Writing involves giving up

This is where I started. My very first Rabbit Hole.

I’m having trouble writing at the moment. I’m an English graduate and a PhD student and I can’t write. Even worse, as part of my job, I'm supposed to teach other people how to write.

In my defence, I never tell anyone writing is easy. When I speak to other students, I often sympathise that writing can be hard. Writing sucks. Writing’s a chore. Writing can be painful. Sometimes I feel there’s nothing more oppressive than the first words on a blank sheet of paper, or a cursor waiting, blinking impatiently at the end of each sentence, like it’s doing to me right now.

But then again, I don’t have a problem with not writing. At the moment, the problem is that I write too much. I’ve written thousands of words over the past three months, but nothing I write seems to want to cooperate. When I start out, all the words seem happy in their place, and then at some point, they all start to misbehave. They seem to say ‘screw you!’ and veer off into long confusing expositions, into non-sequiturs or just plain incomprehensibility. Sometimes they become defensively obtuse, as if their real intention is to say, ‘Yes, I did mean something once, but you’re not smart enough to understand what I've become.’

‘But I created you!’ I think to myself.

As a result, I write and write and write but never finish anything, and then move on to a new project, which also doesn’t get finished. I told a friend once at one of our weekly mutual misery sessions that I feel like a moth – I can see a grander, brighter, more luminescent world outside, but constantly find myself bashing my head against the windowpane trying to get there.

So getting to the end of something, and being happy with it, has become a painful idea. It’s so strange to me that the thought of finishing something has become so terrifying. J.M. Coetzee, in one of his undoubtedly autobiographical novels, Youth, wrote:

He is afraid: afraid of writing […] He may pull faces at the poems he reads in Ambit and Agenda, but at least they are there, in print, in the world. How is he to know that the men who wrote them did not spend years squirming as fastidiously as he in front of the blank page? They squirmed, but then finally they pulled themselves together and wrote as best they could what had to be written, and mailed it out, and suffered the humiliation of rejection or the equal humiliation of seeing their effusions in cold print, in all their poverty. […] What is wrong with him is that he is not prepared to fail. He wants an A or an alpha or one hundred per cent for his every attempt, and a big Excellent! in the margin. Ludicrous! Childish!

This passage makes me laugh and squirm with recognition. Yep, that’s me all right. But maybe this is how everyone feels when they’re starting out.

Some time last year, I was in the car, listening to an interview with Tim Winton on the radio. He was talking about an upcoming production of his first play. The interviewer asked him what it was like writing for the theatre after being a successful novelist for so long. Winton said it was hard, and that he’d made numerous attempts before deciding to settle on something and finishing it. Then he said something like, ‘Because in the end, writing is always a process of giving up.’

I loved hearing him say that. He’s right. In the past, whenever I wrote anything I could stand showing to someone else, let alone sending off to be published, it was always reluctantly and because I was forced to meet some deadline. If I had a choice, I probably wouldn’t show anyone anything I write. But in those instances when I did allow someone to see my writing it was only because there was simply no other option than to put my pride away, give up, and hope for the best.

So, I guess, writing is a process that involves having great aspirations, giving up on them, and finishing it anyway. The trick is learning to appreciate what you ended up with, rather than clinging to what you dreamed you would achieve. It’s like that old saying, ‘A work of art is never finished, only abandoned,’ or what South African visual artist William Kentridge once said:

"It’s always been in-between the things I thought I was doing that the real work has happened.”

So, rather than just sitting here, writing stuff that no one else will read, I’ve set myself the task of figuring out why I can’t finish anything. This is why I’ve started this blog. I’m not entirely sure why it’s called Make Your Own Rabbit Hole – it just is. (And I'm not planning to use my name so I can get comfortable with the idea of posting something now and again without being too precious about it, and so I can write honestly about things I might feel embarrassed about saying out loud.)

When I think about it, for me, the most difficult thing about writing is that I love writing. I like communicating my ideas no matter how modest or impoverished they may be – in fact, sometimes, the more modest the better. And I like reading other people’s work that seems unpolished – that has a sense of immediacy or wonkiness about it. It feels real.

Maybe one day I’ll find something like that here in these pages.

I guess for now, I just need to give up, stop starting, and start finishing.