E.B. White on procrastination

[Full of chipper wisdom here, E.B. White was laid low by allergies, like me.]

On illness, hard emotions, and giving readers a high vibration.

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.

—Susan Sontag, “Illness as Metaphor

Writing takes energy. The hot weather system lying across America has sapped mine. Or maybe it’s allergies—an early ragweed bloom. Like an old timer of yore, I find my body casts its own vote via joints and sinuses. My former doctor, a great technician, used to scoff about complaints regarding intangibles like atmospheric pressure—he’d actually laugh in my face—but I knew what I felt. Writing this post took two medicinal pots of coffee.

When my book appeared two years ago, my blog took a hit—all circuits were busy. Maybe that’s just focus—but focus is, or bespeaks, a form of energy. The other thing I know for sure is a writer embeds energy in prose or poetry. I’ve always said readers go to writing to experience another’s emotional reality, but if they don’t find energy there, they leave. You can feel it, the energy in words and sentences.

Major illness is one thing, but how annoying when something like pollen pulls your plug. E.B. White wrote about the debilitating effect of allergies. The malaise they cause. Periodically, and when ragweed blooms in late summer, sometimes I exist in a stupor, dosing myself with Claratin, Alka-Seltzer, chocolate, caffeine.

However bad I feel, I’m always grateful when I realize the cause is physical. Because lack of energy mimics depression. The body is literally depressed, when flooded with histamines. So that’s the feeling the mind experiences. Regardless of cause, it’s hard enough to exist in peace, let alone to run a startup donut chain or write a novel when you lack physical or psychic energy. Dorothea Brande’s classic Becoming a Writer (on this blog here: lengthy discussion and short review and in a post on persona) is really about how to nurture and manage yourself as a person and writer so you can steadily work.

Of course, Brande’s advice concerns not illness but mental or emotional blockages. In that realm, what roils my moods is fear. Where it comes from, I don’t know. But when the writing is especially hard and discouraging, I’ve learned to suspect that old foe. Naming my own demon, having that self-knowledge, brings me some comfort. And accepting what’s arisen also lessens the pain. Not that the cause goes away or the symptoms end—ultimately we each walk a lonesome valley.

Once I visited an elderly man who was declining, in his last stage of life, and he was suffering—not from pain, but from loneliness and fear of death. I didn’t feel qualified to give him advice! How could I possibly help him? I felt so helpless and useless. Yet here was a man in such need. Finally in desperation I drew on this principle of acceptance, learned from Buddhism, though I suppose it’s intrinsic to any religion or inherent to prayer. I said:

“This helps me. When I’m hurting and can’t seem to end it, I say, ‘I accept this suffering.’ It doesn’t mean I don’t try to end it, or that I like it. But accepting the feeling seems to lessen its power. It seems that some of my pain comes from trying to avoid and deny and suppress the painful feeling I already have and don’t want.”

“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll try that.”

I’m not sure how acceptance worked for him; he had memory issues and didn’t share the next time I saw him. He wasn’t desperate, at least, in that subsequent moment. Acceptance seems to work better, for me, for emotional pain than for illness. I can hardly remember to think, let alone bring myself to say,” I accept this lassitude; please pass the Benadryl.”

Amidst my second week on the ropes, I’m grateful for a recent fruitful spell. I’m hoping for a good rain. One of these days, I’ll be able to write what’s now calling to me. Next I’ll stagger to my bookshelves, having abandoned what I’ve been reading, and cast about. I’ll look for something that makes me feel like writing. Something spare or snappy. Something tender and true. Something that emits energy.

All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am
—Brandi Carlile, “The Story”


  • Beth says:

    I ran across a sort of ode to collard greens pot likker from an old post today. I said it will kill infections, stop a cold in its tracks, and heal a broken heart. Now that’s a righteous brew.

    But It’s the wrong season for collards and too hot even to contemplate pot likker. Hot coffee’s a different animal.

    Sounds like you need to disrupt those allergies; hop a plane for Bryce Canyon or somewhere else high and dry. Or just get in your car and drive until your nose stops dripping and your head begins to clear.

  • Oh, sooo true. I suffer from all of the above, and nothing knocks me out of the zone more deeply than the ennui that comes from pain–of whatever kind. I did eventually find allergic relief from prescription nasal sprays, but as I’ve gotten older, in a sort of reverse logic, new maladies replace the old. One is never free of it, so acceptance–after doctors–is the way, grasshopper. Oh, and a lot of swearing helps. I have a friend who says, every morning when I ask what she’s been up to, “I went for a long walk, found a beautiful spot, and fucking meditated.” Try that. Works for her.

  • David C. Bailey says:

    Cedar trees are my enemy and when they mix it up in late February and March, I try to head for Fla. for relief. I’ve found that the effects of the antihistamines only compound what pollen is doing to me. And, you’re right, it’s so disturbing to be struck down, as I am sometimes, by something so small, but, then again, germs are even smaller, eh? And pollen goes away eventually whereas germs and viruses set up residence and often won’t decamp without intervention. And, yes, thank God for coffee.

    • I suppose it’s the technical harmlessness of pollen that really bugs me, David. Pollen is harmless! It’s your own body’s reaction, in producing histamines to fight what’s harmless, that makes us feel awful.

  • shirleyhs says:

    This is one of your best posts yet, Richard, and that’s saying a lot! I especially loved these lines: “Naming my own demon, having that self-knowledge, brings me some comfort. And accepting what’s arisen also lessens the pain. Not that the cause goes away or the symptoms end—ultimately we each walk a lonesome valley.”

    Hope your stay in Virginia brings you renewed energy and inspiration.

  • Dear Richard, I’m so sorry you’re uncomfortable in this heat. The heat is bad enough for the rest of us, but with allergies, I can imagine it’s worse. My brother (and to a lesser extent, his son, my nephew) both suffer from them. Though I somehow dodged the bullet, there are days when the AC has been off and the windows open when I wake up with a very stuffy nose, so I feel my kinship, I guess. On those days, the best thing I can do is to have two glasses of iced coffee in place of the two cups of hot coffee that I normally do before breakfast. Though I am far from recommending this as an allergy specific, why not try some iced coffee early in the morning? It seems to help my stuffiness, at least.

    • Richard says:

      Thank you, Victoria! Yet two POTS of strong hot coffee has been what it’s taken. Plus Claritin and Benadryl . . . But last night we got a haze-clearing stormy rain, and it’s a whole new world for me. I feel fine today, at last. I’m staying on the meds just in case, partly because we’re headed for Virginia later this week where I’ll be exposed to a cat, which is what previously pulled my plug. Allergies are so individual. My father was allergic to everything, test showed, but his body didn’t produce histamines and he felt fine. My mother was allergic to a few only but they laid her low.

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