I used to think my writing was best when it came from a state of intense emotion. I suspect a lot writers have had this thought.
This belief is useful at times. If, for example, you’re trying to be productive while struggling with a persistent-but-amorphous sense of anxiety, the anxiety can be neatly reframed as an imperative to write. The belief that writing in fact requires some form of suffering served me well all the years I spent either ignoring or tending to my “should I be in this relationship” anxiety. But when the relationship ended (and the anxiety ended and the sense of loss became bearable) writing suddenly came easily. I was focused. I wasted less time browsing strangers’ wedding albums on the internet, wondering if I could ever feel the uncomplicated happiness their faces so often betrayed. Emotional clarity, it turned out, was totally productive.*
I’m supposed to be writing an essay about what it means if you spend years thinking about the dangers of love stories and then your own love story becomes a matter of international interest. This is an interesting topic! This is an essay I’d like to read! But what I’m actually writing is an essay about doubt. Sorry if you thought that other thing sounded interesting. Someone else may have to write it, because the question I keep coming back to, in writing and in love, is this: how do you live with doubt?
Urrghghfghhg. I pose this question and then I make this sound. It is a groan that is mostly consonants. It is a feeling that lives in the throat.
Maybe this question about doubt is really a symptom of privilege. It’s a question you get to ask when you have nothing else occupying your mind.
When you write an essay (that millions of people read) about how you used science to help you fall in love, you turn your life into the kind of myth you don’t believe in.
When you ask your boyfriend what he makes of this and he says, “It’s not like you fall in love and then you’re in love. You fall in love and then you have to actually really get to know somebody,” you can feel it like a fog, the doubt that has settled over the two of you.
This is what we don’t talk about enough in love: ambivalence. And how normal it is. Maybe I am not writing an essay about doubt, maybe I’m writing an essay about ambivalence. There is a difference. Doubt is the fog. It is the feeling you can’t see through. It’s all consonants. Ambivalence is a little better. It contains some certainty. It is the yes and the no, two cards held close to the chest. You want to play them both, but you can’t.
“If you can fall in love with anyone, how do you choose?” he asked that night last summer.
“How do we live with doubt?” I ask him today over lunch.
We’ve come up with an answer. It isn’t perfect but it’s all we have. You choose. You choose over and over again. Because there is no right choice. There is no right person. There is simply someone you love, someone you have chosen, whom you will have to choose again. But there is no guarantee that you will always choose him, that he will choose you.
When you write an essay about a study designed to make two strangers fall in love and, after trying it, you yourself fall in love, and this essay goes viral, lots of people you’ve never met will care very much about the status of your relationship. This is strange.
So, how do you live with doubt?
How does my favorite purple pen still have ink when it’s appeared to be out for weeks? How do you account for the cherry blossoms and their fortitude against the rain, especially as, when I bent to pick one up, its petals scattered with a single twirl of the stem between my fingers?
Maybe some days you need to be unproductive, to live with the words that will not come. To love the one you’re with, because they deserve your love. Some days you take an inventory of the things that move you, the cherry blossoms and the purple pen and the way it feels when he reaches purposefully across the table to touch your elbow, the things that cannot be accounted for. This is one way to fight the tide of the missed busses and the overflowing recycling bin, the empty refrigerator, and the doubt. You put on your headphones and play a song at a volume that hurts just a little, a song that shepherds the mass of feelings into a single focused thing, making the unmanageable manageable in two- or three-minute intervals.
“Love isn’t pure,” my friend Erin reminds me. I know this, but I haven’t been able to articulate it so directly. Love isn’t pure but we all very badly want it to be. We want transcendence.
In my first year classes, I teach an essay by Nancy Sommers in which she says, “Love (as well as writing) involves a radical loss of certainty.” If this is true, I am definitely on the right track.
Maybe I’m writing an essay about how love, though disappointingly impure, is nonetheless a profound act of uncertainty. Maybe love is transcendent only if and because it involves a radical loss of certainty. What do you stand to gain if you are certain, if love is easy, if it never requires you to choose? Who are these dull people who have full and constant confidence in their writing or their relationships? I do not even want to know them. If you are friends with them, do not tell me.
“It’s sixty-page anxiety,” Erin says. “That’s when the angst sets in. Michael Cunningham says that if you can get past the first sixty pages, you’ll probably write a good novel.”** I don’t know if she’s talking to me about love or writing, but I like believing that the doubt is a requisite part of both pursuits.
Exactly six months ago, as it happens, I said to him, “I totally love you but I am a little terrified at the prospect of being in love with you.” It is better, I think, to be on this side of love—the in love side—but it is still terrifying.
Robert Olen Butler says you should write from your white hot center but sometimes your center is a cool gray fog and you have to write anyway. Maybe our romantic ideas about writing are just as problematic as our romantic ideas about love. Maybe you buckle down and do the work and trust the part of yourself that proposed writing the essay, or loving the person, in the first place. Maybe, if you shine a bright enough light on the doubt (if you write the thing that makes you sweat the moment you push ‘Publish’), it will burn away. I want that to be true.
* That said, I understand that if I had an excess of emotional clarity, I wouldn’t have all that much to write about. Important questions are borne of emotional ambiguity.
** See Erin’s correction in comments