THIS POST IS FREE. Everything free more or less for now. Please subscribe if you’re a regular reader with the means to do so.
WRITING SOMETIMES MAKES YOU FEEL REAL BAD
When I was in my late 20s I lived with a close friend in an apartment on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn. It cost $1200 and was a dump, pretty much. That’s irrelevant, but picture all this happening in a dump, with pergo flooring, a shower that ran cold half the time and a kitchen the size of your hand. I was a magazine writer at the time pumping out complete and utter garbage that probably set the human race back by a number of hours but was still impossible to write. My friend was in graduate school writing papers that probably left the human race in stasis but were also impossible to write.
She had a famous advisor who had said she was brilliant and this was exciting, and I was happy for her because she had always been an intellectual at heart, but because she was good at sports she’d sort of been more of a jock during college and I could see that she was relieved to have her interests more aligned with her life. This is my take on it anyway, maybe she would be like, what are you talking about, if I could have been a pro basketball player I would never have become a fucking art historian, are you nuts?
At any rate, both of us would go through these periods of terrible depression. We would drag around the ugly apartment, sometimes collapsing onto one of the two Victorian sofas to sob to the other one that we were useless and everyone hated us and life was meaningless and usually the other one would not be in that state and tell the other one that wasn’t true. Sometimes my friend came home from school and just lay down on one of the sofas with her hand over her face and then she would put her feet, still in shoes, up on the sofa and I, hardly a neat freak, but with that practice a hard limit, would say please take your feet off the sofa, and she would groan and roll her eyes and I would want to murder her. And then she would say, “I just hate graduate school,” and I would say, “No you don't always,” and sometimes sing a song about her famous advisor sitting at home calling people up and telling them my friend was the most promising art historian the world had ever seen until she laughed or sort of laughed.
My depressive practice was to get into bed and just not get out for days. And then my friend would notice (because of course you had to walk through my bedroom to get from hers to anywhere else) and she would stand in my doorway and tell me that I everything wasn’t really that bad and that I was so funny and smart and we did this for two years or so until she moved to another city with her boyfriend, the best one she’d ever had by far, who never cried and who wrote his dissertation in something like nine months by working on a strict 8-6 schedule with breaks for exercise and meals, who does this, he did. His dissertation is like 900 pages long and about sewers. They are married now and when I visit them I like to find it on the shelf and read random passages aloud to him.
Several years later my friend finished her own dissertation and then quickly had a child and we didn’t talk for a while but when we did she said that she had noticed that she was completely happy when she wasn’t writing something and basically miserable when she was. Oh my God, I said. That’s so true. My periods of feeling terrible almost exactly lined up with when I was working on something that was hard, or worse, a few things at once that were hard. That was the worst, because even when you were working you were failing to work on the other things, so basically you were failing all the time.
This was all so obvious — this is partly a story of how obvious that is, and yet, I forget it all the time and think “‘This terrible feeling is never going to end’ but yes it is! It will end when my relationship to the thing I am doing ends!”
I am not saying there aren’t plenty of other reasons other than writing things that are really difficult and make you feel incompetent and depressed to feel incompetent and depressed. All I am saying is that if you feel this way and you are writing something just remind yourself that unless you are like my friend’s husband and you can write a 900 page dissertation about sewers without crying once then probably at least some of the reason you feel so bad is just because that’s the way it is.
I have never come up with a solution. And every single time it happens to me I say to myself no this time everything is really worse than it was before, the world is worse. And very often it is. But then when the thing is done it is generally less worse. Even if you have to write four things and you write one of them, things usually get more than 25 percent less bad. I’m not telling you GO WRITE AND YOU’LL BE HAPPY. In fact, if you don’t have to, don’t. All I’m saying is if you are feeling awful right now and it’s because you absolutely have to write something, and when it’s done, you have to write something else, don’t bother thinking about why you feel bad. The research has been done.
Sarah I come read this piece whenever the wangst is upon me. It doesn’t make the wangst go away, but it does remind me why it’s there and that ever so slightly helps!