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.