[Photo by Yanyi: A gnarled, wind-blown tree grows on a desert trail peak in Abiquiu, New Mexico. The tree is split at the trunk in several branches, its roots poking up from the arid dirt. Its branches showcase green leaves. In the distance, a figure walks away on a gently-rising slope. Another mountain is visible in the background.]
I hope this letter finds you well.
I write to you from this overwhelmed world. Everything is happening at the same time, and everything requires immediate attention. There is work to be done on the day to day, and work to be done with the larger community. This might be the fault of an emerging writer, but writing has become a hectic practice for me lately.
I try to write about all my feelings at once. In doing so I feel immobilized by its grand size and expanse, and in the end become detached, as an easier way out. I know as a writer, it is our job to write during struggles, to write through uncontrollable forces and fear. But I’m lost at how to organize this compound of daily occurrences and responses. Should I separate them strand by strand, focus on one feeling at a time, or wait for the feelings to settle, to sort themselves out?
Maybe it’s a task writers always have to work on, but I would really like to learn how another writer works with chaos and obligations, how to be sincere with one’s feelings yet have some focus.
Thank you for The Year of Blue Water. And thank you for your work and time.
All the best,
Thank you for writing to me about your dilemma, which is felt not only during pandemics but during the usual course of working under exploitative conditions in “normal” times. Trust me when I say that your struggle comes not from being an emerging writer, but that you’ve discovered, in practice, the question of where writing fits—if ever—in daily life. You describe yours as being filled with everyday work and the public work, I assume, that is tied to aiding and resisting the political transformations of our time.
There are two ways I could answer your letter. There’s your outward question, asking practically about how to balance writing with life, but there’s also a second and deeper one, and I think that’s where I need to go first before I talk concretely about your original query.
The first word that jumped out to me when I read your letter is “overwhelmed.” Although you’re talking about the world when “everything is happening at the same time” and “everything requires immediate attention,” it’s also you who is “[trying] to write about all [your] feelings at once.” It’s only when you “detach” that you don’t feel this way, but you judge yourself immediately when you do that, calling it “an easier way out.” You’re also saying, on top of the everyday work and the public work, that you feel it is “our job” as writers “to write during struggles, to write through uncontrollable forces and fear."
I was once having a particularly bad time when my parents were trying to force me to live my life as a straight person. I was told I had no choice in the matter because I was from my family and therefore smart and, as a smart girl, I would identify how crooked I had become and course-correct accordingly. It was, implicitly, an ultimatum, though I was never actually given the other choice. If I made another choice, I was allowing my parents to judge me as not smart and, even worse, as a degenerate who wouldn’t be recognized as part of the family at all. I was kept up at night with convoluted problem-solving in trying to balance both lives, going as far as to figuring out which cis male friends of mine would agree to a sham wedding, then how I would keep up the ruse...
Eventually, one night, this problem-solving spiraled into a panic attack. And it was during that panic attack that I realized my stress would not disappear even if I balanced these two lives perfectly. I would barely manage the emotional strain and mental gymnastics it would take to lie at the scale required and I would never make art again.
You know how the story ends. Art was, at that time, the only place I harbored a sense of self. It was the only place I truly felt free to do whatever I wanted, where no one else was watching or judging me; where passing thoughts could play out more definitively; where life, examined and reimagined, only had to make meaning for me. I don’t exaggerate when I say that to never be able to enter that place again—it was tantamount to a living death.
You will not, and cannot, write your way through disaster, because writing is not an occupation, it is an assertion of humanity. Writing is the demand and practice of freeing oneself. Not freedom to harm others or freedom to disappear from history, but freedom in your life to think and feel for yourself. No matter what the struggles for human dignity and freedom are in our time, art is the freedom we can access today. It is not a duty but a liberation.
When you say that overcoming chaos is a “task” or writers have a “job” to write through our collective struggles, you’re treating writing as a duty. In order to be a real writer, you might say to yourself, you must fulfill x requirements, and any misstep will disqualify you. Perhaps you’re used to gritting your teeth through the grueling work to get that A+, that acknowledgement, or that love. Perhaps you’re used to who you are being set as a series of tasks. You’re so used to it that you now judge yourself based on the amount of work you can sustain in the hopes of receiving others’ approval. You’ve disciplined yourself to the point that when you’re overloaded, instead of stopping, you’ll try to “organize” the work into submission, and when you take a break from nonstop work, you see that as a character flaw rather than a response to your own needs.
You’re becoming aware of not only your immediate circle but also the whole world of people who need and deserve help, but you’re approaching this problem with the same survival skills. You can’t feel complete without that list of tasks being complete, but now you’ve met a series of tasks that you’ll never be able to finish. You freeze and detach because deep down, you know being able to address everything at once is impossible, and you don’t want to admit that you feel helpless in the face of that endlessness.
When you let yourself be pulled along by “everything that needs immediate attention,” your sense of priorities are not managed by your ethics, your needs, or your desires, but the needs and priorities of others. This is not your fault. Many of us have been taught by capitalism to accept the notion that our work is conditional to our worth. Many of us, living in an age of mass incarceration, have adopted punitive mindsets of good and bad and used them as motivation to “better” ourselves and others. Many of us, being raised in environments of emotional and/or resource scarcity, didn’t have the language or ability to ask or receive the care we wanted as children. Instead, we learned how to perform for attention. Instead, we imagined and believed there were reasons we weren’t worthy of care. We like being in control so we’re not helpless to that judgment: that’s more than we could ever bear.
In order to fight for freedom, we need everyone to be free. In order to be free, we must first confront the emotional conditions that keep us from living freely. If you keep going the way you’re going, you will exhaust yourself and detach from not only writing, but everything you do, for good. Instead of learning how to balance everything and everyone at once, you must change the conditions of your life. You will change them by choosing them. That is, you must imagine, and choose, the unspoken choice.
We cannot just survive in a world that needs to change. We must cultivate the world we want to inhabit without shame or fear. Choosing is the opposite of reacting. Reacting is being caught, without much consent, in someone else’s play with someone else’s words in your mouth. Choosing your own life requires being selfish. It requires trusting in abundance and not scarcity—that there is someone else responding to those calls; that we step in for each other. It requires detaching, not forever but for a little while, to actively cultivate the life you would fight for to live. In that life, you are driven by more than outrage, guilt, and shame. In that life, you have the courage to choose a daily life that aligns with your ethics and desires. In that life, you’ll be able to pay forward the work that someone else has done on your behalf in a sustainable way.
I’m not advising that you abandon all else and sequester in a secluded cabin for months. In fact, that is impossible for most people even beyond these extraordinary times, given the staggering levels of unemployment, childcare responsibilities, and simply looking after one’s mental health in the face of incontestable state neglect and violence, all of which I infer from the “everything” that needs “immediate attention” in your letter. But I do advise you to ask yourself why you want to write a response so quickly. Is there clout to be gained? A feeling you’re trying to write away? A political duty you’re telling yourself that you’re fulfilling, when there are many more existing and useful ways to be directing that energy? For there is no consequence for not writing. There is no consequence for not writing for a very long time. The critic Hugh Kenner once said to George Oppen, a poet who stopped writing to fully work in political activism, that he merely “took twenty-five years to write the next poem.”*
A dedication to art is not measured by output, but perseverance of a state of mind. You may find it helpful to practice awareness without response: for example, what would it mean to read without direction? What are you noticing today about a text? The world? What do you find pleasurable? What interests you about it? Start by practicing awareness of your own joys. Practice noticing your thoughts, then writing them down whenever they appear, rather than following a rigid schedule. Keep a notebook or a file on your computer or phone that you don’t reread or try to write from for a few months.
If your mind is allowed to play, it will collect, over time, a map of your desires. That map will point you toward not only what you care about but also what you need for your own care. Only then can you build the life necessary that will make your creative work possible.
* Dembo, L.S and George Oppen. “George Oppen.” Contemporary Literature, Spring, 1969, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Spring, 1969). University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 159- 177. Online: http://www.jstor.com/stable/1207758