I’ve had a bit of the doldrums lately. I’ve got lots of work to do, lots of work that I need to make progress on, and I’ve had enormous difficulty getting started. I read an apt description of my current state of mind in an essay by Tracy Kidder called “Courting the Approval of the Dead.” He’s recalling his experience researching for Old Friends, his book on nursing homes, and coming to the realization that a fate worse than a painful death would be to spend one’s final days “bored and inert”:
What meaning could life have, I’d find myself wondering, if the best of the last things people get to do on earth is play Bingo?
I’m certainly far removed from nursing-home existence, but “bored and inert” seems to be the curtain that has been drawn over my window recently.
A couple of weeks back, I hurt my back. Kneeling on the floor putting my son’s shoes on as he readied for the bus to take him to kindergarten, I felt a strange twinge in my back, just above the crest of my pelvis on the left side. That’s odd, I thought. I stood up, felt a little pain, not too much, and sat on the couch with my son. We played with Talking Larry on my iPod until the bus came.
When I heard the bus rumbling up the hill, Alec stood up and I bent over him to put on his backpack. I found, though, that I couldn’t straighten to an upright position, so I limped bent over to the door to let him outside. I told him goodbye, watched him climb the stairs on the bus, and then collapsed to the floor. I’ve fallen and I can’t get up, I thought.
I stayed on the floor a good twenty minutes. I didn’t feel pain as long as I laid there, but trying to get to a standing position caused deep pain in my lumbar area; if I tensed my hamstring in any way, my back hurt. I used every yoga trick I knew, rolling, using my hands to assist, to eventually get to a standing position. Standing was fine; walking was the next trick. Any forward motion of my leg on the left side caused the pain to return, so in a sort of zombie shuffle, dragging my left leg, I made my way to the couch in the family room.
I knew that getting up would be hard after I sat down again, so I made sure to visit the bathroom and then gather my laptop and the phone and TV remote and a glass of water before I sat down. I put all the items within reach and then carefully sat down and set about the business of cancelling my classes and conferences for the day.
The pain started to subside in a couple of days, and actually moved to my knee and shoulder blades as I compensated for my back. Today I feel nearly fixed, more of a tightness in the region than anything else. But this injury interrupted my practices and I am now feeling the results.
I had been riding my bicycle regularly for exercise, going to a yoga class once a week, and holding conferences with my students to keep up with grading papers. All of those things got disrupted. I’m not high energy kind of person (unless it’s something I’m really into like a video game) and all the painkillers I took were sapping my reserves. Even the over-the-counter stuff I take gives me side effects; I couldn’t imagine doing anything prescription. Needless to say, the bike and yoga class weren’t happening.
Putting things off is nothing new to me. The things I am putting off today I put off when I felt better and more energetic. It’s just now they are ganging up on me. And even the pleasurable things have started to lose their luster.
Like this blog. I feel like it’s been successful. I’ve had as many as 65 hits on a single day, and a number of comments and a few subscribers. In the two months I’ve been working at it, I’ve made 30 posts, and half of those are considerable, more than 1,000 words. It’s been a fun project, and I feel like at least someone is reading my work, which makes me feel like some kind of writer. I’ve felt as though I’ve had a couple of really good moments of discovery in my writing as well.
But now my blogging is starting to feel, for lack of a better word, “tainted.” A project for me gets tainted when some kind of negativity or problem gets attached for it that I can’t seem to resolve. When I get going on a novel manuscript, everything is new and shiny and exciting, and I really believe that I might finish it this time. Then I run into some barrier, such as a scene that I am not happy with that I know needs to be different, but I’m not sure how, and then I stall. After a couple days, I start to lose the thread of the story, and have to backtrack and re-read in order to refresh my memory. It’s difficult to come back to and the longer I am away from a manuscript, the stupider the whole enterprise seems to me in the first place. Similarly, I fall in and out of love with my poems.
This ebb and flow is not unusual, from what I’ve read of writers on their own writing. Tom Perrotta, for example:
I have to send the kids out to daycare and then drink a pot of coffee and play my guitar until I get so disgusted with myself that I have to write.
But the point for him is that eventually he does write, and has experienced success.
Anyway, this blog project became tainted in several ways. First, I started out way less than serious about blog writing, but now do take it seriously, and am reading my reference books on memoir, and am now starting to apply a higher standard (and more pressure) to myself. Second, I started out in a David Sedaris writing mode, having just finished reading a couple of his books, but am now rereading The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon, and am feeling more serious and less silly about my condition and don’t want to be pegged as a funny writer anymore (at least today). I often get seduced by what I read in the sense that if it moves me I want to emulate it. I read a lot of things and can’t decide who I want to be. I have a hard time saying, “that’s really great writing, but I’m not that kind of writer,” unless it is something extraordinarily erudite.
Finally, and this is the hardest hurdle, is that I feel like I’ve been investing time in this blog at the expense of The Things I’m Supposed To Be Doing, and therefore it is an instrument of avoidance. That’s the humdinger. The whole enterprise seems a waste of time, then, a deliberate waste of time, the wost kind. I developed this kind of Protestant work ethic idea of what a good person ought to be, and though I cannot live up to it, I nevertheless constantly compare myself to it. Good people are dependent and reliable and productive and hard working, like Boxer in Animal Farm.
“Why are you writing?” you may ask.
I had a good chat with my wife over this state of blah I’m in and mentioned feeling like this blog was a waste of time. She disagreed. “If you want to be a writer,” she said, “you have to practice.” She’s right, as usual. One makes time for the important work, and finds some way to do the rest. I am grateful for the insight, and it helped me get started on this post today.
I can almost forgive her for sleeping through my back injury.