Friday, May 21, 2010

First Fruits: Not Barren

We are called to offer the universe the best of what we have to offer. This arrangement works out nicely as it is often in our best work that we find our most joy. Even before I could read, it was clear my greatest talents lay in language. I attempted my first novel, a romance, when I was in third grade. It was three typed pages long. It was horrible and endearing. The following year, I wrote doggerel poems for my spelling words instead of sentences and read a few dozen Nancy Drew novels. Writing is my succor and in it, I am saved. And yet, the idea that I am meant to write whether anyone else thinks so or not, I have struggled most to accept. More than my mortality—it is easier to accept that I will cease to be, than it is to accept that I am meant to do something that might not be exceptional, but that even to me might be merely acceptable.

Acceptable to others? Accepting that following my calling might be humiliating at best has been its own struggle. The calling is what it is. The harvest is almost beside the point: the planting and tending make the garden. There are no fruits without gardening. The choice, then, is between productivity and barrenness.  Better to yield a few withered yellow zucchini than maintain a patch of rocky soil.

During my late adolescence, I had episodes of major depression, dropped out of college and dropped back in.

Slogging through the fog of unrecognized and untreated depression is maddening in itself. On top of the symptoms of depression itself—insomnia or exhaustion or despair or everyday sadness that is notable only in that it never lifts—not knowing what is wrong with oneself is an extra layer of madness. The internal dialogue of unrecognized depression is this: if I can just get enough sleep, I’ll be able to whatever, or if I stay up all night working on this since I can’t sleep anyway, that will help (never mind that it’s the third night in a row), or I’m failing. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I wake up in the morning? Why have I suddenly become an idiot? Why don’t I understand this? Why isn’t anything sticking? I read and nothing gets in. Everything—reading, conversation, people’s names, experiences—washes over the depressed and is gone; nothing is retained. Living in a fog, the depressed can’t see what depression is until she’s left it and is standing on a hill somewhere looking down on its dark mass. As long as she’s in it, her visibility is limited. Occasionally something emerges from the fog or she stumbles into a clearing, but mostly she lives in it, until she doesn’t. Unless she gets treated.

Writing was always the clearing. As long as I was writing, describing the experience, I was safe. Everything else might be a stinking smoking compost pile, but within the context of creative work there was clarity, purpose, accomplishment, even the occasional joy. I never sang merrily with the forest creatures, but the sunlight filtered through the trees revealing the rocks, grass, trees and flowers in the hyper-focus of the bright parts of chiaroscuro.

The problem with creative work that saves us is that it often saves no one else; that is, it sucks. It is interesting merely as the byproduct of some trauma. It often is incapable of standing on its own in the company of the pros. It is precious to us and us alone. If it accomplishes something of value, it is as curiosity not as masterpiece; the literary equivalent of coffee mug scrawls and the twee odes to catastrophe or God sold as framed prints in mail order catalogues.

On a pleasant afternoon, probably a Thursday because we were gathered for poetry writing workshop, some classmates and I were standing on the back terrace of the English and Comparative Lit Building under the shredded bark of eucalyptus trees. I told them ruefully, that I was an idiot savant. I was absolutely certain that the only reason I was accepted to graduate school was my talent: having a spotty undergraduate record and the lukewarm support of my undergraduate mentor, my portfolio must have been the only thing that got me in—that and a letter of recommendation from an important editor. My work and I had charmed him when he took up the post of my mentor, who had taken the obligatory post-tenure tour-of-Europe sabbatical.

When I still felt doors opening along my path as an undergraduate, my editor/teacher/friend agreed to an independent study consisting entirely of sending out poems for publication under his direction. I sent poems out. I got a few published in places astonishing for both their cynicism and lack of editorial standards—Win cash! Poetry contest! – and a few in places astonishing for the chutzpah of their editor/publishers, who were not much older than myself—zines associated with the punk rock subculture.

I did my best in graduate school, but when graduate school was over, I had impressed no one, least of all myself.

I knew I’d had enough of whatever it was that was the graduate school experience. And if that meant I wasn’t going to be a writer, or if it meant I’d be a different kind of writer, so be it. I was exhausted and directionless. Creative work had soured with the attempt to “professionalize” it.  Somehow being a professional writer had become entwined with learning how to teach recalcitrant teens how to write short essays and research papers.

The career center had no sage advice beyond referring me to the job board and suggesting I attend one of the corporate recruitment days. I couldn’t live off the job board offerings, and I didn’t understand how a person with experience mostly in music store sales and university physical plant work would manage to land a corporate position of any type, especially in the thick of the recession that was 1992. (In Orange County, California— an area that includes the coastal wealth of Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, and Balboa Island— people were so desperate, they were voting democratic.)  I didn’t know what to do next.

Sitting at my desk in the living room of an apartment adjacent to what we called “Drug Street” in Santa Ana, I continued to write halfheartedly, promising myself that it would save me.  It would change everything: All I had to do was continue to write and my life would become what it should become.

I didn’t, but it did.

And now, here I am, twenty years later, having tried to find my calling down other avenues. I never really stopped writing. There were always journals. There were extension courses. Novels begun and abandoned. A screenplay about meth addiction and prostitutionbegun under the direction of friend whose own gambling and other habits seemed strangely similar to that of our protagonist—also abandoned. Forays into writer’s groups that fizzled out. Letter writing on a prodigious scale. I never really stopped writing, but I never really started either.

I was busy making a living. Getting married. Having children. Trying to find a career. All of those goals are still in process.

Some writing students enter and leave school with a kind of crippling grandiosity. Some students like myself. I never subscribed to the ridiculous ideas about artists being subject to rules different than mere mortals. Sure, there’s much to be learned along the road of excess, but dissipation as vocation just seemed stupid to me. My particular Janus head of doom consisted of grandiosity paired with its ever-present twin, self-loathing doubt. The grandiosity amounted to a delusional belief in my talent as something far different and superior. The truth—that talent is as individual and as common as, well, individuals—floated at the top of a pool of self-loathing around work ethic, procrastination, self-doubt and fallow periods of creativity. Accepting that what makes a writer is work has been hard won for me.

When Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman were promoting their movie Runaway Jury, Hoffman told an interviewer that being an actor starting out in one’s career is hard because you don’t know if you’re conning yourself. The same can be said for writers. You don’t know if you’re conning yourself at precisely the point when blind faith is most needed, that is, when you have no publishing history to assuage worries that whatever made you think you were entitled to a career in writing was wholly misguided and delusional. At precisely the moment when you’re called to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life, the idea that all that hard work and poverty might net nothing slouches in the corner snickering, smoking a Gauloises. The grandiose can’t help but ask what the point is, if one isn’t going to be A Great Writer. Juvenile. Embarrassing.  But there you have it.

So, there is a pruning process during which the number of writers whittles down to those too crazy to do anything else or too cocksure to admit any other possibility.  I fell into neither category. I just kept writing or sublimating creative energy into other outlets thinking that the world of real creative work was something outside and beyond whatever it was that I happened to be doing at the moment.

Like being in love, having a baby provides an important circumspect vantage point. Having produced a living human being, I’m less inclined toward preciousness regarding my creative work. I’ve made a person: what do I need to prove beyond that? The people I’ve created are a source of wonder and are more remarkable every day. What do any concerns about one’s career status ultimately matter? We are here briefly. We don’t know what’s important until after we are long gone from this life.  Think in astronomical terms. Or geological. What remains of us? What remains of what we do or of what we fail to do? Our actions are infinitely important and infinitely unimportant.

For this lifespan in the millions of years that is life on earth, what will I offer the universe?

All I am capable of offering.


  1. Sybil, I have read this blog. Many of your thoughts are common to people. I think all people experience some depression and thoughts of what our life means in this world. It would be hopeless if I had to view life apart from the sovereignty of God.I think fitting in His plan makes life worthwhile BUT His way is Not easy. Many have suffered and layed down their life for His sake. Not easy nor fun. But life is about Him. All will live eternally but with or without God. I choose to be with HIm. I will continue to read your blogs as time permits.

  2. This brought tears to my eyes. I think it is your best piece yet. Your story saves me, and it tells my story too. I love you. Keep writing.

  3. Thank you for this beautiful, brave, honest post, Sybil. You have so much to offer the universe. I can still remember poems you wrote in college; there is great power in your work. I look forward to seeing where it will take you now.



All comments are welcome.