I’ve stolen the title of this week’s blog entry from a book called Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life by Bonnie Friedman. (Remember, “Mediocre writers imitate; great writers steal”!)
“So much in the writer’s life used to torment me, but I could not talk about it,” says Friedman. “I felt wrong and ashamed . . . I assumed that the problems were unfixable (I was stupid) and also simply in the nature of writing (the craft demanded misery). Weren’t many writers depressives? Wasn’t the work itself famously onerous?”
Writers and artists seem particularly susceptible to envy, depression, fear of failure, loneliness, and self-loathing, among other dark beasts. We’re sensitive souls and yet we have to develop thick skins to deal with the inevitable rejections. But even before sending out our work, we’re often so busy rejecting ourselves that we’re doing the work of critics for them.
Friedman wrote the book for herself, she says, in order to avoid unnecessary suffering and to provide “a self-care kit for the long hike ahead”: “With unnecessary suffering, all that happens is that you squander the prize that others worked hard to bestow.” And she describes the enthusiasm and hunger with which other writers responded to her book.
The green-eyed monster is definitely one of the biggies. Sarah Manguso says “All writers will envy other writers, other writing. No one who reads is immune.” There’s plenty to be envious of—the apparently sudden fame, the five-figure book deal, the writer you knew in a creative writing class who has suddenly “made it.” Ah, those illusory goddesses of Fame and Fortune!
Yet few writers experience such “success.” Most are like the solitary figure described by the writer Rich Farrell: “The world sensationalizes and lionizes the exceptional case—that twenty-year-old writer with an uncanny wisdom—rather than the quiet tinkering monk, hard at a lifetime’s quiet work.”
Friedman points out that even Shakespeare felt envy (“Desiring this man’s scope, and that man’s art’”). As she says, “Shakespeare desired another’s art? Dear Lord, whose?”
Friedman’s book is essential reading for coping with these darker emotions that most writers are reluctant to acknowledge, let alone talk about. We’re only human, after all, and as we launch ourselves on the immense task of becoming writers (or simply finishing a manuscript), it’s easy to lose heart, to convince ourselves we’re not worthy, not among the chosen, not up to the task.
Worst of all, perhaps, as Friedman says, is “the suspicion that perhaps, after all, one is in fact deluded, unspecial, unmagical, that the map one is departing into will never bloom on the page into real almond blossoms and tumbling blue rivers and dank cathedrals.”
Like Friedman, I used to think that suffering came with the territory. Like most writers, I suspect, I’ve experienced all the dilemmas she identifies. “Most people wrongly assume that writerly self-care happens by itself,” says Friedman. “Caring for the writerly self is a decisive component in being able to keep writing, and writing better.” I’ve learned, belatedly, that you can be a writer AND learn to feel good about what you do rather than beating yourself up all the time.
Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life by Bonnie Friedman is available to order from McNally Robinson and other local bookstores. Please do NOT buy from Amazon. Support independents in order to support your local cultural community. (McNally’s has an online ordering option for those of you who live outside Winnipeg.)
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Next WIR blog post: March 3