Existentialism in Bookstores

Book and Hour Glass

I’ve hit a point in my life where I now have an existential crisis every time I walk into a bookstore.

Years ago, bookstores (and libraries) were places of solace for me. I couldn’t wait until I was older so I could go to a bookstore on my own and spend the day browsing and sitting cross-legged on the floor between the shelves, reading ten books at a time and daydreaming. Now I’m old enough to do just that, but it doesn’t go so well when I try it.

Now my adrenalin rushes when I walk into a bookstore. Just by glancing at the shelves, lined with thousands of book spines facing out at me, I’m reminded that there are too many books out there. I’m reminded that I don’t have the money to buy however many books I want because I want them all (besides the crappy ones). I’m reminded that even if I do have the money, I will quickly run out of places to put these books. I then start to think that I would be better off utilizing my Kindle, or checking a book out of the library for free instead, and that I’ve made a terrible mistake by walking through the bookstore’s doors. I’m reminded about all of the books I bought on a whim that are still sitting on my shelf unread. I’m reminded that I don’t have the time to read all of the (not crappy) books in the world, not only because my free time is limited, but because my lifetime as a human is limited. Death will prevent me from reading everything I want to read. There are too many darn books.

A few months ago, a couple of friends of mine and I exchanged thoughts on why we each want live forever. One said that he wants to live forever so he can become a sort of vigilante and save people. The other said she would use her immortality to have sex constantly. I said I would use mine to read every book in the world.

Thus, when I walk into a bookstore, knowing that I can never be immortal, I feel uneasy and start to question my life and the choices I’ve made along the way. I start to question why I want to read in the first place, or why I care that much about being a writer. Which then spirals into questioning how a writer can ever feel satisfied, or how humans can ever be happy in general—because the one thing  that once gave me so much pleasure (browsing through bookstores) now makes me feel overwhelmed, inadequate, and on a terrifying personal deadline.

Moments of existential angst, of course, can be prompted by anything—not just by visiting a bookstore. Bookstores just tend to be my trigger for the life-is-too-short feeling that (I think) is universal. Sometimes I wonder how we can even stand to contemplate existence and meaning without imploding. But even though I feel pressure to measure my life by how many books I read, I also hate rushing. Rushing makes the process less enjoyable.

Maybe of all types of people, readers have the right to slow down, because we live a new life with every book or story we finish. Maybe reading makes us exist more.

Have you ever had a life crisis in a bookstore? Am I alone in this?


Writing With a Day Job

It’s what I want. But it’s difficult–writing with a day job.

I just came back from a vacation to Portland, Oregon, where I spent a week eating a lot and whistling “Colors of the Wind” while hiking to hidden waterfalls. It was awesome–but no writing for me.

Now, it’s back to commuting and working. I wake up at 6:00 a.m. to get to work at 9:00 a.m., work quite diligently until 5:45 p.m., and return to my abode by 7:30 p.m. I try to use the commute to New York City as writing/reading time, but I’m often just too tired and fall asleep to the gentle swaying of the train. I try to use time after work or weekends to maybe submit a story to a magazine or do something productive, like maybe write a blog post, but alas, I’m tired. Sometimes I get these things done, but not with consistent ease or finesse–because I’m so darn tired.

Granted, I live much further away from my job than most people. It takes about an hour and forty-five minutes each way. So now, I am saving money and hoping to move out of my parents’ house this fall and into a place twenty to thirty minutes away from work at a maximum. I think that will definitely help with my time management and my energy reserve.

‘The grass is always greener’ though. I couldn’t wait to graduate from college just so I could have some free time. College days consisted of only having time to sleep, work out, eat, go to club meetings, and socialize a bit on weekend nights. The rest of the time was used to get homework and papers done. There was certainly no time to work on my writing, unless the writing was for a class. I did get winter breaks and long summer breaks, but I needed those for internships and to just sit around and shut off my academic brain, willfully turning it to mush.

I now miss that constant intellectual stimulation from college. I’ve heard so many recent graduates say they feel dumb without positive reinforcement from teachers and the interesting heights our brains were forced to reach in school. It’s true–I feel stupid! And I miss those long breaks. Going away last week was not enough–and I realized that as long as I am working a day job, I will only be using my “vacation days” for real vacations. Unless I plan it all perfectly, I won’t be getting a week at home to do stuff for me, for my writing self.

It bothers me because I wanted this writer-with-a-day-job life–and I still do. Although a day job sabotages my energy and time for writing creatively, I’d go a little crazy–and be extremely impoverished–sitting at home writing. In fact, from what I know, only a small percentage of writers make their living by solely getting stories or novels published. Most have some kind of full-time/part-time job. I don’t think I can afford to be a starving writer and rely on winning a contest now and then or getting into a magazine that might pay upon publication, all the while banking on the possibility that I might, might, get a huge advance from a major publisher for accomplishing the next great American novel. Risky.

For my sanity, I need a steady income and a stable schedule. It does help that I work in publishing, but I’m basically starving on that salary too.

I don’t know. I just keep wanting more and more. What I would love is to one day be working a day job that stimulates my creativity, pays well, and allows me live comfortably close to the office (or maybe even work from home sometimes). I want that to balance with time to write and submit my work consistently. Maybe land a spot in a great MFA program at some point. I want to be persistent and send my stuff out there so I at least have a chance.

Or maybe I’m going about this wrong. Maybe I need to be writing because my livelihood depends on it. Maybe I need to go crazy to get this story or this novel done and out into the world, or otherwise lose my grungy apartment and be living on the streets like an addict. Maybe I need that fear and anxiety to force my brain to quickly spew good art that’s beautiful and lasting and powerful.

Ack. I hope not. I don’t know. The anxiety of authorship.

What works for you?

The Anxiety of Authorship

(Note: I’m not hating on men.)

I hope I’m not the only writer experiencing anxiety. I can’t be. I shouldn’t be. According to the literary critic duo Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, and other writers, I’m definitely not the only one.

In college, I read some of Gilbert and Gubar’s criticism from their book The Madwoman in the Attic. In this book, they develop the idea of “the anxiety of authorship,” exploring the different anxieties men and women feel when writing. (This is where I got the name of my blog. Is it obvious?).

The theory might be dated, but I wonder if we all experience the kind of writing anxiety they suggest. Gilbert and Gubar say that men and women have different approaches to writing, and thus different kinds of writing anxiety. Male writers (subconsciously) “revise” the writing of other male writers that came before them. Female writers, on the other hand, must (subconsciously) “create” their own female writing tradition, because there have not been enough female writers for them to revise. Before the 1800s, most poetry and prose was written by men. It was actually quite blasphemous for a woman to write creatively.

Most writers, male or female, experience a degree of anxiety when thinking of their predecessors. There is a feeling of inadequacy, tension, and hostility. John Keats, way back in the late 1700s, named this awful feeling “belatedness.” Belatedness: the fear that everything great has already been done.

Famed literary critic Harold Bloom thinks writerly “belatedness” can be applied to Freudian psychology. He says that writers have an “anxiety of influence”–a fear they’ll never be better than past writers. According to Freud men must battle their fathers in Oedipal struggle (“kill” their father in order to gain influence and authority). Bloom concludes that writers and artists are anxious for their work to be more influential than their forefathers’ work. His theory, however, suggests only a father and son relationship between past and present writers.

Women could look to their foremothers for that mother and daughter relationship, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, there were hardly any known female writers. Gilbert and Gubar say that instead of having an “anxiety of influence,” women felt anxious just trying to be an author–they felt an “anxiety of authorship.” A woman’s anxiety of authorship is a fear that she isn’t capable of writing at all, that she will never be a predecessor.

Back in the day, a woman was considered monstrous if she did not conform to the passive angel-in-the-house role that society expected, and female authorship was quite taboo. However, the earliest female writing pioneers like Aphra Behn, Mary Shelley, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters, and Jane Austen, somehow overcame this anxiety of authorship and wrote.

It seems that today, women have a number of successful foremothers to rely on. Gilbert and Gubar’s idea of the “anxiety of authorship” came from the feminist movement of the 1970s. Where does the 21st century woman writer, like me, slip into this theory? I guess we now have mothers of the 20th century, grandmothers of the 19th century, great grandmothers of the 18th century, maybe even some great-great grandmothers. Their work may not date back to ancient Rome, but still. Do today’s women have enough material to “revise”? Does that mean we now experience the “anxiety of influence” like the guys do?

I’m not sure. This theory is really just a theory. It can’t be proven. However, I think since the 20th century, women writers seem to have grown in number and strength. It also seems that more and more students in English literature and creative writing programs are women. It appears to me that women are closer to equality in the literary world than ever before. With all of these woman writers out there, maybe I experience an anxiety of influence and an anxiety of authorship. I do feel overwhelmed because there is so much literature out in the world already. I know I will never get to read it all in my lifetime, and who knows if my writing will ever be better most of it? And of course I’m anxious about just writing and actually getting it done.

Really, I think men and women experience both of the above fears: fear of their writing not being good and fear of never finishing their writing. It’s a lot of anxiety for us writers to experience. But it’s also what pushes us toward greatness.