[Photo by Yanyi: At the New York Botanic Garden, verdant green plants are lined on a ledge in a greenhouse in different terracotta planters. A few are showing up with small, bright-red flowers. As you look down the line into the distance, streams of light are breaking through the leaves in rays.]
Thank you so much for this platform, and for taking out the time and energy to answer questions and offer your experience and advice to readers.
I graduated from an MFA program in 2017 and am now pursuing my PhD. I haven’t published anything, and increasingly feel like i keep coming back to school to avoid the “real work” of producing/publishing meaningful and well-crafted work. I suddenly find this path lonely without mentors or friends with the same long-term goals. My family and friends are all very supportive and loving. I feel ungrateful for wishing I had a team and a coach/mentor especially since in high school and college I felt comfortable and happy enough to work on my own. I wasn’t so much a team player then, and was happy that my friends had similar interests even if they didn’t have the same goals. Now, whether for a lack of confidence and internal motivation or because I’ve changed and now want to be part of a team, I find myself most times unable to write or study. All of the goals of my childhood (which have been consistent for more than 20 years of my life) suddenly feel almost worthless. I am still passionate about literature, and still write creatively—but its not at the pace I want, and certainly not the quality I want.
Many days just blocking off these thoughts and working in spite of myself does the trick, but some days, like this week, I can’t bring myself to do anything.
Any thoughts you have on overcoming any of these issues would be much appreciated.
I received your letter around the time I was writing this week’s kickoff to the MFA series of The Writing. So much of what you’ve talked about—the MFA, the supportive community now gone, and going to school for your PhD—came up in my answer. There, I said that it’s important not to run away from the responsibility of creating your own structures in life. I’m going to say that again, but with one big caveat.
Not knowing you personally, having a reassuring, external structure to your life in your community and in school may have meant you didn’t have to work so hard if you wanted to get some reassurance or guidance around your writing, even if no one else had similar goals. You had a social (and maybe other) safety nets and it sounds like you’re aware of that and grateful for them.
I can’t tell exactly from your letter if your friends have changed—still similar interests but dissimilar long-term goals, or just different people?—but I can tell that something has changed for you. For whatever reason, whatever you were reaching for when you were able to stake it out on your own in the past has disappeared. Although not much has changed in your immediate life, whatever ambitions that you had laid before yourself now seem “worthless” and you think that only you have changed, so you blame yourself with lack of “confidence” or “motivation” or even the fact that you want to be part of a team.
But here’s my caveat. Things have changed. Making art requires energy on top of energy in this world. When your life changes, the writing will always tell you first. It—the real stuff—can’t be reduced to a daily churn of words on a page to be dashed to a printer. It can’t be made by staring at the same spreadsheets, looking out the same window, or repeating the same beliefs that have held nations in their places for centuries in the past. Turn a stone however many times you want: it won’t transform into a jewel.
As I write to you, the world around us is crumbling. Over the past week alone, police let a white 17-year-old teenager—a year away from getting a police badge, a weapon, and qualified immunity himself—murder two people right before our eyes. They claimed that he was “resolving a conflict” only days after they shot the unarmed Jacob Blake seven times in the back after he was actually trying to resolve a conflict. August 27 was Toyin Salau’s birthday. A tropical storm and hurricane barreled through the Gulf of Mexico back-to-back while California is still burning. We found out that Chadwick Boseman was hiding a fight with colon cancer so he could bring so many action films to life in the past four years. We are several months into quarantining from a pandemic without a vaccine and the leaders who are supposed to help everyone through all of these catastrophes don’t even believe they’re happening, don’t care, and are making matters so much deadlier.
Of course your goals seem worthless right now. Goals exist where you can touch your loved ones, visit them at the hospital, and send them off after death. Goals exist in a future where we can still breathe the air outside. Goals exist in a world where you’re still alive.
Art, when it is genuine, is an embodied practice. Your goals seem worthless right now because your body is feeling no viable future in which it may exist. The present is overwhelming all time now. And in our present, in our moment, the overwhelming truth seems to be that we are not only alone but alone on a march to the end of the world with death as its inevitable conclusion.
Last fall, my therapist introduced me to an expansion of the cycle of fight-or-flight, the changed state of the body during an extreme stress response: freeze. The analogy I read about later, online, was of an antelope who goes limp after being captured by a lion. It knows it’s going to die: why not just go limp, or go to sleep, and let the end be a little less painful?
Freeze, more than fight or flight, explained what I had been doing for most of my life in harmful episodes of my life. Rather than running away or fighting dangerous emotional situations, I resigned (back into the closet, back into my headphones) and my body helped me survive by kicking up my dissociation and fatigue. I resigned because I felt powerless. And I got into the habit of giving up early because the struggle seemed too large for me to ever win on my own.
Perhaps, R, your hypotheses are right, and you can’t work on your goals because you’re not motivated or confident. Perhaps you look out your window or check the news and your confidence and motivation are being swept away in the floodwaters of cynical self-interest and systemic genocide. Perhaps you look at the goals you made twenty years ago, in a world that doesn’t exist anymore, and you don’t know how you’ll reach them in this world that you don’t yet know. Perhaps, though you don’t say this in your letter, you are missing the person you once were, before all this, the person who had, without effort, all that ambition and hope.
Maybe, like me, you’ve grown tired of being “resilient” and “strong.” Maybe you’ve grown tired of speaking and thinking about these disasters as veiled obstacles to endure and move on from to go back to “normal.” Maybe you’ve grown tired of reaching backward, in nostalgia or mandatory customer service, using your energy to be a person who doesn’t exist anymore.
We’ve reached a point where upholding normalcy is not—and has never been—the point. The world around us is not crumbling, it is transforming. You and I are part of it. We too are becoming the future. But right now we’re living in two worlds: one that’s disappearing and another that’s just about to emerge.
In the world that’s disappearing, we imagined life in occupations. Writers produce words, so the life of the writer is the moment when the words are written. This is what propels the idea that writers thrive in remote cabins, seaside cottages, or the itinerant, chain-smoking solitude of the cooped-up East Village apartment with only a mattress on the floor, as mythological as fairies. But myths don’t eat, don’t breathe, and don’t have loved ones. Myths aren’t alive.
If you think the only things that affect your writing practice are at your writing desk and your immediate community, you’re trying to live, still, in an old-world fairytale. We can’t escape the world; we bring it to our writing. Boundaries emerge in crisis. And it’s this crisis of privacy—private land, private control, private responsibility—all these beliefs that fuel capitalism and neoliberal ideas of how to be, that are starting to feel half-baked. For it can be terrifying to realize there’s no great escape at the end of the work day. It can be terrifying to understand there’s no privacy sealed off from the public, for it’s not each other we’re supposed to escape from but the myth that we were ever alone.
In the last sections of Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt writes extensively on loneliness and its part in totalitarian states. There, she is careful to specify that loneliness and solitude are not the same things. While both are a kind of being alone, solitude is time with oneself that always includes the possibility and existence of others. Loneliness is an isolation where there is no “you” among whom “I” exists.
What makes loneliness so unbearable is the loss of one’s own self which can be realized in solitude, but confirmed in its identity only by the trusting and trustworthy company of my equals. In this situation, man loses trust in himself as the partner of his thoughts and that elementary confidence in the world which is necessary to make experiences at all. Self and world, capacity for thought and experience are lost at the same time.*
In the world that’s emerging, you need other voices, other people, and other ideas in order to experiment and decide on new forms of life. Transformation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Your desire to be part of a team right now is an intuitive response to our larger moment; your desire for community is a recognition that there is no survival without making space for each other. Without a community within which you can confirm your identity, it’s harder to be your own partner in solitude. You remain, instead, equivocal. You forget who you are writing to.
R, it may well be that you need a community of writers, but now, more than ever, you need community in the world, whatever that means for you. If your writing goals no longer serve you, thank them for the motivation they’ve given you these past twenty years and let them go: they had their purpose. Think deeply about the structures you’re holding onto: many of them won’t hold down in the tides to come. In the world that’s emerging, the measure of your writing is no longer appointed by publication and prestige. It won’t stand long in a world with fewer statues and more memorials. You can’t hide behind a blank screen or page when the window behind it shows a world that needs making, one that is only possible with your help; your spirit; your hope; your dreams. Writing is only one way this world can happen. It’s only by being part of that new world that you’ll know what’s worth making next.
Chadwick Boseman, through hiding cancer and illness, not only continued to work but to act in action films. To bring onto the screen a future in which Black lives not only matter, but created a world independent of the one we know today; a world where, I hope, no one in serious pain or illness would have to hide it again. He didn’t live to become a myth. He gave his community, and all of us, myths to live. And that is the mandate of the artist at all times, but especially now. Especially in a time when death stares down from the end of the road.
I believe, as artists, we’ve only heard one side of the story. We don’t just write to express ourselves. We write to be in conversation with each other. Through time. Over continents and languages. Beyond life and death. Literature lives because, lifetime after lifetime, world after world, writers have wanted to talk to each other. To remember. To go on. To share the hindsight of the future with the wisdom of the past. To fall in love again and again, differently. To speak defiantly in the midst of death. Speaking from one world, even between worlds. Making another way.
* Just an IOU on page number here—my library is still in storage. But here’s a convenient link to the book.
Author’s note: Due to my moving schedule, this week’s The Writing will be on Tuesday at noon instead of Wednesday. I’ll be continuing with the MFA series.