Slow. Down.

I’m having one of those seasons already – one minute, it’s Labor Day, and the next, it’s almost October, and it’s not entirely clear what’s happened in the meantime. I know I had a couple of trips, and gave a bunch of talks, and sat in a ton of meetings, but beyond that, I’m not sure how a month’s worth of stuff could have happened. And it certainly doesn’t feel as though a month’s worth of stuff has gotten done.

I wouldn’t find this half so alarming, except that the rest of the fall is also ridiculously over-scheduled, and so I know it’s going to go much the same way: tomorrow I’ll wake up and it’ll be December, and everything that I have to produce between now and then will suddenly be due, if not vastly overdue. And I have one extremely pressing utterly unmissable deadline in the mix, and miles to go before I’m anywhere close to meeting it.

Work aside, fall is my favorite season; I love the gradual crispening of the air, the progressive layering of sweaters and jackets and scarves, the changing of the leaves and the smells of nutmeg and wood smoke. I don’t want to miss the transition, to wake up and find it winter.

All of this is a plea to myself, to slow down, take on each day as it occurs, and stop looking down the road (or the calendar) to what’s coming. Anticipation is one thing, but life in an endless state of countdown — three days until this; two weeks until that — chops up the time so that it can’t really be experienced. As one of my yoga instructors would say, I need to return to the intention I set some months back: to be here now.

Deep breath. Now. Pick up the next thing.

The Shape of Thought

I mentioned yesterday that I’ve been thinking about the next Big Project. I’ve been circling it for a while, trying to figure out what several of the various things I’ve written recently have to do with one another. And over the last week, I think I’ve at least started to get it; I’m starting to develop a sense of the overall shape of the thing.

But here’s the problem, or at least the surprise: that shape, as it’s appearing to me right now, is awfully traditional. A Book. I’m not positive that the thing is best produced or conveyed that way, but that’s the shape that’s in my head.

Now that I write that last sentence, it occurs to me that I may mean it more literally than I originally thought. The shape of the book is really in my head, a form that molds thought even as it occurs.1 I have no illusion that this is natural, and I’m pretty sure that this shape can be changed. But it is a sign of how deeply the structures of book culture are ingrained in all of the ways that I think: after ten years of blogging, after years of research and writing about the potentials that other forms of scholarly communication might take, I still reflexively sketch out book projects in my head.

Of course, calling this a book only really implies that it’s a predominantly text-based long-form argument. It doesn’t necessarily call for print. And it doesn’t necessarily call for it to be produced in the traditional way — off-stage, in seclusion, only to be shared (except within carefully controlled circles) when finished.

My hope is that I’ll be able to produce this thing in public, whether here or elsewhere, and perhaps as I work its shape might evolve from the book prototype in my head into something a bit more dynamic and fluid. Or perhaps it will turn out that this thing really is best suited to book-like form. I just want to be sure that I’m open to the possibilities, that I’m not defaulting to the shape I know because I know it.

Making Room

I’ve just gotten back from a trip (about which, as I said on Twitter, I hope to be able to write soon) to find it pretty solidly fall around here. Less weather-wise, though there is the beginning of a little crispness in the mornings and evenings, than in a more intangible sense of atmosphere; my online pals are pretty much all back in class (except for those of you on the quarter system; your calendar confuses me, seeming to derive from an entirely different cosmology from my own), preparations for the convention are no longer strictly behind-the-scenes, and things have generally taken on a slightly faster pace. The year has definitely begun.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the change of calendar year has rarely inspired me to the kind of stock-taking and resolution-making that the start of a new academic year does. It’s time to break out the new notebooks, to put on your stiff new bluejeans and shiny new sneakers, and make a plan for the year ahead.

My plan this year involves launching a major new endeavor at the MLA and beginning to plot a couple of others. It also includes a bunch of talks and conferences, about which more soon.

But it also involves turning some part of my attention to the next Big Project, which I think last week’s trip helped me figure out some crucial things about. One of the key things that I figured out last week is that space and time for working on that new project will not magically appear in my schedule. If I’m going to make any headway on this thing, I’m going to have to make room for it.

It’s the kind of realization that seems totally obvious, as soon as you’ve had it, and yet betrays one of those continually recurring blind spots that I have about my work life: I cannot do it all. If, as many have observed, there are tasks you have which are urgent, and tasks you have which are important, and if the urgent stuff is often stuff that other people ask of you, ensuring that the important stuff is properly prioritized is totally on you. Everybody else would be perfectly happy for you to go along attending to the urgent.

I don’t mean to make it sound as though I’ve figured out that “everyone else” is infringing on my precious time. In fact, the issue is truly my own: my tendency is to agree to do every neat thing somebody asks me to do, and (as I noted a couple of weeks ago), I need to do a better job of sorting through those requests, ensuring that the things I agree to do are in fact the things that will best support what I want to get done.

What this boils down to: I have a big writing project that I hope to make headway on this year. In order to do that, I need to ensure that any small writing projects I agree to take on are working, at least in part, toward the goals of the big project.

That’s my resolution for this new academic year: I’m making room for the important. We’ll see how well I do at sticking to it.

Fall

Today we’ve got one of those glorious mornings in New York in which you begin to feel the first bits of fall in the air. The sun is up and the temperature and humidity are down. I even saw a young woman walking down Third Avenue wearing a scarf.

“That’s a little optimistic,” I thought, and yet I get it. The high today is projected to be 79 — the first digit is a 7! — and it’s enough to make someone who loves fall as much as I do dizzy with hope.

Of course, it’s going to hit the 90s on Friday, just to make sure we don’t get too ahead of ourselves. But it’s still a great moment for me to pause and think about all the amazing things just ahead.

Time Zones

Though my focus in writing here for the last ten years has mostly been professional, I’ve never tried to pretend that this wasn’t a personal blog. (In fact, I dispute the distinction: my professional life is extremely personal to me, and though my focus is often on professional stuff, I’ve worked very hard not to be, as Bitch Ph.D. was fond of saying, a brain on a stick. I haven’t always succeeded, but it’s a fight worth fighting.)

That said, I’m often really uncomfortable writing about the personal-personal stuff, and so when those are the things that are taking up my brain space, I’ll tend not to post at all.

But this morning, I feel an acute need to write something, and the thing I least want to write about is the thing that’s most on my mind: R. is leaving for Paris today, and it’s not at all clear when I’ll next see him.

Immediately that begins to feel overly dramatic — which is no small part of why I avoid writing about the personal-personal stuff. I’m all but positive I’ll go spend Christmas with him, and I’m fairly sure I’ll see him sometime between now and then. So it’s not like this is some grand parting, and I’m not quite immobile with grief.

But Paris is far. We’ve spent years commuting – I did the math not long ago, and of the 21 years we’ve been together, we’ve lived in different time zones for 13.5 or so. So on the one hand, Paris is just a slightly more extreme version of what we’ve been doing all along. On the other, it’s a slightly more extreme version of what we’ve been doing all along.

The good news is that we had a great few weeks together, culminating in a great birthday trip for me. And I’m in a place I love, doing stuff I love – and he will be, too.

I just keep hoping that we’ll find a way to do things we love in the same great place.

Someday.

45

Yesterday, as I noted then, was my birthday, and it was one that I was surprised to find myself a bit ambivalent about. I haven’t really felt bad about a birthday in that oh-god-I’m-getting-old kind of way since I turned 29. Of course, I look back now on that bit of moaning and laugh, but I do still understand what it was that had me unhappy: “9” birthdays have felt like the end of something, as though an amazing period of my life was too-quickly wrapping up. By contrast, I was thrilled to turn 30 — I felt like I’d gotten a whole new decade to play with, a wide-open vista in which I could do anything.

I was less sad about 39 than I’d been about 29, perhaps because my 30s had gone so unbelievably well that all I wanted to do was enjoy the last year. And because I was attuned to the “wide-open vista” feeling, turning 40 pretty much rocked as well.

45, though, I wasn’t looking forward to. It’s not the start of a new decade, but the entry into a new demographic. No longer will I be part of the 29-44 age bracket. Never again will somebody look at me and think, wow, she’s only in her early 40s — how young to have accomplished all that!

But yesterday numbers among the best birthdays I’ve ever had. I took a couple of days off of work, and R. and I hopped a train down to DC to goof off a bit. We had a nice late dinner on Wednesday, and then woke up yesterday ready to start whatever the birthday plan would be. I expected to do some reading, some writing, some shopping, and then to have a fabulous dinner to cap it all off.

About 9.30 or so, however, there was a knock on our hotel room door. I assumed it would be housekeeping, and so got up from my computer to answer — and instead found the hotel service manager standing there with a bunch of balloons, a cake, and a card signed by all of the front desk staff. R. had mentioned off-handedly as we checked in that we were here for my birthday, but that was the extent of his involvement; the staff had planned the rest themselves.

I was really touched by their thoughtfulness — as I was, once again this year, by the crazy outpouring of happy birthdays on Facebook. I am no fan of Facebook, I will admit, but this is one thing that culture really has going for it. Friends from as far back as high school and as recently met as a conference this summer all popped up sending good wishes for the day, and though I know that the network makes the effort involved in that outpouring pretty trivial, the effect is nonetheless moving: seeing the number of people from across your life willing to take a moment to say hi is a powerful reminder of the connections you’ve made, and the ways they can be maintained.

Anyhow, I spent much of the day reflecting on these connections and on the directions I want to explore as I enter this new demographic. And I got a new toy to play with, as R. upgraded my iPad (which is a pretty hilarious birthday present, considering what happened to the iPad I gave him for his birthday last year, a story that does not make me look particularly good, so I’ll just leave the details for another time). And at the recommendation of a friend, R. and I went out for a most ridiculously good dinner. And then completely collapsed from celebration overload. The day honestly couldn’t have been any better.

So today, forward into 45. And forward into new experiments, new projects, new connections.

You Will Never Get It All Done

The Chronicle’s ProfHacker and Inside Higher Ed’s GradHacker have this week collaborated on a series of posts about productivity apps and systems. I’m constantly in search of the right way to organize my working life, to keep my focus, and to keep my eighty-bajillion (that’s an approximation) projects moving forward, so I’ve been reading these posts with great interest.

The two that most spoke to me, however, have taken a philosophical approach, stepping back from the relentless determination to do ALL the things! and instead thinking about how we decide what to do and why. On Monday, Natalie shared her personal productivity rules, and I was struck by her sense of trying to take care of her future self — doing things now, even when she doesn’t really feel like it, in order to make things easier on herself later on. So much of my work ethic is focused on NOW NOW NOW that doing something like packing lunch before I go to bed at night, so that I don’t have to worry about it in the morning (because I know perfectly well that I won’t worry about it in the morning, and will instead find myself out paying too much for yet another salad) would never occur to me. So I’m now pondering the ways that I can do a better job of taking care of future me.

And then, this morning, Jason issued a clear reminder of why it is that I need to look out for future me: “You will never get it all done,” he says, so making choices about what to do, and when to do it, requires a careful consideration of what’s really important to me, what my values are, and how I can best support them.

“You will never get it all done” flies directly in the face of the advice I’ve given myself ever since I was a panicked undergraduate, looking at the stack of work that I had to do and the looming deadlines by which it all had to be done: “Relax,” I’d say to myself then. “You’ve repeatedly faced this moment at which the amount that has to be done simply cannot fit into the time allotted, and yet despite that seeming impossibility, you have always somehow managed to get it done. And you will this time, too.”

That little speech got me through college, through grad school, through thirteen years of trying to balance a full teaching load, an active research agenda, and a metric crap ton of administrative work, and it always worked. I’d calm down, draw a breath, and dive in — and somehow, it all always seemed to get done.

But as Jason notes, “the more you succeed, or the more things you do well, the more opportunities will present themselves.” And I find myself in the entirely privileged circumstance in which the opportunities are expanding astronomically. This situation requires a different kind of self-talk, because once I say yes, once I add the opportunity — the commissioned article, the invited lecture, the advisory board — to my to-do list, I’ve committed myself to getting it done. And one of the best ways that I can be kind to future me is by ensuring that those commitments are to the things that best support the work I want to do, in the deepest sense.

What matters most? What do I want my work to accomplish? It’s perhaps not surprising that these productivity posts have me pondering such enormous life questions: today’s my birthday, and while it’s not a big round numbered one, it’s one of those that often moves you out of one demographic category and into another. It’s a moment for taking stock, for thinking about where I’d like to be when the next milestone birthday rolls around, and how I might best get myself there.

Ten

I nearly missed it. Again.

Today is the tenth anniversary of my first post here at Planned Obsolescence. 1484 posts later, I’m still here, and I’m thrilled to say that, given the renewed energy of things around here over the last month-plus, I think this thing might have a future.

I’ve been thinking a bit about where I was ten years ago, where I am now, and the many amazing things that have happened inbetween. I failed to publish a book, and then not only published it but wrote and published one that grew out of the difficulties of not publishing that first one. I mumbled something about founding a digital scholarly press, and then actually wound up co-founding a virtual scholarly society of sorts, and then found myself working on the digital contexts of a very actual scholarly society. I worried about getting tenure, then not only got it, but got promoted a second time, and then — well, I’m not sure I’ve entirely walked away from the whole shebang yet, but I certainly find myself at that particular crossroads.

It’s been an astonishing ten years. I’ve accomplished way more than I thought I ever could. And the thing that’s clearest to me is that none of it would have happened had I not acted on that weird impulse to start a blog. It was an exercise in immediate gratification, trying to get work in front of an audience sooner rather than later, but its rewards have extended much further than I would have believed.

Elbow, Wrist, Fingers, Pen, Words

I’m at the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute Annual Symposium today, which has been fascinating all the way around. Perhaps the most amazing part of the day, however, was a writing workshop with Peter Elbow.

Peter Elbow! Who started the workshop with a couple of freewriting assignments! As a fellow attendee put it,

The experience reminded me how enormously fruitful it can be to put pen to paper without knowing exactly what’s going to come out; in doing so, I actually figured out something new about one of the things I’m hoping to write — about which, I hope, more soon.

I also figured out that I don’t put pen to paper — literally, pen to paper — anywhere near as often as I used to both because of the host of aches and pains it now produces (my wrist can’t bear writing by hand for very long anymore), but also because I’ve gotten to be just as fussy about my pen-and-paper technology as I am about my computers. I really hated the pen I was writing with today, and wound up writing about that: the point was too think, the ink too clumpy, the flow completely off. It was hard to force myself to keep going; honestly, I’d have reached for the pen in my bag if Peter Elbow (Peter Elbow!) hadn’t told us to keep putting words on paper as if the room would explode if we stopped.

It made me remember that I had a meeting in the office a few days ago, in a conference room on the other side of the building — and when I arrived, I realized I’d forgotten to bring a pen. Rather than use the one a colleague offered me, I ran back to my office to grab my own.

I want writing to be comfortable. I want the right tools. But today, in a crowded conference room, using a bad pen on the wrong pad, not sure at all that I had anything to say, I managed to figure out something I hadn’t quite put my finger on before.

Perhaps disrupting my comfort levels — at least in short, controlled bursts — might help open up some new ideas.

I Has a Sad

I’ve just gone through and pruned my blogroll, taking a look to see who was still active (by a fairly generous definition, given my own lack of activity), who had moved house, and who had gone the way of all things since I last took a hard look at my sidebars.

Things happen. Bloggers move on, lose interest, get jobs that require other kinds of writing, and the like; I don’t expect everybody to keep producing. But in my little tour of bloglandia I discovered that the very first blog to catch my attention — the blog of a friend from grad school, which I stumbled across the very week I finished the manuscript of my first book, just shy of ten years ago, just as I was beginning to wish I had some kind of outlet for the immediate gratification of my desire to communicate — is being kept up-to-date, but not by my friend. That site has been taken over by a commercial entity using it to advertise Reputable Chiropractic Services and Compassionate Personal Injury Attorneys. And worse: my friend’s archives are not there.

My friend has gone on to great things; I’m not sad for him. I’m sad for me. It’s less that my model has been corrupted (and yes, I do now have J. Geils whistling through my head) than that I can’t ever revisit that blog in search of inspiration, that his half of our early conversations — the far smarter half — are lost.

I obviously knew when I named this blog lo these many ages ago that this was a possibility; obsolescence is engineered into the very architecture of the blog. But things like blogs and friendships can be preserved, with a little work.