People always tell me that any crisis of confidence I have as I do my research and writing is likely to be shared by others. Intellectually, I know this. Emotionally, I often don’t experience it this way. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to hear from a scholar and writer of Marilyn Strathern’s experience and quality sum up exactly how I have been feeling during my last several writing projects:

I write all the time, but what marks off new tasks from old (or going over old ground) is finding myself plunged into something close to despair.   I lose confidence, my self-esteem plummets, it is clear that everyone has already said things better, and it had been quite absurd to take on a task that now seems insuperable.

In my case, I don’t “write all the time” (though that would be a good idea…), but the rest resonates.

The “gap” between “between what needs doing and the capacity to do it,” Strathern says, “can actually be a prerequisite to writing at all.” They can be the “threshhold of creativity” when:

…past certainties melt away, and everything one thought was at one’s fingertips (materials, notes, analyses) slips out of grasp.  For myself, at least, it is climbing out of the crevasse, emotionally speaking, that is the writing.   I am solving a problem not (just) on the desk, but somewhere else in my life, while at the same time knowing that without the urgency of that dissolution the writing, on the desk, won’t do the gathering work it is meant to do.   The process of writing is dealing with the crisis.

This is wonderful stuff to stew on. I love the idea of each new significant writing project being a moment of significant crisis. It certainly has felt that way to me, most recently on that paper I posted last week. Nevertheless, while it’s comforting to know that I am in much better company that I previously might have imagined, I still am not sure I want to embrace crisis every few months or so. Perhaps the challenge is to learn to enjoy crisis and avoid Strathern’s feeling of “despair.”

Anyways, it’s a short essay called “Outside desk-work“. I am now looking forward to the rest of this new series coming out of Durham University.