When You Only Have So Many Words and None of Them are Adequate
The Green Study is taking a break until November 15, 2017.
Last year, I went to a lecture where journalist and novelist Anna Quindlen spoke about her writing practices and career. One of the things she said was that while she was working on a project, she limited how much time she spent answering emails and engaging others. “I only have so many words.” I’ve thought a lot about that phrase, wondering if there really is a limit to my creative reservoir.
I’ve made a habit over the last five years of posting personal essays. Most of the time I was circumspect, able to write them at a distance and not when they were raw. Lately, though, I’ve been feeling tapped out personally, too enraged politically, and unable to rein in my emotions. It’s probably time to stop doing that for a bit. Maybe I was just scraping away the layers until I hit the gooey core, but the gooey core is here and it’s messy, disorienting, and raw.
I’ve written frequently about depression over the years, but there are so many different kinds. It might have been turning 50, or watching my child become who she is supposed to be – in contrast to my own paralysis, or just the flip of a neural/hormonal switch, but this year I’ve felt a drag on my daily life, this weight pressing slightly more each day. I’ve become habituated to repressing emotions, repackaging them in a logical manner, presenting them as if I have my shit together. All the while, I feel a sense of grief and rage and disorientation just burbling beneath the surface.
We do this – we rearrange and rationalize and give 45 degree corners to those emotions that make us uncomfortable. We turn them inward and that rage, sadness, bitterness morphs into a low-level depression, until a phase becomes a lifestyle. Creative people put rawness into their art and maybe that shores them up, makes it tolerable.
I used to believe that I was a creative person, but I’ve spent too much energy trying to look put together. I’ve spent a lot of time being responsible, keeping myself controlled, and rational. I’m living in a world where I’m not allowing room for my own messiness, surrounded by a culture that will look at sheer lunacy and say well, that’s different.
It has hit me that art requires messiness and rawness and vulnerability, because art requires an elemental sort of truth and you can’t land on it by keeping your shit together all the time. As I said to a friend yesterday, I feel like a complete and utter fraud. She’d read somewhere that feeling like a fraud means you’re getting somewhere, because you are operating outside of your comfort zone. And that means growth.
It’s been a surprise in midlife to realize that those issues in the first decade or so of life follow a person. They have reverberations through the following decades of your story. Many of us spend our entire lives trying to resist, change, or rewrite that story, but it’s our core story. Messages for better or for ill burrow inside our brains and many of them are just plain wrong. But they’ve left their mark and they influence our behavior and perceptions. Until we are deliberate in challenging those messages that do us harm, they will rear their ugly heads over and over. And we’re stuck.
I’ve been stuck for a long time, but things are uncoiling. My emotions have told my mind that it can just fuck right off. It’s “Feeling Time”. If you’re relatively smart, your rationalizing skills are likely top-notch. You can intellectualize the hell out of any morass of emotion, produce a white paper and a TED talk, and not feel a damned thing. It’s the feeling part that’s messy, that makes you feel like an unhinged nutter. It’s not comfortable, but it’s necessary.
I see it as analogous to what is happening in our country right now. It’s messy. It’s extremely uncomfortable for many of us. There’s fear and anger and anxiety. My optimistic self says that it’s evolution – all the cultural and social shifts are happening in a relatively short period of time. Resistance to those changes is normal and natural, but temporary for all but a diminishing minority. This is the ebb and flow of growth.
People are in a hurry to make nice. To smooth out the wrinkles, repress dissent, legislate away the angry voices rising up, to make it look like our patchwork quilt of a country isn’t coming apart at the seams. It is and it isn’t. Some things are holding strong. Some people are emerging as real heroes and some of us are more enlightened than we have ever been before. I believe there is hope to be found, but it does mean turning away from the headlines and looking below the fold.
Personally, I am dissolving into a bit of a mess. I’ve begun to disintegrate mid-conversation with friends and feelings are rising in me that no amount of editing can rearrange. I know it’s a good thing in theory, but for now, it feels like absolute shit. It’s not “normal” for me when normal was keeping things squared away. It’s not normal for me to keep manically humming Moby songs like some deranged hipster. I don’t want to talk out loud about it. I don’t want to repackage it for the consumption of others.
Sometimes in a world where everyone is saying everything for the benefit of an audience, there’s no time to tend to our inner lives. If we’re lucky and I think that I am, our inner voice becomes so loud and rancorous as to demand our attention. My inner voice has hopped up on a table, stripped off its clothes, and insisted on dancing Gangnam Style. It feels damned embarrassing and uncensored and not intended for public viewing.
I like to wrap up a post with some rationale, some message that says to a reader Hey, she’s not a headcase. She has her shit together. But why lie? I don’t have it together. I might, but I don’t right now. See you in November.