On not trying so hard
I haven’t been in your inbox much lately. Funny — my last letter was about writer’s block, but I haven’t been down with that. I was low on energy and busy with the world, but I also had focus these past few months, and a sharp desire to write. I’m not saying what came out was always top notch, but I did reach some sort of zone in the past few months where I could leave the question of what is good alone, at least while I was drafting. Sometimes even after. Imagine that.
When I was a teenager I read a lot of books featuring British public school boys being rowdy, or the slightly more grownup versions of them being downright offensive. What I learned from those books — other that it’s really weird when someone with an East European accent says “Right jolly ho!” — was that it wasn’t good form to be seen to be trying hard. You don’t want to be a striver. The key is to look like everything comes easily.
The world I grew up in, though, has been a different one. Maybe it was moving to the US in my 20s, maybe it was academia, but I learned along the way that sometimes it’s a good idea to look like you’re trying hard. Maybe you should even look like you’re trying harder than everyone else. The hardest. I remember, as an assistant professor, going to work on Sundays and checking under the other office doors for a strip of light that indicated someone else was in. One of my colleagues would say we were the weekend warriors. This was a good thing.
And let’s be honest, for a long time I felt I had to try harder, always harder. Maybe it’s an immigrant thing, maybe it’s an outsider complex. Even when you’re about as inside as it gets, it still feels like you have your nose smooshed against the window, knocking, knocking.
The thing that I’ve discovered in writing, however, is that more effort does not always yield better results. Yes, there’s something to be said for dedication, even consistency. I do think there’s a value in maintaining a relationship with a project, especially if it’s long and you have to make it through many dips along the way. But just sitting there and trying and — ok listen, the next part might be a little indecorous, but it’s the best way I can put it.
My native Romanian has a wonderful verb, a se screme. It means to try hard, to exert oneself, to exhaust oneself in an effort. But primarily it’s used for straining on the toilet. I find various etymologies online — maybe it’s from Latin exprimere, to squeeze or press out, to express, and maybe there’s a bit of Latin excrementum in there too. The point is, it’s not pleasant, it’s not good for you, and at the end you still wind up with crap.
(I can’t believe I just wrote this.)
I don’t think effort itself is bad, but there’s an art to knowing when effort is a positive application of energy, and when it’s this twisting, painful attempt to get something out that doesn’t want to be out yet. Exprimere also means to express in words, of course. If you’ve done that kind of forced writing, you might recognize the feeling.
Sometimes in the past I’ve been able to get past this unhelpful kind of struggle by being ill. I hate to admit this — I don’t enjoy being sick, and I live in a culture where illness is seen as some kind of personal flaw, done out of sheer willfulness, possibly due to sloth or a desire for attention. But I do think there is a reason why so many medieval works (perhaps especially by women) begin with an illness. Sometimes we need to let our guard down to have breakthroughs, to become someone different from who we were until then. And especially: to speak, to write.
But I do think it’s possible to gain a measure of lightness, if not effortlessness, with good health. I can’t quite explain it yet — I’m dancing around a notion — but it’s through connection with the self, through the sense of ease in one’s body that comes with strength, and most definitely through rest. I do think I try harder when I’m very tired, as a kind of a rebellion against my own need for sleep and recovery. It works about as well as you’d imagine.
I had a few experiences lately that showed me what this might feel like. First, I took a poetry course, online, with the poet Sara Larsen. She did a ton of exercises with us, but one of them absolutely grabbed me. Basically she asked us to keep scraps of paper and then write on them — words, phrases, observations, images. Twigs to weave poems with, not the poems themselves.
Because I am a hoarder at heart, and because I still always ask for receipts just in case (I go through the world afraid I will be suspected of shoplifting and that the items I supposedly shoplifted will be defective), I loved the assignment. I wrote on bus tickets, on grocery receipts, on programmes, on torn-up envelopes. At one point I found myself writing on the core of a toilet paper roll. A few words would gather up force and bring more words with them, and suddenly I’d be filling the scraps with words I’d struggle to decipher later.
You don’t have to try so hard when you are writing on actual garbage.
Again, I can’t quite tell how, but this shifted something in my experience of writing. To be fair, introducing a certain relaxation into the writing process also sometimes means being a bit messy. Sometimes I’ve made errors which others have caught. But it’s also meant less self-chastisement, and more of a willingness to accept the experience for what it is. And overall, I haven’t noticed a direct relationship between how much straining effort I’ve put in — the hard, unpleasant kind — and how good the final product is.
I’ve been learning, too, to stop short of my goal. To leave a thought out, to end on fewer words than I’d planned for that day’s writing session, to think of a draft as a first dig of a garden and not the final planting. You know, to loosen up the soil. Let some air in.
The funny thing is, I realised the fruit of this not on the page, but in the ballet studio. I returned yesterday, after more than three weeks away, and I expected it to be painful. It was. My left shin was doing something funny, which was new. But by the time we got around to doing combinations across the floor, I was enjoying myself so much I’d mostly stopped thinking. There’s this one combo we’ve done a lot, and it involves a few balancés, a pas de bourrée (so fine, so good) and then a pirouette. And another pas de bourrée and pirouette. And then a shift in weight and a pirouette in the other direction.
Usually what happens when it comes to the pirouettes is that I lose all my chill, and I start thinking about how I can force my substantial body weight to turn 360 degrees. I then violently jerk my body in the direction of the turn, I barely move, I don’t spot, and my raised leg flails sadly in the wind and then lands, consistently, in the wrong place.
This is what I have done for the 6-7 years I’ve taken ballet classes. I know it’s not right. I look at the other women and they lightly move up into pirouette position, gently spin around like a leaf in the wind, and then come down softly.
But something happened yesterday. I don’t know if things clicked, or if I just wasn’t thinking, but I found myself spinning lightly. Was it still messy? Yes. That free foot likes to go places, let’s be honest. I still forgot about spotting. But it didn’t quite matter, because without even trying, I landed more or less in the position I needed to be. And then I did it again. And again in the other direction. It felt about as magical as writing on toilet paper cores, which is to say: very. And most surprising of all, for the first time, it felt easy.
For the London Review of Books, I reviewed three recent books on the Wife of Bath. Then there were podcasts — a conversation about Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women and Ovid’s Heroides with Thomas Jones (free to access), and a whole pile of episodes in the Medieval Beginnings subscription series I co-host with Mary Wellesley. These included: the Roman de Silence, Havelok the Dane, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Lais of Marie de France.
I recently joined Thomas Karshan and Gabriel Flynn in editing CreativeCritical.net. I got to know the project — which aims at bringing creative practices and scholarly analysis of literature closer — at the launch conference in September. My talk at that conference is now up on the site, and it’s called “Why I’m No Longer a Proper Academic.” (I’m still an academic, just not a proper one.)
For the New York Times, I reviewed Anya von Bremzen’s new book about iconic dishes and the myths they carry.
When an editor at the TLS asked me if I wanted to review the new documentary about Umberto Eco’s library, I wrote back: “there is absolutely nothing on this planet I would rather do.” Meanwhile, in the column: medieval self-help, the management woes of medieval monks, learning languages in prison, and the long history of anti-travel writing (and why I like it anyway).
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