In Case You Feel Like Your Life Amounts To Nothing – Letter in an Emergency
The Muse Letter No. 98
I feel so empty and tired and I really don’t want to finish or work on this novel anymore. I feel no spark it is just work all the time. It is so fucking hard. Why am I doing this to myself? I am just promising myself that one day it will be there when in reality it is yet another year I have not done it and this new deadline is just another dangling carrot I will not reach. I should just quit it and move on to other things. It’s a loveless marriage. I want to get a divorce.
Is what I wrote this morning in my note app because I was stuck with a scene, I am still stuck with and I hated everything and there was this tension, this ball of energy nervously rummaging through my chest like a dog digging a hole in the sand and nothing would come out. I would stare at the seedlings I had sown a couple of weeks ago on the windowsill next to me and think: How great it must be to have a plan. To just know when to sprout and break through the soil and grow, grow, grow till you finish the purpose that is ingrained in you like there is no other way, you will become this flower no matter what. And how I longed to just go outside and dig up the garden and sow seeds and plant and potter around and forget that I had to finish this scene, of this novel, that I have been writing forever.
I’m probably in the worst place to tell you right now how you should continue whatever you are trying to do/be but I’ll do it anyway because I need to tell you, myself, I need to tell myself and you, I need to say that: just keep on doing it anyway. Not everything has to be finished and done, has to be continued, there is grace in giving up but not this time.
You know this. Because even if you feel like your life amounts to nothing right now, that there is nothing to show, to present, to put a ribbon on, and gift to the world, you are moving through it right now. “To cross an ocean you have to love the ocean” and you are taking big gulps right now. You are swallowing gallons of deep sea. And if it seems like you’re drowning, you’re not. You are becoming the ocean.
This is not one of these: I don’t know what I’m doing with my life situations where something needs to change, a job must be quit, a relationship left behind, or some other drastic move that must proceed. This is you being in the open water, having a goal in mind, and being reluctant to keep on swimming. This is you being halfway and feeling like this was a bad idea.
“Don’t get stuck in the woods” Margaret Atwood said about the writing process. A quote that I had written on a post-it and stuck to my desk for a while. You know that the only way is through. You know that this is just a shitty day(s). But you also know that this day is a little bit less shitty than the ones before because you are not where you were when you started.
When I was 21 years old I decided to write a novel. I sat down one day with this idea about a woman with panic attacks working as a directing assistant for the theatre, (unrequited) in love with a guy, obsessed with her best friend, somehow growing up in the process. I wrote 50 pages sent them to a writing competition and was selected as one of the lucky writers to receive a writing workshop, a publication in an anthology, and a trip to Graz in Austria.
– That novel more or less died after that workshop. The criticism I had received was so severe and crushing, every time I sat down again after that to continue just left me paralysed. I wrote in-depth about that in my book of essays, so I will just say: it really fucking sucked.
Anyway, four years later I started again. Now older and wiser and also with the privilege of getting into a writing program at the University of Arts in Berlin I felt that: I must try again. Different this time.
I participated in the National Novel Writing Month and for a month I wrote over 50 K words. Staying up late, ignoring my inner critic, and just typing, typing, typing, till my eyes got blurry and all sense of time disappeared. It wasn’t polished what came out but it was something. I vowed to edit it again and when ready to send it to an agent. 2 years later that happened. I got an agent at a prestigious agency in Berlin, that day in March 2019 everything felt possible.
– Though it wasn’t. A full year I tried to edit and revise my novel with the little feedback that my agent would give me resulting in a phone call in January 2020 where they admitted that “it had never really sparked, I never really understood what you were trying to do”. Our work relationship ended that day. Amicably. And I decided to re-write my novel in English. It had been on my mind for a long time since moving to the UK and being detached from the German language/culture/life in the process, it just made sense to me.
Cut to now: 2 years later. I finished my first draft in late December and am now editing the second. Even though every step of the way in this whole endeavor of “I am writing a novel” there was always a point where I could have or actually did write something similar to the “I want to quit and never finish this thing” note I wrote today. I write these hateful notes in my head every other week really, because as Adam Phillips said in his brilliant lecture Against Self-Criticism: “the self-critical part of ourselves, the part that Freud calls the super-ego, has some striking deficiencies: it is remarkably narrow-minded; it has an unusually impoverished vocabulary; and it is, like all propagandists, relentlessly repetitive. It is cruelly intimidating – Lacan writes of ‘the obscene super-ego’ – and it never brings us any news about ourselves. There are only ever two or three things we endlessly accuse ourselves of, and they are all too familiar; a stuck record, as we say, but in both senses – the super-ego is reiterative.”
What made this ridiculous mechanism very clear to me recently was when an artist friend of mine who I very much admire had the same old crisis herself: “I should just quit art and stay at my 9-5 job and never even try again.” And the reason why she felt this way was because that particular day her camera had broken and she was late for a submission and so everything had obviously conspired against her: “I should read the signs. They are all against this.” she dramatically finished the tirade. – Which I completely understand. Because if you do art, are prone to creativity, if you love something, if you really care about it, you tend to be a little dramatic. You tend to be ambivalent: love and hate, two sides of the coin that you’re tossing.
So now that I’m in a lucid moment, just after self-loathing and diminishing all the work I ever did I want to tell you that: Yes. What you are doing is messy. But it is factually more of a mess than when you started out. It is amounting to something and worst-case: it’s a shitty *insert creative project here* but at least it will be that. It will be done.
Last week I read this great interview with Jordan Kisner in the creative independent newsletter where she said the following: „There is a certain personality type (of which I am one) that has a tendency to feel like if something is hard if it feels messy if it’s not coming out right the first, second, or third time that there is something fundamentally wrong with you or with the idea or with—I don’t know—every life choice you ever made [laughs]. I had to teach myself over time that it’s hard because it is hard. Writing is hard. Thinking is hard. Trying to clearly communicate a complex thought is hard. It’s not a bad sign if something feels hard to me. It is just part of the process, and so what I need to do is be patient with myself as much as I can and also try to stay focused on the problem that needs solving in front of me, instead of hand wringing over the big picture.“
Of course, right in the middle of the throws of creative existential crisis, you cannot hear this lecturing. You are ready to burn down the house because it hurts to think that maybe you will never reach the standards you set for yourself. That you will not reach greatness.
“It’s not about the critics who only see a pile of shit – and that includes the wild-eyed internal critics, who love you and hate you and think you’re a genius and also a joke. But you can’t turn them off entirely because then you wouldn’t know how to edit yourself. You wouldn’t feel how heavy it all is. You can’t write from joy alone. You need the despair, too. Without the despair and the self-doubt, you’d compare love to a summer’s evening without remembering that there was once a douche with that name. You need those bitches around, picking you apart. You need their darkness and their dirty love.”
Wrote Heather Havralevski in one of her latest Ask Polly columns, serendipitously she is currently also blocked with her writing.
Because everyone is. All the time. To love something, to care about something means to despair at times. To feel hateful, when things are not working, when they are not aligning. Sometimes you might think: well then maybe I shouldn’t try. Or aspire to mediocracy. Which in all fairness can sometimes be a productive mindset to kill off the edge. To be able to work at all. Setting the bar low. And also sometimes the project isn’t worth your very best. Done - not good. Can be a mantra to go through tedious work.
But if you care, if you love an idea, just like in a relationship: you must aspire to greatness. And this is not because I tell you so but because you feel it in your heart. It is what you want so you must allow yourself to open up completely, to be honest, to want it all. Greatness you know is not about fame and validation, it is about telling the truth, your truth in the best form possible. Because life will get in the way. For sure. Obstacles will emerge, things will be hard, and you will fail. As Brene Brown pointed out in her most recent talk on Netflix, that people often misunderstand when she says, to be daring greatly is to accept failure. Somehow it is interpreted as: Okay. I will risk failure. “No, you don’t. You will fail. That’s 100% sure.”
Which sucks but at least you are out there. You are in the arena.
Yes, the goal is of course: greatness. But the reality of it is: you might not get there YET you are worthy to try. You need to give yourself permission to try, to fail, to win. Permission to hate your work, loathe it, denounce any authorship, and then move on and realise: it’s not that bad really.
Phillip also said in his lecture that:
“We may not be able to imagine a life in which we don’t spend a large amount of our time criticising ourselves and others; but we should keep in mind the self-love that is always in play. Self-criticism can be our most unpleasant – our most sadomasochistic – way of loving ourselves.”
So love yourself. Be critical of yourself. Accept that both things are important for you to achieve what you are set out here to do.
Your life is amounting to something.
It is already pretty great.
Things I Have Noticed - Essays on leaving / searching / finding is a poetic memoir I wrote in these weird pandemic times, about the process of finding ones own voice.
IN CASE YOU MISSED LAST WEEK’S MUSE LETTER
A List of Things I Look Forward to this Spring
“William Butler Yeats wrote “Life is a journey up a spiral staircase; as we grow older we cover the ground we have covered before, only higher up; as we look down the winding stair below us we measure our progress by the number of places where we were but no longer are. The journey is both repetitious and progressive; we go both round and upward.”
To me, spring is the most poignant signifier of exactly that: A moment to look down the staircase and continue to rise.”
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