On the Writing that is Not Writing

I haven’t written any blog posts at all this semester. In fact, I’ve only written one since the world turned upside down on November 8. One story I tell myself about this silence is that I don’t have any words for what’s happening in the world; there are too many words circulating on social media and news media, and not enough understanding. I still don’t understand. I don’t believe it was Comey and I don’t believe it was Clinton’s failure to campaign in Michigan and I don’t believe it was Bernie bros and I don’t believe it was bad polls. None of those things are explanations for what goes on in the heart of a white person who would rather lose his own health insurance than see a black family insured through the state. Nothing in that list explains what goes on in the heart of a person who goes to church every Sunday and praises Jesus, then leaves church and praises a man who promises to turn away refugees from the same part of the world where Jesus lived. I didn’t have an explanation, and nothing else seemed very important at the time, and so I didn’t write anything.

That story is not entirely true, though, because I did write this semester, just not here. In January I reread Civilization and its Discontents, a book Freud wrote in 1929, a decade after World War I ended and a few years before fascists came to power in Europe. Freud saw civilization as fragile, always locked in battle with humans’ instincts toward violence. All of history, in Freud’s view, suggests that the commandment to “love thy neighbor” runs contrary to human nature. We don’t want to love our neighbors, and we don’t know how to love them, and we never have. It’s a pessimistic view, even for me, but reading the news, hearing the chants of “build that wall!”, I thought it might be true.

I wrote a new set of paper prompts for my freshman writing class, and a new syllabus, “Writing About TV.” The first week of classes, one of them asked if we could watch the inauguration on TV. I said, No, because we have an in-class assessment planned for that day. I didn’t say, No, because it makes me feel sick to watch a parade for a man who is bringing white supremacists with him to the White House.

I wrote comments on my students’ essays, all 433 essays I graded this term. It was exhausting. I reminded myself to find something kind to say on each one. Sometimes I forgot to say anything kind.

I wrote to my congresswoman to thank her for opposing the AHCA. And to my senators, asking them to vote against Jeff Sessions’ confirmation. He was confirmed anyway.

I wrote hundreds of emails for work.

I wrote two pages of an aborted article on Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

I read Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow. It was the only book I read for fun all semester. It was fun.

I wrote sarcastic tweets. I think that Twitter is just one big cry for help, but it helps to not be alone.

I wrote to my senators to ask them to investigate the president’s conflicts of interest. They didn’t.

I wrote a book review for a journal that will be published in 2018. I submitted it over two months after the deadline I had promised the editor I would meet. Luckily he was kind about it.

I wrote a research talk for a job that I didn’t get, and a research/teaching talk for a job that I did get (the same position I’ve been in at UT). I’m a little proud of those even though they don’t make an imprint on my CV.

I wrote to my senators asking them not to confirm Neil Gorsuch. He got confirmed.

I wrote a response to my readers’ reports on my book manuscript, laying out a plan for the revisions that I will complete this summer.

I wrote a poem at a Poets Society meeting (a student club I advise) about the beauty of invasive species—starlings, parrots, pythons. It’s a bad poem but I shared it anyway.

I wrote to my representatives asking them to protect the sage grouse. A small thing, perhaps insignificant, but it felt like a winnable battle, unlike everything else I’d been writing to them about.

I wrote a proposal for a course redesign grant. It’s unlikely I’ll get it, because they prioritize upper-division courses within the majors and I don’t get to teach those, but it was worth a try.

I wrote a silly P.G. Wodehouse parody called “Leave it to Arkady” about Sergey Kislyak as a clueless Bertie Wooster type in Washington, and the extremely competent and subtle aide who has to clean up his messes. It got rejected from McSweeney’s.

I wrote two pages of an aborted article on Junot Diaz’s “Monstro” and zombie capitalism.

I wrote more emails.

Every few nights I wrote in my bedside journal, “I am so tired,” or “Today was good,” or “Made it through today.”

Last week’s New Yorker has a piece on Grace Paley, the short story writer. She lived until 2007 but her last collection of stories came out in 1985. She was a political activist, protesting war and nuclear weapons. The writer suggests that politics might account for Paley’s abandonment of fiction: “Activism, like alcoholism, can distract a writer from the demands of her desk.” But Paley continued to write nonfiction and poetry after her last story collection. She kept protesting, too.

E.M. Forster gave up writing fiction after A Passage to India in 1924, though he lived until 1970. Some critics think it was because he found love with a married policeman; others note that he turned to radio broadcasting and political commentary in the 1930s, so it’s not as if he were idle. He also kept a diary, published posthumously, which gives a rare look at what it was like to be a gay man in repressive mid-century England.

It would be unjustifiably presumptuous to compare myself to either Paley or Forster, two of the best writers of the twentieth century. But I find myself thinking of them, of the way one vein bled out but others did not, so that their words followed a different tributary later in their lives. I’ll finish my book this summer, and I’ll teach at UT again next year, and I don’t know what comes after that. I don’t know if the words will come back to me, and if so, what form they’ll take. I’m not sure if literary criticism will still be the right genre for me. Maybe the words will flow in some other direction.

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