By Will Swift
After five years of working on Pat and Dick, my biography of the Nixon marriage, I became addicted to my life with them. Suffering from a mild touch of Stockholm syndrome, I fell in love with Pat Nixon and grew to appreciate surprising aspects of Richard Nixon’s ambitious, persevering and self-defeating character. Combining my skills as a biographer, historian, and marital therapist gave me a deeply satisfying feeling of flow and mastery, which I am reluctant to relinquish.
For weeks before the launch day (January 7, 2014), I was glued to Google, to my Gmail account, and, of course, to the ratings on Amazon.com. It was hard not to look at my computer whenever I was not seeing patients, doing radio interviews or writing PR materials. I spent a relatively happy January and February making television appearances, supervising the Internet marketing staff I had hired, posting on Facebook, writing pieces for online sites like Politico.com and magazines like Parade, savoring a gorgeous launch party at Anne Heller’s apartment, and reading many stellar and some oddly mixed favorable reviews. I held the Nixons close.
The month of March is often hard on me. The onset of allergies, which rile up my body, is accompanied by turmoil in my psyche—shucking off winter without yet having the warmth of spring. This year, the relentlessly cold and snowy March was particularly difficult. I was beset by a more subtle and perplexing phenomenon; the angst of withdrawal from marriage to the Nixons was twined by an inability to settle on a new project—a challenging phenomenon I call book block.
I dreaded weekend days because they left me more time to experience my sudden “single” status. My partner was busy on weekends writing a cookbook. Evenings were filled with the many pleasant distractions of dinner parties. Intensely restless, I found that Scrabble or Words with Friends provided only brief and meager relief from my apathy and agitation. I checked my email thirty times a day, hooked on the hope that my publicist or some astute reader would send me another opportunity to go on television, a ravishing new review, or a stimulating and lucrative speaking opportunity. Even though I continued to give book talks, I was slowly losing Pat and Dick.
And no new book idea appealed. When I thought of topics with some slight promise (Bobby and Ethel or presidential couples after the White House), my body, after twelve years of writing books and conducting two psychotherapy practices, felt heavy, and it said, “No.” I felt a suffocating pressure in my chest. Oddly, for a liberal Democrat, I was still yoked to the Nixons, not about to cheat on them, and exhausted by my efforts to enliven them and launch them. I yearned for better sales, more widespread appreciation for my retouching of their lives—anything that would buy me more time with them.
I love being owned by a book. The structure of writing and researching helps me bind all the underlying anxiety about how changeable and uncontrollable life is. And because the book was not soaring up the best-seller charts, I was reminded anew how limited my control over events is. I could hear my father’s voice saying, “Hurry up and find a project.” Cover over that stress!
Then one day, a simple truth dawned on me. “I don’t have to write another book.” I might, but there is no necessity. Fortunately, my work as a psychologist pays my bills. I began to see how much the book launch process had deepened my connection to ego and external acknowledgement. Writing about other people’s lives helped me avoid being more fully present in my own life.
The first sign of spring in my soul was a small spark of desire to begin re-expressing my creativity. This urge was in direct conflict with another half of me that begged for rest. I needed a small project that my body would not reject. Deciding to join several speakers’ agencies on a non-exclusive basis soothed some of my angst. Preparing summaries of five speaking topics (great presidential leaders, our most misunderstood presidential marriage, the legacies of our presidents and first ladies, decreasing stress and increasing well-being, handling the challenges of writing) felt engaging while the thought of writing book chapters and footnotes made me shudder. Am I tricking myself into a book?
As April turned into May, I made a few simple, wise, and healing discoveries that might apply to any loss, not simply a biographical one:
- I don’t have to fix my restlessness; I can experience it as an interesting phenomenon.
- An unstructured day that appears to stretch interminably ahead can be broken down into small moments.
- I don’t have to lunge at the first new project that pops into my head. Writing, publishing and relinquishing my last biography have changed me. I can take my time shedding that skin and discovering what the newest version of me needs to flourish: how I can find meaning, engagement and mastery.
- Trusting my process (my internal chaos and confusion) leads me in surprising directions. Already I have renewed my interest in public speaking, meditating, and have shocked myself by joining a gym.
- I can learn a remarkable new skill: doing nothing.
- Silence can be transformative for a man of many words.
- Embracing my feelings of emptiness might lead me to greater wisdom, always one of my highest ideals.
- I can be happy not knowing. This one is challenging for a psychologist.
- Once you get the hang of it, letting go is more liberating than bewildering.
Maybe I don’t need the Nixons as much as they needed me.
Update: As of the end of June, Will Swift is now happily and lightly dating another project, which he could not conjure up while recovering from book loss. He thanks Stacy Schiff for her wonderful edits on this piece.
Will Swift is a BIO board member. You can see the Facebook page for Pat and Dick here