Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Acedia & Writer's Block

I am struggling a great deal with acedia. I have a great deal more to write about the topic, to think about, to work on, although I'm not sure I'll share all of it. I'm not going to define my terms at the moment; either I will explicitly do so, later, or I'll let definitions accrue by example, so that they remain organic rather than intellectual. It's too easy to compartmentalize definitions in this intellectual age: to label them is to quickly dismiss and disregard them. We might call it moving on and not dwelling on a topic, but we might also call it by its other true names, avoidance and denial.

Acedia is a very unpopular topic in modern life. It is a word known mostly to religious, rather than to the general public. I have only ever found three or four books that openly discuss acedia by that name, or by its more poetic name, used by the Desert Fathers in the early centuries of the Christian era: the noonday demon. We can be as poetic as we like about acedia: those how have experienced it will recognize it immediately, no matter how metaphoric or obscure I wax. In discussing acedia, my intent to is undertake (again, periodic) self-examination, a true looking-inward as poets of the self must do. Those who have never experienced acedia will all too readily dismiss it as neurotic self-denial, or chronic depression, or narcissistic asceticism. Even monastics, who should know better, have mis-diagnosed acedia in these ways.

What I've learned, without being able to create a narrative of cause-and-effect, is that acedia appears often in those who've undergone the dark night of the senses, and the dark night of the soul. Does it come over one before, during, or after those deeper forms of spiritual shadow crisis? From my own memory, which is usually a good memory, I can't truly decide. I can date when I passed through the dark night; and I can date again, from looking in my journals, when I sank into the dark night again, later. One is apparently prone to periodic relapse, if one has gone through that door. But now, I am on the verge of questioning whether these relapses have not in fact been bouts of acedia, which in the spiritual literature (lectio divina: my morning practice involves reading in the world's spiritual literature, among other practices) is recognized as an aftermath of the dark night. Little tremblors after the big earthquake. Aftershocks that can take years to unwind.

Acedia is not depression or despair, it's more than ennui or a lack of fulfillment in life. It arises in ways that contrast strongly with all of those; and it has other, usually spiritual, treatments. Whether or not one maintains any kind of faith in, or connection to, a spiritual community, acedia is something that can arise in any spiritually-inclined person, at any time, for no apparent reason. In the monastic literature, it is considered a vice: not to judge or condemn it, but to acknowledge it as a temptation that can powerfully distract one from one's own true path. In those lay monastics such as myself, who continually catch ourselves reveling in spiritual ambition and spiritual materialism, acedia can be a blessing as well as a vice. I had a terrifically horrible day yesterday, feeling punched down by life under a bloody full moon, feeling victimized and lame; yet the horrible, familiar, deadly, dangerous, beloved anger that I luxuriated in all day long had, by morning's light after a long night of uncomforting and disturbed sleep, revealed itself to be another bout of acedia. This morning I can recognize yesterday's helpless anger and despair as part of a cycle, not a fatal end in itself. I am sure that I am hard on my friends at those times when I can see no way out, no future possibility of happiness or joy, no exit to the hell I find myself in. I can only endure; and at the darkest hours of those dark cycles, I endure not because I can see any light at the end of the tunnel, or any reason to go on living, but because I'm a stubborn bastard who out of sheer perversity won't give in. At my irreducible core there's a stubbornness and determination that has so far kept me alive, no matter how close to despair's suicidal cliffs I have skirted. That irreducible core, which sometimes presents itself to me as a fierceness and loyalty to life beyond anything I can ever put into words, contains a strength that I identify with the Warrior archetype, which so often chooses the harder path because it is the right path, the right thing to do.

And yet, the gods tend to provide one with what one needs in life, even if one doesn't know one needed it.

So it is that just a few days ago I came across a copy of Kathleen Norris' book Acedia & Me: A marriage, monks, and a writer's life. Norris is a writer who has a knack for synthesizing very old wisdom with a very modern sensibility. Her books are firmly set in the present day, and when she talks about herself, it's usually to point out how old wisdom is still very applicable to modern life. (Unlike writers for whom confession equates with narcissism, Norris never strikes me as presenting an inflated ego.) Most of her books deal in one way or another with ancient monastic wisdom and experience, as transmitted to us via the historic writings of Christian, Buddhist, and other masters. I like Norris' tendency to pull a lot of disparate materials together to show how in fact they're all talking about aspects of the same thing. I recognize this essay style as similar to my own.

So it is that, after a bad day and night fighting the noonday demon, sipping my usual morning glass of orange juice and deciding what aspect of my start-the-day practice to do, I sat on the porch and began to read Acedia & Me. Within a few pages of reading, I encountered this passage:

Disgust with life often has to do with the life one has chosen, and when the bad thought of acedia attacks one's very identity, it causes great pain. The Benedictine monk Gabriel Bunge has noted that doubts about the validity of one's vocation may start small, and only slowly creep into the consciousness. But "with the passage of time [they] erode one's inner certainty, like constant dripping on a stone." This may correspond to what psychiatry observes as the cumulative effect of episodes of severe depression, and its effects—the numbing of the soul, and an increased inability to conceive of ever being happy again, let alone stable—are no doubt similar.

Writers often doubt their vocation and find themselves in droughts that, unlike the normal rhythms of arid seasons and more productive ones, can cause unnatural silences. Joan Acocella observes that "writer's block" is a modern phenomenon, the result of a change in perceptions of artistic inspiration. "Before," she states, "writers regarded what they did as a rational, purposeful activity which they controlled. By contrast, the early Romantics came to see poetry as something externally, and magically, conferred," and were convinced that they would produce their best work in their early years. Wordsworth spoke of poets in their youth, who "begin in gladness," but "thereof come in the end despondency and madness." Later, Acocella points out, the French Symbolists became known for not writing at all.

Another poet, Coleridge, sounds as if he may have been suffering from both acedia and despair when he lamented in a notebook from 1804: "Yesterday was my Birth Day. . . . So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month. O Sorrow and Shame . . . I have done nothing!" For young writers the pressure of having to make a living can diminish their ability to concentrate on the work that matters most to them, while older writers fear that they have used up their material and have little left to offer. Writers are also blocked by alcoholism, but Acocella reports that therapists who work with them are finding that many are drinking less and exercising more. It is good to know that I am not alone in this regard. . . .

Acocella finds that some practitioners are baffled by their writer patients' attitudes towards therapy. One expressed disappointment that his patients so rarely wanted to discuss their art. They had sought practical help with a range of mundane issues, including "noisy children [and] obtuse reviewers. And, once [the doctor] helped them deal with these matters, they quit treatment." The therapists was surprised by what I suspect many artists would take for granted, that they "didn't care what underlay their creative functions. They just wanted to get back to it, as long as it lasted." This seems reasonable to me, and thoroughly sane. To Edmund Bergler, the twentieth-century analyst who coined the term "writer's block," and once remarked that he had "never seen a 'normal' writer," I can honestly reply: That's all right. I am not certain I have ever seen a "normal" psychiatrist.

—Kathleen Norris, Acedia & Me, pp. 148–150

My inner certainties have been eroded, or just taken away, more than once in this lifetime. I've had episodes of severe depression; but not, I think, chronic depression. I actually find it really annoying when friends, doctors, and others suggest that I undertake a drug treatment for chronic depression: it's annoying because it misses the mark about what's really going, and also because it is something other people want you do because it would make them feel more comfortable around you. So what if I don't always cope ideally or perfectly with life, paying the bills, and other mundane, ordinary tasks: who does, really? It's never a good idea to collapse into perfectionism when the spirit is involved. On the one hand one encounters the whirlpool of medication to support social conformity (reputable insider psychiatric studies have indicated that patients are diagnosed with depression at least 25 percent more often than necessary, and dosed with medication for chronic depression at the same rates), and on the other hand the clashing rocks of perfectionism and the expectations one carries about one's own behavior and idealized social and romantic interactions. Medicated social conformity reduces to peer pressure to adhere to an arbitrary set of behavioral norms; perfectionism about idealized images of what people are supposed to be like reduces to internalized self-hatred and bullying. So while I affirm that I've experienced severe depression several times in life, sometimes from being directly targeted by bullies and other forces, every fibre of my intuition continues to raise neon flashing warning signs whenever someone suggests a long-term drug-related cure for an essentially spiritual condition. Monastics have long recognized that both physical and spiritual illnesses will arise within a cloistered community; discernment must be used for treating each appropriately. Look, if you break an ankle, there's no-one better at treating it than an emergency-room doctor or nurse. But if your heart has been broken, there may be other, better treatments than what allopathic medicine can provide. Medicine is very good at applying physical, mechanical solutions to mechanical, physical problems; yet it remains not so very good at holistic approaches to healing.

The issue here is that what we consider "normal" (or normative) is almost universally illusory and defined more by the exceptions than the norm. As a writer who manifests and engages with several non-normative aspects of self, biography, spiritual practice, and sexuality, who has often been defined as an outsider by others even while desiring nothing more than to be accepted, I can testify that it is the distance between our expectations of what we consider to be normative, and who we actually are, that trips us up every time.

After the continuous run of profound, life-changing, spiritual, familial and social crises that I've been dealing with for the past four years, I do not find it mysterious that I continue to have to battle with acedia, or that I continue to have flashbacks to the dark night experience. But what I am not, is numbed-out, drugged into dispassion (I don't even self-medicate with alcohol the way so many writers do), or incapable of ecstasy. I do have long periods where I feel incapable of ever being happy again—but then, happiness is not my goal. I view happiness as a byproduct of life, not a civil right. And I do experience profound joys. I do continue to struggle with high-amplitude waves of ups and downs, good days and bad days, that roller-coaster of emotion and rational response. Some days all I want is to feel is a steady, even keel, or to float at the surface of the waters, rather than sink beneath them. I'm not at all concerned with "the pursuit of happiness," that most pernicious myth built into our culture at its founding—as though happiness, whatever that is, were a godsgiven civil right to which everyone is entitled at birth. The ideology of entitlement is a dangerous set of expectations that lead directly to disappointment, dismay, and even despair. How many people think they're depressed simply because their lives didn't work out they expected them to? It's an uncertain universe, and it's unwise to trap oneself into expectations of guarantees and certainties. People need to learn to ride the wavs of change rather than condemn them as, well, depressing.

It's fascinating to think of writer's block as a modern phenomenon—there is so much truth in that. Writer's block can be so rooted in expectation, in stereotype, that many writers simply aren't self-aware about. Artistic inspiration can be a problem when inspiration goes away; but the problem for the writer might simply be that they perceive a temporary condition (a fallow period, an arid season between seasons of life-giving) as permanent (i.e. the Muses have abandoned one). This is a confusion of expectations, not of sources. I find I don't experience writer's block, because the world itself is so full of inspiration that even on those days approaching my darkest I seem able to write a haiku about something I've observed, or experienced.

At the risk of being labeled a post-Romantic, I typically side in this debate about writer's block with those who extoll the sources of inspiration, rather than with those writers who view writing, in the pre-Romantic manner, as a dominantly rational, purposeful activity. It's all very well to view writing as a rational activity when one writes within a fixed tradition with known and solid rules that define what is poetry and what is prose. But while that could work for poets 300 years ago, today we must somehow come to grips with what has happened since, both historically and literarily. Some view the current lack of a determinative literary-cultural mainstream as chaotic and too frightening (these tend to evolve into formalist poets), while others view the loss of guideposts as liberating (these tend to write among the avant-garde). Both viewpoints have validity, but neither is complete in itself—just as pure inspiration is incomplete without knowledge of the writer's craft, just as rational, purposeful writing that emphasizes the mechanics of craft is incomplete if it has nothing to say, to have been written for or about. Being possessed by the Muses can end in narcissism and confessionalism, but writing without inspiration can end directly in the aridness of acedia at its worst. No wonder poetry and literature are experiencing an existential crisis nowadays of major proportions: no-one seems to be aware of why they're feeling hollow and unfulfilled. Yet treatments for writer's block will remain ineffective as long as writers continue to confuse acedia with depression.

The point here—the treatment for writer's block, if you will—is to change your expectations, to reframe your "writer's block" as a necessary fallow period, and thereby to stop making it worse by obsessing about it. Just let it go. And also let go of any worries that your ability to write won't return, eventually. Nothing prevents inspiration from returning like dwelling on one's ideas of what it should look like, based on what it used to look like.

Metaphorically, artistic creativity has always for me been a watery, fluid experience. As the Tao Te Ching says, referring to water, What is of all things most yielding, can overcome that which is most hard. The term "dryness" used in association with acedia is for me a literal dryness, like the dry, arid season between harvesting and new planting in agricultural cycles. I don't suffer from writer's block, in part, because I view fallow periods as impermanent as everything else. The Buddhist viewpoint is that everything is impermanent, which means that all things change. It also implies that dryness is also impermanent. Acedia is not forever.

This morning, I paused in reading Acedia & Me to reflect poetically on my state of mind yesterday. I wrote two short haiku-like poems in my journal, and a near-monastic laundry-list of points detailing where I was guilty in my expectations of spiritual ambition, materialism, and pride. The virtue of pride is self-awareness, as opposed to blind hubris. Of these writings this morning, here's the short poem I think might be worth keeping; I won't bore you with the rest.

the master sits
silent on the lakeside dock—
the only moving thing is
his fly-whisk

Below is a short list of books that deal directly or indirectly with acedia. These are books every afflicted writer can get benefit from reading. None of them are writer's guides, none of them address the tools of the trade, none of them are books of comfort and support-group platitudes. Rather the opposite. What all of these books have in common is an unflinching, necessary exploration of the questions that arise from the encounter with the darker aspects of the self—I won't say creative self, both because the experience is universal, but also because much of this literature assumes that we are all creative selves, one way or another—based on experience, literature, and introspection.

Michael Novak, The Experience of Nothingness. (1970)

Novak interestingly devotes an entire chapter to an experience of nothingness written about by William James in his classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Andrew Solomon: The Noonday Demon: An atlas of depression. (2001)

Kathleen Norris: Acedia & Me: A marriage, monks, and a writer's life. (2008)

Matthew Fox: Original Blessing, particularly the section of the book on the Via Negativa. (1983)

Robert Jingen Gunn: Journeys into Emptiness: Dogen, Merton, Jung and the quest for transformation. (2000)

Very few other books, excepting the traditional monastic literature, are available that address, or even mention, acedia. There are some other spiritual book collections that discuss dryness, sloth, and other aspects of acedia. But this is still new territory. I suspect more writers than every before will come to recognize their own experience of acedia in this still-largely-unknown literature.

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Blogger John Ettorre said...

Interesting. I think I read one of Norris's earlier books and found it worthwhile, so I'll be sure to check out this new one. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

6:18 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Great! Something new to suffer from as if anxiety and depression weren't enough. I'm not sure if I went to my doctor and suggested I was afflicted by acedia he'd take me very seriously. I do get the whole lethargy thing especially the sleepiness. I experience it when it comes to reading and studying. I open a page, read a sentence or two and this wash of sleepiness comes over me. It's as if the centre of gravity has suddenly shifted to my forehead and it just wants to flop forward. I have always put this down to overwork. Even now I work every minute I can keep my head together and then some. It is very easy to become dissatisfied with ones work. I pretty much hate every scrap of prose I've ever written and 99% of the poetry. But you do your best and then let go.

10:50 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I was hoping you might read this one, John, as I was remembering your several posts about writer's block, and how to deal with it. I think this new Norris book would interest you a lot, in part because she does talk about the writing life. It might be something to pass on to writing seminar students, perhaps.

1:54 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Sorry to add to the list, Jim. LOL One could also think of it as a refinement of existing issues. I think it's really important to make that distinction between acedia and depression; Norris and the other authors go into that a fair bit, actually.

I know what you mean about dissatisfaction, although I try not to let it plague me. Or, rather, to also appreciate what DOES work just enough that I can do better next time rather than getting stuck in the past, or in beating myself up. Since I'm a recovering perfectionist, it's all too easy to beat myself up for not doing it better each time, or not doing perfectly.

1:56 AM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

You have a good memory, Art. And of course we remember a lot about each other's writing in large part because our interests (or perhaps I should say compulsion and obsessions) are so similar. And the whole subject of writer's block sits squarely at the intersection of physical craft and mental discipline, which I find endlessly interesting.

3:23 PM  

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