step above “no one”! ;-)

  13. amba12 said,

    *ouch* Sorry, that was rude of me, and I didn’t mean it that way. It was specific to that Natural History blog and to scienceblogging in general: there are so many established good people doing it, I feel redundant (and much of what I’m saying it turns out has already been said as well or better). The blog got almost zero feedback; I had no clue whether anybody was reading it at all (besides my own loyal readers when I alerted you) and no guidance from said readership (if it existed) about what they liked and didn’t like. Even the scientists who enthusiastically cooperated when I asked them for add’l material never remarked on the result.

  14. wj said,

    Sorry, dear. I knew you didn’t mean it badly . . . but whimsy got the better of me.

    Is it just me, or does it seem like a lot of us here have somewhat quirky senses of humor? The reason, no doubt, that we are here — instead of making a living doing stand-up comedy clubs.

  15. Rod said,


    Serious writing requires sequestration for most of us. It is hard to finish a thought, much less put it down, when you have lengthy commitments and are interrupted every five minutes. Caretaking lacks mileposts of accomplishment, so you can work all day and feel you have accomplished nothing. Maybe just understanding the dynamic of caring for another human being is an accomplishment. Sometimes we have to create our own mileposts.

  16. Becky said,

    Mileposts! Annie, you’re a genius!

    Lack of mileposts is what was really dragging me down. On Tues. we rescued a poodle from the animal shelter with more hope than reason. We’ve been dogless for 20 years and I, while I love poodles, questioned my own sanity in adding to my care-taking load; yet it just felt like it would be good therapy for me, if not for Jim.

    We named him Therapy, in fact, and he is that for me and for Jim. Not only is he already a great friend, but we all three get to share MILEPOSTS several times a day. Training a small dog is great for curing depression, and seems to work well as discipline for early to mid-stage Alzheimer’s patients as well. No scientific study here, but calm assertiveness, reward and repetition appears to have provided Jim with a great week and put smiles on his face, me with goals and milestones, and a happier household all around. So Jim forgets his name, so what? He doesn’t forget the love or affection.

    I hadn’t recognized the importance of the milestones, but that is exactly what had been missing which the dog/Therapy vitally provides. The love is good, too.

    Becky (txbeck)

  17. Becky said,

    Oops, sorry, Annie. I guess it is Rod, not you, who is the genius this time. Thanks for the insight, both of you!

  18. amba12 said,

    Becky, when I read your first comment I was just about to come over here and say “I can’t take the credit for that!” when I got your second one.

    Yes, that was an important idea Rod provided. Taking care of Jacques, I guess I feel that every time I get him up and out of the house it’s a milepost, but a milepost sunk into mud which then keels over and gets washed away. The same thing has to be done over and over and over again, and the only ground gained is that less ground is lost.

    The form of dementia J has, the diagnosis of which is fuzzy (maybe Lewy Body dementia with Parkinsonism? It isn’t typical anything. He’s physically incapacitated and incontinent as well as confused and apathetic), is different from Alzheimer’s, but amounts to the same ballpark. Two years ago, for his 79th birthday, I decided it was time we had a Siamese cat again. (We’ve had lots of cats of all stripes, but he had Siamese when we met — it was why we met — and we’d had another Siamese of another generation in the middle years of our life together, who lived 18 years. They are part cat, part human.) Best $600 I ever spent. Rainy has been a joy, entertainment, and consolation for both of us. J often calls him by the “middle Siamese cat’s” name.

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