Friday, August 04, 2017

Being rather than becoming

A strange thing is happening to me at midcareer: I find myself increasingly worried that I've lost something I once had or was good at: my writing isn't as lively; I'm not as creative; whatever was once interesting about me has vanished.

Objectively, I know that this is ridiculous. I mean, sure: it's possible for a human person to stall or lose her edge, but it's more likely that this is just an exciting new port of call for my personal cruise ship of anxiety and insecurity. When I was younger, I feared not being smart enough, not having interesting ideas, not being able to turn my vague intuition to some kind of account. These days, though I still start in an incoherent muddle, I feel pretty confident that my hunches will pan out and that I can complete any project once begun. Some of the work I've done in recent years is clearly superior to my first book, and on good days I dare to believe that I've hit some kind of scholarly stride.

And yet, alongside this sense of relative contentment is the nagging suspicion that while some things might be better, surely they've come at the cost of other things. I keep feeling that my writing has lost whatever distinctive voice it once had, and wondering whether the better ideas have displaced the better writing. And then I worry that even my greater contentment with my work and the number of projects I'm immersed in might themselves be signs of how boring I've become, with work crowding out the other things--I'm pretty sure there were other things!--that once made me an interesting person.

I mean, I never labored under the delusion that I was cool, in the way that matters to twenty- and thirty-somethings, and the invisibility that some middle-aged women complain about is more a relief than a loss. But I suppose I'm not free of the vanity of wishing to believe that I am, in whatever minor way, an interesting person. And now I've . . . lost that belief in my own fascinatingness. I'm just an academic. I write, I go to the gym, and sometimes I buy pretty things and make fancy drinks. Occasionally I read a novel or see a movie.

In almost every detectable way, this life is better than the one I had at thirty or even thirty-five. I know I was not happier writing those lively and eccentric sentences, much less wondering where my career or personal life was going to go. But apparently I need to feel a little lost and inadequate at every stage--so now I'm feeling nostalgic for my own earlier lostness and inadequacy.

Worst. Midlife. Crisis. EVER.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I tell my students that eventually they will wake up one day and ask themselves, "Is this all there is?" I reached that point while adjuncting with two babies, leaking breast milk, and covered in baby goo. It turns out that that was not all there was. But it took getting a real job and doing a lot of traveling to feel like there was something more to life.

You've been really successful and yet no one is excluded from "Is this all there is"-itis. The nature of our jobs is that they don't change a ton, but the stuff we research/write about can. I'm not a scholarly monogamist because I can get bored pretty easily. Maybe doing research on something outside your area would spark something? Having to be a generalist is sort of a blessing in disguise for me. It helps me feel like I'm always learning and never a true expert.

Flavia said...

Hi Fie. That's not really the problem here. I'm deeply engrossed by my work and it's never made me happier. This is about other, perhaps more specific-to-me anxieties.

Andrea said...

Yep. Yep. Yep. Love that I am not alone in my crazy.

Megan said...

This reminds me of something my therapist once asked that blew my mind: "How is your imposter syndrome helping you?" At first I was all, "It's not helping! It's the worst! That's why I'm here!" But I realized that I use it to motivate myself, to keep going when I don't feel like it so that I can "prove" (to whom, I'm not sure) that I belong in academia.

Maybe the Personal Cruise Ship of Anxiety and Insecurity (love the name) has to find new ports not only because our brains are crazy and mixed-up but also because it's a paradoxical way of feeling like we're maintaining an edge or continuing to improve.

Flavia said...


And now I feel the same way! Thanks.


I love your therapist. And yes, I think that's very possible.

Undine Spragg said...

I think we're also conditioned (by academe? by gendered expectations?) to think of anxiety, miserable though it is, as a component of creativity in a way that contentment is not. "Contentment" is what we pair with "boring." It's a holdover from the Romantics, I'll bet, that we've internalized. Hope it gets better!