No crying inside baseball

The conference date was approaching, and my paper wasn’t finished. To be honest, it wasn’t exactly started.

Months before, I had drafted an irresistible abstract. I reread the two major texts I promised to discuss. As the weeks ticked by, some critical articles arrived via interlibrary loan. Some online research got done in the wee hours. A Word file optimistically titled “Ideas,” containing quotes, questions, and the occasional fully-drafted paragraph, swelled to unmanageable proportions. In the back of a notebook, I sketched out a number of possible outlines for the argument. But still no paper, nothing I could sit down at a conference table and present to a full room.

For several nights before my departure date, I stayed up late and tried to write, staggering into my office the next morning to prep for classes, which I then sleepwalked through, distracted. One of my colleagues caught the fatigue in my step and said, “Aha, the Conference Shuffle. We all do it.”

Boarded the flight with a laptop and big plans.

The hotel situation was less than ideal. It was a gorgeous room, comfortable, with a real desk. But (unusually for academic conferences, which usually take place near the coasts) the hotel was in the Rocky Mountains, at a seriously high altitude—so high that I was actually sick. It was like being stoned in the back seat of a car hurtling down a winding road. After doing a hundred jumping jacks. It was like that the whole time. Still, really under the gun now, I hunkered down to write.

At the last minute, with no time to spare, few distractions, and the dubious advantage of oxygen deprivation to up the ante, I wrote the hell out of that paper. Time ceased to exist. It was all pure flow. At the end of the day before my panel, I had thirteen strong pages, the distillation of who knows how many hours of thinking and planning. The outline for an article three times that length crystallized, finally, while I wrote. The presentation itself? Fine. Superfine. Powdered sugar fine.

I’m no Aaron Sorkin, but I do relate to his rituals. Back in the early days of The West Wing, when he was writing every word of every episode, Sorkin was known to check into the Four Seasons in Vegas with a duffel bag of crack, mushrooms, and pot, where he’d spend the next six weeks banging out an entire season of scripts. The only way the man knew how to write was on a bender.

No crack here at Casa Berkowitz, of course, but were it not for alternating infusions of coffee and beer, five-pound jars of Jelly Bellys from Costco, and catnaps during weekly all-nighters, my dissertation would never have been completed. I’m not proud of it. Everyone I know has some fucked-up ritual, though. One friend went days without showering, feeling she didn’t “deserve” it unless her chapter was finished. Another wrote the entire thing in a squatting crouch, naked. Another swore by the practice of stopping every two hours to masturbate, claiming it “cleared her head.” I used to smoke and drink like a demon when under a deadline. What the hell is wrong with all of us?

Put another way: why is it so painful to get to that creative place? Why do we fight so hard against it when we know it feels so good to get there? What’s with all the self-punishment?

Lots of people work under pressure, and lots of people have discipline. They will tell you that if you put in a fair amount of time every day—let’s say three hours, to be magnanimous—the work will get done. Do three hours of daily butt-in-chair concentration, writing whether or not you feel you have something to say, and the “flow” will happen eventually.

(Picasso very famously said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” In other words, work to get inspired, not the other way around.)

For those of you who get to “that place” without much drama, what is your routine? How do you move to and from it and the real world?

For those of you who agonize over your writing (or playing, or painting, or whatever), circling the pool endlessly before finally diving in, how do you cut through the inertia and anxiety?

For those of you who enjoy creative pursuits without tears, experiencing only the joyful communion of self-expression…what do you think you are, a unicorn or something?

15 responses to “No crying inside baseball”

  1. LP says:

    In college, I started a few papers at, say, 4:30 a.m. on the day they were due for an 8 a.m. class. It was as if I had an internal body clock that knew exactly how many hours I needed to write a paper, but it wouldn’t allow me to start until the last possible moment. Stupidly, these papers tended to be the ones I got the best grades on. (I don’t know if they were the best written; I couldn’t ever stand to look at them again. But I was always surprised when that was the case.)

    Now, as someone who writes for a living, I often (but not always) wait until the pressure’s high before settling down to write. If I have three months for a project, I start writing with 2 1/2 months to go. If I have 8 months for a project, I start writing with 2 1/2 months to go. Would that it were otherwise, but that just seems to be the way I do it. I agonize over it less now, but there’s still some agony involved.

  2. LP says:

    Also: I learned this week that the person who coined the term “insider baseball” was… Joan Didion. In a 1988 essay in the NYRB.

  3. F. P. Smearcase says:

    It doesn’t have to be at the last minute for me but I absolutely can’t say “it is time to write this thing now” most of the time. I have to obey the tiny demons that say “check your email! I know you just did! Check it anyway! Now read the Wikipedia entry on Veronica Lake! Now go get some Fritos!”* until suddenly it’s time to work. Sometimes pressure helps; other times it happens with lots of time to spare. I think of it a little like Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof who drinks until he hears the click. I have to hear the click. Trying to make writing happen before then is agony. (Exceptions for smallscale stuff like blog postings and email that I’m doing for the hell of it.)

    *Demons lay it on thick with the affective punctuation.

  4. KS says:

    “For those of you who enjoy creative pursuits without tears, experiencing only the joyful communion of self-expression…what do you think you are, a unicorn or something?”

    Above is my vote for the best line written on TGW in a long time…possibly ever. I hate those people who don’t seem to agonize over writing. Once when I was a newly minted MA student and at my very first important academic meeting to give a paper, I was talking to a woman who was very close to finishing her diss. She literally gushed about how joyful was the experience of writing EVERY day about something she was SO passionate about…something that she had chosen for herself and therefore loved like she loves air. If memory serves, she even lamented that fact that soon she’d be finished and would have to turn her attention to writing job application letters and lectures instead of the beloved dissertation.

    Yeah, meeting her really f’ed up my life. I NEVER felt that way about my writing projects, and I felt like a failure for it after having met that FREAK. I mean, I enjoyed thinking I was pretty clever a few times when writing papers for graduate seminars back in the days before I was smart enough to know how much I didn’t know, but once it started to really matter, I often found/find myself paralyzed by the daunting pressure to write something of merit.

    It feels really affirming to know that I’m not alone in my non-unicorn-ness.

  5. Tim says:

    Writing is hellishly difficult. I tend to think that utter terror of public shame and humiliation is the only, only motivation I have. The summer before I started my first full-time teaching gig I had 3 chapters (out of 5) of my dissertation left to write. The director of the program that had hired me let me know that I would earn $3000 more if I had my dissertation filed and PhD secured by the time school started. He had to get the paperwork underway well before the semester began, however, so he asked me what he should enter in the forms “ABD” or “PhD”. I rashly (but wisely, it turned out) told him “PhD”. With that as inspiration, I pumped out page after page after page for week after week after week. I was a machine. Of course, if I hadn’t done years of research beforehand, I could not have produced that much text, but nor could I have done it without knowing that if I didn’t finish I’d have to call up the program director and admit that I hadn’t finished.

    P.S. One time I was at the MLA, and I overheard Hillis Miller — an insanely prolific and insanely brilliant scholar — telling his editor that the manuscript he was handing over (probably something like his 35th book (no joke)) had been “so much fun to write!” and that had taken him a matter of weeks from start to finish. I just wanted to die, but not before taking him with me.

  6. Tim says:

    Sorry, people, I dropped the comma before the compound appositive in my fifth sentence: “what he should enter in the forms, ‘ABD’ or ‘PhD'”. Oh, the shame and humiliation!

  7. lane says:

    i really like that picasso quote… it’s true… i bear witness, in the name of yadda yadda yadda, amen.

  8. lane says:

    picasso is so fucking good it hurts. i wish all of you could have seen john richardson’s piccasso show at gagosian last spring. marie teresa…. u can’t believe someone can paint and draw like that… there isn’t a person on the planet that can do that anymore. in 1972, european painting died, and it’s name was pablo picasso.

    that’s true.

  9. swells says:

    Okay, loved every word of this post and of every comment too. I have read them all multiple times. What makes you all such interesting writers with such interesting anecdotes? I think that you are all kinda unicorns.

    p.s. i hesitate to ask because of course I’m sure you’re right, but . . . that’s a compound appositive???

  10. swells says:

    p.s. Will add that I had a “dissertation uniform” that consisted of some plaid flannel PJBs and a giant fleecy hoodie (catalog color: “tomato”) that I wore every day for the first half of the day (meaning, like 10-1) as I tried to write it in my house, then got too cold, then packed up my yellow legal pad (no laptop back then) and my Xeroxed articles and my well-underlined novel and prowled my neighborhood for about an hour in search of a cafe window that had direct sunlight so my fingers wouldn’t be so damn cold when I wrote. Then I got frustrated at not being able to find one, walked back home, and made some phone calls and alphabetized my records and stuff.

    I didn’t wear the uniform to the cafes, btw, at least not the bottom half.

  11. Tim says:

    Well, it’s an appositive, right? And there are two parts to it, so I dubbed it a “compound appositive”. Google yields a few uses of the phrase to identify constructions similar to mine: two appositives connected by a conjunction.

    I’m looking at “but nor” right now, however, and doubting its wisdom and propriety.

  12. swells says:

    T: I see it as compound, but not appositive, and plus which, am feeling like we should have this convo in private because I don’t think it’s unmockable . . . but nor do I think “but nor” is incorrect. There, I did it: a quintuple negative.

  13. Tim says:

    Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau . . . whoops, copy. Let’s jump over to the cone of silence for the rest of this exchange.

  14. LP says:

    Well, while we’re at it: 1: “internal body clock”? As opposed to … external?

    Jesus, we’re all idiots. It’s a wonder anyone can understand a thing we’re saying here.

  15. Stella says:

    I’m reading this and Dave’s Thursday post while I procrastinate not only about Friday’s Stella post but also the major brown bag presentation i have to do to my 25-person department tomorrow to be funny, charming and insightful after throwing away three weeks of prep time. agh.