In my first year of college, when I read Virginia Woolf for the first time - I mean really read her - I descended into an irritable funk. This was not because I didn't "like" what I was reading. It was a whole lot more complicated than that. I descended into the text, and I was uncomfortable, and absorbed, and the intensity of my emotional response was such that I vividly remember picking a fight with my boyfriend, not because of anything that he did or did not do, but because I couldn't really handle what I was feeling in response to the text, or translate what I was feeling to who I was. I figured (I guess) that what I was feeling must extend outward, or have some "real" cause, and so I freaked out. I lashed out. This is a really visceral memory. I remember sitting on the floor of my dorm room, about a hundred pages into To the Lighthouse, and on the one hand really feeling like I was getting it - getting everything - for the first time, and I remember stopping reading and calling FL up and losing it on him. I remember in the aftermath of that really freaking crazy outburst thinking that I probably shouldn't let myself interact with the world without a few hours of a break after reading. That I needed to come down off of the book before I did stupid things.
Now, as much as I realized this at the time, about 17 years ago, I can also recount many examples of this pattern recurring. Because I still have those kinds of responses from time to time, and sometimes I don't have enough critical distance to realize that my problem is a problem of absorption, and not a problem with an actual person. Sometimes I can't find the line that separates my aesthetic responses from my everyday life.
Last night I felt this, but luckily I actually was able to identify what was going on and I didn't direct all of that energy outward. I was able to stop myself and to think about what was actually happening.
I think the issue is this: I'm fine when I'm just sort of floating along, reading around, reading for teaching, reading for something related to something of minor interest. But sometimes, I'd estimate about every 7 years or so, I embark on a path. I come upon an idea or set of ideas that really overwhelms me and intrigues me. I'm not just screwing around, floating, but rather I commit. And that commitment produces an excess of energy. When I'm really having big new ideas, when I'm really working through tough intellectual questions and really in the process of formulating my position within and relation to a text or texts, I go a little crazy. And because I don't know what to do with all of that energy, my go-to response is to translate that feeling as being pissed off.
However excited I am about a project - and really, there's a lot of excitement bound up in this - there's also an angry, upset edge to it. It's intense, and it's difficult for me to control. It's this mix of obsession and fear, of passion and insecurity. It's important, but it's not pleasant.
Luckily, I know, because I've been down this road before, that this phase passes. Ultimately, once I'm out of this initial phase, I will settle into a routine of boring and regular tasks. I will put the thing together, piece by piece, and I will turn all of this chaos into some kind of tangible product. But I have to move through this phase first. I understand that, but I'm irritated by it. I wish I were the sort of person who didn't have this phase.
So, as you might have gathered, this is all bound up in the Next Book. (Referred to from this point forward as NB. And yes, you can expect to read about NB for like the next five years.) On the one hand, I know it's really happening now. It's not just something I'm playing with anymore, or something I'm just devising toward the goal of getting a sabbatical. Somewhere over recent weeks, I've committed. I've gone down the rabbit hole. And I haven't been this excited or this focused on a project since I devised my dissertation project which then became the first book.
I think I knew that this was really happening yesterday when I started a research journal - something I've not kept since I was in the drafting phases of the dissertation/book. You know, I don't think I've looked at that journal once since I finished drafting - and I'm not even sure I looked at it all that much while I was writing. But there's something comforting in having a place reserved for all of my errant ideas, for all of my angst, for all of the things that I don't know what to do with at this early point.
You know, I always tell my students that really thinking should cause some discomfort. That there's a price for really thinking, for seeing things in a new way. And I really do believe that. But as much as I believe it, wow, I hate experiencing it. It makes me positively cranky.
4 years ago