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. 😉
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?