I think a confession is in order—confessions being best risked when no one is likely to care—but for quite a long time in the last decade writing stopped working for me. At all. If you pop over to my bibliography page you’ll note the vast hole in my vita between 2004 and 2009—and things really don’t get going again until 2012. Nothing at all. A gaping lacunae, you might say if you wanted to get fancy. A crater in my semi-professional life.
There are lots of reasons why that happened, some of which I’m inclined to share only in part. Let me just say that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (the “bad” kind, not that the “good” kind is especially pleasant) which has only in the last year been fully and successfully medicated; attendant upon said illness I experienced—or caused; the line is hard and painful to draw—vast personal upheavals that have only in the last year settled back into a stable and rewarding existence. I mention all this in passing only because bipolar is often, even usually, accompanied by subsidiary diagnoses which derailed me the few times I actually sat down before a keyboard.
The most important word in that sentence is “keyboard”; the subsidiary diagnoses, which are probably two ways of saying the same thing, include obsessive-compulsive disorder and an anxiety disorder. The obsessive-compulsive and anxiety issues interacted with my word processor in brain-frying ways. Whenever I sat down at the keyboard, anxious about the quality of the work (no heckling please), I obsessed over each sentence, moving clauses around, substituting one verb for another, cutting adjectives and adding them back, then searching for new adjectives altogether, and occasionally succumbing to a nearly fatal aversion to any adverbs whatsoever. As a consequence, my writing ground to a virtual halt. Sentences consumed days, paragraphs weeks.
Even worse, I became obsessed with making the length of each line of type line up exactly with the length of every other line. I would labor for hours, rephrasing and rewriting, cutting words and adding others in just to fill out the line. Sometimes I would try using Word’s “justify margins” option to get around the problem, but come submission time, I would have to restore the ragged right margin—and I found myself right back where I started. It was easier just to walk away.
Except, if you’re compelled to write, as I seem to be, walking away is every bit as painful as sticking around and dealing with the length of each line.
And then, properly medicated so as to eliminate the personal turmoil, I happened across an avenue around my obsessive compulsion with symmetry. Literally happened across—as in one day happened into my wife’s high school classroom when she was teaching a Wendell Berry poem called “How to be a Poet.” The second stanza begins:
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Live a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
The entire poem was a revelation to me, but the phrase “stay away from screens” really stuck in my head. And what I remembered was the joy writing used to bring me, back in the days when I was a kid, printing out my stories on plain white notebook paper, illustrating them (because pictures are important), and stapling them together for distribution to family and friends.
Please note: this isn’t advice, though the rest of the poem—I’ll let you seek it out on your own—speaks to me with the same truth as that single line. By all means, if you want to write, do what works for you; our processes all differ and I wouldn’t want to get in your way.
But returning to writing by hand (I’ve given up on the illustrations . . . mostly), has opened a new doorway to me. There is an entire ritual to the process that feels sacred (another of Berry’s words), from the choice of your notebook to the pen in your hand. I’ve stocked up on enough notebooks to last me years—leather-bound journals, the durable moleskins that you find at Barnes and Noble, even spiral-bound kid’s notebooks with pictures of cuddly cartoon animals on them (an especial weakness—a story for another day). Just lately, I’m using the moleskin notebooks for the novel in (laborious) process, and blue Jimnie Gel Rollerball pens that make me feel intimately connected to the words. I think that’s important, feeling connected to the words.
It’s a pleasant feeling, one I haven’t experienced in a long time.