Welcome to Subtle Maneuvers. I’m taking the next two weeks off, returning to your inboxes on January 11. For this last newsletter of 2020: a double advice column, featuring a 70-year-old writer and a soon-to-graduate college student whose dilemmas may—perhaps—share a solution in common.
Dear Subtle Maneuvers,
I’m 70. I was a published child writer. A poet at 12, 17. A journalist in my 20’s. Often writing scribbling putting something down but like with a cord around my neck. Usually I used excuses mundane profane even insane—religious fences and racial barbwire and mental hardwiring as excuses for Not finishing up.
I’m 70. Time and talent and tenderness are at my door (Grandmother, when are you going to finish that story about your mother running to find her sisters?)
(Yes, she picked through garbage to feed her sisters when her parents were dying or dead in another pandemic—a battle against tuberculosis. Yes, when am I going to finish that story or any story or poem and put it out there?)
I’m 70. I’m applying to graduate school for an MFA in writing but how do I apply myself to complete stories, to have confidence and to produce as a writer? —R
Thanks for entrusting me with this longstanding and thorny dilemma! There are a number of ways to approach the problem of writer’s block, if that’s even the right label for your situation. Maybe the best advice anyone can give you—and it’s something I’ve written about before—is to get yourself some outside accountability. Many brilliant writers have never really been able to work without a deadline, and it’s very possible that you fall into this camp.
As for how to get a deadline—well, I’m glad to hear that you’re applying for MFA programs, because that’s definitely one way to do it. Even if that doesn’t work out, you could enroll in a standalone writing class, join a writer’s group, participate in an online writing sprint like NaNoWriMo or #1000wordsofsummer, or do some combination of the above. Making yourself actually feel accountable—and securing a deadline that inspires real fear—may require some creativity on your part, but that’s OK: Writers are supposed to be creative people!
You probably know all this. The other part of your dilemma that I want to address is this business about writing your mother’s story. This sounds like something you’ve tried to accomplish for a long time, and that you’ve placed a tremendous amount of pressure on yourself to get right. In other words: a perfect recipe for writer’s block.
For that reason, I’d like to gently suggest that you give yourself a break and not worry about telling this story for a while. More than that, I’d suggest you actually ban this subject from your fiction for now.
I’m guessing that you may be resistant to that idea. After all, you feel like you’re running out of time, and that you owe it to your daughters to capture their grandmother’s experience. I say: all the more reason to set it aside. It seems to me that this particular project is freighted with too much baggage for you to take it on right now. By banning it from your practice, you may find yourself experiencing a newfound sense of freedom, of a burden lifted, and a corresponding surge of energy and enthusiasm in your writing.
In my last advice column, I included some passages from Susan Sontag’s journals that felt relevant to the letter-writer’s dilemma, and I think Sontag may be a good model here as well. For one thing, she was one of those writers who could only write in the face of a deadline—or, more often, a missed deadline that she finally couldn’t ignore any longer.
Moreover, Sontag understood the importance of energy in her writing life. One of my favorite passages in her journals comes from June 22, 1970. “More than ever—and once again—I experience life as a question of level of energy,” she wrote at the start of the entry, adding a few lines later: “What I want: energy, energy, energy. Stop wanting nobility, serenity, wisdom—you idiot!”
I quote this passage because I think what you need most of all in your writing life is a feeling of energy, which can lead to a feeling of momentum, which is how you can carry stories to their conclusion. As I said above, getting a deadline may help provide this, and jettisoning the pressure surrounding your mother’s story may really help. Beyond that, I hope you’ll follow your enthusiasm, seeking out what gives you energy in your writing life rather than what drains it away. And I hope you’ll report back to let me know if any of this advice proves helpful!
Readers—Have you own advice for R? Leave a comment via the button below; I’ll be reading and replying this week.
Dear Subtle Maneuvers,
As a college student about to graduate in these confusing times, I've really lost sight of what my goals are and what I want to do. I've always had a wide variety of interests (even in school, I'm a double major/double minor) but I'm still not sure what the next right step or the best path is for me post-graduation. How would you advise me to navigate the current times and plan for the future as well as ignore the expectations/pressures of those around me?
A bit more detail: I really thought I wanted to pursue documentary and/or historical film/tv production. Specifically in the style of the history channel's Vikings or Netflix's Losers series. I really thought that this last year of college would be a time when I could learn more practical skills and feel more aware of what I am capable of doing with regard to production. Because of limits on the group and in-person work, now I'm left to learn a lot of new skills individually and I have very little motivation to do so. This feels like it correlates to a lack of passion and true interest.
I think there is something to be said about the fact that even my "goal" is a little broad (I'm not all that good at specifics) but also the fact that I didn't make any short video projects during quarantine, I rarely documented (written or visually) anything of my pursuits. I think that at first, I placed this on general demotivation, and I was totally okay with that. Now, being back in school and looking towards the potential future, I not only feel unqualified and unable to pursue my old goals and passions, I feel like seeking new ones (setting new goals, looking into different opportunities) is a little bit like giving up because the going got tough.
I'm not sure if this is because of feeling outside pressure and influence from people who are getting jobs and searching for work opportunities, or if it's because I don't want to quit and find a new path only to fail to feel fulfilled by it. I guess I just need advice on how to get unstuck and get moving, and how to know what direction to move in. —Shannon in Ann Arbor
First of all, congratulations on your impending graduation! Getting through college is a big accomplishment at any time, let alone during a pandemic. I hope you’re taking a moment to savor this milestone and not only worrying about what’s next.
As for feeling demotivated during this last year: You and me both! Seriously, I think it’s such a common and understandable reaction to current circumstances. I’m really glad to hear that, at least at the beginning of the pandemic, you were “totally okay” with feeling that way. Now, though, it sounds like you’re looking to regain some motivation and find some clarity as you head out of school and into the workforce.
My advice to you—and you may not like it—is that there’s really no wrong answer at this point. I know it probably feels like your entire future hinges on the choices you make right now, but it really doesn’t. You have to try things out, experiment with different paths, pay attention to what excites you and makes you want to throw yourself into the work.
This is where the Sontag passage I quoted above may be relevant. As you move forward, I would suggest that you pay attention to what energizes you and, just as important, what drains your energy. You want to do work that feels energizing! No job is going to feel that way all the time—or even most of the time—but the idea of the work and its possibilities should.
If that means that you’re leaning toward doing something different than you were last year, I really think that’s OK. And if it changes again next year, I think that’s OK too. The only way forward is to try things out and see where they lead.
Now, if you’re always changing directions, yes, that can be a problem—but it doesn’t sound like you’re there yet. From what you’ve told me, I don’t think you could be accused of “giving up because the going got tough.” To the contrary, it sounds to me like, if anything, you tend to overthink and overanalyze situations and possibilities.
That habit—and it’s one I share—may be a way of trying to create a feeling of control over circumstances where you, in fact, don’t have much control. I very much understand that impulse, and it’s not a bad one, but this may be an area where you have to let go of the urge to be in control and instead give yourself the freedom to experiment.
The other week, I saw that the writer Sheila Heti is offering a two-day writing class in January on “working on long projects and how to keep going when you don't know how.” She writes in the class description:
Sometimes, a writer is stuck because there are too many possibilities for moving forward, any of which may be equally right. In essence, one is lost because the imagination is too free to roam. In these cases, the writer has to impose boundaries and work within a tighter frame. Other times, a writer may have closed down too many possibilities; they need to allow themself more freedom. We will learn practical things that we can do when finding ourselves in either of these places.
The title of the seminar is “It Doesn’t Matter What You Choose.” And that’s more or less what I’d like to say to you. It feels like every decision is momentous right now, but since there is no way to know where each decision may lead, you really shouldn’t try too hard to game it all out. Instead, you might try checking in with yourself regularly and asking whether, as Heti writes, your imagination is “too free to roam” or if you need to allow yourself more freedom in envisioning various possibilities.
Beyond that, I’d simply advise that you do your best to weigh the options—not obsessively!—and have confidence that whatever direction that makes you feel excited and energized will ultimately lead you to an interesting and rewarding place.
Readers—Please leave your own advice for Shannon in the comments below!
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Thank you all for reading and sharing this newsletter, leaving comments, and sending in your creative dilemmas this year—genuinely, it’s meant a lot to feel like I’m not the only one “wriggling through” in these bizarre times. I’m excited to come back in January well rested and creatively energized—fingers crossed!—and to share my next book project, which I should be able to announce at the start of the New Year. See you in 2021! —Mason