But why bother with diagnoses at all, if a diagnosis is but a restatement of the problem?
–Maggie Nelson, BluetsI have been in India for a week and a half researching vultures, and I’ve barely written a word.
Last week in Mumbai, trying to recover from some respiratory bug that is clinging like scale to my throat and lungs, I stared at the brick walls of my room, and listened to the barks and yells and mumbles from the street against a background of near-constant honking horns. For two nights in a row, a child, somewhere in the snaking alleys or towering buildings, screamed hysterically for about a minute and a half at around 10:30. On the third day, I waited for 10:30, standing near the window, even though I couldn’t see anything through the rippled privacy glass. I didn’t write a word in my notebook. There was no scream in the frantic soundscape outside.
Now that I’m in the more open north of the country, I am coughing and sneezing in a bed so firm it makes my old college futon seem like memory foam. I’m still not writing. The rational side of my brain says, “It’s only been a week, and you’re sick. Maybe lighten up.” But the writer in me knows that I’ve been struggling to write this manuscript for months and the only difference in this week of no-writing is the exotic locale. I don’t want to say what I’m really afraid of, not out loud anyway.
(I’m afraid that my subject and I have fallen out of love.)
For the last two years, I’ve been writing a book about vultures. My research has taken me to three continents so far, interviewing experts, collecting my own field notes, and learning about the role these scavengers play in different places around the world. Vultures have been with me through a lot: the end of my graduate studies, the beginning and end of a couple of intense affairs, the disappointments and triumphs of two years of job searches. What I’m afraid of as I lie here is that the place I was when I announced my intentions of writing this book and the place I find myself now are too far apart from one another. It’s easy to fear this, since it is both literally and figuratively true. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work it out. Right?
When I started my MFA program, I didn’t believe I’d ever have a whole book in me. I wanted to write essays about science and loss, and that’s what I did, until I had enough of them to call what I’d written “a collection.” In one of those essays, I’d tried to cram everything I’d learned about vultures into 17 pages. Vultures can digest Anthrax. They also digest tuberculosis, brucellosis, and plague. The vultures of the Austrian Alps swallow bones whole. Vultures use UV rays to burn bacteria from their feathers. One biologist in Ohio told me he watched a black vulture in Florida pull the leg off a live turtle so it could eat its unlaid eggs. Eurasian vulture pairs share child-rearing duties so equally, that some of history’s earliest naturalists believed they must all be female. In Tibet and India, human dead are fed to vultures in rituals commonly known as “sky burials.” There are vultures that return every year to the pines that surround Gettysburg and vultures that return every year to roost on the building that houses all of my Alma Mater’s deans. Recently two vultures were seen in Washington DC, trying to nest on a building full of lobbyists. It’s not easy to scare vultures off, once they’ve found a spot they like. One of my committee members said, “You should turn this into a book.”
But then, over the next few months, I mulled it over. I tested it out. I came to love the idea. In my post-thesis-defense days, I began making contacts and notes. But now that I’m struggling to move from notes to chapters, from a sense of curiosity to an eye for design, from graduate to professional—I’m stuck.
Maggie Nelson writes early in Bluets, her lyric essay/memoir of suffering and loss couched as a meditation on the color blue, that she’s been saying she’s writing a book about the color blue for years, even going so far as to include its progress on her CV, “without writing a word.”
What if, like Nelson, the vultures are “my way of making my life feel ‘in progress’ rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette”?
Right now, I’m unsure how to move forward in my own life, which post-graduate path is right for me, and the longer I stay stuck, the harder it gets to imagine what unstuck might look like. Are vultures my way of clinging to a myth of progress? Are they my own blue?
In the middle of a fevered daydream, I conjure a questionnaire, like one of those Cosmo quizzes. Can this relationship be saved? Except vultures don’t leave the seat up or forget my birthday. They don’t hate my friends or argue with my mother. They can’t even defend themselves against my complaints. What is my problem? I love vultures. I love talking about vultures. Why can’t I get my page count up?
When I read more of Bluets, I can’t help it: I see vultures instead of blue.
I’ve enjoyed telling people that I’m writing a book about vultures without actually doing it. Mostly what happens in such cases is that people give you stories or leads or gifts, and then you can play with these things instead of words… I think of these people as my vulture correspondents whose job it is to send me vulture reports from the field.
It holds up. I hunger for news from the friends I’ve made around the world: the German researcher who paints anthropomorphic vulture portraits, the zookeeper in Arizona with the beautiful glass case of African vulture skulls. I can bury my head in these reports and put off writing the book. I can stall here indefinitely and call it research.
But then Nelson states of herself [and me!]: “But what goes on in you when you talk about
color a bird as if it were a cure, when you have not yet stated your disease.” It’s not a question. Nelson’s disease is her broken heart. At some point in her own process—a sudden flash or slow dawning that it is hidden from the reader—she realizes that she doesn’t love blue as much as a particular person she’s lost.
I don’t think my problem is one of an as-yet-unidentified metaphor or signifier.
I try asking myself/the room, “Just what is your problem?” The blackbirds on the other side of the screen door have a lot to say as they fight over a piece of pakora I threw them earlier, but nothing illuminating. I hear: This is just some passing flu, an ebb in the romance. This consolation is disingenuous and I know it.
During my undergrad years, one of my painting professors said that the lives of most artists were too difficult for anyone who just wanted to paint to endure. “You have to have to,” he said. “Otherwise, you’ll find something easier to do.” What if it is not necessary that I write this, or any, book? What if vultures are bolstering a myth of passion, of my passion to write? This too is my fear. Which seems ridiculous, I have to remind myself, when there are wild leopards in the forests outside my room.
The truth is that all the questions have the same answer: hard work, and I don’t know if I’m up for it. Who wants to admit they are too weak or afraid to work? Who wants to admit that they are so afraid to fail that the fear has pinned them to a bed? I’d rather blame my cough, the traffic, some scream in the night that’s distracted me from the task at hand.
I don’t know how to get my page count up, but I know I won’t find the answer staring at the ceiling and wondering about it. The wondering and worrying is like pacing back and forth, and with it, I’ve dug myself a right fine rut in the floor. My diagnosis is nothing more than a restatement of my problem: I’m afraid.
If I’m really honest, I’m afraid, not that vultures and I have fallen out of love, but that my love will not be enough to write the book about vultures that vultures deserve.
My disease is thinking that if I sit here long enough some answer will dawn upon me, and suddenly the writing will not be work. That if I dig through my notes long enough, I will find a fail-proof book and with it, my perfect future. It’s worse than distraction: it’s a sleeve of ash passing for a process.
Toward the end of Bluets, Nelson says, “Perhaps it would help to be told that there is no bottom, save, as they say, wherever and whenever you stop digging.” I take it as direct counsel.
I have plenty to write about; what I need is forward motion. Progress, however small, is the only way I can foster any sense of faith in my process, and writing about vultures is the only way to learn whether or not there’s a book about vultures in me.
I don’t know how Maggie Nelson finally wrote her book about blue after all those years. But I cannot keep spending my days using vulture research to hide from my own future, acting like I need to know everything before I can start anything.
So, here I’ll lay, on the world’s hardest mattress, listening to foreign birds, ordering spicy and buttery room service at regular intervals, but also writing in fits and starts until my fever breaks. I will start with a list: all the things I know about vultures. It might not be good writing, and it might feel more like an exercise than real progress, but it’ll be something. I will say to the otherwise empty room, “I’m sorry you’re sick. You’ll feel better soon.”
Loved this! I’ve fallen out of love with many research and writing projects. I’ve found my way back to some of them too, and that’s where I’ve discovered necessary depths and insights. But some I had to let of for good or transform into something else. If it’s any consolation, I also have a particular fascination for vultures and wished I’d learned more about them when I lived in Nepal. I’ll be an eager reader if and when you do finish your book (no pressure, of course!).
You wrote my mind! You are not alone. Keep writing. The hard work is the killer but everyday a little step will get you there — or so I am told.
Definitely not alone. I keep telling myself I have no book in me, when I know damn well I do.
“The truth is that all the questions have the same answer: hard work, and I don’t know if I’m up for it.” Man, that is reading my mail. I have been there. I am there! Thank you for this brave essay.
Nicely examined, imagined and realized. Reminds me of Geoff Dyer’s “Out of Sheer Rage” . . . of Ellen Meloy’s “The Anthropology of Turquoise” . . . reminds me of me too . . . ‘I don’t have a book in me’; turns out I was right. Working on my third now.