GET, OR KEEP, A LIFE

We talk a lot, us writers, about productivity—how much writing we got done, how much writing we meant to get done, how much writing we should have gotten done, how much writing we wished we could have gotten done. We impose deadlines on ourselves and either hit them or blow them. We hit or blow deadlines imposed on us by others. We suffer over our our word count, our daily output…

And we blame lots of things when we fall short—or perceive ourselves to have fallen short. I hope Margaret Atwood was kidding when, in “When? Where? How?” she wrote:

Ah yes. Writing. Life. When? Where? How? That’s the problem. You can have a life or you can do some writing, but not both at once, because although life may be the subject of writing, it is also the enemy.

I don’t accept that. I don’t think we have to have internal enemies.

Over the past year I’ve been working on both my physical and mental health, and thinking a lot about my own lack of productivity in the fiction department, which is to say very little to none over not the past few weeks, or in any way related to COVID, but literally years without more than a few short stories, an outline or two, and some scattered notes to show for it.

I’ve been busy with my “day job,” yes. COVID blew up everyone’s daily routine, for sure. But of course I could have—and for the sake of my own mental health—should have been writing all along.

I’d be willing to bet that most of you reading this are not in the position to be able to write full time. You’re still building a writing career, or just starting one. We need our “day jobs” to put roofs over our heads and food on our tables, and in the meantime we need to wedge some writing in there. That’s the first place we need to give ourselves a break and sometimes set writing aside to get our lives in order. And hell, if George Orwell can mix life and writing, so can Margaret Atwood, and so can I.

When we think of Orwell writing Nineteen Eighty-Four at Barnhill on Jura, we might summon the man with a perpetual cigarette, a tall figure stooped over his typewriter as if chained to it, utterly dedicated and driven, working against time, trying to ignore his failing lungs. But in those months, he was also rowing, fishing, digging, sawing, chopping, fixing his motorbike. In Wallington, long before he tended a fictional animal farm, he had kept a goat and hens. He had also worked a lathe, and with his wife, Eileen, run a grocery shop. He knew how to strip down a rifle and drill a platoon. He knew his turnips and runner beans. He would become an attentive father to a toddler. Half his life, the non-writing part, was in a world of solid things that resisted abstraction.

I like to think that this kind of practical engagement with the material world came from the same source that informed the empirical, clear-headed and factual quality of his prose. The physical tasks he set himself were both distractions from mental effort and full immersion in ordinary everyday matters—both in the whale and out of it—and so defied his own useful metaphor.

…wrote Ian McEwan in “George Orwell outside the whale.”

Okay, so then, the good news: I have started writing again, and I’ve climbed on top of my various health issues, gotten over and through some stuff, and am sitting here today only a few days away from being once again “caught up” on other projects and ready to get into that novel and all sorts of other great stuff. I’m healthier than I have been in years, and even got back into what for years now has been a distant memory: hobbies.

It is possible to turn stuff around, to jump out of ruts, to fix broken stuff in our lives. And sometimes that means a pause or a slowing in our writing output—or a restart and acceleration of our writing output. Whatever… But putting pressure on ourselves to write doesn’t help make writing the joy it should be.

Let’s write as much as we can, for sure. But let’s be decent with ourselves when it comes to the definition of “can.” I “can” finish a “novel” in two months. I’ve done it before and regretted not spending twice that long revising it. I’ve gone months without writing any fiction at all, and that made me even more depressed. Somewhere in the middle is where I’d like to be.

And here we get to the, I think, crazy idea that writing has to be hard. We have to suffer for it. We have to give up things—even big things like family, kids… our own health… In “Kafka the hypochondriac,” Will Rees laid out one author’s sad journey through “writing = suffering.”

By the time he was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 34, Kafka had already spent two decades worrying about disease. He took his holidays at convalescent spas, while letters to friends and lovers often amounted to little more than catalogues of symptoms. Kafka attributed all this to what he frequently called his ‘hypochondria’, a condition that, he believed, consigned him to the monastic life of a writer.

Kafka had inherited the view, popular since the Romantic era, that a certain sickliness becomes a writer – an idea that can be traced back as far as Robert Burton, who explained in his compendious (and never-completed)  Anatomy of Melancholy  (1621) that ‘windy Hypochondriacal Melancholy’ was an ailment of students and scholars. ‘I am taciturn, unsociable, morose, selfish, a hypochondriac, and actually in poor health,’ Kafka wrote in 1913 to Carl Bauer, the father of his fiancée, Felice. What is more, he added, ‘I deplore none of this.’

Fuck that.

I can be healthy while I write, work, spend time with my family, watch a baseball game one day, try my luck at the slot machines last weekend (there wasn’t any—we lost $400, but had a ball doing it), and I can pay my bills, plan our first vacation in five years, have surgery and recover from it, radically change my diet for the better, lose 45 pounds and counting, and get out of the bunker mindset and start moving out of “crisis mode” and into a future still, even at my age, full of possibilities.

I don’t know… maybe its just that spring is in the air.

Write, yes, but don’t hurt yourself in the process.

—Philip Athans

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GET, OR KEEP, A LIFE