I got the writing fellowship -- so now I'm terrified!

I'm lucky, I know I'm lucky, but I don't feel lucky. I just feel burdened.

By Cary Tennis
May 30, 2008 2:04PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I am a writer who has just completed graduate school, and I now find myself in the enviable position of having won a substantial writing fellowship. This money means that I will not have to look for a job for another year, and can instead work on finishing my first book. My relationship with my long-term boyfriend is going very well, and we plan to move in together during my fellowship year.


Everything is coming up roses for me -- but I am absolutely terrified. Terrified of having no schedule and no deadlines and thus no externally enforced writing discipline, terrified of being constantly needy, both physically and emotionally, when my boyfriend comes home from work (since, unlike him, I will not be exhausted from an office 9-5), terrified of the changes my life will soon face. And yet, I know this fellowship could really help me to finish my book. And I know this man is the one I want to be with.

Please, Cary, give me some advice to help me stay sane in this time of many changes. I want to be healthy and independent and happy, but I fear becoming restless and clingy, too emotional and too self-involved. I know that I am smart and can be strong enough to retain and enjoy what I love -- productive writing and this wonderful man -- if only I have some guidance for building my new life. I am willing to work hard. Please help me find some insight into how to create and manage balance in the midst of change.

Seeking Balance


Dear Seeking Balance,

When you say, "Everything is coming up roses for me -- but I am absolutely terrified," you express the paradox at the heart of the creative endeavor. You have found something unexpected and true. I sort of understand this and I sort of do not.

"While strong intrinsic motivation increases creativity, surprisingly, adding extrinsic motivations -- even positive ones -- can actually decrease creativity," says Dr. Alice Flaherty in "The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block and the Creative Brain."


Dr. Flaherty does not mean that only bad things should happen to good writers. "The Midnight Disease" has 263 footnotes. It's complicated.

She thinks like a doctor and a scholar. I think sort of more like a poet so I am going to try to sketch it out the way I see it. This external motivation thing:


The fellowship is freighted. It is not freedom. It is a tricky gift, a lure that could be a trap, an enticement and a reward that is also a question and a demand: Can you do it if we give you this? Will you live up? Have you got it? We think you have got it but now you'd better show us. Don't make us look like fools.

In your heart, you have to steal the money. Think of it like this: You found the money in the street and nobody knows you have it. They all think you're going to work every day. They have no idea what you're doing. Don't think about writing. All you have to do is take care of your creative spirit. It will do the rest.

Maybe you don't call it your creative spirit. Today I am calling it the singing engine. It is that place you go that no one else can go, the place you can never remember how you got there last time, the place you go to every time and every time it's new, every time you find a new way, there is no worn path and you can bring no guests.


Sometimes after going there you can't remember what happened but people are astounded by what you bring back. They give you money and say, Do it more. And you say, Do what more? And they say, Give us more like that, whatever, that thing you did that was so amazing, do it again.

And you think, How could I do it again? I don't even know exactly how I did it or what I did. But it's never the same thing. Do they know that? What do they want? They want the same thing?

Maybe they do. But you have to make the conditions.


Feel this: There is only one thing you have to do and that is protect the singing engine from the fellowship. Do not let the fellowship people look inside the singing engine. They won't look at it right. They won't know what they are seeing. They will break it. So don't let them look in there. Just thank them for the money. Give the singing engine what it needs. Protect the singing engine.

Actually I was thinking about this earlier, on the elliptical trainer at the Y where I do my thinking.

Some of it is writing and
Some is gleaming metal shavings.
Some of it is song and
Some is the sound of the singing engine spinning.

We love doing it. We wear overalls. We
Come out gleaming, bringing handfuls:
Look! Look at all this!


We love the doing and we love the handfuls.
Some of it is writing and
Some of it is gleaming metal shavings.

We shake in the machine and are excited. We
Go on a journey you can't come. We
Bring back pillows, muffins, lettuce. We
Have our hidden stories. You we
Love and we would like to make you
Happy but the engine has its own peculiar
Noise. We

Try to sort it out, we do. We
Try to make it separate. We
Try to bring you only what is
finished. But O! The sound of the
Singing engine spinning! O!

Maybe you know what I mean. There is much much much much more to it than that. My simple formulation is this: I take care of the singing engine. When the man gives me money I turn the money over. I keep the engine cool. And I limit my requests. I know what happens when I ask it for things it doesn't want to give me. It clams up. It is supercilious and superior like a Mission District bookstore clerk.


So flip the paradigm. In your mind, steal the money. Make it into found money. Forget its provenance. Ignore the strings. It is found money. Turn it over to the creative spirit, the singing engine, the muse, whatever you're calling it today. Turn it over and watch what she does with it.

Thinking about writing and painting? See pp. 120, 140, 160, 164.

"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition.

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