A Writing Life, Despite
January 16, 2017 § 13 Comments
By Nina B. Lichtenstein
A few years ago I took a fancy-schmancy aptitude test in an elegant historic brownstone in Boston. I had just completed my PhD in French lit, and had fast come to realize that a little “portfolio diversification” would be wise, considering French departments were shutting down across the nation, and that to each job opening there were typically 400+ applicants; this regardless if it was for a tenure-track or a contingent faculty position, or if it was in Muskogee, Oklahoma or at a small New England private college where I had envisioned myself growing old amidst the climbing ivy and quintessential campus quad.
I decided it would be worth the rather steep price for the two-day testing with a follow-up session deciphering the results, because as long as my work could involve writing of some sort, I was committed to keeping an open mind to options beyond academia. I wanted, or hoped, to leave with some proof on paper of other useful abilities of mine that I could combine with writing. What if I was really cut out for being a dairy farmer or social worker instead and just didn’t know it? The idea intrigued me as much as it horrified me. While I was afraid to learn things I was not prepared for, I also needed to find out that I hadn’t come this far for no reason.
After two days of intense testing, I left with one big, strange new word in my pocket: Ideaphoria: “An experience where one feels a constant onslaught of new ideas, creating a euphoric state of idea creation.” I, however, remain convinced that this term is just nice talk for ADD, the state of mind that can be both a blessing and a curse.
I know that this “diagnosis” might be a common problem among writers: Many of us keep generating neat ideas for essays and short stories, and we sit ourselves down, like Anne Lamott tells us to, butt in chair, and begin to write with enthusiasm and energy, only to find that after the second or third paragraph, we open another document, feeling urgently the need to move on to the next exciting idea, of which several have revealed themselves by association as we were writing. Enthused anew like a butterfly in its mid-morning ecstasy on a mild summer day, fluttering from flower to flower in an instinctive and euphoric search of the sweet nectar, we move on.
The problem is, of course, that few things are completed this way for humans looking to develop their vocation as a writer.
I can tell you that this ideaphoria thing feels like being high, and when it hits I run as if airborne to my computer where my fingers dance on the keyboard while I float, gleefully, like I’m catching an exhilarating ride on the wings of a butterfly. However, contrary to the butterfly who might be rescuing a colony of pupae, or ensuring the continuity of a genus of wild roses as it moves on to the next source, my fluttering remains just that: a sweet but brief lingering among fertile but incomplete paragraphs that cannot and will not develop unless I pollinate them consistently and with conviction. The result is that I have countless folders of undeveloped barely begun stories.
Just now, for example, I feel an immense and uncomfortable restlessness because since I sat down this morning and began writing this piece, I have a new, brilliant, and urgent idea for a blog post. I also thought of a pitch for “Israel Story,” the Israeli version of “This American Life,” that I simply must pursue, like now. Waiting until I’m done here feels like torture. Or masochism, since I don’t have to take it, but do anyway.
But, I will take it this time, because it would be too ironic if I leave this page now.
Since I was born and raised both in a time (1960s-70s) and in a country (Norway) where diagnosis such as ADD and ADHD were neither made nor medicated, I must have taught myself how to adapt and adjust. I recall report cards reading, “Nina disrupts in class and walks around the room without asking permission,” and as a kid I didn’t hide under the covers with a flashlight and book, but roamed my neighborhood in search of curiosities I would get in trouble for exploring.
Somehow, I managed along the way to complete a BA, an MA and then the PHD, requiring no small effort of task completion. I forgot to say that I’m also insanely stubborn and have occasional perfectionistic tendencies: curses in relationships but blessings in the business of finishing a project, although more often the butt out of chair kind, like painting or re-organizing my closet.
I have come to realize that in many ways I’ve learned to navigate this “diagnosis” ever since those early years in Oslo, since although I struggle to bring all the ideas I get so euphoric about to paper, and then onward toward completion, the stubborn part in me enables me to eventually finish a few of them, and send them out into the world. And there is struggle: the frustrations and disappointments from rejections as well as the inevitable self-doubt laced with resignation and self-loathing. But, occasionally it happens, an essay is accepted, and a veil is lifted as I realize I can do it. In fact, this sounds just like what I keep reading a writer’s life is often like.
And nobody said it was going to be easy.
Nina B. Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway, and holds a PhD in French literature from UCONN. She has lived, studied/taught, and raised three sons in CT. A fresh empty-nester, she migrated north to Maine to pursue a quiet writing life, which is constantly interrupted (see diagnosis). Her first book Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa just came out, and currently she lives in Jerusalem working on a new book project. Some of Nina’s writing lives on her blog https://vikingjewess.com/, and other essays have been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Lilith Magazine, and Literary Mama, among other places.
You offer a powerful example of someone who has found a way to exploit rather than fall victim to her own impulses. Thank you. We all have our peculiarities and sometimes those peculiarities allow us to accomplish amazing things. I had a student years ago who wrote his senior paper about the advantages of being ADHD (he has since complete a college degree and is modestly famous in his chosen profession). Our younger son emailed us from college to thank us for never having put him on medication (also complete his degree).
Thank you, Jan, for this. I share with you the belief that if we can learn to know and accept ourselves in all our peculiarities, as you say, then we can in turn find and put to good use those energies. It’s not easy, but it is rewarding.
Thank you for forgiving my typos. I am a dreadful typist.
I so understand this. I get this a lot at work. I brainstorm and create new ideas and before I know it, I’ve actually done nothing… half the battle about being creative is putting in the work to have the idea come to fruition.
Right? Imagine all the amazing creative things have come to life through this push and pull. And of course, all the things undone. As a creative person, it helps to know others deal with same issues. That it’s part of what we do.
Too true. The internet can be both a blessing and curse for the artistic community. On the one hand, you see people produce magic with minimal sweat and on the other, you see the absolute ordeal that some people go through to reach that same standard.
Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
What a thoroughly Delightful Re-blog today 🙂
Thanks for this, Alex. Talk to me about the “delightful” part! What spoke to you?
This amazing and so true! I never knew there was actually anything out there like this and I’ve been writing for ten years now.
I’m constantly getting bombarded with idea after idea. I love to write children’s stories but after a few minutes of writing, I start to think, “Perhaps I can create this for all ages too. I’ll make a book for teens as well.” Grr! It’s a blessing and a curse. I never run out of ideas, but I’m so scattered.
At the Nature Center in Chicago that I’m volunteering at, I’ve just started a program to help children from ages 9-12 with their writing. I’m encouraging free writing in it. Do you think that helps with this? Please check out my blog where I talk more about this. Thanks for sharing!
[…] to express myself more briefly. One such attempt was recently awarded by being published on the Brevity Blog – the blog of the journal by the same name publishing concise literary nonfiction. Another […]
[…] more interesting. I’ve shared with you before on the Brevity Blog the blessings and curses of ideaphoria and its effect on my writing life. As it turns out, it is not unique to me, but quite common among […]
My Ideaphoria results in hundreds of post-it notes that migrate from my computer screen to various categories of notebooks. And hundreds of Word documents that have idea-inspired names but minimal to no actual content, serving only as idea markers, and the rare one that has several paragraphs or at least a summary of the idea if it isn’t already obvious from the document name. The truth is whenever I return to these post-its and documents, I am already someone else–someone who no longer understands the ideas or feels inspired by the ideas, much less has the ability to re-flame something which died the moment the pen left the post-it note or the mouse hit the File/Exit menu buttons. Yet, even as I lament, I realize I’d never want to be the person who always waits for the ideas that don’t arrive. As always, we are meant to work with what we’ve got, and it helps us best if we can manage to be happy with what we’ve been given. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it (and stickin’ WITH it, too!). 🙂
Yes Sue, that sounds VERY familiar. For better or worse, it’s how my brain works as well. I have learned something interesting that my help you: It’s called “Homework for life” and my story-teller guru Matthew Dicks recommends this method for documenting and keeping track of ideas or what he calls “story-worthy moments” – He keeps an excel spreadsheet where he notes all these things, so that he has developed a bank, if you will, a vault, teeming with ideas that he can use to fish things to either incorporate into developing stories, or when he sees them alter as time has passed, he sometimes is inspired and has the ability or time to develop or run with it. Something to think about. I like the idea of having it all in one place, bc my word doc files are a royal mess.