What legitimates us as writers?
One of my students recently submitted an essay on this question, or the variation: when can I call myself a writer? He took four approaches: the professional, the published, the trained, the psychological. Is it when you’re earning money, simply published, having taken a course such as a Creative Writing MA or PhD, or is it a matter of intrinsic estimation; something you know about yourself?
It is when we feel legitimate as a writer that we call ourselves writers. Sometimes that certificate, or publishing deal, or acceptance for a magazine, are the little stones we step along while we’re crossing the river of self-doubt. What is clear from research is that those who call themselves writers (or the artists who call themselves artists) are the ones that thrive. As Sylvia Plath said, ‘your worst enemy is self doubt.’ For Natalie Goldberg: ‘doubt is torture.’
Sometimes the feeling comes as a calling. Continue reading
Tuesday 26th November, 803am, Café Nero
‘Why can’t you write?’
‘I just can’t!’ (Said with real failure, falling back, fainting.)
‘Because I’m worthless! Everything I write is worthless! It doesn’t contribute to anything. It doesn’t feel connected in any way, a career, a book, a life.’
‘What would it take to feel connected? Is that in your writing or in yourself?’ said the wise owl.
He wanted to reply in the manner and tone of his friend who is always dramatically cynical, but he found that would be an evasion.
‘Yes. I see this. That the feeling of worthlessness is core, below the writing, underpinning it and most things I do. And say.’
‘But not all?’
‘No, not all.’
(It’s good having this immediate feedback, he thinks. The wise owl is welcome, now.)
‘So when do you feel that you are worth something?’
‘When working for others, in fact. When writing for others.’
The owl pondered this for a moment.
‘Is that enough, though? You know you need to do it for yourself, too. Doing things for others is fine, and good, and worthy, in fact. But as you have learnt, I think, from Marion Milner and from Ann Cvetkovich, and from many others, writers too, that the thing itself is the important thing. I’m here to tell you, as you will tell others, how important and worthy you are, as yourself, not for doing anything, but for having a life that is worthy on its own, for its own sake. It’s what you say about the animals such as me, isn’t it?’ Continue reading
It is a still morning. I’ve seen a pair of female blackbirds meet on the top of the telephone pole, and fly off together into the still moonlit, blue morning. A neighbour is up – I can hear the runoff water from their shower. The last of the Monoprix decaf is brewing in the cafetiere. I’ve slept fitfully after a few too many glasses of wine (Montepulciano and then Sauvignon, both vegan). My friend Chris is up early too, and we’re playing chess online. The window has been open all night and the air is clear and fresh and welcome, after the thunder-pressure. Misha, my cat, is sitting in the front room on the window sill, peacefully looking out through the smallest, cat’s-eye slit in the curtain, the neighbourhood snoopy that she is. I brush her. She pushes back at me. I leave her to get the coffee and open my laptop, only five hours after going to bed and committing myself to ten days without turning it on. But this is not work, today, and I have no fear of obligations. There is still doubt about if I am doing the right thing or not. But there is more love, and love wins out.
My mouth feels itchy and blotchy on the teeth, as I didn’t brush last night—the electric toothbrush K gave me is still in the wicker drawer in the bathroom. All night I have been thinking, sometimes dreaming, of the things that I cried about last night. My father, missing, and what I am still missing, that person to encourage, care for, teach me about life and growing up. And what he is missing: a son to help him continue to find a way to live into old age, a son to be proud of. And the other thing I was weeping about: the pigs in the trucks on their way to the meat-packers, boiling over in the 45 degree heatwave because pigs have no way to sweat to cool them down, so they are dying in agony in the heat; and the love and grace of the people from Toronto Pig Save and the other city Pig Saves who meet them at the traffic lights on the way to feed them water and watermelon to relieve them in their agony.
As it says on the Free from Harm website, the first and last act of mercy and kindness they will ever receive. The mercy and kindness I’ve been unable to show my father. The image of that cow in Farm Sanctuary’s video, newly born, literally seconds born, being dragged by the leg by a farmer away from its mother, the mother cow who ran after it, her young, her newborn, but who could not stop the farmer taking that cow and putting her into servitude, chained into a narrow milking cell for the rest of its life. The image of my father, homeless, bring dragged out of the shop doorway, a gutter. Continue reading
I am very angry this morning already—or rather, perhaps, over time I have built up a lot of free-floating anger that attaches itself to a number of objects (it’s how anxiety works). But what does come first? The object that makes me angry (neoliberal practices in the university; a three line whip to attend that lecture on ‘making the student experience better’; the bear bile farming and the fox cruelty images I saw this morning; the fact that ‘Natural England’ have been destroying protected buzzard eggs to safeguard the ‘sport’ of pheasant shooting; my sense of impotence of doing anything about this; the usual rhetoric surrounding the murder of the soldier on the streets of Woolwich about ‘terror’ and ‘resilience’ and no-one ever properly asking ‘why’ these people either a) decide to join the army and go to war and why our governments legitimate killing ‘other’ people, or b) why these ‘other’ people decide to act (retaliate?) in the way they did; about feeling ostracized from a friend in the running club, as if I’ve done something wrong when I know I haven’t?).
Nothing will get fixed. Nothing will render better until questions are asked of why and how we are living, and no questions will be asked while we, as Paul Kingsnorth put it yesterday, are complicit in the benefits that this imperialism brings us, domination over others and nonhuman others to benefit accrued from a comfortable life, and yet a comfortable life that makes less and less people happy, one where we are all more precarious, where deficits are made by tax cuts and then those deficits are used to justify austerity and the decimation of the working classes, where the fantasy of the ‘good life’ is held onto tighter and tighter even as it slips away, even as I seek out a comfortable café in the morning with a Motown soundtrack and regulars I know, including C from Angola off to do his last exam this morning, and good tasting decaf coffee and where the concerns of the staff are regarding the placement of the lemon cheesecake… (Note: judge less, my friend).
I’ve been reading a lot about affect, emotion, feeling and mood, especially Jonathan Flatley’s Affective Mapping, building on Heidegger’s work of being there, talking about the facts of our attunement to the world. In a very real way, says Flatley, we make the world through our mood (Stimmung, in Heidegger’s original) and that it is the moods we do not realise that are the most powerful of course. But also that we are always in some mood, we cannot be outside of a mood, and indeed, for things to change, we need to be in the mood… (for political change, cheesecake), and that it is usually when our moods become intense (joy, depression, mania, exuberance) that we notice at all that it is how we are attuned to the world that makes it this way and not that way. Continue reading