On Being Angry at Machinal

Machinal, a play written by Sophie Treadwell in 1928,  just wrapped its revival run at the Roundabout Theater Company.

Feel good theater this is not. Machinal is the story of a young woman who murders her husband. The woman’s name is “Young Woman,” the idea here is that she stands in for every woman, driven to desperation by the misogynistic system of the late 1920s, in which a woman had few options, in which a woman who did not live with her parents or her husband was known as a “woman adrift.”

Machinal by Sophie Treadwell

The young woman goes from her domineering mother’s home to her husband who nauseates her with his touch, bears a child, after which a male doctor disregards her obvious postpartum depression. Eventually she has an affair with a handsome man, who leaves for Mexico. After which our Young Woman can no longer stand her annoying husband and bludgeons him to death.

She’s convicted, sentenced to die in the electric chair. Witnesses note that she adjusts an errant lock of hair before the voltage courses through her body.

***

The play was compelling,  the lead performance by Rebecca Hall engrossing, but the play itself…something seemed not quite right to me, narratively speaking.

Clearly, the audience is meant to sympathize with fragile and shaky young woman, as  constrained by the circumstances of her life as she was strapped into that electric chair. But she’s also not entirely sympathetic – after her courtroom confession of her husband’s murder, the judge asks her why she simply didn’t leave her husband.  The audience laughs at this line — the look on the young woman’s face in response shows how plainly idiotic she thinks the judge.

M01_1000x387

I, as a feminist audience member, want to be on the side of the gender-oppressed, but I could not repress a raised eyebrow, an internal girl, please. That Young Woman had other options besides bashing in her husband’s skull with that pebble-filled bottle.  After all, she had sufficient freedom to have an affair. And her husband doesn’t seem quite so repellant, just boring and annoying.

I wondered whether Sophie Treadwell was constrained by the facts upon which she based her play. As a writer of narrative nonfiction, this is a predicament with which I could easily sympathize. Treadwell had been a journalist as well as a playwright, and Machinal is based on the story of Ruth Snyder, who in 1928 became the first woman to be executed in Sing Sing since 1899.  Treadwell attended Snyder’s trial, although she didn’t cover it.

A quick look at Wikipedia disproved my theory. In fact, Synder’s actual story was much more interesting than the story Treadwell wrote. Snyder got mad at her husband because he was still enthralled with his late fiancée.  So she had an affair, took out life insurance on her husband, and with her lover made seven (7!) (Seven!) (7!) attempts on his life before the duo successfully garroted on attempt number eight.

***

So then I decided I would be angry at Treadwell. She had a good true story and she fucked it up by fictionalizing it! To me, the glory of fictionalizing is to improve a story not to make it more murky and less interesting. My anger eventually propelled me to the New York Public Library, which delivered me Broadway’s Bravest Woman: Selected Writings of Sophie Treadwell.

It turns out that I was not alone in my frustration. For while Treadwell was considered inventive, and multi-talented – a playwright, producer, director, actress, The New York Herald Tribune described her as “a roomful of people” —  she also apparently didn’t mind irritating her audience with unlikeable characters.

She wanted her plays to be performed on Broadway, but she also didn’t want to follow the conventions of Broadway. Her friend Alexander Koiransky, Russian drama critic wrote this to her:

 Sometimes I think that there is in you a definite perversity, with which you insist upon bringing into your plays things and situations which make them unacceptable to the bosses of Broadway…do not write beautiful plays intrinsically obnoxious to the masters of the hours.

This was not advice Treadwell was wont to follow. “She created realistic complex characters who were difficult to understand by an audience used to simple, understandable heroes and villains,” note editors Dickey and Lopez-Rodriguez.

Let’s be clear: this was adding insult to my narrative injury: now I’m being lumped in with un-nuanced creatures who can’t appreciate complexity of character? I mean, I like a complex character. But you still need to have a plot that follows.

But as I continued to read Broadway’s Bravest Woman, Treadwell’s reputation started to undergo a rehabilitation (with me) .  I learned that she was really working out her own personal issues with her parents, and with men, and with the media through her writing. The Synder case wasn’t really an inspiration as much as it was a provocation. As a writer, I absolutely approve of appropriating public issues for private introspection. (Obviously.)

But I definitively turned the corner from irritation towards a grudging fondness when I read that at bottom, Treadwell just didn’t like people all that much.  (Misanthropy being among the most sensible and endearing of human characteristics.)

She especially didn’t like people like producers who wanted her to revise her plays to fit “industry norms or traditional formats.”  Editors Dickey and Lopez Rodriguez write that Treadwell preferred to rely on “the emotional connection she established with her character, rather than on an assessment of the play’s fundamental action.” That is certainly apparent in Machinal. I still don’t think this was really for the best, narratively, although I will allow that her approach to writing allowed for originality.

So, Sophie Treadwell, I get you. And I have decided to not be angry at you anymore.

Maps of the Interior — Ink Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

InkArt_481px

My favorite part of Ink Art, an exhibit of Chinese contemporary art at the Met, are Hong Hao’s  Selected Scriptures.

They are basically a mash up of everything I love.

From a distance, they look like vintage maps that you’d discover in some dusty bookstore. (Vintage maps, dusty bookstores, ooh la la.) He created them using silkscreen printing, but they’re meant to look like woodblock prints, which I adore.  Stepping closer, the maps themselves are thought-provoking, disturbing and funny. (Yes, yes, and oh yes!)

I especially appreciated his World Defense Layout Map, in which the continents are superimposed with delicate images of various forms of violence; and his Latest Practical World Map, in which  place names are substituted with various characteristics  — “Potential Market,” “Brain Drain,” “Never Mind”.

Exhibit text says:

The artist has sought to compile a new “encyclopedia” to put forward his own understanding of the ever-changing world, reshuffling various aspects of culture to effectively dissolve boundaries and meanings, just like a computer virus. Hong’s images resemble ancient classics, but are rife with intentional text errors, misnomers, and cartographic misrepresentations that offer a humorous commentary on the diverse and subjective ways in which the world is visualized and understood.

Here’s some more about Hong Hao.

On Keeping a Writer’s Journal

In my creative writing classes, we talk a lot about writer’s journals and notebooks.

I usually reference my own habits in this regard — I’ve been keeping a journal every morning since I graduated from college. When I started, I would fill notebooks — college ruled, spiral notebooks, fast, bold tip pens.  Then, 84 months ago, I shifted onto the computer. (I know this with precision because I start and number a new file each month. )

I liked writing by hand, but I write an awful lot in these journals — usually 30,000 to 50,000 words a month.  On paper, the pages literally mount. And then mound — by the time I switched to digital,  my notebooks had already filled many, many boxes. Also, in our Google-accustomed world, paper journals are incredibly annoying to search by keyword.

The search function is important because I want to  understand how I felt about certain events or people over time, but also because I use this journal as a tool for my writing. (And with the kind of a time I’m investing in this activity, it damned well better be!)  Although it’s true that I don’t write in my journal with the conscious intent of it being useful as anything but venting, the reality is that I often use my morning journal as a stealthy source of first draft material.

In addition to my morning journal, Evernote has become my working notebook — I write drafts in there, store  lines that pop into my mind, stray facts, images, inspiration.

When I travel, I also like to take notes by hand, usually, and I know, insufferably, in a Moleskine. (Not easily searchable, but I’ve written the destinations I’ve visited on each cover — I find these more useful for browsing, the nitty gritty facts I need for travel writing go into Evernote.)

And, finally, I keep an art journal. That’s not usually something I talk about in my writing classes, but I did write a little bit about that on Perceptive Travel. I guess I can confess here that I have a sort of secret life as a book artist. I recently exhibited a small handmade book at 110 Church Gallery in Philadelphia.

Anyway, as with all subjects of interest, I also very much enjoy reading about how writers and creative people keep their own notebooks and journals.  And because I am often asked for resources, here are a few I like:


Writers and Their Notebooks, edited by Diana Raab. A collection on essays by writers of all kinds — novelists, travel writers, memoirists, on the notebooks and journals they keep.  Ilan Stavans: “To others my notebooks might appear to be a messy affair…to me the accretion of material (In Talmudic fashion) distills truth. Truth is what literature is about: the conviction that through words, not just any words but the right words, and whatever else accompanies them, I might reach the essence of things.”

Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal by Alexandra Johnson, really gets at the heart of the matter. The subtitle: The Art of Transforming Life into Stories, with exercises and journal prompts. A few years earlier, Johnson wrote The Hidden Writer, about the function of diaries on the creative life of women, including Sonya Tolstoy, Alice James, Katherine Mansfield, and of course Anais Nin, the patron goddess of the diary.

“Diaries also chart the underside of a writer’s life, — the slow drain or premature killing of talent,” writes Johnson.  “It was Yeats’ uneasy bargain: writers are “forced to choose perfection of life, or of the work.” Wasn’t this the cautionary lesson of many early diaries — the choice had always been the perfection of life. Sonya Tolstoy birthing the ninth of her children while trying to write stories; Anais Nin, unsolicited, giving Henry Miller her only typewriter when his broke.”

The next book is somewhat harder to find, but worth it:  Breathing In, Breathing Out: Keeping a Writer’s Notebook by Ralph Fletcher is a slim volume on the various ways a writer uses a notebook. For recording slang, colorful expressions, dialogue, and of course, particular experience. “Too often I have only vague feelings and sort of ideas when I begin to write. I sit at my desk with a sinking feeling…this is where my notebook comes in handy,” he writes. “Rereading it is like rolling up my sleeves and immersing my arms up to the elbows in hot particulars. In all the possibilities that exist in words. More often than not, this gets me back on track.”

For some reason — I hate to admit this, but I  think it’s because the books of are of similar size and length  — I always think of Breathing In, Breathing Out in combination with Kim Stafford’s exceptionally lovely The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft. This book isn’t explicitly about journal nor notebook keeping, although of course the subject comes up. “All coherence in my writing begins in the ready hospitality of the little notebook I carry in my shirt pocket,” writes Stafford. “Because the book and pen are always there, and because my memory is weak, I take dozens of moments each day to jot down phrases from the flow of life. I take down conversation overheard, notes on a sweep of fragrance, an idea that brims up…the palm-sized book folded open is where every piece of my writing has its beginning. Some twinkle in the language around me makes me raise my head, listen close, and jot.”

The Blonde Club: On Teasing and Joking in Romantic Relationships

I had forgotten all about The Blonde Club, until Dolores reminded me.

“Whenever I went away on a trip without my husband, I’d quip that I didn’t have to be lonely while I was away because he’d be having fun with “Dolores” – his make-believe girlfriend,” writes Vikki Stark.  “To me, that was a riot – that my husband could ever possibly have a girlfriend was so far-fetched, I thought it was a really funny joke,” she wrote in her book Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife’s Guide to Recovery and Renewal.

As you might guess from that title, this funny joke turned out to not be such a riot. Her husband really was having an affair, which led to the sudden dissolution of their marriage.

After her experience, Stark, a therapist, started to study the phenomenon of apparently-happy husbands who don’t just stray, but simply walk away from their long-term marriages. Ultimately she looked at four hundred examples of this strange behavior, which she calls Sudden Wife Abandonment Syndrome.  My own divorce fit the characteristics of this phenomenon so neatly, that I almost wondered whether my ex-husband had actually used it as a checklist.

The Blonde ClubBut I had to put down the book when I got the part about Dolores. This was just getting creepy. For many, many years, my then-husband and I joked about “The Blonde Club,” an imaginary call-girl service he would patronize when I was out of town, or out with friends, in any event, not around.

I first remember it as The Blonde Club of Ithaca, which would mean that this joke started very early in our relationship – either when we were in college, or immediately after we got married. As we moved from city to city, the joke would be adjusted for geography. The Blonde Club of Rochester. The Blonde Club of Delaware, New Hampshire, and finally Manhattan.  He would make the joke, or I would make the joke, I think we both genuinely thought it was funny. Obviously not a real humdinger, but at least worth a chuckle.

It immediately struck me that couples just don’t make jokes about Dolores and the Blonde Clubs when infidelity isn’t a concern, on a deep and unvoiced level. (In fact, after I became aware of an actual instance of his infidelity, I don’t recall either of us ever making that joke again.) It also occurred to me that when we joked about The Blonde Club over the years, what were really saying to each other was something like this:

Me: “Hey, you know what? I don’t trust you.  Although I could never say that out loud.”

Him: “I realize that you don’t trust me. You probably shouldn’t. I don’t know how to talk about this.”

Fucking hilarious, really.

The moment where I could have made something meaningful out of the Blonde Club jokes is, of course, over. But since the family Stein is legendary for its humor — especially in our own minds – this made me realize that I need to look more carefully at the many times that I tease or am teased, make or hear jokes,  particularly in an important relationship. And perhaps you, dear reader, should as well.

***

First, I should say that I don’t want to ruin humor. It really is the good stuff in life.  Smiles are how we show pleasure, laughter is smiling, escalated and reliably provides more pleasure. Sometimes being funny is just being funny. A joke is sometimes just a joke.

Teasing, especially, has an important function in relationships, writes Robin Kowalski in her book Complaining, Teasing and Other Annoying Behaviors.  Teasing, is always about confronting another person about some aspect of his or her identity.  (“Identity confrontation couched in humor,” Kowalski writes. As opposed to bullying, which lacks humor.) The focus of the tease can be physical appearance  – like wearing glasses. It can be a lack of skill – oh, just picking from my own long list of failings, a tendency towards being late, or getting lost. It could be a customary way of doing things, like for instance, how I always leave just a little bit of coffee in the cup.

Teasing requires knowing something about the person — you can’t really effectively tease someone you don’t know; you can’t really be teased by someone who isn’t paying you close attention. So it establishes camaraderie and conveys some degree of intimacy. This is why it can sometimes feel good to be teased and to tease.

Behind this knowledge, though, is also some degree of hostility. And humor is also a way of being hostile.  This is not necessarily a bad thing. People that you interact with regularly, no matter how much you love them, can be annoying. Making a joke about some grating aspect of their behavior lets you voice that annoyance without elevating it into a “we need to talk” moment.

And actually, humor is an incredibly elegant way of handling the smaller challenges in a relationship. It allows you to give voice to some part of your experience that you’re not able to utter directly. It gives you some cover, in case your observation cuts to close to the bone. (“Jeez, can’t you take a joke?)  And you get the relief of having expressed the truth  “even though it had to be done through all sorts of roundabout ways,” Freud wrote in Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious.

Also, you’re able to get the other person on your side, at least at the moment of their laughter. “The listener will be induced by the gain in pleasure [from laughing] to take part, even if he is not altogether convinced,–just as we on other occasions were fascinated by harmless witticism, were wont to overestimate the substance of the sentence wittily expressed. “To prejudice the laughter in one’s own favor” is a completely pertinent saying in the German language,” observed Freud.

To cite a rather extreme example, Freud recounts story told about the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, traveling on a train car filled with pro-slavery ministers. One approached him and asked: are you here to free the niggers? When Phillips said he was, the minister suggested that he leave the state.  Phillips responded like this:

“Excuse me, are you a preacher?”

“I am, sir.”

“Are you trying to save souls from hell?”

“Yes sir, that’s my business.”

“Well, why don’t you go there?”

The car erupted with laughter – laughter from the other racist ministers – and the one who’d questioned Phillips hurried from the car in embarrassment.

The point, Freud said, is that the minister was obnoxious in his approach, and Phillips, being a classy guy, didn’t want to respond in kind, but nor did he want to just let it slide in front of a group of other preachers. So he used humor, which enabled him to “fascinate” the other clergymen, and for a moment brought them to his side.

***

That’s a slightly different application of humor, obviously Phillips and the racist preacher weren’t in association with one another, didn’t have an ongoing relationship to consider, weren’t going to be sleeping together that night.

But it’s easy to see how this would work in a close relationship — that if you can get your significant other to laugh at some aspect of their annoying behavior, for that moment, they recognize it and agree with you.  For instance, I’m a person who is prone to being a little spacy – I am capable of walking many times past some piece of detritus on the floor and not seeing it. My then-husband would often tease me about this, and I would laugh. A lot happened in that moment of teasing: a slightly annoying behavior of mine was brought to my attention and in the moment I laughed, I acknowledged its annoyance. We had a shared experience of warmth and laughter, and I even would stop and pick an errant sock up off the floor from time to time.

So humor discharges negative energy, which is sometimes exactly what’s needed. But that becomes a problem when the joking and the teasing are about something very important, even fundamental. Like trust. Like fidelity. Or a career change, or an important interaction with the in-laws,  or child care issues, insert-your-important-issue-here. Joking about it makes you feel like you’ve handled it, you’ve brought it up, you’ve come to a resolution. It’s like a more enjoyable form of denial.

Humor also might be the only way that you can first bring up a difficult topic  if you’re joking about something important, you many not even be consciously aware of how much it is actually bothering you, it may be the joke itself that gives you the hint.

So the trick  it seems to me, isn’t to stop joking and teasing in close or romantic relationships. It’s deciding when you need to keep talking, once the laughter stops.

Woody Allen on Humor: Exhibitionism, Narcissism, Aggression


In Hebrew, the word  “smile” literally translates to the poetic phrase  “the daughter of laughter,”  according to an article I was reading in an academic journal today.

The first comedian referenced in the article is Woody Allen, which made my own smile fade into a raised eyebrow. It’s striking how the news can change the way you read a piece of social science.

To back up,  over the weekend I read Dylan Farrow’s disturbing story about childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Woody Allen in the New York Times. Today, while doing entirely unrelated research, I came across Woody Allen, quoted in The Social Function of Humor in Interpersonal Relationships.

The article’s author, Avner Ziv, summarized Allen’s  four-part view on what motivates a person to become a comedian, i.e., someone who wants to go on a stage and make people laugh.

1) Exhibitionism and narcissism;

2) The need to form relationships and be accepted.

3) Aggressiveness: “Comedians often talk about their wish to have an audience die from laughter,” .

4) People look better when they’re laughing.

Interesting, in a stomach-churning sort of way, to read this list after  Dylan Farrow’s accusation.

Now, let me be clear, lest I’m taken out of context!  Although numbers one through three on this list seem relevant in the Court of Public Opinion, where this matter is currently being tried, and although this court lacks all standards of evidence, in my view this list of Allen’s is merely of interest, AND not determinative of…anything.

It’s a list that probably fits most comedians (and artists)  and obviously there are plenty non-abusers in those professions. Also — I looked it up — it seems there really isn’t an agreed upon psychological profile of child abusers. (Other than having experienced abuse themselves, and  “some evidence indicates that perpetrators are shy, weak, passive, and nonassertive, with low self-esteem.” (Psychological Profile of Pedophiles and Child Molesters. )

I also substantially agreed  with a point that was made in The New Inquiry’s analysis of the response to Farrow’s blog post, and especially that her accusation was being discounted more because she was accusing a celebrity.

Here’s something else that Allen said that also seems relevant to that point. In Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking (Vintage), by Eric Lax, Allen said: “The audience worships the celebrity and on the one hand cuts the celebrity much more slack than the celebrity deserves, merits, or earns. On the other hand, the audience loves it when the celebrity is denigrated…”

Rats Giggle, The Importance of Play, and a Night at the Rubin

Here’s how I define “interesting”: an experience that leads me to ask (and seek to answer) compelling questions; causes me to plan follow-up experiences that would have never occurred to me otherwise; and (at least slightly) alters the course of my intellectual, creative or physical life.

So, last Friday night was interesting.  I went to the Rubin Museum of Art, which is for the seventh time, hosting Brainwave. This is a series of staged conversations, films and other events, all focused on answering this question: what happens in our brains when we attempt to overcome adversity, survive tests of endurance and stay focused under pressure?

The conversation I attended was between the highly acclaimed ballet dancer, Wendy Whelan, and Mark Solms, neuropsychologist and South African vintner. Although my guess is that most people in the sold-out crowd were familiar with Whelan or Solms or both, I wasn’t. Maybe you’re not either, so here’s a video of Whelan’s dancing, and a TEDx talk by Solms.

Their conversation was exactly the kind I like to have, jumping around from one topic to the next, making me want to know more.  Here’s some of what stood out:

Injuries as a learning experience.  Whelan referred almost immediately to a physical injury she was recovering from. She never specified what it was, and no one in the audience asked during the q&a —  but she said that she’s found the injured times in her life among the most rich and valuable.

This is a topic I’ve been dwelling on, of late —  the value of adversity, which, let’s face it, is a totally annoying fact of life. I’d much rather skip the hard stuff, but there’s no doubt that it’s all been valuable in the bigger picture.  As an example, she  mentioned that she decided to get married during a time of injury, which came up in the couple’s Vows profile.

She said she never harbored the desire to marry until an injury last year kept her home for four months, where {husband-to-be} Mr. Michalek tended to her. The leave forced her to be “a wife in a weird way,” she said. “I really enjoyed it, so I just knew I could be myself and not be a dancer with this person. I could look ahead into the future, and I was just so happy being me with him.”

Rats giggle.  This came up during a conversation about the nature of play, which Whelan and Solms concluded was essential to creativity. I don’t recall that either quoted Picasso, as is clearly required by law on this topic: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

But the conversation went along those lines — that children have the belief that they’re special, and what they learn and how they express that is important — which is a form of healthy narcissism.

This gets beaten out of most people as they age, so, as Solms observed, “we all start like narcissists, and end up like Englishman — except for artists.” Artists retain that childlike state. (Childlike, as distinguished from the pejorative childish.)

Whelan remembered her introduction to dance as a child, and spinning and spinning around and around, simply because she loved to do it. And how she retains that love of movement today, after more than forty years of dancing.

This quality of love is in fact is how she separates artists from the workaday artist. “Doing it because it feels so fucking good, versus for money or reviews,” she says.

This was also on my mind, as I was in the home stretch on my recent essay Against Self-Discipline.  We do tend to overlook the fun of creativity, especially when we do this creative thing for a living.

This led into a learned riff on play from Solms, which included the observation that all juvenile mammals have an instinct for play, in fact, they must play. (Even rats, which laugh when you tickle them: diagram, if you’re not keen enough on rats to watch the video.)

Solms also pointed out that play is often rough and tumble, with a switch-off between dominant and submissive roles.  (And he said, I believe, that you have to be dominant no less than 40% of the time for that play experience to be fun for you.)

Also, play is a way of testing boundaries, and sometimes the line gets crossed between being playful (say, playing doctor) and unwanted touching (really playing doctor.) Which is why all children will tell you they love playing, and why most episodes of play end in tears.

I’m not so interested in children, frankly. (Heresy, I know! But do remember I have a proudly unused uterus.) However I am interested in how teasing works in adult communication, which to my mind is precisely about saying uncomfortable things and pushing boundaries.

I’ve now added these items to my upcoming agenda: seeing Whelan perform Restless Creatures at The Joyce this Spring, reading Solms’ book Brain and the Inner World: An Introduction to the Neuroscience of Subjective Experience and tracking down a documentary called The Edge of Dreaming, which features Solms. (And hey, if I find his wine, too, all the better. ) All in all, a perfectly interesting night.

Against Self-Discipline: A Braver, Gentler Path Around Writer’s Block

A Better Way Around Writer's Block, by Alison J. Stein“What’s your advice for writer’s block?”

This is a question that I get in almost every writing class that I teach, and so as is required by law, I start my remarks by saying that I don’t believe in writer’s block.

I know the part I’m playing at the front of the class room well. Like all professional writers, I’m to display a certain world-weariness with the notion of having trouble getting oneself to set words down on the page. “Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands,” offers Jodi Picoult.  “I’ve never heard of anyone getting plumber’s block, or traffic cop’s block,” adds Allan Gurganus.  “One must be pitiless about this matter of “mood,”  Joyce Carol Oates told the Paris Review in 1978.

If there is no block, then what is there? Lack of self-discipline, obviously. The preternaturally productive Oates  (40+ novels, and essays, and short stories and criticism) says she forces herself to write even when she doesn’t feel like it, or, as she put it: “I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . .”

Wow, is she a badass or what? Students love this sort of thing, love the idea that it’s possible to just push through pain, to grit it out, and get to the writing and become Joyce Carol Oates.

And here’s where what remains of puritanical fervor in this country resurfaces – it’s an opportunity to self-flagellate. Usually several students confess their sins against writing: they prefer an extra hour sleep or reality TV or spending time with their kids to working on their writing. I know I need to do something different if I want to write, they’ll say, mournfully, but expectantly, since they believe that I know the secret to never experiencing a struggle to write writing, since I have after all made a living as a writer for almost twenty years and clearly I keep winning the battle they keep losing.

“I don’t believe in writer’s block, I don’t believe in self-flagellation, and I don’t believe in self-discipline either,” I’ll say, and watch their faces register bewilderment.

Self-discipline sounds really good, but it’s ineffective —  if you look closely at any writer that is consistently productive, like Oates, like Picoult, I’d argue that self-discipline rarely has anything to do with it. And since self-discipline is another way of saying self-punishment, I believe it’s immoral as applied to any kind of creative endeavor. Or actually, applied to anything at all.

“But I do believe in anxiety,” I’ll say, so that my students don’t start to worry that I also don’t believe in oxygen, chairs, the government, reality.

Anxiety is entirely rational when you’re doing something you’ve never done before. Which, by definition, is what every piece of writing is: even if you’ve written a million words, published novels, short stories, screenplays, articles, greeting cards — you’ve never written what you’re writing now. That’s scary.

All writers feel this fear or anxiety, whether they want to talk about it or not. Professional writers usually don’t have a lot of trouble starting on a routine writing project that’s paying the bills, but we often have a lot of trouble starting on a “passion project,” something we feel strongly about. This is both good and bad news for aspiring writers. Good news, they’re not alone in their anxiety. Bad news, it doesn’t go away when you get published.

More bad news: the way around this anxiety isn’t easy.  And in fact, it can be lot harder than entirely ineffective self-discipline, at least at first. But once you do it a few times, the process itself becomes easier, and then writing becomes much less of a big deal.

After all, let’s remember what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about writing. That’s not jumping out of airplanes, or wrestling with giant cobras, or balancing a thin glass vial of airborne Ebola virus on your nose. It’s just putting words onto a page. Once you get through the anxiety, it’s just putting words on a page.

2. Is Hitler Really Your Role Model? Why Self-Discipline is Ineffective

The concept of self-discipline as it relates to writing, or anything else, depends on the idea that we can divide ourselves into two: the part that punishes and the part that receives punishment, the part that wants to write and the part that doesn’t.

The part of us that wants to write is usually characterized as good, and pure, and true – the part that is aligned with our higher good, the grown up. The part that doesn’t want to write is usually characterized as lazy, shortsighted and weak. The immature child.

The typical approach that many take to this conflict can be summed up like this: Weakness must be hammered away.

So, when I have a commitment to write three pages of my novel to show to a writing partner on Monday, and I’m feeling resistance to doing it – this lazy, short-sighted weak side of me can be incredibly strong – I go on the attack.

I think: Jesus Christ, Alison, it’s only three fucking pages. Why can’t you do just three fucking pages? You can write three pages in your journal like it’s nothing.

And the part that doesn’t want to write says: I DON’T WANT TO, LEAVE ME ALONE! I want to watch Girls. Or how about vacuuming? Have you seen how much cat hair is on the rug?

And the part that does: Don’t try to distract me. I don’t care what you want, WRITE THE THREE FUCKING PAGES.

This is not what can be called a productive conversation.

There’s a book called The War of Art  by Steven Pressfield, which I have recommended often in  my writing classes. He tells the story of how, in his late twenties, he rented a house to “finish a novel or kill himself.”

He’d already failed to complete two novels, and had screwed up a marriage plus two careers. This time he was determined to finish the novel, and he did. “I felt like a dragon had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out its last sulfuric breath. Rest in peace, motherfucker.”

The book talks about the struggle with the part within that does not want to write,  which he calls resistance, or, “the enemy within.” An insidious enemy who will do anything to keep you from doing your work.  He describes it thusly:

Resistance is always lying and full of shit.

Resistance aims to kill…when we fight it, we are in war to the death.

This is war and a deadly business. You can give no quarter to the enemy, show no mercy, because if you coddle the enemy, they will murder your children, rape your women, burn your houses to the ground and salt the earth.  This is why you must be, as Joyce Carole Oates said, pitiless on this matter of mood.

Although now I will confess that I am quoting her out of context, as many people do on this subject. This is a situation I will soon remedy, but first, I’m going to really up the ante.

Let’s be clear, the one with whom you must be pitiless is yourself.  The immature child within to whom you must show no mercy.

Weakness must be hammered away, right? But do you know who said that? Adolf Hitler.

***

And indeed we are talking about destruction. We are attempting to destroy and silence the part of us that doesn’t want us to write, a part of us that is stopping us for some reason.

The problem with being at war with yourself –- which is what happening when you yell and scream at yourself, and try to drag yourself to the page by the scruff of your neck if necessary — is that there can be no winner.  You are at war with… you. We can’t “beat” the part of us that doesn’t want to write, without doing damage to our own psyche.

A damaged psyche is a problem, for life most importantly, but also for the writing.

For if you somehow manage to grit out a piece of writing in this manner, you’ll probably have trouble summoning the energy to bludgeon yourself into this act repeatedly. You’ll have to keep hitting yourself harder to get the work done, and only the most masochistic could keep that act up indefinitely. This is one reason why I say that self-discipline is over the long haul ineffective.

3. Why Self-Discipline is Immoral and Dangerous.

As I’ve already pointed out, the part of us that doesn’t want to write seems childish and immature, and so it should be troubling that our instinct is to crush this weaker part of ourselves when it raises an objection to a new course of action, simply because it doesn’t immediately fall into line with our grown-up plans. It seems a basic point of morality that the strong ought not beat up on the weak.


In For Your Own Good, the psychologist Alice Miller wrote very eloquently about the damage that children sustain from physical punishment and humiliation.

She points out that children have a very hard coping with the fact that pain is being caused to them by the very people on whom their lives depend. And that this confusion becomes even worse when parents don’t allow their children to express their full feelings of pain, anger and confusion at being treated in this manner.

“If there is absolutely no possibility of reacting appropriately to hurt, humiliation, and coercion, than these experiences cannot be integrated into the personality; the feelings they evoke are repressed and the need to articulate them remains unsatisfied, without any hope of being fulfilled.”

And this leads to psychological problems, as well as to adults who are inured to their internal sensations of discomfort and pain.

“The scorn and abuse directed at the helpless child as well as the suppression of vitality, creativity, and feeling in the child and in oneself permeate so many areas of our life that we hardly notice it anymore…Almost everywhere we find the effort, marked by varying degrees of intensity and by the use of various coercive measures, to rid ourselves as quickly as possible of the child within us – i.e, the weak, helpless, dependent creature – in order to become an independent competent adult, deserving of respect.” [Emphasis added.]

Sound familiar? Destroy the childish part of you that doesn’t want to write, coerce it into writing, and you’ll be zipping your way to a completed manuscript in no time. Except for that this makes no sense at all: you really do need an intact self to create. Your internal defenses can’t be eliminated by forbidding them to exist. Or by yelling at them.

Also, you also really can’t eliminate your internal defenses — this childish part of you is there for the long haul. That’s a fact, not a problem.

And the part of you that’s stopping your writing isn’t doing so because it’s mean and cussed and hates you. It’s doing it because it’s trying to protect you…from something. The strength of the resistance that you feel to writing is a measure of exactly how much protection some part of your brain thinks you need from this writing act you’re about to undertake.


And here’s why you disregard this message at your peril. The brain takes this protective role very, very seriously. In his book, The Divided Mind, Dr. John E. Sarno has written about how the brain creates physical maladies in order to divert attention from something troubling happening in the unconscious.

To the layperson, this sounds absolutely bonkers, until you consider all the ways that mind does directly affect the body — for instance, blushing, when you feel embarrassed, or sweating when nervous. Sarno found that the brain can restrict blood flow to certain body parts, creating

“physical symptoms…intended to divert attention away from the emotions in the unconscious so that they will not become overt and thereby known to the conscious mind.”

This includes back pain, knee pain, headaches, to irritable bowel syndrome, frequent urination – all excellent distractions.

These maladies serve a protective purpose, he writes, “since the repressed emotions, should we become aware of them, be in some way to dangerous to normal existence, or too emotionally painful to deal with.” And this all happens without conscious decision.

My point here is that you can try to override this part of you that is trying to stop you from doing something it perceives as harmful – in this case, writing — but the psyche has lots of tricks up its sleeve. The better approach would be to try to shine some light on this resistance, to gently approach this scared part of you with kindness and appreciation…and curiosity. Why is that you don’t want to write? What is going on here?

4. Objections, Or What Self-Discipline is Not

At this point, you might argue that without self discipline, everyone would just do whatever they want. Give into every impulse. Civil society would break down.

This is confusing the issue. Discipline is about achieving obedience through punishment, which is not the same thing as behaving in your own self-interest. Behaving in your self-interest involves taking action to avoid unpleasant consequences, or to receive pleasant ones.

As an example, I have been working for myself and from home since I graduated from college. When this comes up in conversation with people who have worked for others, in an office, I am often complimented on my self-discipline. “I could never work from home, I’d just watch television all day.” Often this is followed by examples of situations where this person has worked from home for a few days and got absolutely nothing done.

I usually say that self-discipline has nothing to do with this, for a few reasons. Mostly, that if I avoid my work for any reason, the only person who’s there to pick up the slack is me. And if no one does it, then the only person available to have an unpleasant conversation with an irate client is me.  And the person who will not be able to invoice for the work and won’t be able to pay the bills, is, again, me. None of these things really happen to an employed person who works from home. If you goof for a day (at the office or at home) The worst thing is that you fall a little behind, and then you catch up, and your pay check still appears in your checking account.

And then I say that I’m not sure how anyone gets up every morning and puts on binding clothing to go to the office, because I don’t think I could do that ever day. The response is generally something about needing to earn a living.  Exactly.

***

Life is full of things we don’t want to do in the moment, but we do it because the consequences would be less pleasant.  Generally, you don’t experience a huge amount of inner turmoil about the decisions you make in your self-interest. (Yes, of course, there’s a little bitching and moaning, but nothing close to something you’d describe as a block.) You’re doing the dread task for a good cause: keeping your home, putting food on the table, keeping up with the company gossip.  It’s possible also to delay gratification of some need, or to endure discomfort, for a goal you’d really like to achieve. You might also put off some momentary pleasure for an even greater future pleasure.

To return to Joyce Carol Oates, and her advice about being pitiless on the matter of mood. What she really meant was being very clear about identifying and acting in your own self-interest – deciding on your greatest pleasure and going after it full-tilt. The full quote from the Paris Review:

One must be pitiless about this matter of “mood.” In a sense, the writing will create the mood. If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function—a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind—then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in. Generally I’ve found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.

The activity of writing changes everything for her because knows she loves it. In another interview she said: “I love to write…it’s a fascinating experience to deal with language and to tell stories involving people who are, for me at least, fascinating.”

And so she acts in her own enlightened self-interest, if she’s tired, depressed, sick of it all, she knows from experience that doing something she loves will lift her out of that, in the way that people who like to exercise do the same. This is not much of a struggle, this is not a “block,” this is not a serious objection from her unconscious mind. This also is not self-discipline. This is self-interest.

And what’s more, she doesn’t stick to a regular schedule. Earlier in the Paris Review interview she said this:

I haven’t any formal schedule, but I love to write in the morning, before breakfast. Sometimes the writing goes so smoothly that I don’t take a break for many hours—and consequently have breakfast at two or three in the afternoon on good days. On school days, days that I teach, I usually write for an hour or forty-five minutes in the morning, before my first class. But I don’t have any formal schedule, and at the moment I am feeling rather melancholy, or derailed, or simply lost, because I completed a novel some weeks ago and haven’t begun another . . . except in scattered, stray notes.

Eventually she will pull herself back to what she loves, her writing, because she is taking care of herself, not because she is punishing herself. And Jodi Picoult, too, makes the point that it’s love, not punishment, that brings her to the page: “What you need to remember, however, is that there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than writing.”

***

Now it’s true that we humans don’t always reliably act in our self-interest. Sometimes we take the easier choice in the moment because the consequences aren’t clear, or even real,  to us. (This is also called “being young.”)  Sometimes we take the easier choice in the moment because we figure our future self can take the heat. But for the most part, we’re pretty good at playing out what will happen if we do or don’t do something today and deciding whether we’re willing to accept or not.

The equanimity with which we accept those consequences is a measure of maturity.

The problem that we’re dealing with in “writer’s block,” or its associated problems, is that is we’re attempting to delay gratification of our immediate needs, or  endure some discomfort for something that we’re not really sure we want.

If you’re not convinced — on all levels — that this writing is something that you really want to do, of course you’re not going to do it. And punishing yourself isn’t going to make the desire more keen.  Morale does not improve if the beatings continue.

The further problem is that when we think about “what we want” we only take into account the goals of our ego — the mature, grown up part of us, the one who makes decisions about things like wanting to write.  We do not take into account the goals of the rest of our psyche, but just because we ignore them doesn’t mean they’re not there, exerting their influence over us, and causing what we perceive as trouble.

Again, if you are experiencing “writer’s block,” some part of you really, really does not want to write.  What is it? And what are its objections?

5. Moving Forward Without Self-Discipline: The How-To Part

Sometimes, the process of inquiry can take just a few moments of quiet thought. The objections come to mind quickly: Maybe you don’t feel like you have the technical skills to tackle a certain project. Maybe you’re afraid of what your ex-husband will think of what you’ve written.

But generally, if your answer to the question “why don’t I want to write?” pops easily to mind and is something you’d be willing to say in front of your writing class, it’s probably not the issue that’s strong enough to go up against your strong, competing urge to write.

The good news with this problem, as opposed to so many others, is that its resolution is obvious. When you figure out what the problem is, you’re able to sit down at the screen or at the page and the words do start to be written.

To get there, I suggest an escalating strategy of inquiry. First, take a few minutes to think about what your problem is. See if you feel any more motivated to write. No?

Okay, then, try to write about what the problem is. (Oh, so sneaky…here you are, writing about why you can’t write.)


Try to zero in on the problem by asking yourself to describe where this block lives. Where in your body do you feel this? Does it have a color, a shape, a texture? When you concentrate on this block, what thoughts come to mind? Does that help you to understand the problem any more? These are good moments to try some of the cognitive-behavior therapy techniques outlined by David Burns in his seminal book, Feeling Good.

Still nothing? The unconscious is a complicated place and you may not be able to resolve this issue so easily. It can be helpful to discuss this with another human being that you trust. Sometimes, just the act of talking about a problem and being heard by another human being can lead to its resolution. And if not, you may need to consult an expert of your choice. Yes, a therapist, an analyst, psychologist, a priest, a rabbi. You are in a conflict with yourself that you can’t resolve, and you need a referee.

I should say that the problems you uncover don’t tend to just go away –but knowing what they are makes them easier to handle. For instance, in going through this process myself recently, I realized that I was deeply worried about returning to a period of workaholism that I experienced several years earlier. I worked until it hurt, and it took a lot to extricate myself from that situation. I know that tendency is still alive within me, to get into a project and disregard my bodily needs. And so I have resisted sinking into a larger project, as a kind of self-preservation. Until I addressed that issue, my own block was very powerful. Now that I know this is there, I can work with it.

This process which I’ve recommended here is rather Un-American, by which I mean: not guaranteed to be quick and easy. You’ll probably turn up things inside you that you don’t like very much. It will seem easier to just punish yourself for not writing, rather than going through all this. But actually when you identify where the actual problem lies, you’ll have a degree of freedom that you haven’t had before. You won’t be so mean to yourself, which will make yours a nicer life to live.

And, if you want to, you will write.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,062 other followers