This, too, shall pass

There comes a moment — often many moments — as one writes a novel, when it all seems quite hopeless. A moment when the writer desires nothing more than to emit a loud raspberry sort of noise, and fall into a swoon on the nearest soft surface.

And thus, you find me. Oh, I’m still writing – chugging out my allotted number of words a day, but dear, oh dear, it is a painful process just now.

Not as painful as a story I once heard about James Joyce, however. It seems a friend came to visit James in his little writing garret in Paris. He opened the door and found The Great Man (as he preferred to be called) slumped over his desk, head on his arms.

“Why James,” he cried, “whatever’s the matter? Is it the writing?”

“Of course it’s the feckin’ writing,” moaned himself, barely raising his head. “Isn’t it always the writing?”

“And can you not write anything?”

“I wrote seven words today.” Joyce wiped his eyes.

“Actually, for you,” replied his friend, “that’s pretty good.”

“Sure, it is,” said Joyce, “but now I must decide what order to put them in.”

Joyce looking like he just might jump


So perhaps I’m not THAT bad, but still. Call it a block, or call it the doldrums. I prefer the word doldrums, since a) I like the sound of it, and b) it sounds like something to steep in, rather than ‘block’, which sounds like something libel to leave you with a purple toenail.

Doldrums. According to the Miriam-Webster —1) a spell of listlessness or despondency; 2) often capitalized : a part of the ocean near the equator abounding in calms, squalls, and light shifting winds; 3) a state or period of inactivity, stagnation, or slump.

Doldrums occur over the east Pacific, the east Atlantic and from the Indian Ocean to the west Pacific. They are bounded to the north and south by the trade winds, and their extent varies greatly with the seasons.

Squall in the doldrums

I adopt the idea that the doldrums are also a kind of metaphysical space, in which I am indeed listless and often despondent, where calms and squalls abound. It is geographically located in several places at once — the center of my library office, as well as directly behind my eyeballs, and/or slightly to the left of my sternum.

Sometimes I think I’m also bounded by trade winds. Or, restated – the boundaries of trade, defined by the shifting winds of the marketplace’s pleasure, past which one is not permitted to pass. Ah, publishing…

I also love that Miriam-Webster goes on to the etymology of the word ‘doldrums’ as: probably akin to Old English dol, meaning ‘foolish.’

Ralph Keyes, in his book, The Writer’s Book of Hope, says that “AFD” is the three-legged stool we sit on when writing. Anxiety. Frustration. Despair. Doesn’t really sound very hopeful, does it?

Three legs — anxiety, frustration, despair, oh my

Robert Olen Butler says that bad writers never get blocked, because they write from their heads.

“Writers who write from their heads and are comfortable doing that — they always have some garbage to put down… That stuff’s always there and it’s easy to put on the page. I think most writers who get blocked do so because some important part of them knows that they’ve got to get to the unconscious.”

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That’s a little more hopeful, because as least as we sit on the wobbly stool, we can aspire to be good writers.

The protagonist in Carol Shield’s Unless, said, “I’m writing a second novel, which is going slowly because I wake up in the morning anxious, instead, to clean my house.”

A friend of mine said to me yesterday that the thoughts in her head just wouldn’t settle down and she was feeling anxious, irritable and discontent. I asked her what she was going to do about it. “Clean my house,” she said. I understand that, since I think the state of one’s house is often a projection as to the state of one’s mind. However, I’m not convinced that only dealing with the symptom will cure the problem. Sure, go ahead and pick up all those newspapers, make the bed and do the dishes, but remember what Butler said about getting to the subconscious.

Joseph Conrad said this:

I sit here religiously every morning – I sit down for eight hours every day – and the sitting down is all. In the course of that working day of 7 hours I write 3 sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair … Sometimes it takes all my resolution and power of self-control to refrain from butting my head against the wall.

He chooses some interesting words here (as one would expect from a guy who takes 7 hours to write 3 sentences!) – religiously, sitting, despair, resolution, refrain. I pick those out because there is something religious about resolving to sit, regardless of despair, to refrain from moving away from the source. It might almost be viewed as a description of seated meditation.

You sit. You feel the frustration, the anxiety, the despair. You sit anyway.

I remember, about thirteen years ago, when I was newly sober. I got angry a lot. Really angry. It scared me. I felt like I was sitting on the edge of a great cliff, staring out into a roiling sea, watching a storm of Olympian proportion build up offshore, and then head straight for me. What would happen when it hit? Would I explode into a million pieces, never to be put back together again? I phoned a friend in another town – a lovely Japanese man who had learned his English in Texas, resulting in one of the most interesting accents I’ve ever heard.

“I’m so angry,” I said.

“Ah. Angry. Good,” he said. “Very good.”

I refrained from reaching through the phone and strangling him.

“Sure. It’s great. What am I supposed to do with it, since apparently downing a bottle of vodka isn’t on the agenda anymore?”

“You don’t do anything. You sit on the side of the cliff,” he said, “and let the storm roll over you.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“It doesn’t have to be fun. It just has to be done,” he said.

“Lovely. And then what?”

“It passes,” he said.

This was, you have to understand, rather a novel idea (pun intended) for me. Up until that moment I was pretty sure that if I didn’t do something like taking a handful of pills someone gave me, or chugging a bottle of single malt, whatever I was feeling wouldn’t change – unless you call getting bigger and bigger until it ate me changing.

However, that line of attack hadn’t worked out so well, so I thought I’d try my friend’s advice, especially since he never seemed to get angry, or at least not too angry. I wanted that.

Well, it wasn’t fun. But it worked. I sat in a storm and took all it had to offer – including the lightning bolts and horizontal rain and great thundering and gigantic tidal waves – and
shockingly, I didn’t die, and I didn’t kill anyone else either. And when I came out on the other side of it, I knew something I hadn’t before – that I could feel anger without it consuming me, and without it causing damage to my loved ones, and that its threat was greater than its actual effect.

So, if that’s true, perhaps it’s also true that sitting in the doldrums, looking out at the distant gathering squall and the mirror-flat water, and seeing what it has to offer, might be more useful and nourishing a lot of anxiety, frustration and despair. And while I’m doing that, I’ll jot down a few words, possibly even seven or eight, shall I?

It’s not a bad place to be, but like any place, it requires a certain amount of faith, doesn’t it? Faith that this one thing, above all, is true – this, too, shall pass. On September 30, 1859, Abraham Lincoln – who knew a thing or two about depression himself – gave an address to the Wisconsin State Agriculture Society in Milwaukee.

Abraham Lincoln, who knew first-hand about the doldrums

In it he told this story:

“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction.”

How consoling indeed.

Copyright 2008 Lauren B. Davis For permissions:

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