Insomnia

There are few complaints that make me feel whinier than does insomnia, but there’s at least a little bit of pleasure in the whining, because there are also few complaints that produce more immediate, genuine sympathy. Not being able to sleep is no fun, and everyone who’s been there gets it. It’s not for nothing that there are so many compelling critical books out there about insomnia. (Here’s one particularly good one.)

I’ve had pretty serious bouts of insomnia since I was a kid. My childhood insomnia, though, was always of the can’t-go-to-sleep variety. I’d get sent to bed at whatever time seemed appropriate to my mother, and I’d lie there for hours trying to fall asleep, but it never worked. And so of course it was hard to drag me out of bed in the morning. It was miserable, all the way around.

I still have trouble getting to sleep, but since I became a grown-up with my own bedside lamp and reading material and no one telling me I can’t use them, I at least know how to manage times when that difficulty surfaces. And weirdly, I’ve become a super-early morning person; I go to bed at what my mother now thinks is a ridiculously early hour and get up before the sun and spend the first few hours of the day doing stuff just for me. It took a little bit of adjustment, but when I’m working on something I’m excited about, I actually kinda dig waking up at 4.30 and having some coffee and getting to it.

The far less awesome bit of this, which has definitely worsened with age, is the development of the can’t-stay-asleep variety of insomnia. Not waking up at 4.30, but waking up at 1.30 and being unable to get back to sleep for at least a couple of hours, if at all. It not only threatens my best morning working time, but it leaves me fuzzy and grouchy and often nauseated all day.

The first time I remember this mode of insomnia striking with any regularity was during the process of writing my dissertation. I’d wake up just enough to realize I was uncomfortable and needed to roll over or something, and my brain would pop up and say “Oh good. You’re awake. We need to talk.” And that was it: every bit of anxiety I had about the project, money, the job market, and so on and so on would all start bubbling to the surface. At some point, I’d just give up and go to work.

That level of anxiety diminished a bit while I was an assistant professor, though for all the obvious reasons it didn’t exactly go away. It just became a familiar pattern: if I woke up enough for my brain to engage, I’d start thinking about everything I needed to do that I was afraid I was either going to forget or somehow let drop, and I’d be awake for the duration. This was the period when I developed the majority of my getting-things-done habits, as I discovered at some point that the things I’d start worrying about were things that weren’t on my to-do list. As soon as I wrote them down, they’d leave me alone. So I tried to write EVERYTHING down. And it mostly worked.

Now… what to say. I am of an age, and while parts of that age are awesome, other bits are the worst. I have chronic tendonitis in both shoulders, and when it flares up there is no lying-down position that is comfortable for more than a couple of hours. And add to that the various indignities that shifting hormone levels produce, and the result is that I sleep terribly at least a couple of nights a week. Sleepytime tea (the EXTRA kind, with the valerian) sometimes helps. Melatonin sometimes helps (though the resulting hyper-vivid dreams often leave me waking up tired). Serious pharmaceuticals definitely help, but only on the night I take them; most of them produce a killer kickback the following night, undoing the good of the night of sleep I got.

Anyhow. I’ve been writing along hoping I’d get to some kind of conclusion, but I don’t think there is one. Except, frankly, getting even older: I watched my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and my parents go through this mid-life set of sleep disturbances, and each and every one of them hit a point at which they suddenly started sleeping like a baby again. Seriously: my parents, who used to get up in the 5.30 vicinity every day of their lives, whether they wanted to or not, can now sleep until 8.00 or even beyond with no trouble whatsoever.

So, something to look forward to. In the meantime, I have whining, and I’m apparently not afraid to use it.

Insomnia is the worst. Woke up this morning at 1.52 and could not go back to sleep for anything. Finally got up and made coffee at 4.00. Tried to nap around 6.00, without much success. Am, shall we say, not at my sharpest today.

Why Not Blog?

My friend Alan Jacobs, a key inspiration in my return (such as it is, so far) to blogging and RSS and a generally pre-Twitter/Facebook outlook on the scholarly internet, is pondering the relationship between blogging and other forms of academic writing in thinking about his next project. Perhaps needless to say, this is something I’m considering as well, and I’m right there with him in most regards.

But there are a few spots where I’m not, entirely, and I’m not sure whether it’s a different perspective or a different set of experiences, or perhaps the latter having led to the former. For instance, Alan notes:

If I had never blogged a single word I would have precisely the same job I have now…

By contrast, I know without any doubt whatsoever that if I had never blogged at all I would not only not have the same job I have now, I would not have gotten my previous job, and might very likely not have gotten promoted at the one before that. The blog was not just the venue in which I started putting together the ideas that became my second book, the one that made promotion and various subsequent jobs possible, but it was also the way that I was able to demonstrate that there might be a readership for that second book, without which it’s much less likely that a press would have been interested. And then, of course, there’s that blog-based open review project, which was crucial to the book turning out to be the book that it was.

In fact, all along the path, such as my career thus far has taken, the blog has been necessary if not sufficient. My first formal citations in the scholarly literature, for instance, pointed to blog posts rather than to more regularly published work. So Alan’s not at all incorrect assertion —

Scholars will cite a dozen mediocre peer-reviewed published papers before they’ll cite even the most brilliant blog post.

— triggers in me an unfortunate case of #NotAllScholars!, which while perhaps literally true is just as unhelpful and privileged and key-issue-avoiding as all other versions of #NotAllX are. In fact blog posts are not the kind of thing one can detail on one’s annual review form, and even a blog in the aggregate doesn’t have a place in which it’s easy to be claimed as a site of ongoing scholarly productivity.

Alan, in any case, is working his way around to what the blog might actually do, regardless of what our shared profession thinks it might or might not do. And in a somewhat different way, I am as well. As I noted in an aside, I’ve never started a book project — and I mean that all the way back to my dissertation — in the way that I have always thought I was supposed to: (a) Having an Idea; (b) Researching that Idea; (c) Outlining the Book exploring that Idea; (d) Writing the Book detailing that Idea.

Mine have gone more like (1) having some vague annoying idea with a small i; (b) writing multiple blog posts thinking about things related to that idea; (iii) giving a talk somewhere fulminating about some other thing entirely; (4) wondering if maybe there are connections among those things; (e) holy carp, if I lay the things I’ve been noodling about over the last year and a half out in this fashion, it could be argued that I am in the middle of writing a book!

This is in my experience less a matter of, as Alan describes it, an idea pulling up in your driveway and sitting out there honking its horn, than it is me waking up in the driver’s seat on the freeway and thinking that maybe it would be a good idea to put my hands on the wheel after all.

All of which is to say: it hit me this afternoon that there’s an idea — small i; vague; annoying — that I’ve been writing and talking about in a weird range of forms lately (talks, blog posts, grant proposals). And today I’m wondering whether that might be the next car I wake up in, and whether there’s a way for me to prepare to take the wheel.

Perhaps that preparation might happen here. Perhaps what happens here might demonstrate that there’s no capital-I Idea after all. In any case, hi, thanks for reading, this space will not go wasted.1

I have this far snuck into all three of my books (those published and those forthcoming) by the back window. I’m not sure why I’m surprised to find that the thing I thought I would write next might not be welcoming me in via the front door. But that idea over there…?

Wrapping Up

Yesterday, I wrapped up the revisions on Generous Thinking, and I’m finding myself of very mixed minds about where I am today. On the one hand, I am super excited about getting the manuscript into the press’s hands, getting it moving through the process toward the next stage of its public life. The events of the last few weeks — at both the national and the institutional level — have me convinced that this project needs to be out there now.

On the other hand, I have the not-so-vague feeling that I have been running as hard as I can toward the edge of a cliff, and that one morning soon, having sent off the manuscript, I’ll look down and discover there’s nothing beneath my feet. So I’m finding myself drawn to doing bit of preemptive thinking about what’s next, hoping that the gap between the ground I’m currently running on and the next bit of ground ahead might be less wide and less deep, leading to a less painful crash.

Don’t get me wrong, I know a fair bit of what’s ahead: reviewing copyedits, indexing, and all the other many things that still have to be done on my side of the process of transforming that manuscript into a finished book. But I have never completed a major project knowing what my next project was going to be. Or — maybe this is closer to the truth — I have concluded major projects thinking I knew what the next project was going to be, but I have always, always been wrong. And it’s taken longer than I expected, every time, to find my way into another project.

So on the one hand, I know that I’m in for a bit of flailing. On the other, I’m trying to give myself as much of a path forward as I can, so that maybe I can avoid the worst of it. This time out, that path consists of a lot of reading, piles of books that I’ve stacked up over the last few months, that I’ve been looking forward to getting into. I think the key challenge is going to be letting myself explore, letting myself not-know exactly what it is I’m reading for. And probably letting myself do a bit more thinking-out-loud here.

In any case: manuscript out. And more, of some as-yet undetermined sort, to come.