The Chronicle Review

The Insidious Imps of Writing

August 21, 2016

James Yang for The Chronicle Review
Academics must write. Otherwise they don't pass their grad courses, finish their dissertations, or get jobs, promotions, and raises.

But barring us from success are the Imps of Inertia and the Wall of Habitual Self.

First the Imps.

There’s the Disenchanted Imp, who, palm to forehead, points out that no one really reads much these days. They skim and surf maybe, but they don't read. Who will appreciate the pains­taking care with which you've done and presented your research? Perhaps the handful of other specialists in your subfield, but that’s a paltry audience.

Then there’s the Jaded Imp, who hoists itself, wheezing, in a puff of dust from the pile of journals in the corner. "Boy, there sure is a lot of writing already," it says, "more than anyone can digest. Does the world really need your particular radical re-reinterpretation of King Lear? What’ll that do to help curb climate change or bring peace to Syria or advance treatment of Zika?"

The Loneliness Imp looks at you imploringly across your cluttered desk and asks: "Hey, couldn't we go to the sports bar and watch the Olympics instead? Maybe talk to an actual living human being? There's a long weekend coming up. You could do that writing business then. How ’bout it, pal?"

The Sloth Imp is over on the couch browsing the cable guide. "Hey," he says, "The Godfather’s playing on AMC, and Michael Corleone is about to knock off Captain McCluskey and the Turk on the way to becoming a mob boss. And look at you, you poor schlump, with your stale cookies and cold cup of hibiscus tea."

"I’m sure," Sloth Imp says with a particularly malevolent chuckle, "that whatever you’re working on’ll be a real page-turner, huh."

Should you manage to ignore the Imps, you will find yourself at the Wall of Habitual Self.

There’s nothing wrong with Habitual Self, as Keats called it. It’s a state of mind we need to inhabit most of the time unless we’re saints, warriors, or artists who never stop creating. Habitual Self drives the car and gets bodies, including its own, to various places at agreed on times. It gathers the groceries and chops them and marinates them. It pays bills and takes care of kids and parents. It schmoozes at the post office. It takes the obligations related to death and taxes with a high degree of seriousness.

But Habitual Self cannot write to save its life. It’s good for a grocery or a laundry list, a scribble to the mechanic, or a note of thanks for the polka-dotted birthday tie or the fruit-scented candle. But it is worldly, pragmatic, oriented toward earthly needs and desires, and often fundamentally boring, at least to others.

How to outwit the Imps and escape Habitual Self? Ritual.

Virtually every writer I know has one. One claims to sharpen half a dozen pencils. Another gulps down a can of beer (never mind the hour). A third meditates. (The sound of chanting from up in her lair gets the kids scrambling in embarrassment off to the school bus.) Another needs espresso. His cousin requires Darjeeling straight from India. And one goes outdoors and marches for a while to the beat of a different drummer — marches, literally, around the backyard.

Are these people simply eccentrics? They’re home alone, working in solitude, and they can ignore officelike protocols. Maybe they just want to cultivate a little weirdness. No harm. But I don’t think most writers’ rituals are mere affectations. I think they’re quite necessary. The writer needs the right room, crowded or bare; the right drink, soft or mildly spiked; the right ambient noise or a dose of earmuffed silence.

Slow down and make contact with a dreamier, more associative part of your mind.
When professors prepare to write, they generally try to leap over the Wall. Their rituals tend, not surprisingly, toward the caffeine-based. They drink two or three (or five) cups, which help them to burn through their inhibitions like rocket fuel. Fingers itch. Smoke pours from ears. They feel confident, even aggressive, and focused. They fly over the Wall, then write in an authoritative way, which is more or less what they want.

I understand that desire — to gear up as though you’re going into combat, then hit the line and fight, fight. It was more or less my method throughout graduate school and beyond, when I used to come off a bout of writing sweating like a boxer. I had dumbbells on each side of my chair — heavy ones — and when inspiration flagged, I pumped them, up and down, up and down, until I was back at fighting pitch again. I took this form of getting started to an extreme. Along with the dumbbells there were hideous amounts of coffee and occasionally a small white pill that I shall not identify.

This warrior method works for a lot of people, many of whom don’t think all that much about it. The coffee’s a ritual that has come to feel like a routine. Writing is tough and whatever works, works. But writing that begins with that adrenaline-fueled leap can often be two-dimensional and bureaucratic-sounding, linear, flat, unsurprising. From a Freudian standpoint, you’re turning yourself over to your superego, the inner agency of authority and command. Say what you will about the superego, but it’s not a creative agency. (Unless you mean creative in the ways it can torment us — then it can get pretty flashy.)

The superego powers through in search of a potent and univocal truth. That may be the kind of writing some people want to produce — editorialists and bosses and policy experts and theorists of this or that. Lots of "we musts," "it’s clears," and "therefores." Nuance? Qualification? Doubt? Perspective? Whimsy? Wistfulness? Humor? Melancholy? Nostalgia? Those are for poets.

I prefer writing that casts a spell over the Imps, putting them into a state of perplexed quiescence, then slips below Habitual Self to tap other regions of mind and spirit. And I think this mode is something that more academics ought to consider trying.

Coffee or dumbbell curls won’t get you there. For this journey, you’re going to need skills of a subtler, more patient sort. But they are worth developing. Often the best writing comes from slowing down and making contact with a dreamier, more associative part of the mind that, if you connect with it just right, will in certain ways do your writing for you.

Scholars Talk Writing

In a continuing series, Rachel Toor talks with noted scholars about the joys and pains of writing.

You’ve got to hypnotize yourself a little. That writer who loves to sharpen pencils before she starts is, I bet, using a repetitive action to enter something of a dream state. That’s what’s going on too, usually, when a writer meditates, calming habitual self and getting it to stop planning and worrying. You can charm Habitual Self to semisleep with music, too, though of course you need to find the right kind for you. I like the kirtan — chanting — of a deep-voiced spiritual-sounding fellow named Krishna Das, KD to his admirers. Most of KD’s chants tend to have about five or eight words in them and those are in Sanskrit, making it easy enough for me to hear hypnotic sounds rather than words. I don’t usually continue to play music once I’ve gotten started, though a lot of writers do, because I tend to lose my own writing rhythms (such as they are) in the music’s cadence.

Go for a run. Have a dropper full of valerian in water. (But watch out — it’s surprisingly potent for a drug they sell at health-food stores.) Chill by any means possible. Make sneaking under that wall an adventure and a game, a chance to demonstrate your resourcefulness in getting to your creative zone reliably and quickly. Perfect your technique. Improve your times.

The English Romantics believed that the unconscious mind was a creative mind. They brought the idea of the unconscious — Unbewusste — over from their German counterparts. Coleridge and Company believed that tapping that unconscious could produce wonders. Coleridge’s Unbewusste, along with a dose of opium, seems to have created his weirdly majestic poem "Kubla Khan," although, for whatever reason, the Unbewusste declined to finish it. You don’t have to believe in a primally creative unconscious to buy the idea that making contact with the part of the mind that produces dreams (and occasionally unexpected jokes and tangy insults) can also help you produce good writing.

Bear in mind that there are dangers in trying to tunnel under Habitual Self, just as there are in jumping over it. Listen to too much chanting, or do too much on your own, and you may find yourself falling asleep and waking up feeling refreshed but guilty at the end of your allotted writing time.

There are subtler challenges, too. Get a little too deep into the twilight state and writing loses shape and direction. You may have lulled your Imps and burrowed your way through to the garden of your subconscious, but if the garden is weedy and wild, it’s not much of a victory. Don’t commit automatic writing — more illuminating to your therapist than to a reader. Stay at least two-thirds awake and alert. The simple act of typing or scrawling or cursively lettering (if you’re that much of an aesthete) will probably keep you in the game.

The key is to find the approach that works for you. Even for a given writer, it probably changes over time. There’s a lot of trial and error involved. But it is trial and error of an interesting, even revelatory, sort. Writing involves a bit of shamanism in which you’re both guide and space- and time-traveling subject. Discovering what it is that you need to travel tells you something about your version of Habitual Self and also about the kind of writing you’re born to do.

With the superego discarded, the vulnerable humanity tapped, that authority on Egon Schiele might nod to related questions she won’t have time to explore and hopes others will. The administrator might find a little humility — let’s try this approach to student retention, but face it, the data’s scant and might be a dud, so stay tuned. The historian might discover a new sensory empathy with the folks populating his detailed analysis of 15th-century Amsterdam.

There is, of course, according to some, another guaranteed way to shift consciousness and to slip into the zone. This is a dangerous method, however — maybe even more so for professors than for other writers. It doesn’t involve drugs, unless you think metaphorically. It doesn’t involve religion, and it doesn’t entail magic, though its effects, we’re told, can be spiritually potent and magical enough.

I mean falling in love. Not just any love, but love with your soulmate, the person who completes you, the yin to your yang, the moon to your sun, day to your night, and all the rest. When you meet the one, or the one who turns out to be the one for a while, your powers are augmented, you breathe in a little truth and light, you see, as Wordsworth put it, "into the life of things."

The writer who relies on love for inspiration, however, is taking big chances. The Shelleys among us, if any still exist, bounce like a flaming ball from love to love and never touch the ground much less dunk beneath the flame-eating waves. If you are one such, all honor to you. Beauty and light and truth and bliss may be yours. But some of us, the Wordsworth types, need a long time to recover from erotic failure or loss. Either way, surrounded by beaming youth discovering the powers of their minds, bodies, intellects, and souls, there is no little risk for a professor falling in love with a radically inappropriate person.

My advice? Stick to meditation, chanting, marching, the ritual sharpening of the pencils. No one’s life ever imploded from those. The right rituals will usher you into the zone. And when you emerge — the Imps’ muted, defeated sighs and the pile of tunnel dirt behind you — it will be not with a chapter that reads like a memo or a battle plan, but with pages that are clever, clear, graceful, and, just as important, that sound like you.

Mark Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. His book Why Write? was just published by Bloomsbury Publishing.