Fear of Writing


fellow wordpresser relates that she typed in “fear and writing” and that a lot of stuff came up.

She didn’t explain what came up,, or what prompted her to google “fear and writing,” but she did say this:

A friend and I laugh about how it’s gotten that not only do you have to write a book, you’re expected to edit it, market it, and then pulp it too. You certainly have to know exactly what shelf it’s supposed to be on.

The stress and frustration comes when the mind refuses to participate.

The fear, of course, is that we will not be able to pull off all of these different tasks, which used to be shared between various people.  And that fear taps back into the anxiety that most of us picked up when we were children, when, no matter what we did to please our parents, we were still not good enough.

Now, it appears that the writer of this blog and her friends are non-academic writers, but the anxiety she describes about presenting her work as a commodity in the marketplace before it has even become a thing, a work of art, a symbolic expression, a statement to the world, affects scholars as well.  She writes,

The marketing buzz has gotten out of hand. We are trying to market before we’ve even created. And there are writing books that actually say don’t type a word until you know your audience. Don’t let a thought fill your head until you know who you’re going to sell it to.

Although we academics and the upper-echelon university administrators for whom we work like to pretend that we transcend these petty concerns of profit and interest, although we claim to be engaged in the pursuit of truth and knowledge, the realities of the market affect us, too.  Whole books are stifled because presses are increasingly under pressure to publish only what they think they can sell.  And who wants to read an academic book other than other academics?

A friend–I say “friend” although the trust on which a friendship is built has yet to be established–let us say, the husband of a friend of mine, a man who is the child of academics and who spent long years working in academia, recently said to me, when I told him that I was still plugging away on my book,

Why?  What is the point of writing something that no one, or maybe five people will read?  What are you writing it for now that you know you’re not going to get tenure at X?

He was not exactly encouraging. I, however, was prepared for him and answered that I believed that I had a contribution to make, an original argument that deserved to be published, and that it meant something to me to express it.   Then he asked me if I had anyone reading it, an editor or fellow-writer to bounce ideas off of.  When I said that I had sought such a helper in vain, he responded,

In my experience people who don’t have a reader cannot finish their books.  You simply can’t do it.

Okay, so this really irritated me in that way that a microscopic piece of glass under the skin of your index finger irritates you. And it deflated me to a certain extent because I have heard this same refrain in my mind for years and years. And yes, to a certain extent, the echo still reverberates.   This person seemed to be encouraging me to give up and admit that I had failed and would never finish the work that I had been working on for so many years, the book that I had originally envisioned completing in two or three years.   But for some reason I didn’t hear him saying this.

When people say things like this to me, what I hear is that they would like to write and are afraid to do it.  If they can convince me to give up my project, that will justify their decision to give up theirs.  This sort of statement only comes from someone who has bought into the whole, ridiculous belief-system that a person is only real once he or she has published a book, or made a fortune, or conquered a country, and so on.  What they–we–are all afraid of is of being scorned, or ignored, or somehow evaluated as inadequate.  And this fear probably comes to us not only from our childhood, from our parents, who projected onto us their feelings of failure and unworthiness, which they experienced in their own relationships with their parents and their cultures.

This is an old, old fear, passed down from generation to generation.  But it is also a new fear, one that we encounter when we enter into the market as writers and believe that what we are selling is somehow a part of ourselves.

I do not know how to write without understanding my writing as a part of myself.  I know that lots of people do grasp this.  Popular authors invent or copy a formula and reproduce it in a fashion that is sure to sell.   I also do not know how to write without feeling the pressure to sell what I am in the process of writing, of expressing.  It’s not possible to be a writer who expects or needs to get published without being subject to market pressures.  And this is as true for scholars as it is for popular writers, for novelists and poets and self-help manual-writers.  It is not possible to create art, to be an artist, without being conscious of, or in some fashion under,  the force, the influence, of commercialism. We live in a commercialized world.

Hell, we are all forced to become capitalists.  Or we are if we are wise.  In this economy, saving money in a savings account or CD simply pays so little that, after the effect of inflation, the value of our money actually DECLINES.  We think about what is happening to our wealth as a sum, a number, in nearly every decision we make–when we decide to rent instead of to buy, when we decide to buy goods of any kind–milk, paper, educations, lawnmowers, sheep, art, companions– at exorbitant prices or at the bottom of the market.   And in our particular economy (as opposed to say, earlier forms of society, when economic values were largely held in land and people and animals, as opposed to in money and stocks), it doesn’t pay to save money without figuring out some way to make that money grow.  People don’t keep gold coins in chests anymore.  People didn’t used to believe that money could make money.  They also didn’t used to approve of lending money for interest, or of deliberately paying a person to produce a commodity a fraction of what you know you’ll get when you sell that commodity in the market.

So, we think of our selves as body/minds for sale–newscasters and politicians nearly always have to be physically appealing to succed.  And how many obese, female CEOs do you know?  We sell ourselves, our skin color, our education, our reading list, the newspapers we subscribe to, the cars we drive, the labels we wear, the dogs we care for, the accomplishments of our children, even our most intimate companions, our lovers, our wives, our husbands, these things become attributes, aspects of our abstract portfolio, our virtual net worth.  We are not evil or bad or selfish, inherently,  for thinking this way.  It’s our culture.  It’s all we’ve ever known.

So of course writing–and all art–is subject to market pressures, the need to know who your audience is, and how to market it, and where to try to sell it.  And yes, the people who are best at promoting themselves as commodities are in fact the people who make the most money.  They’re not necessarily the best at what they do.

Okay, so in very few instances, they are.  Mozart was good at selling himself, and he was great.

You could say that even the idea that we are writing for reasons other than material need is cultivated and promoted in the market as a way of trumping up the value of what we produce.  This “true expression of the spirit” is what we covet, what we as buyers want to purchase.  We put it on our bookshelves and on our walls when we are rich.

And yet there is somehow the drive, the insane push to formulate some kind of analysis or narrative of something or other, purely for sake of expressing it.  This is the same impulse that we are all under to “be creative,” to find some means of representing our “inner selves.” This, of course, cynically viewed, is just another way of buying into the idea that there is an inner self that could be expressed.

Still, there is something more than this, too, a need to contribute, to get into the conversation, with other people who also care about the past and who want their scholarship or their novel or their craft or skill to explain things in a way that will make a difference.

In the past, people like Milton believed that this wish to generate art, or to have a job best suited to his or her capabilities, was the yearning of God to show himself (Milton believed that God was male) in the world, to communicate with his creatures.  This was a radical idea, believe it or not, compared to the older belief that people worked in the fields and the stations to which they were born; they didn’t even have a concept of individual desire, inclination, or talent for one thing or another.   We are all subject to this longing–not just the writers among us, but also those of us who work in business.   In corporate culture more than anywhere, in fact, the pressure to be “creative” is felt.

I am still thinking that this may be a universal longing in the human spirit, even though I don’t actually believe in transhistorical longings on the grounds that our desires are constructed and sustained in historically specific environments.

Tara Brach writes and speaks about an ancient Tibetan wisdom which teaches that the divine abides in everyone.  She tells a classic tale about a monastery that has fallen on hard times.  There are only four monks left, and they are all old. The community is not thriving, and they have no ideas for how to continue.  One day the abbot goes to visit a rabbi.  He tells him that he is extremely worried about the future of the monastery, and asks if the rabbi has any suggestions for how to plump up their membership and coffers.  “No, I can’t think of any way for you to plump up your membership and coffers,” the rabbi says, “but I can tell you one thing.  I can tell you that one among you is the Messiah.”

The abbot is astonished to hear this and relates the news to his brethren.   Once they learn that one of them is the Messiah, the monks begin to treat one another with an extraordinary courtesy.  And an extraordinary change comes over the monastery, a light of kindness seems to glow in the faces of the monks, and bye and bye word gets out and new monks come to share in the extraordinary community.  Soon so many new members have come, the monastery swells and thrives.  All because each of them believed that one among them was the Messiah.

So Tara Brach interprets this tale according to the Tibetan wisdom that the divine inhabits each one of us, and that the god or goal we seek is already here, within us, and that our true nature is love.  This is not so different from the advice of my fellow blogger, Nina Killham, encourages us all to ignore the market and write out of love.  Love is the main ingredient, she says, of what we ought to be writing.

That’s nice.  But in fact we can’t ignore the market.  Nevertheless we could try to write out of love, not fear.  Fear comes to us, seeps into us, through the market, which transforms each of us into small children needing to be accepted and valued by “parents”–our audiences, our publishers, our critics, our rejectors, our deniers–who don’t give a shit about us, who have not entered into anything like a dignified and loving relationship with us, and who never will.

What I suggest is what Tara Brach would suggest.  Let us all put our hands upon our hearts and acknowledge with compassion the need to be loved, our longing to be accepted and valued–hell, not just valued, but SEEN, recognized, acknowledged–in this particular time-frame of human culture, and accept that this is.  Let us also see that we are seeing this.  Let us step above ourselves for a moment, and understand with love why it is that we need this, why it is that we fear writing, because of what it has come to mean for so many of us.  Let us find some way to write in spite of this anxiety, from which we cannot every fully come free.  Let us understand ourselves as writers with love, not fear, and try somehow to get across what it is that we need to get across, in order to have an intelligent conversation with someone, and to get a better sense of what it is that we are trying to understand.

International Women’s Day


3/8/10

Today, March 8, I am blogging in commemoration of International Women’s Day.  The great German socialist and feminist Clara Zetkin is credited for having invented the memorial as part of her fight for women’s suffrage and for better working conditions for women and men everywhere.

Clara Zetkin

The socialist movement had always been an international campaign, part of a worldwide movement to resist the psychological, economic, and political damages inflicted by a capitalist economy in which every aspect of life is tied to the market.  Zetkin and other socialist feminists around the world understood what so many of us have only lately come to understand, which is that when you let the bankers and the wealthiest corporations and employers do whatever they want, without any regulation whatsoever, things fall apart. And when things fall apart, women and children are the first to suffer and the last to recover.

It is worth remembering that while the first International Women’s Day celebrations, held in Germany, Denmark, Austria and Switzerland in 1911, were wildly successful (thousands of women turned out for meetings, and men were happy enough to acknowledge women’s many unpaid services to the family and the state as mothers, wives, and caretakers with gifts of flowers and cake) women did not win the right to vote in Switzerland until 1990.   Danish women won full voting rights in 1915, Austrian and German women in 1918.  Women in the United Arab Emirates still do not have full voting rights, which is an outrage.  As we know from long and hard experience, even once women have won the right to elect government officials to office, they do not always vote in their interests.  Many cultural factors work against them.  These include widespread and deeply entrenched male-centered assumptions, and various forms of symbolic and real violence that prevent women from knowing and employing their true worth and power.

Attitudes that encouraged both sexes to regard women as inferior and relatively unimportant members of society led to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, in which 148 workers, mostly women and girls, died because their employers had locked them into their work area.  The tragedy, which became a centerpiece of American celebrations of International Women’s Day during the first part of the 20th century, exemplifies the ways in which gender discrimination and capitalism work together to oppress women.

Consider what is happening today, March 8, in India, where people take International Women’s Day far more seriously than they do in the United States.  Two political parties are threatening the stability of the government because they refuse to support a bill that would ensure that one-third of the seats in Parliament be awarded to the group that makes up more than one-half of India’s population.  Here’s a country where women have been voting since 1935, and where a woman (Indira Ghandi) was elected to the highest government seat of power in 1966, continues to thwart equal political rights for women. And yet  long-ingrained scorn for women’s intellectual and governing abilities persist.

And what about here, at home, in the USA?  Hollywood–one of the great bastions of sexist powers in the world–is currently reeling with self-congratulation and shock because it finally, finally, after 82 years, managed to grant an Oscar to a woman director, Kathryn Bigelow.  Obviously, the problem was not that women haven’t been making great movies all this time, but rather that men–and some of the women voting–could not bring themselves to put the two words “woman” and “director” together.  O, we’re perfectly comfortable letting women direct women–but in this country we have frighteningly tenacious antipathies to letting women do the things that directors do: oversee, govern, supervise, other men.  Just think of the way that the same Americans who think they’re the most enlightened people on the planet brutally attacked Hillary Clinton when she ran for president.   Consider William Kristol‘s not-funny joke about “white women,” which he thoughtlessly told right next to one, on Fox News.  Think of the stupid Hillary nut-crackers, or the voodoo dolls which allegedly gave men the ability to power to “stick it to her” that they feared she was going to take away from them.

Mosquitos with bad attitudes like Kristol are, fortunately, not the greatest threat to international women’s freedom, to the dignity, political, social, and economic well-being of global women today.  But corporations such as Fox News may be.  As the internationally renowned gender theorist  Raewyn Connell observes, “the corporation is the dominant form of economic organization and the key institution of developed capitalism,” and corporations have always been gendered institutions.  Overwhelmingly owned, directed, and managed by men, corporations promote a gendered division of labor that relegates women to the lowest paid and least respected jobs.  Even in countries where significant numbers of women have reached middle management, the so-called “glass ceiling” keeps women from positions of senior authority.  Congress studied this problem in 1991 and found that, among the biggest corporations in this country, 97 per cent of senior managers were White, 95 to 97 per cent of them were male, and of the top 1000 companies only 2 had women CEOs.  Linda Wirth, who examined the problem globally in 1997, states,

Almost universally, women have failed to reach leading positions in major corporations…irrespective of their abilities. Women generally fare best in industries employing large numbers of women, such as health and community services and the hotel and catering industry.

As in the global media, the international business community seems to be comfortable letting women direct women, but not other men.  Chalk one up for Bigelow.

Transnational corporations work hand-in-hand with states, most of which are also dominated by men, and constitute the largest business organizations on the planet.  They operate in global markets of capital, commodities, services, and labor, that are also strongly gender-structured.  Recent feminist research shows that these markets, which are very weakly regulated, foster a misogynist and aggressive trading culture.  This masculinist culture is often reinforced by the global media flooded with pornographic images of women as sex-crazed objects and servants of men’s desires.  With few exceptions, sports programming also dishes out images of hyper-masculine, heteronormative, muscular machismo.

While the new media, especially the World Wide Web, nurtures important sites of resistance, such as all the blogs participating in International Women’s Day, the trend that characterizes transnational corporations, the global market, and the global media does not bode well for gender equity. The research shows that we are increasingly bound together as women and men, as lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered persons in this global marketplace.  We therefore need, now more than ever, to revive the original call for justice in the workplace that Copenhagen International Women’s Conference and Clara Zetkin sounded in 1911.

The Rapists at College


The commonplace that men who rape women are misogynists bears repeating. A recent study by psychologist David Lisak shows that college rapists are overwhelmingly repeat offenders (9 out of 10) who deliberately seek out vulnerable women, especially women who have been drinking. “When compared to men who do not rape,” Lisak observes, “these undetected rapists are measurably more angry at women, more motivated by the need to dominate and control women, more impulsive and disinhibited in their behavior, more hyper-masculine in their beliefs and attitudes, less empathic and more antisocial.”
In response to this observation, Jacylyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti (authors of the book Yes Means Yes and blog by that name), wisely note

Guys who seem to hate women … do. If they sound like they don’t like or respect women and see women as impediments to be overcome … they’re telling the truth. That’s what they think, and they will abuse if they think they can get away with it.

NPR recently covered the story, and note that David Lisak interviewed more than 2000 college men over 20 years. 1 in 16 of those interviewed men answered yes to both of the following questions:

“Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated [on alcohol or drugs] to resist your sexual advances?”

“Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used physical force [twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.] if they didn’t cooperate?”

You might think that these schmucks would have been reluctant to admit to these acts. Lisak reports that the men he interviewed were “eager” to talk about them. “They’re quite narcissistic as a group — the offenders — and they view this as an opportunity, essentially, to brag.”

Lisak also found that the men who admit to coercing or forcing a woman to have sexual intercourse do not generally consider what they did rape. These men also typically rely on the fear or shame of young women to prevent them from reporting the rapes. They want the women they have coerced into unwanted sex to believe that they are somehow to blame for what they have done to them. They also know that the culture on college campuses discourages victims from coming forward and shields perpetrators from detection and conviction in the criminal justice system. He reports:

In the course of 20 years of interviewing these undetected rapists, in both research and forensic settings, it has been possible for me to distill some of the common characteristics of the modus operandi of these sex offenders. These undetected rapists:

  • are extremely adept at identifying “likely” victims, and testing prospective victims’ boundaries;
  • plan and premeditate their attacks, using sophisticated strategies to groom their victims for attack, and to isolate them physically;
  • use “instrumental” not gratuitous violence; they exhibit strong impulse control and use only as much violence as is needed to terrify and coerce their victims into submission;
  • use psychological weapons – power, control, manipulation, and threats –backed up by physical force, and almost never resort to weapons such as knives or guns;
  • use alcohol deliberately to render victims more vulnerable to attack, or completely unconscious.

College rapists are criminal sex offenders who are largely undetected, unpunished, and unrepentant.

Keep this in mind the next time you find yourself hanging around with someone who openly or covertly expresses his disrespect and hatred for women. Listen and believe what he is saying.