Friday, March 11, 2011

Writer, Scholar, Lover

An academic is many things: a reader, a researcher, a teacher, a peer. An academic is also a writer. And that's just in so far as we are thinking about our professional identities. As an amateur, an academic is normally also a friend, a lover, or a parent, a musician, an athlete, or mountaineer. All of these identities need a space in one's life to develop. They need, more accurately, to be given time to grow.

We become unhappy when some essential part of us is not allowed to develop. The teacher suffers without students; the scholar suffers without the literature. The lover is unhappy to be too long away from the object of his desire. The musician must not leave her instrument in its case for too long. Parents lose some part of themselves when separated too long from their children. But sometimes one must make tough choices or face unpleasant facts. The affair may end. The music may stop. The children grow up and move to foreign cities. Happiness returns when our identity is reoriented around what is left, and sometimes we then discover what has been long neglected.

The writer in an academic is too often neglected. Much of the moral psychology of what I do as a writing coach has to do with getting academics to respect the needs of the writer "inside" them. It's an unhappy metaphor, and I normally simply ask scholars to consider how they are treating their "writing self". If they cancelled their dates with their lover as often as they cancel their dates with their self-as-author, how long would the relationship last? Not very long. If they treated their children like they treated themselves-as-writers, wouldn't they feel terribly guilty? Of course they would. In fact, most ineffective, unproductive writers do feel very guilty about their writing. They just lack an understanding of where that guilt comes from.

It is sometimes said, and often cynically, that ninety percent of life is showing up. Less glibly, more profoundly, we can say that the most important part of any relationship is being there. Being there for the other. Being attentive. Being "present" in the full, existential sense of that word. But the difficulty is most often practical, not philosophical. How many love affairs go awry because the lovers worry too much about profoundly "being there" (in spirit) and not enough about simply "getting there" (on time)? Presence begins with a commitment to some rather bourgeois, rather middle-class values. Get to work on time. Keep your appointments.

Think of your relationship with your writing self precisely as a relationship. Your writer needs to know she is being respected, even loved. Don't be sentimental about it; take it seriously. Your writer gets nothing out of your good intentions or your guilty conscience. Arrange to meet for an hour or two every day. Show up for that meeting on time, prepared to "listen". That is, bring your writing self to a quiet place where she can get some work done. Don't interrupt her with the concerns of your teaching self, your reading self, your researching self, or the vast multiplicity of selves you share with your colleagues. Close the door and write. Every time you do this, your writing self will become happier. You are building trust.

It's a relationship, so it works both ways. Your writing self must not demand whole days, sweating at the keyboard. Your writing self must learn that the writing session ends just as arbitrarily as it began. Your writing self is learning to trust you, but you must also learn to trust your writing self. In the morning, the lovers must part.

1 comment:

E. M. Selinger said...

Useful! This is a metaphor that particularly speaks to me, which will make it easier to keep in mind. Glad to find this post (via Stupid Motivational Tricks).