“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”


Edited and compiled by Robert Sward

Too-Little and Too-Much

by Dion Farquahar

Almost everything I read pisses me off. Not that I read much these days. Books that is. If periodicals, the newspaper, and the Internet don’t count, then I hardly read at all. I manage to be too busy—with everything but reading—to read. Those rare times that I do read, are marred by the fact that it’s not written by me. So much so that it increases my reluctance to read. Books representing a success that eludes me. The bad faith reader defeated by the success of the author. Nevertheless, half of what I read stinks; it’s predictable, boring, or stupid. Or just superficial. Barely engaging. Not worth the energy it takes to elicit contempt. The other half is divided into work I wish I’d written—envy. That emotion is reserved for work that I like because it makes me consider, argue, or stretch—in short, love.

Writerly competition dares not speak its name. Especially among friends. The first writerly competition I remember came disguised as academic competition. My putative best friend, three years younger, overcame her writing block to finish her dissertation a whole two years before I did. Now it’s a stretch to call our nominally parallel track competition. That would take two players. And I couldn’t really compete, wasn’t really in the game. I was just stalled.

She agonized right along with me, but somehow slogged out the pages for hostile advisers while I tortured myself unproductively, writing nothing year in and year out for indifferent ones. Ostensibly, we were the most rhetorically supportive friends. I cheered her successes, every chapter finished. Indeed, part of me was happy for her, delighted in her achievement and victory, but another part, one I could not acknowledge to anyone, even myself, was apoplectic with jealousy and envy.

What made matters worse was that my friend gushed endless high rhetoric of mutual support. “We’re going to get through this,” she’d say. “They won’t stop us from finishing.” But the only one finishing was her. I was horribly stalled and at the same time an observer of her movement toward the degree. The seasons came and went, along with the semesters, and we taught one introductory course after the next. I was still not-writing the dissertation while my friend neared the end of writing, and then, even the end of revising. I registered the sea change in her lingua franca. From the hell of “writing,” she moved on to formatting problems and complaints about the price of copies at the neighborhood copy shop. It was during this period of my not-writing the dissertation , while my best friend made slow progress toward finishing, that I began to send my first prose fiction and poetry work out, and then publish in literary journals. Unlike the over-invested institutional weight of graduate school, writing fiction and poetry were free zones for me. I couldn’t stop writing, and scribbled notes every free moment. Instead of the interminable reading and note-taking for the dissertation, I began to use my free time to write fiction. This difference staggered me. After all, both were writing. Fiction and poetry poured out of me from every pore, while the dissertation froze me in my tracks. Hot/cold. I discovered I loved to write, unlike my best friend, for whom it was always a struggle. As long as writing was perceived by me to be deinstitutionalized, and free. And creative writing was free. You simply addressed a lot of envelopes, did a lot of xeroxing, and sent your work off to the literary magazines and contests. Usually, you’d get back a sliver of a rejection slip, but occasionally, there was the Acceptance Letter, announcing your selection requesting a bio, even the odd contest win. While my best friend made progress toward finishing and I did not, I had the occasional mini-victory of publication on acceptance, and a second triumph eons later when the journal was finally published and I literally could hold the hard copy, savoring the pleasure of reading myself in print.

On the parallel track of graduate school, my best friend could move, and I couldn’t. Our respective institutions private hells were parasitic on our private hells. At Columbia they tried to kill you—the suffocation model, whereas at NYU they let you rot, the abandonment strategy. As luck would have it, we each got what we feared most. My institution practiced a form of benign neglect toward the unproductive (All-But-Dissertation hangers-on). My Department never sent angry escalating form letters that threatened to drop me from the Program, the Advisor never called, even student loan harpies ignored me. My nightmare scenario. Being ignored.

My best friend’s university subscribed to the inverse model, endless hounding and threatening, dire ultimatums requiring baroque petitions, justifications, and signatures for tethered extensions, justifications of lateness, timelines and promises of delivery. Where I was ignored, she was surveilled. In the end, their methods coaxed pages from her. Not from me. Sensing I’d been disappeared, I reacted with kamikaze fervor. That’ll show them. Anything to get a rise out of them. Growing rage and deeper freeze. But they—my Advisor and Department—were relatively benign professionals. They dispassionately attended to the punctual and the persevering, to those with office appointments to deliver chapters in neat folders and binder clips, returning work equally punctually with comments and suggestions. Such was the conveyor belt of dissertation production, observed from afar by the paralyzed and the contemptuous.

Now this was a complicated best friendship, as many are. Our issues played out as my never having enough time with her, and her feeling the inverse, that I threatened to suffocate her with my boundless need. She experienced my demands for dates as obliterating and stifling, while I felt her containment of our contact as abandonment and stinginess. Locked in combat about our mutually unsatisfactory relationship, each one of us suffered deeply, though we loved so much about the other, and had a great time--when lost in the moment of evenings filled with laughter, shared meals, and great camaraderie--that both of us were loath to provoke fruitless confrontations. So we settled in to unacknowledged compromise between my too-little and her too-much. This was the context of our competition over writing. Several years later and relatively well-published in magazines and journals in fiction and poetry, I wrote and published my first academic book on a topic unrelated to my dissertation, a year before my friend published hers, a hefty revision of her thesis. We never spoke about this, thanking each other profusely in our respective Acknowledgements. I still ponder this throny issue of competition among friends. And it is unresolved as I write. Perhaps like economic competition, the drivers of writerly competition span scarcity and greed. Beggars and hoarders are brothers beneath the skin of class, and I am right in there, too little and too much. Working it through.


Dion Farquhar is a poet, prose fiction writer, and cultural critic who divides her writing time between creative and academic writing for pleasure and, before the current Recession, technical marketing writing for income. She is currently working on a poem cycle that tracks techno-cultural changes from the Sixties through the Oughts and a paper on September 11th and the cultures of security and solidarity.

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