Starting Again, Again

I have been working for the last year-ish on a new long-form writing project. The project is proceeding slowly, mostly because of time limitations.1 But it is proceeding, which is something I need to remind myself of right now.

I need the reminder because I am in the process of trying to produce a project overview, which is something I thought I’d already done. I kind of did; I started the project by producing what I thought of as a proto-prospectus, which I shared with a few friends for comment. I then wrote and delivered a talk that might serve as a first draft of an introduction to the project as a whole, and this summer I dove into work on one of the project’s central chapters. So I’ve managed to produce a fair bit of material, which is great.

But somehow the existence of that material is getting in the way of my ability to describe this project formally. My proto-prospectus feels far too informal and ill-formed; my draft introduction gets far too caught in the narrative weeds; the central chapter… well, it’s only about a third done, and in part because I felt like I’d lost the thread of the work the chapter was supposed to be doing. So if I’m going to produce the project overview I need, it’s going to require me to put everything I’ve already done aside and start fresh, in a blank document, telling the project’s story as best I can.

It occurred to me this morning that perhaps one of the reasons I feel such difficulty maintaining a grasp on this project and its through-line is that I haven’t been talking about it much — or here, frankly at all — and so haven’t worked out its points in dialogue with friends. I’ve avoided that in part because it just felt too early, and thus too risky, to go public with these ideas.

But I’m having to remind myself that Planned Obsolescence did not begin its life as a book project. Long before it began to take that shape, I did a lot of thinking-out-loud on this blog; it was only much later that the various pieces began to coalesce as something larger than what they’d been.

I’m not sure why I expected things to be different this time. Perhaps because I’m now advanced enough in my career that I figured I should know how to do this in a more systematic, more conventional, more independent way. Or perhaps there is something embedded in that seniority that has made me if not exactly risk-averse then perhaps nervous about showing uncertainty in public.

I should know better. A willingness to show that uncertainty is not only a key part of the scholarly process in which I want to engage, it’s a cornerstone of the argument I’m trying to make.

It’s not entirely a surprise that I’m having to learn this lesson again; this blog is filled with instances of me relearning and remembering and trying to remind myself of things I’d somehow managed to forget. But here I am, again, reminding myself, again, of the purposes that this space has served for me for the last fourteen years.

I’m starting again, again, both in this space and on this project. And I will hope for the opportunity to talk with you about the ideas I’m working on in the weeks ahead.

I have just had one of those moments in which writing about the reasons I’m having trouble writing the thing I’m trying to write just made the thing I’m trying to write become far more clear. As in previous such instances (c.f. the opening of the authorship chapter in Planned Obsolescence), the problem being explored in the piece of writing and the problem of doing the writing are pretty intimately intertwined. Someday I would love to remember that before my anxieties about why this thing is so hard to write become quite so pronounced.

Recalibration

Today has been a day filled with making progress on a slew of different writing projects, adding a paragraph to this one, reviewing some comments on that one, thinking about some ancillary materials to go with another. It’s also been filled with email, and report outlining, and note-taking.

In fact, it’s been the kind of day that often makes me think “shoot, I didn’t get any writing done at all today,” when honestly, if I had a Fitbit for my keyboard, keeping track of the number of words I produced, I’d probably be nearing my daily goal.

Which is to say that, given the realities of job and life and priorities and such, my goals could use a bit of recalibration. Little steps here and there represent progress, if perhaps not on the path that has been most clearly marked out in my head. Honoring that progress as progress is probably important for my general sense that things are still moving, however it may appear.

The same holds for this space. As you may have noticed, I’ve gotten a bit active here again of late, but not in the big think-piece way I used to be. I have neither energy nor inclination for that kind of work. What’s happening here is small, bits and pieces of thoughts, things I’m reading and seeing, stuff I want to remember. But so far, at least, it’s having the effect of re-engaging me, making me look at the world like a person who wants to share parts of it, and sometimes even has things to say about it. And that’s perhaps the best of what this space, and my writing, have ever done.

Getting Back to (My Own) Work

One would think, this many years and books and articles into a writing career, that I might have solved the getting-started problem by now. Or if not the getting-started problem, then at least the keeping-going problem. Not so much, though.

When I was a faculty member, writing often got back-burnered during the semester. Not always intentionally: I’d plan time in my schedule to do some bits of reading and writing intended to keep my projects moving forward, but gradually that time would be overcome by teaching work, chairing duties, committee obligations, and the like. I’d find myself at the end of the semester, at last facing open space in my schedule, and I’d think Okay. Where was I? And inevitably the need to get my bearings in the project again took longer than I wanted, heightening the sense that my limited work time was still being sucked away by things beyond my control.

My current situation is only somewhat different. I’m in a 12-month position now, and while my calendar doesn’t ever really reach those points of hiatus at which all the other obligations fall away, I do have the extraordinary luxury of time away during the summer, a combination of vacation and remote working that allows me to turn my focus at least in significant part back to the thing I refer to as “my own work.”

The challenge I’m facing today, however, is trying to remember what my own work is, and this is where I think I’ve completely blown it in my second year in my new position. My running joke, when people ask me about how my transition to the new job has gone, has been to say something about the shock of finding oneself in a 12-month, 9-to-5 gig after 20 years on the academic calendar, but then to point out that, by way of compensation, I’ve discovered this thing called a “weekend.”

It always gets a laugh, especially among academics: the notion of the weekend is a crazy luxury. Two full days to do whatever you want with! And you get them every week! And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that most of my evenings belong to me as well. Very often, in fact, work can be contained within work hours — an amazing concept, that.

During my first year in the new gig, I worked hard to protect my evenings and weekends, and I mostly did a good job of it, primarily because I was so exhausted from the intensity of the 9-to-5 days. In year two, I’ve found myself a little better adjusted to the rhythm of the days, but (perhaps as a result) I feel as though I’ve gotten declining benefits out of my weekends. A good bit of the problem is totally self-induced: I’ve travelled way too much lately, and a lot of that travel has of necessity spilled over into evenings and weekends. And then there’s been the deluge of personal stuff that has taken up out-of-office time: apartment stuff, moving stuff, life stuff.

So there are perfectly understandable reasons for it, and yet I find myself here, facing a small window in which I can focus my attention largely on writing, with zero sense whatsoever of where I am, and what I should be doing.

Don’t get me wrong: I have a list of small writing projects that need to get done in the next few weeks, articles and chapters that I’ve promised people, the obvious stuff to turn to first. The question, though, is about the overall direction of my writing. Back in October, I sketched out two potential Big Projects that I imagined working on — but now, eight months later, I feel so distant from that moment and those sketches that I cannot imagine being able to pick either project up and get going.

I’m sure that over the next several weeks I’ll either remember what it was I wanted to work on or imagine a wholly new project. My challenge to myself for the coming year, however, is to keep that project in sight. I do not want to convert my evenings and weekends wholesale into just more work time, doing away with the benefits of the 9-to-5 schedule without the compensations of the academic life to balance their loss. But on the other hand, if I can make that work more genuinely “my own” — writing that I’m doing entirely for myself, writing that’s energizing rather than draining, writing that’s even fun — I’m hoping that I might be able to find the motivation to keep it moving forward outside of work.

This post is mostly meant to help me jumpstart finding my focus and generating that motivation, but any suggestions or strategies you’d like to share in the comments would be oh-so-gratefully received…

Cheese

Thanks to Matt Kirschenbaum’s English 668K at the University of Maryland, I have been alerted to the fact that searching for me on JSTOR brings up my very first publication, “Cheese.”

Honest to goodness, I’d completely forgotten about this. “Cheese” was a short story I wrote when I was 20 or 21, I think, in the first year of my MFA program. It’s old enough that the file on my computer is listed as being “Microsoft Word 1.x-5.x,” and I’m certain that it was converted at least once, when I made the transition from the MS-DOS machine that got me through the MFA to my first Mac PowerBook. It’s from several lifetimes ago, as far as my writing is concerned.

What’s on JSTOR is not the entirety of the piece, needless to say. (At least I hope it’s needless.) I shopped the story around to literary magazines for a while, the last of which was Mississippi Review. Fredrick Barthelme was still editing it then, and after a couple of months or so, I got a letter from him. An actual letter. He told me that he was planning on doing a special issue on first paragraphs — nothing more, just first paragraphs — and that he wanted to publish mine.

And thus it came to pass that my first real publication was composed of nine out of the 5825 words I’d written. The remaining 5816 never saw the light of day.

It’s not without reason. I’ve just re-read the story, and… let’s just say that it’s imperfect. A friend from the fiction workshop I originally wrote the story for gave me a great note about the first draft, saying that its quirky tone was a bit too unrelenting for the story to do the work it wanted to do. “It’s like if M*A*S*H was all Hawkeye and no Trapper John,” he said. “You couldn’t stand to watch it.” 1 I wasn’t really able to hear what he was telling me at the time, but boy, do I get it now. Quirky isn’t the half of it. It’s painfully cute, the kind of cute that only comes from studied avoidance of the real thing the story actually needs to work out.

There was something in Barthelme wanting to publish those first nine words and pushing aside the rest that confirmed for me that something was wrong, but I wasn’t ready to deal with what exactly the wrong thing was. I more or less stopped writing fiction not long after that. My interests gravitated first toward playwriting, and then toward screenwriting. And then, bizarrely, while working in Hollywood, toward a kind of critical nonfiction, which sent me back to grad school — and the rest is history.

I’ve wondered periodically whether I could work my way back into writing fiction, but I’m not sure that I would be much better at it now than I was then. I certainly never had any intention of returning to the old stuff. So having the students of English 668K uncover the existence of this long-forgotten publication created a mini return-of-the-repressed style freakout for me. Not only is the repressed back, but evidence of it is on JSTOR. But I’m resigned, I suppose: with those nine words out there, I guess the rest may as well be, too.

In any case, safely buried below the fold, and announced this far into the post in a way that might usefully prevent anyone but the most determined from actually finding it: the rest of the story. 2

Continue reading “Cheese”

Productivity and Goofing Off

Lately I’ve found myself in one of those periods — perhaps we might refer to it as “my forties” — in which I’m so overwhelmed with the details involved in just keeping up with the most immediate and pressing tasks ahead of me that not only have I not gotten to do any writing, I’ve barely even found the space to contemplate the possibility of what might write if I had the time.

This makes me profoundly sad.

It’s not just about feeling too busy — it’s about the busy making me feel unfocused and unproductive. As though the big picture is slipping away in the masses of tasks that take up the work day and bleed over into evenings and weekends. And days off: not too many weeks ago, I’d made a pact with a friend to observe the oddity of the Presidents’ Day holiday by really making it a day off, celebrating by lying around reading a novel. Instead, I spent the day catching up on the many work and para-work tasks that just cannot be gotten through in the office. I got a lot done. I couldn’t tell you what, but it was a lot. It was kinda great, and kinda awful.

Another friend recently noted that I’ve come to refer to my plans to take a genuine day off by saying “I’m going to lie around and read a novel.” And as a professor of literature, at least in my not-too-distant past, I’ve got to marvel a bit at the association I’ve managed to build between novel-reading and leisure. Sloth, even: it’s not just reading, it’s lying around reading.

At some point, probably right about when I stopped teaching literature classes, the prior association I’d had between reading fiction and work began to fade. Reading fiction became play again, the way it had been when I was a kid. In part, the sense of fun in reading came back because I let it — I gave myself permission to read whatever I wanted, without any pressure to make use of what I was reading by either teaching it or writing about it. Without any pressure for the reading itself to be important. It was just about pleasure.

What happened shouldn’t come as much of a shock: I started reading more.

I’m looking now for a way to return that sense of play to my writing, to lessen the pressures that my preconceived notions of productivity have placed on it. I want writing to become a retreat from work again, rather than being all about work. I want it to be the thing I can’t wait to escape back into.

In order for that to happen, I think I’ve got to give myself a similar permission not to take it quite so seriously. What might be possible if I didn’t feel the pressure for my writing to be of use — if I didn’t need for it to be important? What if I could let my writing be just about pleasure?

Can I build an association between writing and goofing off?

Can a day spent sitting around writing come to feel like a holiday?

Feeling My Way Through

I find myself at one of those moments at which everything is great and yet nothing seems to be working exactly right. I’ve got an enormous deadline just ahead — not, alas, the “boy, I’m going to blow that deadline and then I’m going to feel sheepish and guilty when I finally send the thing in two weeks late” kind, but the “I will be standing in front of a very large crowd of people unveiling absolutely nothing if this thing doesn’t get done on time” kind. And in fact I think it’s going to get done on time, if we can keep all the little parts working like they’re supposed to. But this weekend a whole bunch of the little parts stopped working. Freaking out may have ensued.

My stress levels, it is needless to say, are through the roof right now. And so Sunday morning, I finally managed — after an altogether alarming number of weeks — to get myself out the door and to a yoga class. And the class was mostly great, and I’m very glad I went, but I had the thing happen afterward where the class managed — I don’t know how else to describe this — to open one of those spots in my body where I shove a whole lot of anxiety and anger and sadness that I don’t want to deal with, and so all of that got released and came flooding to the surface. Needless to say, this is more or less the exact opposite of what I want from yoga.

I’m trying to leave myself open to the possibility, however, that it’s what I need, that exhuming all that negative stuff is a necessary precursor to developing the positive stuff I’m looking for. And so I tried to do the thing that I find so hard: to really let myself feel the anxiety and anger and sadness without either clinging to the feelings or pushing them away.

Saying that I find that hard is an understatement. For one thing, I have a thick streak of Pollyanna in me, one that fairly relentlessly shoves aside anything negative with a rousing internal chorus of “take off that gloomy mask of tragedy; it’s not your style” and other such anthems of indefatigable optimism.1 For another, however, and probably more importantly, I have spent so long as a scholar living in brain-on-a-stick mode — pushing aside all of the claims not just of my body but of my heart as well, in favor of a total acquiescence to the dictates of my head — that I find it really, really hard to actually feel what I am feeling. As soon as I start feeling something, I want more than anything to know what I am feeling, to name it, determine its etiology, decide whether it’s beneficial, and if not, eradicate it as quickly as possible.

Actually living with a feeling long enough to feel it? Unthinkable. Which may precisely be the point.

There’s a deep irony in this, given that I was a most over-emotional adolescent — and that adolescence stretched on longer than I might care to admit. It’s possible that I was referred to as “histrionic” on more than one occasion, and certain very close family members may or may not have compared me to melodramatists of screen and stage. (Often.)

I learned from those family members, of course, not just about what was seemly and what wasn’t, but also what was valued and what wasn’t — and it turned out that the ability to contain your emotions, to condense them into a little knot that can take up residence between your shoulder blades, to push feeling aside in favor of thinking, was a useful skill, professionally speaking. And I discovered that the more I rationalized, the less frequently I was told I was irrational, over-emotional, highstrung. The more, in fact, I was told that I was smart.

I’m now at a crossroads, however, at which I am beginning to wonder whether there might be benefits — I mean, not just personal benefits, but real, actual, professional benefits, benefits for the profession and its relationship to the world — to ending the rational charade, to remember what it felt like to feel things, even to let feeling sometimes take the lead.2 What would it be for academia to cultivate its relationship with its heart just as much as that with its head?3

Perhaps I’m over-generalizing what is in fact a personal, individual issue. But I don’t think so. I am coming to think that many aspects of academic life, from faculty meetings to hiring and promotion processes, including communication both amongst ourselves and with the outside world, would be much improved if we all stopped insisting that everything of value can be thought, if we focused on cultivating an emotional maturity to complement our intellectual maturity. If we weren’t too embarrassed to hit “publish” on a post that starts like this one, that’s so personal as to be all about how I feel.

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.

Stuck

I find myself in that state again, in which I have a particular writing task — in this case a talk — with a pressing deadline, one that’s pressing enough that I really need to be working on it whenever I have time to write. (Being a talk, its deadline really can’t be blown.)

But for a whole series of reasons I won’t dig into too much right now, I’m struggling with the talk. It’s taking far longer to write than it should, and it’s just painful to work on. And so, as it drags on, the things that have been pushed aside in order to work on the talk are getting pushed further and further aside, and more deadlines are beginning to loom.

I’m caught in that eternal dilemma: put aside the most pressing thing in order to work on less pressing stuff that I might actually be able to knock off the list, but run the risk of not getting the talk done, or at least not getting it right? Or press on with the talk, hope a breakthrough comes quickly, and let the less pressing stuff continue to wait?

I have never found a satisfying solution to this particular kind of stuckness. What do you do when you’re caught in this deadline double bind?

Train of Thought

The funniest part of yesterday’s post — at least it’s funny to me — is how it got written: on my iPhone, on the subway. I remembered yesterday that, back when I started posting here semi-regularly again in the early summer, I began by jotting down some thoughts in this way, often standing with one elbow hooked around a pole, trying to keep my balance. I’d finish the posts started this way once I got in front of my computer. So I thought I’d try it out again, and yesterday’s post was the result.

Could my train of thought literally be a train of thought?

It’s more likely that these bursts of productivity on the train have to do with getting myself to start thinking before I get to my computer — in an environment with no network connectivity, where external circumstances often make it a good idea to pull inward and divert your attention from your surroundings.

I usually manage that by listening to French podcasts, which require a certain kind of concentration, but writing — perhaps a couple of quick paragraphs during the trip downtown — works even better, not least for helping to train my focus where I need it before I get to the office.

It’s easier to stay focused once I get there if I arrive with an idea already clearly in mind — one of those lessons that I think I need to relearn often.