I’ve been away. And for good reason. I’ve been writing, not quite every day but almost. All those strands of thought I’ve spent the past two-plus years collecting are weaving together into an imitation of an honest-to-god manuscript.
At present, I’ve got exactly 27,766 words. If we’re being technical, I’ve got about a bazillion more words than that, but 27,766 is the number of words that fall in order, one after another, into sentences and paragraphs and pages. In Microsoft Word terms, that’s about eighty double-spaced pages. And while I’m happy, thrilled even, about this sense of forward progress, the evolution of a bunch of disparate passages into a single, coherent thing brings its own unexpected anxieties.
Mostly, I worry about being a woman writing about love. I try hard to be smart and unsentimental, to be honest in a way that occasionally makes me uncomfortable. But I sometimes wonder about being dismissed as a girl who’s writing for other girls about their favorite girly subject. I am well aware of how writing anything that falls within the sphere of domesticity (or, even worse, romance) can relegate a women to the genre of chick-memoir or win her the label of myopic navel gazer.
And I worry about how slowly I write. I have, more than once, spent hours on a just few sentences. I’ve had the idea of this book for four years now, and have been writing it for at least two and a half. I try to think of Marilynne Robinson, who published her first novel (the truly excellent Housekeeping, which you must read if you are at all interested sentences) in 1980, and her second, which won the Pulitzer Prize, nearly twenty-five years later in 2004. In fact, each of her three novels has won a major book prize. She is not prolific, but profound, I tell myself.
Once I’ve got that Pulitzer nomination under my belt, I too can be less anxious about tangible productivity. For now, though, I am my usual, cautious self. I do not trust my sentences. I third- and fourth-guess them. It is better, I think, to trust in the writing process (that is, showing up at the computer every day for as much time as I can manage) than to trust in my own words. If you think something is good, give it a couple weeks. Things change.
An odd by-product of being cautious in writing about love, and of training yourself to doubt your initial instincts, to let them sit awhile before acting on them, is that you may also become doubtful of your instincts when it comes to love itself. You may (and when I say ‘you’ here, it’s obvious I mean me, right?) develop a belief that you can out-think love. Anthropologist Helen Fisher says when it comes to falling in love we are compatible with any number of people, and psychologist Art Aron says he thinks he can simulate the conditions of falling in love in his lab. So surely it should be possible to find a nice young man and, by trusting in modern science, persuade yourself to fall madly in love with him.
Love stories tend to promote a mystical, dreamy attitude toward something which is actually a complex biological, social, and emotional process. This observation is at the core of what I’m writing. But scientific prudence only takes one so far. Love is a relatively-new subject of scientific study (compared to closely-related subjects like sex, marriage, and reproduction), and each study’s focus is incredibly narrow–not to mention often contradicted by the research of others in the same field. Some of my best friends spend their days quantifying and measuring things like happiness and morality, so it is easy to believe that our most fundmental and abstract human experiences are in fact quantifiable, to think I really ought to invest in the science of love. However, at the moment the return on my investment is small. To put it scientifically:
Being up on the current neurological and psychological science of love ≠ falling in love.
Being authoritatively skeptical of love stories ≠ being wiser in love.
In better news, I have, in the past few weeks, refined one very crucial skill: saying no. I have learned not to answer my phone, not to check for texts, to say, “I can’t today, I’m writing.” It’s easy to say, “I can’t go rock climbing/ to the pub/ for coffee, I’m grading papers.” No one criticizes you for grading papers. No one thinks it’s indulgent or should be put off until later. It is, after all, legitimized by a paycheck, and by the earnest faces waiting with enthusiasm or dread for the paper’s return. People understand that it must be done. But writing, this elusive thing I am supposedly doing while everyone else is in the office, writing is so much harder to justify.
It’s not that I’d rather spend time with my computer than my friends (most often I wouldn’t as my friends provide so much more gratification than re-reading something I wrote a month ago to discover it’s disjointed and flat), but rather that the work of writing a big project gives me an abiding and significant challenge, something so big and so constant that without it, I fear my days would become flimsy. Nothing else I do, not teaching or skiing or climbing or socializing, provides the purposefulness of writing a book. Maybe when I have a kid one day, that will do it, though I’m still waiting to make that judgement. For now, on the very best writing days, I am rewarded with a sense of becoming, of verging, of deep living that no other earthly activity provides. I didn’t know this would happen when I started this project, but in some ways it feels like falling in love itself: terrifying and obsessive and somehow just when things are about to go sour I hit some strange high that gets me invested all over again.
To soothe my anxieties, I love turning to Richard Gilbert’s blog “Narrative.” Gilbert writes so lucidly about his own struggles in putting together a memoir, about issues of craft and narrative in ways that get right to the heart of the task. Today, I’ve found exactly what I needed in his notes on writing from Verlyn Klinkenborg:
Writing is thinking. It is hard. You must learn to think yourself. Go think. The more you do, you can remember what you thought about. Writers fail as writers because they fail to think. The literature that’s great is a product of thought and choices.
There it is, the justification of slowness, just the small push I need to keep trudging along. And this:
Notice what interests you. Most people have no idea. Care about what you care about. Being a writer is a perpetual act of self-authorization. Authority is ultimately something the reader holds. But vital.
Self-authorization, permission to say, “Love stories are important.” The further I get from my relationship with J, the more difficult it is to justify (or to relate to) how big our love story–from beginning to end–always felt to me. Maybe we both needed to believe we were experiencing something no one else had experienced; it kept us invested. And for years it felt like it was possible that we might never experience anything as intense or meaningful or profound as that love. Even though, when thinking rationally, we always knew better.
For more Klinkenborg, check out his recent piece in the New York Times.