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Enough ennui to fill the house on a perfectly decent summer day

Hilary,

I have about a half hour before I poop out and thought I’d finish my note from the other night. I was going to tell you a little something about what I’ve been up to this summer and, perhaps, sort through a couple of things for myself.

I think I may have told you I’ve taken the summer to work on my dissertation and to finish the first rewrite of my second book. The book is no problem. I have confidence I can write in the prose and voice that will convey a good story. I also know I can portray a river that has a personality as complex and varied as a human being’s.

The dissertation, however, is different. Whenever I start a new direction or endeavor, I am riddled with anxiety. I have done a book. I have published, literally, thousands of articles, reviews, and editorials. This, however, is a different kind of writing and I feel the pressure, or, rather, put pressure on myself to be a perfect dissertation writer. I am my own worst critic. I find excuses to procrastinate, dawdle, and avoid the piece of writing. I am afraid to look into my notes, and, instead, I attempt to write in a sort of mental freehand that always leads to dead ends, and, ultimately, a block that prevents me from moving forward.

The last three weeks, for instance, at various times, I have put off the work, taken a stab at it and put it up, and worked for several hours at a time and made hardly any progress. When I have been able to sit down to it and stick with it, I have opened up the piece, moved things around, and closed it up. The next time, I opened it up, move the same things around, and closed it again. Over and over.

The anxiety had made me tired, nervous, and put me into a kind of despair. I begin to ask questions and berate myself: What makes me think I can do this? I’m not capable of being a doctor. I’m not this intelligent. Whatever gave me the idea that I could actually achieve this? People will find out I’m a fraud. I’m not good enough to do this. Etc.

It’s pretty painful stuff, and it’s something I always go through. All the evidence in my past shows me I will complete this task. I will do well, or at least decent enough to get through. But in the moment, it’s all very dark, impossible, and unattainable. Meantime, there’s a creeping guilt that begins to weigh on me. I have taken the summer off. I haven’t accomplished much. Life is passing quickly. I’m wasting it.

I will reach the point, little by little, where I will accept the fear. It never goes away, you know. But I will be able to see it, acknowledge it, and then set it aside. It’s almost as if I step outside myself to get over the first hurdle. Once that’s done, the second is easier, and so on.

I’ve done better this time than with past creative undertakings. I started understanding that I would have these problems. I have been able to sleep at night because I have a real feeling that this is just something I have to go through, and it will pass soon enough. After all, when I get a cold, I know I am miserable, but that in a week or so, I will feel better. Moreover, as knuckleheaded as it sounds, I have to enjoy this round of pain in its uniqueness. I will never suffer just like this again.

I know, too, that I cannot study and write here, in this house. The distractions are unbearable, even when there is no one around. Still, I get this idea that I can do it today, which, of course, winds up in disappointment and, frequently, in disaster. When I work at the university library, I do well. The computers are fast. I have easy access to the journal databases. The books are there, and I often only need them for a passage or two, so I can get them, use them, and leave them there instead of lugging them around.

So, I can’t be lazy or sleep too late.

All this complaining and mooking around aside, I was able to make real, tangible headway today. It was fun, once I got through the initial reticence of getting started. I was able to get in a good four hours of real writing, getting citations right, and reacquainting myself with literature. After four years of leaving this aside, the most difficult part, intellectually, is relearning or reconnecting with the literature I was so familiar with when I was doing my coursework.

So, while this note began with a litany of difficulties, it ends with a realization that I’m doing all right. I’m the only one taking this way too seriously and, because of that, throwing way too many obstacles in my path. After all, I can complete book-length works. This is just a dissertation. I have a year. I will get this done.

And if not, my Ph.D. work was good for two books, several scholarly articles, and lots and lots of other writing. I always only wanted to be a writer, and, I suppose, that is what I am. I have to take a step back sometimes to see it.

I’d love to hear what you think of all this. I trust all things are well with you.

Patrick

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