A Nervous, Ill-humored Parrot

We are meant to read Draft #4 by John McPhee for the Bedrosian Book Club, but we’re scheduled up on books, I’m not sure when we are going to get to it, and I fanatically love writing about writing. I once remember–I don’t know what writer it was, but John Updike comes to mind–a writer who noted that writers are always asking other writers about their process, which always really comes down to the question “Are you as crazy as I am?” He felt he didn’t need that question answered. I find that I very much do need an answer to that question.

So when I got my hands on Draft #4: On the Writing Process, I put it aside, telling myself that I would wait to read it when we were scheduled, but it called to me, and bore a hole in my forehead wanting me to read it, just like ice cream calls to me from inside the fridge. And so I devoured it over the weekend.

There are so many gems in this little volume I have to share:

Writers come in two principal categories: those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure.

What spoke to me most this time out was McPhee’s openness about how much he hates to talk about what he is working on. I hate talking about work in progress. I’ve hated it since I was a consultant, and that’s a really bad setting for this particular quirk because nobody trusts you to write in secrecy, and you have to check in with a team constantly, and all of them are blathering about the writing, and touching it and commenting on it, and ruining your life that way.

This problem continued through graduate school. Now, Randy Crane, bless him, didn’t really seek out conversations with me. But Brian Taylor is super verbal and collaborative: he loved to talk with his graduate students about research, and I became churlish about it. This is highly, highly dysfunctional, and it’s all my fault. It became one of the many things leading me to neurotic and difficult as a graduate student. Brian good-heartedly taught a class on writing one’s dissertation proposal which was agony for me every single week. There were only two students in it, and the other student was a courteous, pleasant, non-insane person. And me. It didn’t help that by that time, one of my steadying influences, Jeff Brown, now at FSU, had graduated. Jeff had a very good way of dealing with my nonsense, and without him, grad school got harder for me.

I won’t relate all the embarrassing stories of what I did in the class to avoid talking about my project because these are terrible. Brian and my classmate suffered mightily. But I tried. I really, really did. And I produced a terrible proposal that Randy rejected out of hand.

The academy is a tough place for people who don’t like to talk about what they are working on. People are always asking, you have to tell people what you are going to do on your sabbatical application, you have to report your plans for the next year. It’s viewed as precious and self-indulgent not to be able to talk about your projects.

But I really, really can’t. I obviously can, but it hurts my thinking and writing a lot. God, if there is one thing I could change about my academic career, it would have been telling anybody that I was working on a book. I should have said nothing. Telling people upped the stakes for me: if people know about it, I have to deliver it, and now that it’s taken awhile, it has to be good. It doesn’t help that my colleagues, save for David Sloane (endlessly patient, bless him) and Martin Krieger, have not been terribly supportive. I get remarks like “That book is taking awhile–cha!” accompanied by a little snort that says “you aren’t fooling me; you’re not working on anything.” And “I’m just not sure you are a productive book writer.” The one university press editor I was talking to about it made a mistake, thinking he was talking about somebody else’s book (but it was apparent he was thinking about mine) and referred to it, sarcastically, as a “supposedly world-changing book.” I stopped interacting with him shortly after, which is a shame because he is an amusing man, his disdain for my book idea notwithstanding. My father-in-law, a mathematician, asks “Do I dare even ask about the book?” A friend of mine asks about whether I have finished every time we get together, which is about twice a month. Another colleague sucks air between her teeth, in the same way one reacts to descriptions of car crashes, when I tell her about an interaction I had with another university press editor: “that’s not good, not good.”

Jesus slamming Christ on a cracker, people.

I don’t need this kind of help to get scared off and neurotic about a project. People looking at it makes me get anxious, and then I start to behave badly, and then because people are looking and it’s taking me a long time, that means it really does have to be great, truly great, because if it’s not great after all this time, it will establish once and for all that I am a terrible scholar, a lousy writer, and waste of oxygen on planet earth. Q.E.D. All those comments are verifying what I have already said in my head 14,000,000 times, thanks a bunch, you poopface.

It was reassuring to read McPhee’s riffs on this problem:

When I come out and walk around, bumping into friends, they tend to ask me “What are you working on?” Which is one reason I don’t often come out and walk around. I always feel like a parrot answering that question, and a nervous, ill-humored parrot if I am writing a first draft.”

One reason I’ve always wanted to keep the writing to myself is, simply, that when I get neurotic about something, there seems to be no limit of dignity that I will sacrifice in the search for reassurance. McPhee now has two daughters, both of whom seem to represent the two, binary states I can exist in:

Jenny grew up to write novels, and at this point has published three. She keeps everything close-handed, says nothing, and reveals nothing as she goes along. I once asked her if she had been thinking about starting another book, and she said “I finished it last week.” Her sister Martha, two years younger, has written four novels. Martha calls me up nine times a day to tell me writing is impossible, that she’s not cut out to do it, that she’ll never finish what she is working on, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth and so on, and I, who am probably disintegrating a third of the way through an impossible first draft, am supposed to be the Rock of Gibraltar. A talking rock: “Just stay at it; perseverance will change things.” “You’re so unhappy you sound authentic to me.” “You can’t make a fix unless you know what is wrong.”

Those are my two states of being, all or nothing, Jenny and Martha, and a grumpy parrot with wet feathers to boot. Randy Crane,I suspect, intuited this fairly early on. He tried to be supportive of my Martha problems, but then he began to see that was a bottomless pit of need for reassurance, and he made me knock it off. And, bless his heart, he generally stayed out of my creative process: he read things I sent him, but he was either smart enough to know it wasn’t good to get me talking about it, or he was just too busy to bother. Either way, his ignoring my work let me sneak up on it, too.

So let’s talk about the books we’ve read, the movies we’ve seen, the traveling we have done, and the leaves falling from the trees, the garden, home improvements, or the sun crashing into the earth someday. I’m going to go work. On something. Maybe.