slow dive

One of the (dis)advantages of thinking out loud and writing in public is that there are fewer places to hide. Thus, what would previously been an open-ended question that I would happily turn into an existential crisis and subject of enduring reflection — Why am I having so much trouble pivoting to more other forms of writing? What does this say about my fragile underlying self and all the various neuroses that afflict it? What more can I learn about my identity and the world I inhabit by spending at least a few more writing sessions getting to the real core of this matter? — has already been resolved. As my partner so helpfully pointed out, “Now that you’ve gotten that point out of your system, it’s time to actually pivot and just start writing what you plan to write.”

It’s not like I haven’t heard that before. I tell myself that all the time. But it never seems to stick, since I have so many tricks and tactics to wiggle out from underneath that rock-solid logic. If I turn my attention outward (is that the right way to describe it?), then I will lose all this writing momentum I’ve developed by fixating on myself. It’s the strange things about habits, how they blur lines between means and ends, loosening the grip on initial goals, creating a cycle of short term triumphs that was supposed to help one move further rather than standing in place. Even if I am going deeper (which is a big if), it’s the same hole. The voice in my head might be my voice, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be taking my side very often.

Writing acts as a form of therapy. This is a point many people seem to make, but when they make it, they treat it as a positive thing. But when I think about my own relationship to therapy, I worry. I feel like I’ve figured out how to be a good patient during my sessions, willing to ask questions, be open, rethink positions, to fully engage with what’s coming my way. But when the session is over, I’m back to “normal,” as if it never happened. Therapy serves as a place to hangout, not to make change. That’s what writing is becoming now. I do wonder if there really are alternative therapeutic and/or writing models out there for me, or if I have really figured it as much as I think.

“You’re doing it again. Stop. This is going on too long. It’s time to dive in.”

It’s rarely a good sign when your tired metaphors are turned against you. Yesterday, I expressed my envy for writers and researchers who could just dive in to the deep end, without a hint of doubt or a second thought. Meanwhile, I stand on the side of the pool, expounding on my various theories of water temperature and chlorine levels and the aerobic benefits of swimming, managing to keep myself dry as a bone. Until pushed. Now it’s time to stop drowning. If only I’d kept a safe distance, there would have been no risk. But I just had to walk up to edge, to prove that I might eventually go in, that my words and promises were not completely empty, even as I probably had no real intention of following through. But now here I am in the deep end. What do I do?

Rather than running that metaphor even more into the ground (or water, as the case may be), I want to stop and think what the pool actually stands for. I don’t think it’s the writing itself. Rather, it’s the public, the social side of writing that terrifies so much. As much as I want to want to write, I still haven’t come to terms that to write is to have an audience. And to have an audience is to be willing to engage with that audience (even if it is to tell them to drop dead, that you don’t care what they think.) Engagement with an audience (or even worse, real live members of that audience) the very thought overwhelms me. The hardest thing I ever do is read comments on my work. Which is why it’s really the hardest thing I never do. I quit looking at papers, tests, and report cards in middle school and never looked back. Getting though college and graduate school was a challenge, but I managed. Whenever possible, I got by without them, even as, I’m sure, my work suffered for it. When I couldn’t get away with that, I found strategies to survive, sometimes coaxing friends to read them and “translate” them to me. (This, by the way, is a good way to lose friends, or at least their patience.) I’ve taught for nearly 20 years, yet have never read a teaching evaluation. I can justify that by pointing to their inherent biases and clear limits. But even if they were perfect, I wouldn’t read them. I can’t take it. I can’t even read comments at the bottom of short essays posted online. It’s not just that I don’t want to read negative criticism, although I’m pretty sure I don’t. Even when people tell me, “Don’t worry, they’re nice,” it makes no difference to me at all. I just… can’t.

That’s something I’d like to change. It’s something I’d like to work on. Which means putting more out there and practicing some kind of engagement with an audience, to practice some ways of not just writing in public, as an empty abstract principle, but writing as a way of communicating and engaging with others, a prospect which unnerves deeply. This means that I don’t want to keep writing in this way, or at least not only in this way. So today marks my first trip back into the pool, as I have to make some kind of deal with this no longer inner voice. In order to use this project as a step towards other writing, I am going also to write something from my “serious” projects for every navel grazing essay.

Thus, today is a two-for-one day, BOGO in the parlance of our times. In a separate entry, I make my first tentative steps toward laying out my ideas on why Halloween is an interesting case for thinking about interesting things. Hopefully, it’s the first day of working through that project at least partially in public. My goal is either to use this momentum and habit as a way to finish the project, or that someone else better suited to that task steals it and takes it off my hands. Therefore, I have to thread the needle — the work has to be acceptable enough to hold my interest, but maybe not so good that anyone would want to do better. As a middle-aged white guy, I should be perfectly suited to generating a meaningful longterm relationship with mediocrity. That is, after all, what we do. And if I can manage that, does it really matter if I jumped or got pushed?