What am I even doing here? Writing and Existential Angst

Posted by Lily Codera, GD Poetry Reader for 5.2

So you’ve decided to write, and nothing is going to stop you. You’re going to write, and no number of soul-draining barista or restaurant server positions (on the side) can slow your momentum now. At this point, you may have developed a routine that allows you to work on your writing regularly; you may have even pinpointed your most productive time of day so as to “protect” it, like Kate Daloz suggested at her recent reading. Maybe your dad has finally come to terms with the fact that you’re probably not going to become the doctor or lawyer that he always wanted you to be. Great. So why do you still feel so unsettled about all this?

Well, because beneath the comforting hum of progress and keeping busy, your nemesis Existential Angst is always playing at the edges—now equipped with a new set of looming questions, perfectly-tailored for the writer. What can you hope to offer the world? How will you present anything that’s “new,” or at least present it in a “new” way? How can you benefit anyone with your work? And the inevitable: what the hell are you even doing here?

The thing is that everyone deals with this type of doubt in some capacity, at some point in time, but it can be particularly trying for writers. Maybe this is because the work we do often has a specific weight to it—feels important, whatever that means—and yet unlike other professions, there is almost never a clear or definite translation for what this significance may be. A helpful thing to remember about existential angst, however, is that it’s created by freedom. Kierkegaard said that it’s in the hands of each of us to give meaning to our lives. This responsibility doesn’t belong to society, religion, or any other institution, because ultimately any of these external influences are purely what we make of them. It’s up to us to assemble the pieces, and in a writing profession, perhaps to reproduce them on paper in a way that others may hopefully one day draw from.

So, at the very root of all those biting questions, is potentially the secret to satiating them as well. At least in this country, we do have the freedom to write, well, anything. We are free to connect all the dots we want to and within this daunting veil of freedom, I think that “new” writing should exist, because 1) it wants to exist/because you’re willing to provide the means to do this, and, 2) it can help articulate feelings or thoughts that you didn’t have access to in other literature, which will no doubt benefit others for the same reason.

For instance, I’ll never forget the sense of affinity I felt when I read of the in-between “lukewarm” feeling that Hermann Hesse’s protagonist in Steppenwolf experiences, or of the fractured, multifaceted confusion present in Virginia Woolfe’s The Waves. I could go on to trace back a lifetime of reading-induced kinship, but I think you get the idea, and you have definitely had the feeling. These connections are not just limited to established, “great,” or dead writers either.

In fact, I’ve noticed this pattern again and again, especially as I’ve become more involved in Geneseo’s literary scene. At the same reading I mentioned earlier, Daloz also spoke of “writing the book she wished she could have read” growing up, in this case regarding the Back-to-the-Earth movement that she was raised in. At Idra Novey’s recent reading, she explained that her book was born from a similar kind of motivation. And although not everyone may be ready to produce a novel straight away, submitting to literary journals like Gandy Dancer is another invaluable method to get your thoughts out there.

Earlier this semester, we got the chance to read the most recent issue of the lit journal Barrelhouse, which elicited another of those moments of psychic kinship for me, especially after reading the two poems by Kazumi Chin. Vibrant, reflective of our pop-culture-crazed age, political, and unapologetic, his work evoked a specific catharsis for me. In “Pyongyang Poem,” Chin makes the statement “& no one will arrest me for writing this poem” to call out the clear division between writing in America opposed to countries like North Korea. If we’re talking freedom to write what we want, we’ve got a whole lot of that.

Anyway, I think that these connections are why writing sometimes feels so “important,” but in that uncomfy, unspecified way. We are trying to make connections with people that we don’t know exist yet, stretching out our arms to embrace strangers. There is something so beautiful about this, and—in the face of all kinds of division that the world still suffers from—please never stop.



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