A writer not writing is practically a maniac within himself.
– F. Scott Fitzgerald
Since Christmas, I have published just two new blog posts. I wish I could say it was because I was slaving away on the Great American Novel. I wasn’t. Something depressing happened: I lost the joy of writing.
It didn’t happen overnight. Rather, it was a gradual process over the last eighteen months. I still spent part of many days with an open document on my screen. However, my thoughts stopped jumping from my brain to the page. I increasingly doubted the wisdom of every paragraph, every sentence, every word. Nothing was ever good enough: the analysis was too shallow, the humor too facile, the logic too slack. On the rare occasion that I finished something, I hesitated, or declined, to post it. Once I began doubting the value of my creative ideas, the creative ideas dried up. My mind became a battlefield between my desire to write and my sense of futility, and futility won.
This is not a problem for anyone but me, of course. I am well aware that if I never produce another word of prose, the world will not notice. However, like many who spend dreary days pushing papers, ringing up cash registers or manufacturing dispensable products for a living simply because they require a paycheck, I need a creative outlet, something I can point to and say, “I did that.” I don’t have a green thumb, I’m tone-deaf, I can’t draw a straight line, I can’t cook, I’m too poor to travel, jogging bores me and my wife is prepared to call 911 whenever I pick up a hammer and nail. Slinging words is all I’ve got. I take it seriously. Without it, I feel adrift.
I always wanted to be a writer. A compulsive reader since childhood, I briefly majored in journalism at college before choosing a career path with a steadier income, a decision that I often lamented. When I began writing on a whim twelve years ago, it was like reconnecting with my high school sweetheart and learning she still carried a torch for me. I felt decades of suppressed inspiration bubble to the surface. It was strictly a hobby because I had a well-paying day job and my only readers were my immediate family, but I had no ambition beyond that. It was the happiest I’ve ever been.
When I started a blog five years ago, after my well-paying day job ended, and suddenly had an audience that didn’t share my DNA, I was buoyed by the feedback. I felt like I was developing a clear, distinguishable voice. I enjoyed all phases of the process, from the initial outpouring of words and thoughts to the discipline of sculpting them into a final form. I couldn’t imagine writer’s block because I had more ideas than time to write. Although I recognized that having 30-40 readers in a world of seven billion people meant I was in no danger of being stopped for autographs, I was satisfied.
“You should write a book,” several people told me. “You should be marketing yourself.” I had made a little bit of money from writing – enough for a couple tanks of gas, an oil change, and hey rotate the tires while you’re at it – but it was accidental, not part of some career strategy. In fact, I had no career strategy and no plan to develop one. At my age (I recently turned 63), the scraping and hustling required to earn probably meager rewards held no appeal for me.
However, I gave it a shot. I had written several political satires, so I decided to write more and collect them into a self-published book for the 2012 Presidential election. Though I was reasonably satisfied with the result, I knew the subject matter ensured it a brief shelf life. Further, the aftermath required business skills – marketing, salesmanship, self-promotion – that are not part of my genetic makeup; I’d rather chew glass than persuade someone to buy something he doesn’t need. As a result, the book’s readers were mostly the same people who read my blog. I was disappointed but accepted it.
I continued to post political satires, but by Election Night, I had grown sick of it. Ridiculing politicians felt like picking low hanging fruit. In fact, I was weary of political discussion, with its partisan rancor, constant outrage and snarky commentary. I no longer wished to contribute to it. I also realized that by relentlessly mocking Republicans, but not the liberal pieties that also sometimes bugged me, I was tailoring my writing for the approval of my friends, validating their pre-existing beliefs. Subtract the entertainment value, if any, and it seemed like a pointless endeavor. That troubled me. I decided to cut back on blogging and return to writing for myself first and worry later about readers, if any.
I wanted to try my hand at fiction. I wrote one short story (posted on another website) that I liked, but nothing else I produced seemed satisfactory. I knew I didn’t have the chops to write a serious novel, but I had an idea for a comic one and read some comic novels – The Magic Christian, A Confederacy of Dunces – hoping they would inspire me. They didn’t. I started writing anyway but quickly sensed that the idea wouldn’t justify, say, 75,000 words and I would be spending months toiling on what would be one more piece of disposable trash tossed upon the 21st century content landfill. Whenever I spent an hour on it, I hated myself. I abandoned the project.
I began writing first-person essays, which I’ve always enjoyed. They were long and personal, too much so for blog posts, and I doubted the wisdom of spending so much time on things that might never see the light of day. Worse, I couldn’t finish them. There is no sense writing about yourself if you are not going to be honest, and I questioned the accuracy of my memories. I second-guessed every sentence – which is normal and healthy – but I also third-, fourth- and fifth-guessed them, like a person with OCD constantly checking if the stove is turned off. My writing folders slowly filled with projects in varying degrees of incompleteness.
My struggle deepened when my wife lost her job. Writing immediately dropped low on my list of priorities; it now seemed an inconsequential, unprofitable, and ultimately masturbatory activity. My wife encouraged me to keep writing but I found it difficult to concentrate. Besides the frequent interruptions – I had always been able to block off a few uninterrupted hours of solitary time for writing, but no longer – I felt guilty about having an enjoyable pastime while she was feeling miserable.
As she joined the group dispassionately dubbed “the long-term unemployed,” I thought her plight might be a good subject for an e-book. We have friends in the same boat, people in their AARP years who have been abandoned by the economy and forced to drain their retirement savings too early, and I thought I could provide a voice for them. However, I froze. My reticence about opening up our lives to public discussion proved daunting. I was also aware that, as a white, heterosexual male, America had given me advantages that had been denied to many others – our worst year was better than many others’ best year – and I feared that my complaints would sound like privileged whining. Instead of composing a cogent narrative, I just scratched out some random sentences or phrases, like a bored student doodling in the margins of his notebook. I abandoned that project too.
What had been a labor of love was now just labor. Few ideas were bubbling; my mind seemed as flat as an open can of day-old Pepsi. My humor muscles had atrophied. I felt out of sync, like a baseball player who had developed a hitch in his swing, flailing at curve balls and not swinging at fastballs he used to knock out of the park. I confessed my quandary privately to a couple of my writer friends. Their advice, essentially, took the form of aphorisms like “follow your heart” and “take it one step at a time;” well-meaning but useless, like telling a depressed person to start his day with a smile.
I made one last attempt to stimulate my creative juices by going through my old writing. My plan was to choose the best things I’d ever written and winnow it down to 25. But I had trouble winnowing it up to 25. Few pieces seemed as good as I remembered them. When I read the rare one that met my approval, it was like looking at a picture of your younger, slimmer, more confident self and wondering: Whatever happened to that guy?
I told a couple of people that I was taking a sabbatical from writing, hoping my frustrated urge would eventually overpower my doubts. In fact, I was actively avoiding reminders of my failure. During the day, I embraced any distraction from my growing inventory of unfinished writing projects. But at night, when I should have drifted into a peaceful sleep, I tossed and turned obsessing about my absent Muse.
I keep expecting the joy to return. It hasn’t. (For example, this essay has been languishing on my laptop for weeks, waiting for me to conquer my procrastination and apprehension enough to finish it, though maybe the fact that I did finish it is a good sign.) In the grand scheme of life, my loss is pretty damned unimportant. But I expected writing to play a major role in the rest of my life. I had spent much of my adult life lamenting its absence. If I have an average life expectancy, I might have twenty good years left. I don’t want to lament them too.