The Chicken Project

by Stephanie on July 5, 2014

I have to come clean about something. Not because I think it’s unique, or exciting or brave to fess up. I don’t think the result will make particularly good reading, and I certainly don’t think any of it needs to be public knowledge. If anything, I’m writing about it simply because I’m sick of sleeping in damp sheets, and the only thing that will get rid of the mildew is bright sunlight and a strong breeze.

For the last 18 months I’ve been undergoing treatment for anxiety and depression that is directly related to my career as a writer. I had my PhD in Creative Writing at the age of 27. Two months after graduating, I was taking medication. I didn’t tell my family. My partner had concerns about it. But I didn’t really know what else to do.

I was crying a lot, and I wasn’t really sure why. I was exhausted all the time. I was letting things slip at work. I was sobbing in the bathroom stalls, with my make-up bag on my lap so I could fix up my face afterwards and walk out again like nothing had happened. I couldn’t finish even the simplest list of chores at home. Washing piled up. Bills would come in and I would just look at them, like, I know what this is and what I’m supposed to do with it but I just… no. I put it down to all sorts of things: burn out, fatigue, the massive learning curve involved in my PhD, particular aspects of my relationship, drinking, the PhD, ex-partners, full-time work, lack of regular writing routine, lack of time, the PhD, the PhD, the PhD. I couldn’t understand what my psychologist meant when he told me I cared too much about my writing.

I was finding it harder and harder to write, but still, I tried. I opened lines of communication with editors. I applied for things. I got an ArtStart grant from the Australia Council. I got an Arts Victoria project grant for a new non-fiction work. I got an agent who loved the novel I wrote during the PhD and wanted to sell it, tried to sell it. And still, I found it harder and harder to write. I talked about writing. I had ideas. I researched. I read. But I didn’t write. I couldn’t.

I don’t know why I tried so hard to keep pushing up that hill. Perhaps on some level I thought, if I convince everyone else to invest in me, maybe I will be able to convince myself that I am worth the investment. Or, maybe material circumstances like that will help me move past this block. Or, maybe I’m just imagining it. But all the swirling matter in my head was crystallising around one particular sticky central spot: my novel wouldn’t sell.

There’s a scene in an early episode of Orange is the New Black in which Piper, the incarcerated heroine, spends an entire day dealing with the fallout from the fact that she saw a live chicken in the prison yard and nobody believes her. The phantom chicken has ruled the prison world during that time so intensely that when she spots it again through the window while on the telephone waiting for a very important call to connect — a call that will likely make or break her business outside the prison walls — she drops the receiver and bolts outside to chase it down. By the time she catches up to it, however, the chicken is on the other side of the chain link fence, out of reach, and the phone has long since gone dead.

That’s how I feel.

It’s occurred to me over the last few months that I am very ill-equipped to deal with failure. Something to be avoided at all costs, except as a matter of my own choosing: in the past, if I failed, it’s not because I was incapable, but because I chose to fail. I can see this pattern in everything from the massive disparity in my high school grades (I topped the classes I liked and worked only precisely enough to pass those that bored me) to my attitude towards running. People say I am driven. I am also my own worst enemy, throwing grenade after grenade in my own way to spur myself on, as if to remind myself that the achievement is worth it. I am beginning to think that the reason I don’t know how to fail is because I don’t allow myself the space to practice.

Dealing with the nexus between writing, publication, social expectations and my own understanding of what success means has been the single most difficult mental obstacle I have had to overcome. I think every artist has to face this problem in some capacity. In my case, it resulted in a complete meltdown. I have had it said to me more than once by much loved people that making progress with writing is, more than anything else, a matter of discipline. I get that. I get where the ethos comes from and I get why it’s important. But discipline has not stopped the knot in my throat building into a terrible aching fear every time I think about the projects I haven’t finished. It hasn’t stopped the disappointment and completely undignified jealousy that rises up inside me when I am reminded, as I have been every time I have thought about about my novel over the last couple of years, that I am not the exception. I am not the twenty-something with the international book deal. I am not making any money from my work and nor am I likely to. Publishing — even book publishing — is unlikely to ever bring me anything other than pocket money and the privilege of speaking perhaps a little bit louder than I could on my own.

Unfortunately, art and art practice doesn’t quarantine itself from the rest of life, and as a result I’ve made an unholy mess over the couple of years, fucking things up all over the place. Not just writing things, but life things. I’m still fucking them up and I don’t know how to fix them all and admitting that is really scary, because I feel like maybe this time I finally fucked something up permanently. I don’t know how to deal with fuck ups when the mistake is not ‘this broke’ or ‘I forgot’ but ‘I didn’t’. I said I would and I didn’t. I meant to, I wanted to, theoretically I could have, and there was nothing material standing in my way. But I didn’t. I don’t know why I didn’t. I can’t remember why. It’s self-sabotage, I suppose. I am still not sure where that impulse comes from because I don’t intend to do things that way. There’s a mental process going awry somewhere. I don’t know the location of the warp but I know it’s there, and its effects disorientingly outweigh the significance of the original task.

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I know that from the outside that all makes about as much sense as chasing after a chicken, but somehow, somewhere, a pattern was established, and that pattern was reinforced by other patterns and now it seems as unconscious as breathing. Unlike breathing, it can be unlearned, but that process is long and hard and will inevitably involve more fuck-ups and more chicken chasing and arguments and apologies and probably a fair bit of crying too and all of that is very tiring and difficult and unpretty and undignified. But that’s the way it is.

In the midst of all of that mess it’s completely reasonable to ask, is this even what I want to do? I’ve certainly thought about it often enough over the last couple of years. Because in order to write, one has to spend a lot of time not doing other things — one of which includes making money. As the Marxist in my head helpfully reminds me, art is an expression of labour power, labour power is measured by time, which is also what I sell to my employer for their exploitation, and thus once sold is no longer mine. What is, at the outset, a free exchange of services becomes thereafter unequal: those eight hours a day I spend at work are not mine. Even if am writing for employment, those hours I spend writing are not mine. And sooner or later, one starts to feel the question creep up: who am I doing this for? Is the 29-year-old at her desk today the same one that could touch-type at age 11, and churn out story after story on her Dad’s old DOS system for her own amusement? If so, what happened to that joy? What happened to that focus? Have I been wrong for all these years when I said this was what I wanted to do? Have I been wrong to invest so much time in learning how to do it? And who the hell am I if I don’t write?

In a way, it is its own answer. On Thursday, as the muck of yet another life fuck-up landed on my lap and I started spewing out my angst about it onto to the page, it was suddenly all so blindingly obvious. Of course I want to do this. This isn’t who I am, but how I am. I write to work through problems. I write to untangle ideas. I write to alleviate myself of burdens, whether they’re political problems or emotional knots or social issues or why I keep thinking about that fucking chicken. I write to communicate. To make connections. To bridge loneliness. To draw out meaning. To escape fear. This is how I process. To say I care too much about my writing is like saying I care too much about life. Because the truth is, it’s not that I’ve been caring too much, but I’ve been caring for the wrong reasons.

I need to stop feeling like my work belongs to everyone else. I need to remind myself — to reteach myself — to reiterate to myself and incorporate into my everyday practices that I am doing this for myself first. I need to remember that this is mine.

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