Writing and Doom

That day’s Sinking Feeling Epiphany:

Every day is September.

(Can I still do this?)

The day after Labour Day — in Canada, it’s the first Monday of September — always loomed anxiously. For most of my adult life, it meant being back in a high school classroom, the Return of the Creature. From about the last week of August, the Creature Dreams would begin their annual limited engagement. (It’s an auspicious day, great things to teach or coach, but I can’t find my classroom/the gym, materials are a bizarro mess, and wait didn’t I have clothes on before? and this place looks vaguely familiar but why’s the ceiling getting so low and holy-cow-my-feet-are-stuck-in-what.) Teaching and coaching were performance arts, and so there was performance anxiety, more than 20 years of it, but mainly confined to the first Tuesday morning of the school year. I always got an adrenalizing dose of can I still do this? but I was unfailingly reassured about five minutes into period one: yeah, ‘course you can. You’re built for this. I am Creature. Hear me creach!

Maybe I’m just tired and lonely in this writing thing. In June, we were not only packing, finishing our teaching jobs, and preparing to leave China and our Chinese friends after five years, but I’d accepted a writing deadline: June 30.¹ I met it, sort of, but there is still a long grind ahead on that project. A month ago, though, I was in the best, the most grittily real writing stretch of my still fairly young writing life. (I’m a middle-aged guy, but I take absurd but rich comfort in reminding myself, “But I’m still a young writer!” My game is growing, though my quickness and ball-handling have withered on the vine.)

¹ I’m writing (sshhh!) a b–k. (Whew. There! I’ve said it. Again.) Don’t tell anybody, unless a) you want to, or b) you are closely connected to agents or publishing houses for ground-breaking non-fiction on men, sports and meaning.

In June (and now, intermittently but even more loudly, amid the spotty productivity of a travel-ridden, seismic and homeless July), every day brought the question: Can I still do this? Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art paints a picture of the striver — a writer, in his case and increasingly in mine — facing his fears and his obstacles, steeling himself, striding manfully off to the hill and the Hunt. I went through gardens, along a downhill street to a nearby university, where I generally headed for Teaching Building Number One. Every step was serious, and increasingly haunted by performance anxiety. Can I still do this? (Going back all the way to, like, the previous day.)

Maybe that’s what it feels like to be a young writer, or just an old dog with a new existential bone to bury. Maybe it won’t always feel this way. When I got to Number One and stationed myself behind a wooden table in a mouldy 1950s lecture theatre (with Chinese characteristics), it wasn’t long before the hunt bore some more or less meaty results. I did get the reassurance, but it wasn’t as deep as that classroom breath, or as broad as my here we go, gang smile. It was grudging, more along the lines of well, ya fooled ‘em again, buddy. Good luck pulling that off again! Still, good job today, but it’s worthless if you screw up tomorrow

That’s how I feel right now, after an hour on an overdue blog post. It appeases. It relieves. No, more than that, it is a genuine satisfaction, but I’m only too aware of what we tend to ask performers. What have you done for me lately? The jocks are haunted by this reminder: You’re only as good as your last game. These sentences punch me regularly, not just when I’m not writing but, if June’s any indication, even more insistently when I am. I’ll tell you, it did feel good to be grinding away like that, pounding the rock with a regular beat, but I look forward to the day when confident conviction lasts longer than 24 hours.

Comments (2)

  1. Michael Freeman

    I’m confused. Is this post about a return to the classroom that isn’t going to happen, or about the fleeting art and craft of writing ability, or both? [Both, Mr. Free. jh]
    I always begrudge the first few days, the first few weeks of school — a return to all the planning, the repeated behaviours, the daily drudgery — but not because I wonder whether I can do it again. Rather, because I wonder whether I want to do it again. A return to the same old same old. Once back into it, there is no question that that is where I should be and that is what I should be doing, but the nag of doing something else tugs away at my heart and my mind. I love teaching. But, unfortunately, so much of what a teacher does is not teaching. It is laying out what I am going to do, tracking what I have done and doing marking so that I have proof — all boring aspects that do not hold my attention nor challenge my mind. It is teaching that I want to do: engaging with students, asking them to appreciate and engage in their own education, and wondering what I could have done to improve, pondering why the lesson of the century was the flop of the day, and why students are more interested in disruption and distraction rather than reading and writing.
    Teaching is not performance art for me. It is an art, and at times, a performance, but it is a participatory interactivity between and amongst interested learners with a common goal: deeper understanding.
    I worry before every return to work that I won’t get there again this year, that I won’t even get a glimpse of it at all. And that distresses me.
    The fleeting passion to write sounds more like what is lost is the reason anyone writes. I write not because I need to. Rather, I write because I have to. I absolutely hate deadlines, but deadlines are what punctuates necessity and drives this writer to complete tasks, such as reports, and documentation. I never do my best writing under those pressures and constraints. I have to write. Mainly because I have something I need to say, but no voice to say it, no audience to hear it and no reason to publish it. Still, I feel it needs to be writ.
    Yes, my ego needs to be stroked, and yes, I like hearing when someone has read something I wrote and has actually enjoyed it, but most of my writing goes unpublished, unsaved and rarely viewed.
    As I write this, I am in Victoria BC at [a union] convention. As an officer of the Ontario region, I was obliged to write a report of my past three years’ activities to justify that I had actually done something while in office that warranted any expenditure of funds. So I wrote a 5 page account complete with pictures. Yes it was published in the convention kit for all to read. No it was not truly publication-worthy by the normal standards of publishing. In actual fact, not many conventioneers will take the time to read it, but this time I was surprised. One conventioneer happened to be standing on the sidewalk outside the hotel as I arrived. She greeted me and then told me that she thought that my report was well written. I came to find out that she had been recommending the read to all she encountered. She scratched my itch; my ego’s need to be stroked for a job well done, a writing job well done. I wrote in a form not typical of activity reports, and in a style more becoming of my creative flair and interests. The standard outlay of dates and activities bored me. To make the exercise more interesting for me, and apparently for some of those that read it, I had to find a way to make the task worth doing. Necessity was not an effective motivator. Deadlines are demotivating. I think my point, although almost lost in this convoluted mianderance, is that writing is an expression of the passion to communicate one’s ideas. Writing of any other import is just another job to do or task to perform. Unshackle the mind of deadlines and obligation. Let passion be your guide, expression your tool and satisfaction your reward.

  2. Sherri

    Hmmmm….A tasty morsel in this post for sure! I look forward to distracting you in the coming weeks.

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