Categories
creativity Essays personal

Self-Loathing in the Shadow of the Unfinished Work

A couple years ago, I had the chance to be a real writer, and I blew it.

Way back in 2017, I was asked to spend two weeks in October at a writers’ retreat in Northern California. This had nothing to do with any books I had written (for I had written none) or high-profile publications in which I had been published (for I had not). But because this particular retreat offered a very particular fellowship for writers in a very niche subject area, the previous fellowship recipient kindly recommended me to be his successor. I’m guessing there also weren’t many other folks to choose from, or perhaps they were busy.

The point is that I got to spend one whole fortnight in a gorgeous, rustic home, surrounded by natural beauty, doing nothing but working on my craft.

The problem I immediately faced upon accepting this fellowship was that I had nothing to craft. One was expected to come to this retreat to work on a specific project, usually a book or lengthy article in progress. I had no such project, in-progress or otherwise. I had to come up with one.

So I did. The formulation I made was simple. I took the two areas of thought that were of the most interest to me at the time and decided to mush them together, comparing and contrasting, wrestling with their implications, and working out what epiphanies, lessons, or truths I could extract from the whole enterprise.

It would be a big magazine article, intended for publication in the journal published by my employer. In this way, it would help justify my two-week absense from work, which, I must add, my employer happily and generously granted. It would be a big piece. A “longread.” Perhaps it could turn into a book.

At the retreat, I worked dilligently. Not one for sightseeing or communing with nature anyway, I made the most of this precious allotment of uninterrupted time. I dug deeply into the subject matter. I collected research materials, I interviewed experts over email, I took meticulously sourced and cited notes, I jotted stray thoughts, I sketched outlines, I worked in feature-laden applications for Serious Writers working on Major Projects, and I drafted sections and subsections and introductions and transitions and reflections.

I did not expect nor intend to finish the entire project during my residency, but by the time those two weeks were up, I had a piece that had grown to something like 13,000 good words.

But I still blew it. I never finished it. Two and a half years later, it’s still unfinished.

There were some contributing factors.

For one, during my time at the retreat, something went haywire in my ear. My existing tinnitus worsened exponentially, I began to go through spells of vertigo, and I lost some hearing. This was something of a distraction. It never stopped me from applying myself to my work, but obviously there was a good deal of mental energy that was inevitably spent on this emergent crisis on the right side of my head.

For another, a few months after my return, my marriage ended. You can imagine how that might drain one’s will to work on projects that are largely extracurricular.

These are fine excuses for why it became much more difficult to me to finish to project, but really, I never finished it because I never decided to finish it.

There was never going to be a mystical space carved out of my normal life to make room for plowing ahead with this work. My job resumed, my kids needed their dad, and I needed to manage a monumental and traumatic life transition. But even with all that, I failed to make the decision to sit back down at the computer and write.

Months passed. Then more months passed. In my mind, the Major Project became a queasy source of regret and shame. And the further time progressed from that autumn of 2017, the more I perceived that project as an unmanageable and outdated mess. I think I almost felt like it was angry with me.

But of course, it wasn’t. Nor was it unmanageable; I needed simply to decide to manage it. Nor was it outdated; I needed merely to decide to refresh it.

Nor was it a mess. I was.

A few months ago, I decided to return to it. I even announced it so that I could give myself at least the illusion of public accountability. And over the last several weeks, I have indeed been working on it.

It’s not finished. It begs for merciless refinement, and I don’t mean some tweaks for consicion. It needs some real horror-movie chainsaw violence done to it. I need to detatch myself from feeling precious about certain passages or turns of phrase that simply to not contribute to the larger goal of the piece. I need to rethink the way it’s framed in the opening section so that the reader is better ushered into the subject matter. And I need to find a path out of it, a way to merge its various tributary streams into a single current.

I need to figure out what it really is.

And I will. I haven’t yet, but I will.

I don’t know what this product will be when it’s done. It might yet be that magazine piece I promised my employers back in those innocent days of 2017. But perhaps it’ll be better suited to a series of blog posts. Or maybe it’ll cry out for expansion into a book. I can’t yet say.

Part of what makes this project loom so large in my psyche, and why it still provides a steady drip of regret into my heart, is the weight of validation I placed upon it. By being given this fellowship at this beautiful retreat, even if it had been a strange fluke of circumstance, I had the chance to be a real writer.

Let’s not get technical, now. I know that I am, indeed, already a writer. I constantly churn out written work for my job, I have written for several websites, I been published in a couple of journals, and I write for my own blog.

But you know what I mean. I sought the imprimatur of a real writer, someone whose byline is recognized and sought. Someone who is asked to be on panels at conferences. Someone whose name graces the spine of a book. Someone whose writing actually matters.

I’m not that guy. I might never be.

I definitely won’t be if I don’t decide to write.

And even in the best possible circumstance, in which this piece catches lightning and earns me some amount of approval, it still does not have the power to make me what I already am.

In fact, I may never publish it at all. It may turn out that its entire premise was ill-advised, and that it simply can’t be worked into something that is worth putting out into the wider world.

I don’t know yet. But even if another soul never reads a word of it, I promise myself this.

I will finish it.