On Productive Despair

It’s a beautiful day in New England. A cloudless sky, a rustling summer breeze that carries with it just the barest hint of autumn.  My guys are downstairs reading (Michael’s reading The Year of Magical Thinking and Jacob’s reading All the Light We Cannot See) and I am taking a few minutes to relish the quiet, the early morning, my family together under one roof. In a little while, we will drive five minutes away to do yoga in a barn at an organic farm with friends and members of this community where we have lived for the past fifteen years.  Life — today — I recognize, at this very moment, is beautiful.

And yet. (You knew the “yet” was coming, didn’t you?)

I am a writer trying to tell a story that is banging on my rib cage, coursing through my bloodstream, haunting my dreams.  I didn’t choose this story. This story chose me.  It’s the story that makes sense of all of my other stories, everything that has come before.  It sheds light on both the past as I’ve always understood it, and the future as I step into it.  I’ve been writing it for the past year, in corners, in stolen hours, in swaths of time I have carved out for it.  I spent all of last fall and winter sitting in a big leather chair in my library staring out the window at the meadows behind my house, tears standing still in my eyes, a growing pile of index cards on the table next to me. 

And then I went on tour for Hourglass and spent two months on the road, not thinking about it.  I couldn’t think about it and take care of the delicate little book I love so much (if it’s okay for a writer to love her own book, I love Hourglass, I really do).  And when I returned home after twenty-six cities, what I discovered was that my new manuscript needs me to take a pickaxe to it.  It needs to be broken up — as I have been broken up — and put together in a different way, a new way.  It needs — that most daunting and scary thing for a writer — to be restructured.  Reconsidered.  Rethought.  Reimagined.  I had been too close to it.  The time away was a gift. And now I have the half-step backward, the capacity for perspective that I had previously lacked.

I tell students all the time that there is a kind of despair we feel as writers and artists that is not only useful, but necessary.  It’s the second-to-the-last fathom, the murky, dark waters an artist must move through before reaching the very bottom, the place from which she can use all her strength and push up, up, up toward the surface.  There’s light up there, but first we have to live in the depths. 

“I’m in completely despair,” I told my husband earlier this week. “But I know it’s productive despair.”  Knowing this doesn’t change the feeling. Having been here before doesn’t help, not really. All the knowledge in the world is useless to the writer who must, simply must endure the difficulty and recognize that beyond the hopeless lies the only possibility for a powerful work of art.

  • My agent wrote me a month ago and asked for an intense edit — I went to England and Scotland on a prearranged vacation. There, I was hoping for inspiration. It came not. Now, I’m in utter despair – but said yesterday to
    myself and my husband I’d finish the work. I’d do what the agent is asking, and trust that he sees what I’m afraid to see. (He’s right, but I’m exhausted from this novel.) Thank you for this. xox

    • Danishapiro

      I don’t think inspiration comes when we’re hoping for it! Wishing you courage and luck, Tina. You’ll get there.

  • Productive despair: the term alone is a gift. Thank you for those and all of your words here. xx

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Katie! I thought of you and some of the conversations we’ve had:) xo

  • Daniel Boylan

    Hi Dani—I’ve been writing poetry in Jena Schwartz’ groups for the last year and a half….she recommended this writing of yours…..”productive despair”, such a good concept for the depths we must go to so often, feel hopeless, like our work is terrible then, in fear, continuing, on faith, to find we are just in a valley on a path forward….your piece here reminds me of how good I felt reading the first third of Ann Lamott’s Bird By Bird where she let’s her students in on the secret that almost every successful writer she has interviewed has told her that she/he has suffered mightily, along the way, to the final product…..thanks for this encouraging writing here, Dani

    • Danishapiro

      Glad to hear from you, Daniel. Thanks.

  • Michelle Cohen

    “There’s light up there, but first we have to live in the depths.” So true and necessary, not just for writing, but for all aspects of an awakened life. No mud, no lotus. Grateful for your words, as always. xo

    • Danishapiro

      xoxo

  • lemead

    Oh, amen. This is why I have Wendell Berry’s poem THE WORK hanging above my desk and have for many, many years. I can’t wait to read this work, whenever you release it into the world … xox

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, L — and thanks for the reminder about the Berry! xo

  • Brandi Amara Skyy

    This. All things this. Now i have a name for what i’ve been feeling all this month while writing, “productive despair.” Perhaps now that i know it’s name it’s power over me will subside. Here’s hoping!

    As always, thank you for sharing your words + thoughts. Always at the right moment, the right time.

    • Danishapiro

      Always good to hear that my words land at the right time!

  • janetgzinn

    So important to name it. And, so, so helpful to writers who don’t speak of this time feeling it can’t be shared. Thank you again for sharing from your soul.

    • Danishapiro

      :)))

  • Susan F. Mikulay

    Dani, Loved this…it came just when I needed it with my own work. Thank you for it – and all your great writing.

    • Danishapiro

      I’m glad to hear this, Susan. You’re welcome!

  • The timing of this piece (as with all your pieces) is remarkable. Lately, I sit at my desk and I wait for the words to come. I get up to make coffee. I get up to let the dog out. I get up to have a pedicure. I get up because I’d rather do anything but wait for the words to come. You remind me that productive despair—despair though it might be—is part of the creative process and almost always generative. But working through it? Root canal. Thank you as always for your wisdom.

    • Danishapiro

      Literally, root canal, Elissa! Oy. Sending a big hug. xo

  • Loved this! It’s the theme in my writing this week from Anne Lamott, to Ann Patchett, I’ve been reading endless versions this week of the suffering that every writer must endure. You’ve given it a name. Despair, pain, anything that’s hard, is always our best teacher and leads us to where we can not go any other way. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

    • Danishapiro

      You’re welcome. Glad it was helpful!

  • lynnjericho

    Here’s a quote that lives in my heart: Wisdom is crystalized suffering. Rudolf Steiner, designer of Waldorf Education wrote this. I know when I am feeling hopeless, helpless, powerless and clueless, if I can just celebrate it, I will give birth to something totally right. Thanks, Dani, for all your despair…what is produced is priceless.

    • Danishapiro

      Beautiful. Thank you for the Steiner quote.

  • Barbara

    Yup, “productive despair” is the perfect phrase for the feeling, so familiar, of wrestling with a project that is stalled but that one knows (somehow!) is worthwhile. The tricky thing, I find, is distinguishing between productive despair and the sort of despair one should listen to because it’s that little voice noting that a project doesn’t merit the investment of more time. It’s tricky because despair—productive or unproductive—skews things, and it’s hard to get perspective. In my experience, I sometimes have a gut sense of this difference but, more often, I have to fight my impulse to toss it all in. All to say, I love the phrase “productive despair” but wish there were some formula that could help me to distinguish between those times I have to work through the despair because it’s part of the process of getting somewhere and those times when the despair is a useful gauge indicating that something deeper is array. For what it’s worth, I do think it is much more often the former but almost always feels like the latter.

  • Speaking only for myself, it’s only despair for a pico-second, that first moment of gut-wrenching insight that what one has written sucks for the ages, a waste of time, a hooting call for ego-savaging reviews and raised eyebrows.

    If one is really unlucky, it’s even worse, a glimpse at how one has betrayed oneself as a writer, missing the mark, pretentious, reaching for false wisdom and synthetic aphorisms.

    Then it settles into a seething anger that I’ve wasted my time, and a different despair kicks in, the familiar one in which I’m certain I can’t muster the effort to redo, that leaves me sodden and wrung out.

    If it means enough to me, there’s a moment when I decide “Oh, screw it, I’ll just write something short and approximate”…….and then another hindsighted moment when I realize I’m absorbed in a new paragraph, a new page and I’m caught again, steaming ahead for good or ill

    Of course, that’s only if I’m lucky. If I’m unlucky, my life is ruined and I’m a shattered wreck until my family starts getting on my case for being morose, a sluggard, and a dizzying downer.

    I think it’s even money which scenario happens, but that’s just me.