The therapy of putting pen to paper
By Paula Marantz Cohen
I have suffered from malaise for as long as I can remember. As a baby I was colicky and unmanageable; as a child moody and volatile; as an adolescent sulky and anxious, and as an adult subject to mood swings. These problems never made me dysfunctional (e.g. unable to get out of bed), but they inhibited my ability to enjoy life. They also contributed to what limited success I’ve had.
My particular pathology meshed well with academic life. As a university professor I am not subject to strict requirements regarding how I behave or dress, or what I teach. I don’t have to bend to others’ authority, except indirectly. I can spend long periods in the library, at my computer at home, or in pastry shops, drinking coffee and reading. My students are indulgent of idiosyncrasy; indeed, they expect and seem to prefer their professors to be mildly loony, if only to lift the tedium of sitting in class all day.
But most helpful in managing my problems has been the opportunity to write. The written word is the coinage of the academic realm, the means of gaining stature, and the road to tenure.
The cliché is that professors slack off after receiving tenure. But for me the opposite was true. The sustained productivity required to get tenure fed directly into my love of writing, transforming it into an obsessive-compulsive habit.
Writing has always been a pleasure for me—a way to channel a disorderly world into an orderly form. And yet, as with any palliative, writing has an addictive aspect. I often tell my writing students that this comes with the territory. If you want to make writing a career, it must be a compulsion. It must be something that you cannot not do. As I have grown older, I have channeled my writing mania into new genres. From academic articles and books I have graduated to reviews, personal essays, stories, and novels. This reflects both a deepening of my ability to write and of my dependence on actually doing it—not unlike taking harder drugs that enhance your experience while also increasingly detaching yourself from it.
The attendant risks are obvious. Consider Marcel Proust, who finally retreated from the world and made the life that had come before—that is, his memory of it—the subject of his work.
Although I’m no Marcel Proust, I understand this compulsion to mine your life for your writing. I recently told my son that I wanted to take up tennis. He said he didn’t think it was a good idea.
“But you love tennis,” I objected. “Why wouldn’t you want me to play?”
“I support your taking up tennis if you really want to play tennis,” he said. “But if you want to play tennis in order to write about tennis, I’m against it.”
I probably did want to play tennis in order to write about it. But so what? Is that such a bad thing? If my friends know they will turn up in my writing, should I apologize for it? If a few days without writing makes me jittery and nervous, why not go to the computer and bang something out? Perhaps I just need to embrace my pathology and leave it at that.
But perhaps not, for I know that writing simultaneously assuages and feeds my anxiety. This column, for example, has me only mildly satisfied. I question whether I’ve done my subject justice. I fear my writing has been self-indulgent. I worry that I have embarrassed myself.
And I’m already thinking about what I will write next.
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and the recent What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.
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