For someone who thinks of herself as a writer, I’m writing very little these days. It’s been months since I’ve liked anything I’ve made, or since I’ve felt much pleasure in making it. From where I sit, likely culprits include Twitter, television, and a growing sense of self-consciousness, but I’ve come to writing this here, and now, in part because I can’t quite tell why I’ve ground to such a halt. The exact reasons are murky, even if the timeline of my realizing what is happening is not. It started with a dog.
In July, a friend of mine died, and his widow asked if I would take his dog. Although I’d known this dog for many years to be a calm, assured, stately fellow, our beginning in California was proving rocky. He whined in the doorways, keened into the empty air, paced through the nights. I could find no cause of his discomfort. I reached out to a writer friend, a woman who knew about dogs, wrote about dogs, had taken in dogs of all kinds her whole life. I needed help.
To clarify: when I say “writer friend,” what I really mean is “writer in whose workshop I was a student at a conference exactly once and who, for whatever reason, took a bit more of an interest in my work than was strictly required by her position, and who now, on very slim occasion, emails me, and who I, on very slim occasion, email as well.” She is advanced and successful, has published many excellent books and won prizes for them, makes her living writing, teaching, and lecturing.
She is what I’ll call here a Made Writer, and I call her a friend too not because we’re friends exactly, but because I was writing to ask her about my life, and about my dog. We were speaking of human things, not of writerly things.
She wrote me back with many helpful suggestions. She had, it turned out, some specific experience with dogs whose owners had died and the anxieties of those animals. We emailed back and forth. Toward the end of our exchange, as an aside, she mentioned that she’d been working on a new piece about dogs, actually, and that she’d been talking to Michael Ondaatje about it, and that he’d forwarded a video which she’d in turn attached for me.
I opened the file, twitchy with that particular thrill of finding oneself proximal to the famous; a video of Michael Ondaatje’s dog! As I watched, a largeish dog ambled across the entrance to a drive-through carwash. As the scrubbing spindles began to turn, the dog rubbed his flank along their length, shivering with delight, leaning hard as dogs do into sensations they love. When the scrubbers stopped, the dog barked, paced, waited, dove gleefully back in when they started again.There is a kind of freedom in divorcing the maker from what is made.
Of course, I thought, this is Michael Ondaatje’s dog, by which I meant, of course Michael Ondaatje, brilliant writer, would have a brilliant dog. And it might be true that Michael Ondaatje does in fact have a dog with these (or other) particular talents, but what I’d come to understand shortly (after paging through the exchange a second time) is that nothing actually suggested this was Ondaatje’s dog. Sure, he sent the video, but that was all. I’d made the leap of ownership on my own. I’d equated Michael Ondaatje’s singularity and success in writing with Michael Ondaatje’s singularity and success in dogs, which is to say, singularity in life, in self. He was his writing, and his writing was him.
Before we continue, and to clarify: I am not a Made Writer. I am, at best, a writer in the middle-beginning of her career, a writer who finds herself in the anxious, hand-wringing early-success-place of having seen some of her work recognized, but not yet knowing what that will mean.
After piddling away in obscurity for a decade and earning an MFA, and after seeing two or three publications during that decade in journals that either do not exist anymore or have little to no footing in the literary world, my career has accelerated. I was granted a scholarship to a high-profile conference, and then another; I was awarded a residency, and landed a story at a lit mag you would recognize, and then another, and another.
As a result of some of this, I started to get emails from agents, and although no one who’s read it thinks my manuscript is a book, it’s become clear to me that if there is a path to having a book, I am on it, or one iteration of it, or anyway I am Doing the Writer Thing. That I feel this way only by the measures of these externalities is, of course, and like Ondaatje’s dog, part of the problem.
After a brief and thrilling few months in which my productivity seemed to flourish with all this newfound external support, I’ve come to hate this part of my career. I am not writing as much, and what I do write is by any measure flatter, more predictable, and emotionally more wretched to come by. I have stopped reading almost entirely (the last book I read was The Beet Queen, and it took me four months to finish it). I watch endless hours of television, a lot of which I’ve seen several times already. I turn my mind off whenever possible, which is one of the swiftest ways I know to poison any hope of meaningful work.
I do this for a reason, of course. That reason is: the experience of being in my own mind is uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. My mind is, when allowed to rest, at odds with itself. Languishing in it is the last thing I want to do.
I am sure this reality comes from many places, and that some of those are personal to me, but I recently had a conversation with another writer who seems to be having a similar experience, and that conversation led me to wonder if we are perhaps part of a larger trend. I also met this writer at a conference (different than where I’d met the writer who knows dogs) and on the phone, this other beginning-middle writer lamented how much she hated her own work. She wasn’t writing anything she liked. In fact, she was making most of her living copywriting, which was its own special hell. Why was this happening to us?
We discussed everything: the pressures of the externality, how hard it was to resist the value system of prestige that permeates the literary world, how much it seemed that what mattered in that world (our world?) was not the quality of the work as we understood it, but the determination of the value of that work as offered by external sources. It was turning our minds inside out. It was making us insane.
“I hate myself,” she said to me. She had been a social worker in her life before writing, had worked all over the Gulf South, had been invested in that work, deeply, in her communities, in people. And while maybe she’d switched to writing several years ago because it too held all those qualities, it no longer did. I told her the same thing; I told her the worst part, which was that it meant I wasn’t really writing very well anymore, when I wrote at all.
“You lost yourself,” she said. “Your writing found a place, traction maybe, but you lost yourself along the way.”
I do not know this woman well but I found in our brief conversation a kind of instant recognition of what was happening to me. The line between who I was and what I was making had blurred to the point where every word I thought to put down was no longer a word, but a potential definition of my person, this for an external audience in a hypothetical future on which the immense fate of my entire career was resting. The value of what I might create had little to do with the work, and was instead tied to a version of myself, this version to be determined by other people, none of whom I knew at the time. I was writing for ghosts. Horrible, mean, unpredictable, unfathomable ghosts.
I don’t think this pattern—in which the complex, interested, curious self creates interesting writing, which in turn garners recognition, which in turn buries the once-curious mind in a value system that hinders the creation of interesting writing—I do not think this is limited to the beginning-middle writer.
In fact, at that same conference where I met my despondent kindred writer friend, I saw it in a Made Writer as well. He was a faculty member at the conference, had seen enormous success with his first book, and was working toward a second. If my last few years feel fast to me, I cannot imagine what his trajectory felt like to him, in which he rocketed from a non-writing life to national acclaim in a few short years.
The pressure seemed to be eating him. He spoke to us of his struggles with his second book, how difficult it was to write in his own shadow. And, at the edges, it really did seem as if he was falling apart a little; his thoughts seemed scattered, not always making sense. It was as if the pressures of his current situation were, actually, turning him a little mad.
A lot has been written about art and madness. The general theory proposes a link between the predilection of a mind to create—art, music, writing, whatever—and the predilection of that same mind toward collapse. This is not a new idea. Scholars before me have discussed it at length (my favorite of which is Kay Redfield Jamison, much of whose work touches on this idea both creatively and scientifically). But less often discussed, I think, is a schema that doesn’t theorize an inherent link, but a circumstantial one.
To my read, the reality of being an artist means, first, that one endeavors to express authenticity; the seed of that authenticity definitionally begins in a private place. Once that seed traverses the self, and is born into the world, it becomes public; for the artist to repeat this event—this private authenticity—they must exist in two worlds at once. For the artistic mind to function privately, for its own creative satisfaction, and also publicly, as an outward persona scrutinized by millions, is to require of it an ability to compartmentalize that borders on psychological instability.
Which is why I started writing this essay in the first place. I am afraid that, having stepped into the public eye (even a little, at 34), I won’t ever escape my current arrest. I am afraid that my best writing is already behind me.
Fears are not reality. I know this. Or, I repeat it to myself in the effort that it might become something I know.
If there is a solution to this—to my assumption that Michael Ondaatje’s writerly genius extends to his dog; to my beginning-middle friend’s self-loathing; to the Made Writer’s struggle with his second book—I think it has to lie somewhere adjacent to the New Critical view of literary criticism. That there is a kind of freedom in divorcing the maker from what is made.
At yet another literary conference, at which I met yet another Made Writer (yes, probably I should just take a break from these), I heard the only piece of advice that I’ve found practical in these struggles of the last year. I was sitting with this writer in a one-on-one meeting, on Zoom, and instead of talking about the essay I’d submitted to our workshop, I’d spent our time enumerating these anxieties, asking if she experienced them when she was starting out, asking how she navigated them.
She was an older writer, had come up decades ago, and told me that she had, certainly, but also that in some ways, it was just easier back then: no internet, no social media. The world—literary and otherwise—was slower, in some ways smaller. But she did return often to something a professor of hers had said, which is that if she took care of the work, the work would take care of her.
These days, I am clinging to the concurrent divorce and collaboration of this idea. My work is something I am tasked with taking care of, yes, but it is also something entirely different from myself, the me. In turn, the idea of taking care of the self actually looks very little like paying attention to the me at all. If I am to be a writer, then the care-taking of the self depends on the care-taking of the writing. Not who reads the writing, and not where the writing goes or who decides they like it, but the work in and of itself. Inherent here too is that the self is different from a person who is only the writer. I require other kinds of care. I require my partner, and my friends. And, of course, dogs.
My new dog is doing much better now, thanks in no small part to the emails of the Made Writer. He no longer keens at the doorways, although he does sometimes seem to look around for something that is not there. This is a product of his circumstance, I think, a discord between a life he knew before and the life he knows now. It is an understandable madness.