On Rest and Desperation

My greatest weakness: Rest. My very Caribbean-American battle with anxiety has a lot to do with my inability to be comfortable at rest. Other than driving my car to campus, I often do not sit down for many hours a day. I cannot comfortably have a phone conversation without attempting to multitask and do laundry or cook dinner. I must always be producing something or making tangible progress for me to feel like I successfully completed each day.

This attitude definitely extends to my writing process. I often approach writing (and sometimes reading) like I am noisily holding my breath. I am always in a rush to finish an abstract, to push a messy draft of a chapter off to a reader or hurriedly trace-out lesson plans. The “deadline desperation” tied to my writing process has consistently killed the joy of writing.

As I end this year, I am learning that even though a writer does come to the task of writing in a state of desperation, it should not be a desperation tied to time. It should be desperation of spirit, a spirit that needs to find a place to make sense of things or just to admit that so many things do not make sense. This spiritual desperation is the one and the same at the heart of all great literature: someone’s unbearable desperation for love, acceptance, freedom. Writing generates limits for our spiritual desperation by offering us a few transcendent minutes where our desire for these virtues are completely filled. Moments where we can re-imagine “what is” until it becomes, “what we’ve always wanted.”

All the writers that have been in my way lately (Paule Marshall, Seamus  Heaney, Albert Camus, Dionne Brand, Edwidge Danticat) remind me that writing is a rigorous yet peace-making activity. The diction, tones and “meditative” pacing in these writers’ works invite empathetic pauses, soundless moments of rest for the reader.

If I a want to become a writer who reproduces the quiet authority and clarity of these authors, I need to make a habit of welcoming a restful attitude in my writing practice.  This means allowing myself the room: the many hours across many days to patiently write, rewrite and rewrite.  It means promising myself to never again submit any document to anyone in a spirit of panic.

Generally in my posts, I aim to stir up the spirit of perseverance. Yet, I now know that in order to ensure the longevity of our writing we must perceive it not as a task that needs to be done (which we feel guilty when we do not do), but an actively dynamic practice, inviting us to calmly satisfy our desperate spirit.

My hope for this month and this new year is that we persevere in an attitude of rest. Repeatedly closing emotional doors that lead to fear and anxiety, time-blocked desperation. I hope that even when you are taking on your most difficult tasks, writing and otherwise, that you will carve out a prayer of peace in the middle of doing them. For me, this prayer usually consists of whispering the name of “Jesus” right in the middle of grading papers or revising a poem for the thirtieth time.

For you, carving out a peaceful attitude at this time of the year might require spending some time alone, even if that means locking yourself in a bedroom, bathroom or closet for a brief moment.  When you do take this moment, use it to reconnect to the quiet desperation that leads you to write.

On Potential

A few weeks ago, after months of promising to do it, I finally helped my parents clean out their study. The room, devoted to countless books and multiple large stacks of random mail and papers, has seen better days. Despite the mess, the study is surprisingly beautiful, especially when the evening sunlight hits the papers, the shadows are warm and mellow.

The room is about 150 square-feet. Across from the doorway, is a long wall-length window that exposes the two fledgling St. Julian mango trees and their ripening buds on the left-back-corner of my parent’s yard. On the wall to the right of the entryway is a bright-yellow-green-blue colored map of the world that swallows up the whole right side of the room. There, Tampa is one tiny dot among thousands of others. On the wall opposite the map is the star: a full-length, floor to ceiling bookcase crammed with a random mix of books from Polymerization to Popular Fiction. It’s probably the only place in the world where you’ll find My Soul Looks Back in Wonder, Mein Kampf and U.S. Pharmacopeia on the same shelf. And on the wall closest to the door is a small, mahogany desk, the first desk my dad purchased after emigrating from Jamaica to the U.S. in 1970.

On the day I decided to tackle the room, it had been days since I had written anything. As you can imagine: The guilt was murderous. Just before heading to Starbucks to get back on track, I made a quick pit-stop in the study to make a copy of a few pages of a book. In this five-minute-span, I was overcome by the fixable mess. And even though I had all my books/bags packed to head out the door, I instinctively knew that I needed to stay in that room at that moment.

Somewhat weird, but I know that you know what I mean: a time when you knew you needed to stay put even though this realization required some type of surrender to an unexpected plan. Something just came over me and all the nervous energy associated with missing and anticipating writing was channeled into action. I enlisted Mom and we collected some suitcases and boxes from around the house and started grabbing and examining papers and books, left and right. We circulated folders, papers and books around from desk to bookcase and to again to desk. As we made changes, we evaluated the room from different angles. Revising our changes, reassessing the placement of books, debating whether we should shred or keep papers.

While in the study with my Mom, cleaning up the mess that she and my dad had made over the course of years, it was apparent that this room, its contents and its condition, serve as a SparkNotes version of their lives. I found my mom’s journal from a time when my dad was ill. In it, she writes in her flawless cursive, “Anserd and I had a good conversation about our family and what we see that we like and what we see that we do not like. I am glad that he seems to be feeling better tonight.” She does not usually journal so this was a strange treat. I found 17 (!!) of my father’s journals, all black and leather bound, sequentially numbered in White Out on their spines. I found budgets and bills scribbled over from years ago. I found a book that my father gifted to my sister in her college years. I found notes on the margins of books. Bible studies, conference notes. I found a massive binder with all of my brother’s science awards. I found pages and pages of their writings, in different places for different reasons. They would never consider themselves to be writers, but writing is nonetheless, an important part of their lives: a tool which they use to understand their daily responsibilities, relationships, emotions.

As I thought about what writing is/was for my parents, I eventually reflected on what writing is for me. Writing makes me feel less lonely. Less distracted, less tired of being busy. It allows me to be honest with, confront and stand in the middle of someone’s life and my own, survey them and walk through them and around them, perceiving them from different angles (see: Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s room in Gravity Is a Force to be Reckoned With). Writing reminds me that life is a surprisingly satisfying creative work. Confusing, yes. Weird, YES. Ugly: No. Horrible: No. My writing can be something that people peer into, examine and question, all the while testing its value and flexibility.

After some busy hours, we turned the disorderly study into a spacious, welcoming place. Being in my parents’ mess and then taking part in cleaning it up, piece-by-piece, was a quietly radical moment. My focus on conquering, subduing and beautifying the mess corresponds with my preoccupations as a writer. I am continually concerned with breaking my words free, redeeming them out of the psychic chaos from which they erupt.

When we perceive the full potential of a writing project, we see it in published form: no errors, no disorder. But, in the moments before “full potential” emerges, there is disorder: tiresome arranging, abysmal spiritual warfare, strange eating habits, exhaustion, anxiety, and writer’s block. And after all of these conditions have given us a sustained and thorough beating, then a lovely, slow harmony suddenly shows up in our words. The project begins to approach completeness. Even in its final stages, it will be imperfect; it will still have subtle, if not overt contradictions. Despite these faults, we must believe that it is worth reading, that it carries within it a distinct and unprecedented message.

As you work on your writing projects this month, perceive beyond the disorder. Envision the finished product. Believe that you will get there. Work steadily to get there. Get there.

I eventually did get to Starbucks. I did revise a hefty chunk of a chapter. While I was there, I thought a bit about the study. How pristine and shiny my dad’s desk looked without papers. How pleasant the shelves looked with half their usual weight. I wondered how many years it would take for my parents to make a comparable mess and if I would still be around to help clean up.

A Bite

Other than real life happening right now in my world and elsewhere, I have two other major writing inspirations: 1) art and 2) incredible writers talking or writing about their craft.

At the end of this post is a Nigerian-flavored taste of each from the imperfect but vital New York Times. The first is a review on an installment of Nigerian Art at the Newark Museum. If you are in the tri-state area you should make a plan to visit and enjoy its awesomeness. Additionally, I have added a link to an interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on her newest novel, Americanah.

If you haven’t written all month, it’s time to get back to it. Blast some Lenny Kravitz, Burning Spear, whatever. Find your computer, nail your rear to a hard-bottomed chair and see what happens after an hour. If you need to start on something new, try one of the links below for a little spark. If you are working on a long or serious revision, remember what you aimed to accomplish: why you started writing the piece in the first place. Write that very important reason on a post-it-note and attach it your hand whenever you write. No. Seriously. Do it.

Thanks to all of you for the tsunami-love-flood that followed my first post. If you have anything specific that you would like me to address in upcoming posts, leave a comment or message me on Facebook. I’ll have a full post in early September.

Enjoy!

Denia

Newark Museum

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

On Submitting

Now, some months after completing my dissertation, I am poking my head back into academia: I am revising a dissertation chapter for publication. Imagining the corridor-long series of revisions that lay ahead, I remember an encounter I had, a few years ago.

Picture me: sitting across from my adviser, in her office, awaiting her comments on a draft of my doctoral exam essay (I believe it was draft # 599, 236). Of course, when she handed it to me, it had more red ink on it than black. And the beloved adviser matched the frustration clearly apparent on my face with humility and directness: “You must submit to the process,” she said.

Crying a bit afterwards and then taking a couple of snot-filled deep breaths, I replayed her words in my head, slowly awakening to the reality that despite my persistent efforts, I was far from my final draft.

I don’t think it helped that I came into the meeting with the assumption that my adviser would think my countless revisions were pretty good, at least good enough. I mean, if I really grasped what writing is, if I really understood the unrelenting practice that it requires, I would have known better than to show up to that meeting with expectations.

Prior to that eye-opening moment, I was living in what C.S. Lewis calls an “utterly mistaken” reality, a time in which what I believed to be the truth in my writing life, was far from the reality of my circumstances. Recalling the darkness of his own grief-induced delusion, Lewis asserts: “I, or any mortal at any time, may be utterly mistaken as to the situation he is really in” (64). Although I thought I was almost done with that wretched essay, it was still in embryonic stages. It required a great deal of my attention for quite a few more months after that meeting with my adviser. And then there was the dissertation. What I believed would take me one-and-a-half years to finish, actually took three.

My pause over the discrepancy between my reality with the essay and my expectations for the essay was a lesson on my faulty depth perception: despite my greatest efforts to be rational and logical, there is a deep well of uncertainty governing my finite perspective of life. I cannot foresee my successes and failures. Therefore, my most critical responsibility is to respond well.

That was then. I allowed myself to feel defeated in the moment of writing the essay, the dissertation, by not submitting to and accepting writing for the glorious trial of perseverance that it is. But, how can I respond well to the writing process right now? Am I willing, to push past my delusions about what I think writing should be and submit myself to be uncomfortably moved by what writing “really” (Lewis 64) is? Sometimes I say, ‘Yes! Because one day I will look back on drafts of everything I have ever written, years and years of pages, with tremendous gratitude and electrocution-grade wonder at the power of focus, at the fact that I got to spend all that time doing what I loved.’ But, at other times I think, ‘No, I’d rather not. I need to go do something easier: something less costly, more lucrative.’ To publish a document, which oftentimes does not reveal the amount of sacrifice involved in writing it, in the great scheme of life is not a life-or-death “situation” (Lewis 64). Or is it?

I think the answer to all of my questioning lies in my decisive willingness to move ahead, all the while holding these internal tensions in delicate balance. There will be doubts that linger, about why I am writing, how long I should spend on a piece and if there is even an audience to read my work. But, if I submit my days and ultimately a great part of my life to this endeavor, all doubt will eventually be cast out by the weight of my investment.

Submitting to the writing process, its horrible tedium, exhaustion and painful reach into the depths of psychic capacity continues to be a lesson about submitting to the tiresome and various processes of becoming that we all daily face. Whether we seek to become a brilliant husband, mother, friend, teacher or doctor, there is this very heart-breaking window of becoming that threatens our pursuits, crippling us with fear about the future (“Is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life?” “Can I cope with this long-term without the use of narcotics?”) Successfully pursuing high-priority goals and relationships will be a tremendous undertaking. We soon come to the conclusion that we must submit to the long processes stretching before us by first uprooting romantic and silly-headed views of our life’s work and drawing closer to (and doing!) the messy, unappealing and dangerous work itself.

Right here, on this page, I (re)submit to the process of writing, blogging, becoming. My goal is to encourage you through your writing process as I am laboring to be faithful in mine. Specifically, I will address my journey toward creative and academic publication. I submit to the fact that although I begin here hoping to encourage other writers, this endeavor will surely evolve into a strange, wild amorphous beast that will require me (and hopefully you) to confront the frailty of my knowledge and the overwhelming uncertainty that is essential to life.

References
Lewis. C.S. A Grief Observed. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. Print.