Thursday, February 9, 2017

My Winter of Discontent

There have been other times in my life when I have felt this kind of malaise. Usually, though, it hasn't lasted long. Normally it doesn't tip into the edge of discontent the way this one has.

The kind that stays my writer's hand.

Logically, I could point to lots of reasons for this particular bout of despondency.

I was physically ill for a couple of weeks - which is extremely unusual for me. My constitution is normally robust. Not only that, the cold/flu occurred over Christmas, one of my favorite times of year, and knocked me out for most of it. Couldn't even see our friends on New Year's Eve.

In our area we only had 4 days of sun in January. It was mild but damp and dark.

Recently I've either personally or through family and friendship experienced a great deal of loss, disappointment or frustration, and it doesn't seem to stop.

I hurt my knee and spent weeks in pain.

This all adds up to melancholy, right?

Yes, but my gloominess also led to being unable to write. Often, it's been the opposite. When I'm happy, I spend too much time socializing and don't write regularly enough. This year, I had the space and the time, but no will.

Maybe this is simply Writer's Block, as defined by Wikipedia.
"Writer's block is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work, or experiences a creative slowdown."

But no, it seems deeper than that. It's somehow aligned with a general feeling of disappointment.

My male* author hero John Steinbeck said, "The writer must believe that what s/he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And s/he must hold to this illusion even when s/he knows it is not true."
*Margaret Laurence is the female version.

I no longer believe. Nor do I have the capacity for delusion.  My books are not selling and my scripts have not been optioned.

I wonder if the lack of financial success is the problem. Have I become a salesperson instead of a writer? Is my hand stayed because I am a sore loser?

I begin to realize that, at my age, the chances of  becoming a famous (and rich) author - which were already low - are even more diminished than when I was young. By now I thought I'd have written a Grapes of Wrath. 

 I remind myself over and over that I have the best family and friends in the world. My network is incredibly supportive and loving. They're smart and fun and understanding and wise.

That doesn't help, because I miss them. I could have them swirling around on a daily basis and be very happy. I've dreamed of a family/friend compound for years and now, finally, I realize that it's just a dream.

I remind myself that I live in the best country in the world. That doesn't help because the news lately has been...well, horrible. Frightening. I feel like hiding under my desk again just as we did in school in the '50's.

I remind myself that I am rich in comparison to very, very many people the world over. That doesn't help because I just feel guilty (first world whiner!) and sad (I dreamed that we'd have abolished poverty by now).

I look around and notice that a lot of people - particularly women, particularly my age give or take a couple of years - are feeling a similar discontent. 

So back I go to my Johnny Steinbeck.

"When a condition or a problem becomes too great, humans have the protection of not thinking about it. But it goes inward and minces up with a lot of other things already there and what comes out is discontent and uneasiness, guilt and a compulsion to get something--anything--before it is all gone.”

I think he's right. I have a theory that I can trace my particular malaise (and that of many around me) back to the 1960's. We who grew up in the sixties (i.e. preteen to adult years) had such high hopes.

We marched. We believed in love. We thought we could overthrow the moribund, sometimes corrupt and evil systems and replace them with a world that would be fair and even kind. A world that fed everyone, put a roof over their heads, gave them something meaningful to do every day.

We did have some measure of success. The world appeared to be moving in the right direction. A little more peaceful, a little less poverty, a recognition that we must shepherd, not abuse, the earth.

But now? In 2016-17...what now...?

I cried through The Butler because the narrative made it clear that we haven't changed enough. I felt horrible after Hidden Figures because all those accomplishments appear to be for naught.

People..."don't get knocked out, or I mean they can fight back against big things. What kills them is erosion; they get nudged into failure. They get slowly scared...It's slow. It rots out your guts,” said Johnny's character Ethan in The Winter of Our Discontent. Is that what happened to my (our) sixties dreams?

We are still marching. There appears to be more hate than love. The corrupt systems are back in place and growing. "We can shoot rockets into space but we can't cure anger or discontent," said Johnny S.

But oh, I had such hopes and expectations! 

In desperation re my writing, I peek back into a book I read and reread for twenty years but haven't touched in ten: Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. There on the title page, an inscription from my friend Merci, who died two years ago and for whom I pine every day. "For the occasions when 'my hands have sprung shoots, crawled away from me like a deserting mother'." Her poem hits me in the gut.

Merci and I promised each other we'd make contact after we died. I had been waiting. And here it is, a message when I most need it.

"To be alive at all is to have scars." Johnny's character Ethan is, of course, perfectly correct.

Perhaps I am simply changing. 

"A day, a livelong day, is not one thing but many. It changes not only in growing light toward zenith and decline again, but in texture and mood, in tone and meaning, warped by a thousand factors of season, of heat or cold, of still or multi winds, torqued by odors, tastes, and the fabrics of ice or grass, of bud or leaf or black-drawn naked limbs. And as a day changes so do its subjects, bugs and birds, cats, dogs, butterflies and people.”

Johnny S. is eloquent, brilliant.

"Warped by a thousand factors of season", of sixty-seven years of seasons. Saddened by disappointment, by grief and fear and tragedy. Yet buoyed by new birth, by love and joy, by growing and changing relationships.  I am perhaps not so much warped as angled, twined, into another shape. Older, lumpier, lined.

Rather than say, I am the one who helps, I am the cheerful, optimistic one, not the one who needs help - open up to the possibility of reaching out, of saying, I need to walk slowly right now, not run.
I need redefined dreams and goals.

I must learn to not expect so much of myself (or the world). I am heading toward realistic goals, perhaps. Becoming, painfully, older and wiser.

In addition, perhaps my definition of success needs to change.

The world is a better place. Despite the rhetoric of politicians and competing noise-makers, poverty and violence have changed for the better. There are creative solutions to environmental problems being devised as I type. Maybe my definition of world success has been too grandiose.

Maybe, too, my goals of success in writing have been too lofty. I have won awards. I have sold some books; around the world, as a matter of fact. No, I didn't get famous and I didn't get rich, but I have an appreciative readership. I have committed words to paper and had them published by someone who appreciated them enough to invest in them. Maybe that's all I will ever achieve and isn't that all right?

Perhaps I'm ready to just write for me. For the pure bliss of discovering the exact word or phrase. For the rush when a character veers off on an adventure I'd never even thought about. For the ecstasy when my fingers fly across the keyboard as the subconscious overtakes the editor and I am lost in creation. Don't think about deadlines, editors, competition. No expectation of any other success.

Natalie Goldberg says that writers should ask themselves often: Why do I write? Her answers include this one. "I write out of total incomprehension that even love is not enough and that finally writing might be all I have and even that is not enough. There are times when I have to step away from the writing and turn to face my own life. Then there are times when it's only coming to the writing that I truly face my own life."

Perhaps that's what I am doing. Stepping away to face my own life. 

In the meantime, I will turn down the noise of the world. Write for pleasure and see what happens. Sometimes, do nothing at all. Walk slowly.

Encourage others to do the marching.

For now, step back, slow down, see what happens. Realizing that even this decision could change, or not be enough, and that I might turn back to the writing at any moment. I might get up again and march. In the meantime, let the expectations, the noise, fade away.

Move toward peace, calm, wisdom. Give myself a break.


Kristen Henderson said...

You are an incredible mother, grandmother, sister, wife, writer and teacher (of many things).
If success is measured by how much effort you put out, you have succeeded!

Jayne said...

There's plenty of bleak midwinter for us all, but you're onto something with writing for yourself. We're writers; we understand the world through the phrases that slide form our fingers.

Catherine Astolfo said...

Agree with both of you...there are different measures of success and yes, writers have to write from their own understanding of the world.

Kat Flannery said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kat Flannery said...

Awe, Cathy your blog touched on so many things I myself have been experiencing the last two years. I love to write, as I know you do, but life happens and sometimes not the way we want it to. For me, I have nothing left to give when I am stressed or sad, or just plain bummed out. I feel that I cannot give all of myself to a book if I cannot see past today, and if I cannot give all of myself to my writing what kind of writing will that be? Oh, it is not easy being a writer, the pressure to sell books, the pressure to write well, the pressure to touch peoples lives with your words, the pressure of not making it big. When this doesn't happen we feel like failures within our craft, to our readers and to ourselves. But there is one thing we do have control of and that is our words. Whether they be blogs, books, papers, articles or just a diary. Write for simply...well, write. Do it because you love it and nothing more. That is what I have been doing, and I've begun to feel the pressure lift from my shoulders. And know most of all that you are admired and loved...and this too shall pass. xo

Catherine Astolfo said...

Thank you, Kat, that is beautiful, and it does help to know that everyone goes through these periods when the pressure of the world gets to be too much. We have to draw back a bit and rest. I love that, as women, we share those times with one another and don't keep pretending. In that way, we can support each other. It shall pass, I agree. And we'll be on our feet marching and our fingers will fly once more. xx