Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

January 3, 2011 § 10 Comments

Inspired by and in response to Kathryn McCullough’s “Fear and Trembling in the New Year: a Writer’s Confession” and Tori Nelson’s “I still write,” I feel drawn to join the conversation on writing, fear-based writer’s block, and blogging. If you haven’t read their wonderful entries yet, please do. I’ll wait for you to get back. šŸ˜‰

I believe Shakespeare’s Scottish King (sigh…I am so freaking superstitious…just promise not to read this post aloud in a theatre on opening night) Macbeth says it best after the death of his wife:

“It [life] is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” (Macbeth 5.5)

Okay, okay, so the topic is writing, not life. Maybe for some people writing isn’t their life, but I fall into that sometimes unfortunate category where it actually is my life. And, of course, my greatest fear is that my life (i.e. my writing) will be seen as “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” In other words: it’s a form of writing that sounds good, but that doesn’t actually say anything worthwhile. If I can’t get myself to write anything worth reading, then why write in the first place? The success of a day is determined almost entirely by how many words I put to the electronic page. If I sat down for nary a moment, then I failed at life that day. Why, oh, why does writing have a chokehold on my personal success?

Because, friends, I’m a graduate student. Duhn-duhn-duhn!! (Where’s that ol’ Dramatic Prairie Dog when you genuinely need him?)

And, gosh, I’m not just a graduate student. I’m a Doctoral Candidate of English Literature. What? Aren’t I supposed to put it in bold and italics? Like it means something? (Please note: mega eye roll here.)

I have been in graduate school since 2004, which for me is less impressive and more depressing. The reason? Because before graduate school, I absolutely, without any hesitation, proudly labeled myself A Writer. I was the kind of writer that all the good writers claim to be: a slave to my trade, incapable of living without a piece on standby (so true…I actually said that several times), someone who was actually going to Make It Big.

And here I am. Embarking on my seventh year as a graduate student, fifth year as a PhD student, and what have I published? Nada. What have I got to prove myself as a real writer? Zilch. What pieces patiently await me on standby? Big ol’ goose egg.

Unless you count my dissertation, which I don’t…because it’s not really on standby. And it’s not really the kind of writing I pictured myself making a living from. I was going to be a fiction writer. I was going to be the new Rowling (because, of course, weren’t we all? She made a fortune just from The Hero’s Journey–it looked simple), but then I filled out graduate school applications…and that story I was working on not only moved to the back burner, but it moved to the back of the oven and I forgot to keep the oven on “warm.”

Instead, I settled quickly into the type of writing that was expected of me: scholarly, critical, analytical, professional, academic. Fun. So very very fun. (Again: mega eye roll.) Have I performed well in graduate school? Of course I have; I’m a student if nothing else. Has graduate school proven to be what I thought it was? Eh, maybe in some ways. Am I confident beyond a shadow of a doubt that I made the absolute right choice for myself at the ripe old age of 22 and again at 24? No. Of course not.

So, now what? What do we unhappy, unsatisfied academics do when the type of writing we are trained to compose is not the kind of writing that tickles all those warm, fuzzy, happy writer places? We find another outlet. We figure something else out because otherwise we’ll rebel.

A writer who is unhappy writing will not write. That’s just the cold hard truth as I’ve come to see it. A writer who hates her job, hates her trade, hates her role will at some point buck against those rules and rebel against them. My rebellion has come in the form of a terribly debilitating Writer’s Block. Do I want to rebel? Of course not! I want to finish this damn dissertation so I can graduate. But that’s the problem. I should want to finish it so that I can publish. But I want to graduate and be done. Essentially, I have senioritis.

At this point, I am speaking in the hypothetical. I haven’t actually put my theory to work yet. But my plan is to blog a great deal more frequently and to use an educated by not overly scholarly voice. To allow the part of myself that seeks to entertain and to share to actually do what it needs to do. My hope is that by writing in this blog, the stakes will be low enough that I will be able to focus that non-scholarly energy into one place while also freeing up the scholarly energy so that it can do its job.

I realize I’ve veered severely off the course of conversation. Kathryn and Tori are speaking specifically about writing in the Great Blogosphere. But I think writing in general translates across formats and purposes (and I expect that they’d probably agree with me). Kathryn lists a number of great questions in her blog, and one of which is one that truly gets me to scratch my head:

She asks, “What is your biggest fear as a writer?”

My biggest fear as a writer? Well, my biggest fear as an academic writer is of being proven wrong or seen as idiotic and uneducated. I fear being laughed out of my defense. I fear working for years on a dissertation that will amount to little more than just a massively obtrusive paperweight. As a writer outside of academia, I have similar fears, most of them stemming from fears of perceived idiocy, incorrectness, and un-funniness. I hope my jokes land, I hope people are entertained by my writing, and I hope that my writing is somewhat insightful. But I find blogging to be the outlet and not the crippling force. The crippling force is the academic writing, probably because that’s the writing that has higher stakes. If I sound stupid in my writing, I won’t graduate. And if I don’t graduate, I don’t get a job. (Overdramatic, of course.)

Okay, this post has gotten out of hand. I’ve blown past my self-assigned 30 minutes for blogging and should now move on to the academic writing.

Before I go, though, I’d like to reprise Kathryn’s and Tori’s questions:

What is your greatest fear as a writer? What do you do to combat that fear?

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§ 10 Responses to Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

  • Tori Nelson says:

    I love this. And that Macbeth quote is pretty much the story of my ENTIRE LIFE! I shared Kathryn’s post with a lot of my friends, most of whom are not writers but have fairly creative jobs and hobbies: musician, photographer, and a few dancers (not of the pole persuasion). They all could relate to that feeling of worry, that one day their creative juices might stop flowing and they will feel unable to do what they love. I think it is super cool that you translated her questions to fit your current, academic-style writing and also the fiction you would more prefer to write!

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Omg, Tori, I swear that we would have so much fun as friends. You keep me laughing so much! I do win all the dissertation, dammit! Lol. And that you have dancer friends not of the pole persuasion…I nearly choked on my breakfast! SO funny, lol. šŸ™‚ Thanks for the encouragement!

  • I ultimately decided the Ph.D. in English Literature was not for me–but I was a die-hard Miltonist for a number of years. I guess I wonder what you’re writing your PhD. about and how far along you are. Do you know of anyone who had done an experimental dissertaion as a blog–blogged their dissertaion? I know that’s a radical idea and have no idea how it could work. I guess it would more likely have to be a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition. But I do love the idea of having students blog.

    At some point I will share with you the program I started 2 years ago called “Writers without Borders”–one that incorporated study abroad and service learning components into teaching writing. I took 12 students to New Delhi and partnered with Habitat for Humanity India. We went into the slums and interviewed families who had received homes from Habitat and created feature articles, photo essays, and one audio-slideshow Habitat was able to use on its website.

    Too much for one comment. I will post about that expereince. But thanks for moving this conversation along! So glad to have found your blog!

    • Mrs. H. says:

      My Ph.D will be in seventeenth-century English drama. I’m in love with Shakespeare but my dissertation director has advised me not to focus too too much on Shakespeare because the market is so dry for Shakespeareans right now. My dissertation is looking at stage cross-dressing in terms of it being an English social phenomenon instead of as a sexual phenomenon.

      If I could blog my dissertation, I absolutely would. But…that might be a touch progressive for my program, lol. I suppose the purpose of the exercise is to get a student to write a book-length piece of scholarly writing. To be honest, though, it feels a lot like hazing to me! šŸ˜‰

      I really look forward to reading about your Writers without Borders program! That sounds really exciting and admirable!

  • Robert says:

    This is some heady shit to be getting into at 10:10 in the am.

    The more and more I think about writing, the more and more I want to just end up like Whitman and just keep redoing the same piece over and over again. He seemed to get by just fine with that.

    On a more serious note, I think that this disillusionment with the craft is quite typical of any “artist”. We’ve talked about this: there are musicians who end up hating the guitar or singing or piano or whatever because they get caught up in the fear of their own inadequacies. Who could write better songs than John Lennon or play guitar better than Hendrix or Clapton? I strongly believe that being able to acknowledge and be afraid of those perceived inadequacies is a sign that you are an adequate writer. It’s like what the doctors told grandpa about his Alzheimer’s: if you think you have Alzheimer’s, then you don’t. If you think your writing comes off as derivative, without substance, and uneducated….then it is most likely none of those things because you are subconsciously NOT letting that happen as you move through the writing process.

    But to answer your final question: my greatest fear as a writer is physically losing what allows me to write. Again, we’ve talked about this–I fear many things, but most of all I fear losing my vision. Even though I would still be able to let my fingers scuttle across a keyboard or translate brail….it is the beauty of the written word and how text flows across pages that I would have a hard time reckoning. As far as combating that fear, I read. I know that’s not exactly a “writing” solution, but it comforts me to know that there is one more book that I have viewed in case the unfortunate happens. I also try and keep pointy things away from the ol’ view sockets as best I can.

    I guess, I would just like for you to keep in mind that you are in good company. Fitzgerald hated writing. Hemmingway had crippling feelings of inadequacy. Whatshisnuts that you teach for Word Lit I wanted all of his works burned after his death because he though it sucked…and you are still teaching him centuries later! Frankly, I think that if you don’t hate the process at times–much less hating the product–then you should be worried about the kind of writing that you are churning out.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Haha! “Whatshisnuts”…you mean Virgil? I don’t really know if Virgil hated all his writing, just The Aeneid (so goes the story) because it was unfinished by the time he was on his deathbed. Considering he meant to write the entire history of the Roman people up to Caesar Augustus and ended with the founding of Rome…he kind of fell short of that goal. But actually, I guess that’s an option. If we at least strive to write the entire book but die before it’s finished, then at least we can ask for it to be burned! šŸ˜‰

      I hate the blindness fear, too. Maybe we should get you to start wearing glasses so that all those dangerous sharp pointy things can be avoided better. šŸ˜‰ No, seriously, though, I think the way you characterize reading as being able to remember seeing one more book on page is beautiful. Does reading on the Kindle cheapen the beauty of the written word on the page for you? (I’m asking because I’m planning on writing a post in the near future on e-Readers.)

  • Robert says:

    Yeah, Virgil. That guy. I knew he was one of those non-canonical, less read novelists.

    To me, yes, using a e-reader cheapens the experience. But let me back up a bit and underscore the fact that the two of us are NOT typical readers. For me (as I think it is for you), reading is an activity that engages all the senses. I can tell you how those first Robert Jordan books I read smelled, because the stale paper smell mixed with the cool air kicking in off the gulf coast as I was reading them in Destin. Or how my copy of Literary Toolbox smells a lot like the Milton, almost to the point that I can still taste that dog smell because he ate the cover off of it as a puppy. The thing I love most: the feel of well pressed ink on the page. I love running my hands over the type so I can FEEL the words being pressed into paper–especially with older books.

    While I love my Kindle, I think he and I are going to be entering a longterm strictly business affair. He brings me an unknowable number of texts and I am happy to simply read them off of him. But that seems to be the terminus of our relationship. That’s not a bad thing. That’s just the way it is. He is always going to have that plasticy electrical smell and not the dusty aroma of an old book, or a faint musk of a book that is well-read and holds onto the oils of all the readers that have run their hands down its pages.

    I can upload some Tom Wolfe onto the Kindle with no problems, and the words will be just the same as the ones in the copies of the books on our bookshelves. But there ain’t nothing like that old, rich, first edition smell that lets you know it has been well-read and better-traveled.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Hehehe, poor Milton. For any who read my husband’s comment and thought, “How on Earth did John Milton get ‘Literary Toolbox’ to smell like him,” I direct you to our dog Milton’s information page. Yes, I agree with you about missing out on the glorious sensory feast that reading truly can be (and should be). I like my e-Reader, too, but I don’t think that I’ll stop buying real books. Although…our poor little library might need to expand at this point to accommodate. You can’t really beat e-Readers for their convenience, though. And it would be a lot easier just to carry that thing around for class lecture than to take a book, although certainly not as satisfying to flip through.

  • […] especially to Tori (The Ramblings) and Mrs. H.Ā  (A.Hab.ā€™s View of the World) for continuing this conversation in their own blogs.Ā  If this discussion interests you, I […]

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