(This material is imported from my Tumblr, where the questions first came up)
Lately this concept keeps putting its head up over the parapet in one context or another, so it may as well have its own posting to link back to.
Knowing about this take on the ebbs and flows of human experience has been useful for me: in life in general, and in writing in particular. Lewis formulates it in The Screwtape Letters, where the eponymous senior devil is coaching his nephew in the arts of coaxing human beings quietly away from the straight and narrow.
Humans are amphibians—half spirit and half animal. …As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your [human] patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life—his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it.
…Leaving Lewis’s specific religious context aside here, this phenomenon fits my observations closely. Maybe it’ll fit yours too.
Now some thoughts about this, secondary to people’s questions.
An anonymous user asked:
Do you have any advice on what to do if you lose your joy and interest in writing when a writer was how you identified yourself?
The best advice I’ve got for you right now is to lean back and wait, because normally the joy and interest will come back. Being a writer, and having enjoyed and been interested in it previously, isn’t something that goes away all that easily. The set of behaviors that make up being a writer are complex and difficult to ingrain… which is going to make the ability to do this kind of work difficult to lose even if you were trying to do so. So, first of all: take heart.
It has to be said that, human nature and psychology (and nature itself) being the cranky intransigent things they sometimes are, it may (paradoxically) be necessary for your recovery of your joy and interest in the work to completely surrender to the concept that you might actually have permanently lost it. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but the effectiveness of simply giving up is sometimes surprising. There’s a saying attributed to Carl Jung, the father of the concept of Archetype as we now understand it, that goes like this: “What you resist, persists; and not only does it persist, but it gets bigger in size.” (There’s a good long article about this concept over here in Psychology Today: worth looking at. …Though I also have to say that the illo at the top is hilarious and perfect, because Kylo Ren should frankly be the poster child for the whole idea.)
My own experience suggests that there are times when as soon as you give up, the thing that’s been eluding you either collapses to the ground where you can just stroll over and reclaim it, or turns around and runs headlong into your arms. Frustrating, but what can you do? When the whole point is to get whatever it is back, the idea that it played you a little in the process will after the fact seem less of an issue.
Possible causes for what’s going on with you are worth touching on briefly. As regards the “Law of Undulations” above: as much as I love him, there would be a lot of things that Clive and I would disagree about, but this wouldn’t be one of them. I think he was really onto something.
With the Law in mind, while you’re working on what “giving up” might look like – assuming you need to go that far – here are some possibly similar situations and strategies to consider.
- Having a dry spell and trying to get the few ideas that are available written.
- Losing your confidence and feeling like you’ve got nothing worth writing.
- Having lots of ideas but “freezing” when attempting to actually get the writing done.
- Not being able to write as a side effect of absolutely everything in life going wrong. (AKA a broader version of the John Watson cri de coeur: “It is what it is, and what it is is shit.”) See below for thoughts on this.
Some of the above situations come with suggestions of possible things you can do about them. But do not underestimate the power of simply waiting a while and not doing anything. It’s worth emphasizing that in our culture as it stands at the moment, there’s endless emphasis on immediately DOING THINGS to fix what ails you. Sometimes not doing anything is more effective – though to some people that’s going to sound heretical, and you’ll run the risk of being accused of laziness (not least by the back of your own mind, once it realizes you’re onto something that’s going to give you back control of the situation. The self-sabotaging wiliness of a subconscious about to lose its advantage can be a terrifying thing… but even that loses some of its terrors when your conscious mind suspects or knows what it’s up to.) Anyway, ignore that noise.
Give doing nothing a good long chance. Stoke up on your reading. Get caught up on TV and movies if that’s your thing. Do other work. Create something that isn’t writing. (Cooking’s good for this. I love being responsible for mighty successes or godawful failures in the kitchen and knowing that the critics at Kirkus and PW are not going to give the slightest damns about it.)
But tl:dr; Don’t despair: just kick back and wait. And see how it goes.
…And eventually let me know how you get on. 🙂 HTH.
The last few months, nothing has seemed to go right. What do you do, when it seems like it’s never going to get better?
Well, the short answer is: I just keep going. It’s rarely fun, but it seems to work. (A note here: the following is all going to be quite subjective, so feel free to tl:dr out of it at any time.) 🙂
Per the Law of Undulations above: It’s been my experience in the past that sometimes these nothing-goes-right periods have to do with one aspect or another of this Law, especially in terms of one’s own perception of what’s going on around them.
When you’re in one of the “dry” or bottomed-out periods described, it’s easy to perceive everything as screwed up, indeed a long if not seemingly never-ending string of screwups. The only way to handle this particular situation (for me anyway) is to outlast it, and to work consciously at outlasting it. No one else needs to know this is what you’re working at. You just joggle your own elbow daily and remind yourself that this is something cyclic, and can be lived through to the other side.
The other possibility, of course, is that you’re passing through one of those strange situational pockets in a human life when the probabilities of existence do seem, however irrationally, to have stopped functioning in your favor at all. How one manages this situation is, I think, going to be at least partially affected by one’s own take on why things happen in the world, and what your relationship is with (a) the world and (b) whatever you think might be responsible for the way it acts.
My own attitudes in this regard vary unpredictably along a wide spectrum ranging from the straightforwardly mathematical – i.e., luck is an illusion and any conceivable hostility of the universe doubly so – and right down at the other end, the opinion of King Clode in Thurber’s sweet, brief fairytale The White Deer, which is “Everything is aimed at me.”*
In either case, I find myself falling back on something I think of personally as the Duty To Just Keep Breathing.
In every life there are people who depend on you and circumstances that need you to keep doing what you normally do, no matter how much you feel like just sitting down and slumping into a heap, or rolling yourself into a Duvet Burrito and not coming out until things change. This normally turns out to be counterproductive in the long run. So in these circumstances I just remind myself of the Duty To Keep Breathing and Doing What Needs Done. This is one of the best kinds of heroism, I think – one of the quiet kinds that because they so routinely fly under the radar just aren’t acknowledged often enough.
Not that I would ever consider myself at all heroic for this kind of dogged persistence, you understand; but when I see other people exercising it, I know them for the heroes they are. It is so hard sometimes to push on, just keep on keeping on, especially when no one else seems to understand what you’re going through, and nothing you do seems to make any difference. But after the fact, when the bad spell breaks, when things finally stop going wrong, you get to look back on how you hung on and know that you really did something good there. And that’s strength you will carry forward with you into better times.
There’s one other thing I use to help me stick it out, sometimes. It’s kind of funny, actually, because the phrasing of the verse in question is so grand, but it works for me. A writer named William Dale Jennings wrote a short lovely book called The Ronin – “a novel based on a Zen myth”, is how it’s described – and at the beginning of it he quotes the great Chinese philosopher and Confucianist Meng-tse (the name is sometimes rendered in Japanese as Moshi). I don’t know if this translation of the lines in question is original with him, but it seems to have got around. It goes this way:
When Heaven is about to confer
a great office upon a man,
it first exercises his mind with suffering
and his sinews and bones with toil:
it exposes him to poverty
and confounds all his undertakings.
Then it is seen if he is ready.
It’s a bit weird, maybe, but when I’m able to allow myself a perception of the Universe As Test – something aschetic, something hammering on me purposefully with an eye to making something better or stronger out of me than the mere raw materials – I find the crap easier to bear.
Is this delusion? Maybe. If the attitude works and helps me cope, and harms no one else, do I care? Not even slightly. The point is to find out by trial and error what helps you pass successfully through these annoying periods, and then keep the technique or data around for when you need them again. And if it helps at all to know that other people go through this kind of thing, and feel hopeless in the middle of it sometimes, but still come out the far side, then hang onto that too. You’re not alone in this: that’s the message, I think. So hang in there.
*By what or whom it doesn’t matter: this position mandates that Someone is throwing this shit at me, and doing it on purpose. What purpose is never specified, and doesn’t have to be.