Thursday, March 5, 2015

Writers: Let Go of that Can Do Attitude (for a while)

Years ago, I developed allergies. I had all the classic symptoms: occasional runny nose and itchy eyes, sneezing and congestion. My ears often felt plugged up and once in a while, I’d come down with a sinus infection. I became very preoccupied with eliminating this nuisance from my life. I tried different allergy medications and decongestants. I used a Neti pot (when I remembered). Nothing improved; if anything, it got worse. I was constantly assessing my sinus situation, constantly trying to reach a state of normal. Finally, I made an appointment with an allergist, to start having the allergy shots that seemed to help lots of people. She ran a whole panel of tests, made pinpricks on my back to see what type of allergies we were dealing with. And she found out that I was allergic to…nothing. Not pollen or grass, not pet dander or wool. Nothing.
Things continued. I waged my war, unconvinced and still suffering. I saw an ear-nose-throat doctor. His conclusion: slightly deviated septum and “sensitive sinuses.” In the same way that just about anybody will sneeze in a dusty attic, my nose tended to flare up in response to certain things. It was overactive, that was all. This doctor gave me a prescription for a very expensive nasal spray, a steroid, and for a while, I tried it. Then something shifted. I decided to quit trying to eradicate the thing and just live with it. And all these years later, my ears still crack when I swallow and I’m usually in some state of congestion. I do use the Neti pot (when I remember), and I occasionally take something if I feel a bad session coming on, or if I’m getting on an airplane. But I don’t think about it, hardly at all, and the symptoms are a mere fraction of what they were when I was attacking and treating them.
I wrote most of a short story last week, then immediately hated it. It seemed that my jumping-off point was a bit gimmicky, and I couldn’t remember the point of it, couldn’t figure out, really, what it was about. There were some good bits, but so much of it was insipid and it didn’t have the eerie tone I was hoping for. I beat myself up for it for a few days, then decided to scrap the whole thing.
Today, I was listening to a podcast while running. It was about the ways we love and one of the segments featured the author of Mating in Captivity. She was talking about the enigma of modern marriage, the way we have expanded the requirements for a partner from simply societal identity and species continuation to the metaphysical and emotional. We expect our partners to be our best friends, to fulfill all aspects of our desires, to be adventurous and stable, passionate and loyal, basically—to be everything to us. And that’s a tall order. The author talked about this in the context of the American “Can Do” ideology. We tend to be a culture of problem solvers. And sometimes, she said, we need to learn to live with paradoxes rather than trying to solve them.
And it occurred to me: this is what I was doing with that story. In my immediate rush to fix it, to solve it, to make it everything at once, I wasn’t being realistic. Maybe it was like my non-existent allergies: I just needed to learn to live with it, accept its imperfections and all of the ways it pains me. Like a partner, I can’t expect it to be all things. This is a constant fear for writers, wondering if you’ll know when something should be salvaged or scrapped, knowing that you’ll never completely cure the ills of any project. But I think only when you stop and let the thing exist, warts and all, can you start to look at it with any sort of calm. If you set aside that “Can Do” mentality and have some patience, then maybe the flaws you’re seeing won’t be as overwhelming as you think, maybe you can find your way to a path you can live with. You’ll still want to fix some things of course, only not all at once. Sometimes it’s good to shut down that problem-solving tendency, to stop looking for cures or complete fixes. Sometimes it’s okay to let a paradox be a paradox for a while.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka