A writer whose work I admire enormously tweeted the other day about the new book they’re working on and the joy they’re taking in it. Reading this tweet left me simultaneously delighted and saddened — delighted because there will soon be more amazing work for me to learn from; saddened because… well, because me. Because I’m not writing right now. Because I despair of my ability to clear out the time and the brain space required to really dig into another serious writing project. Because I know I’ll never measure up to the example of that writer I so admire, who has published two brilliant new books in as many years and is well on the way to more. And who has won numerous awards for those books, so it’s not just about quantity, but about quality as well.
I look at my own body of work and, at my worst moments, feel its painful slowness. It took more years than I care to count after completing my first book for me to have any inkling that there might be a second one, and there was a similar gap between the end of book two and the start of book three. How long, I wonder, will it be before I really get traction on another writing project? Why can’t I be as prolific as that writer, or any of those other ones, whose work I so admire?
At moments like this, I remember a former colleague of mine listening to my frustration and saying “but, Kathleen: how many books do you want to write during your career?” That question brought me up totally short; my first response was going to be “all of them?!?,” but right behind that came the somewhat dumbfounded question, “is there some number that’s enough?” And then: if there were, what would it be, and how would you know?
Part of the issue, then, is this sense of not-quite measuring up to some standard that I’m not even conscious of having set. But part of it is the source of that unspoken standard, which is externally derived, leaving me engaged in the constant work of comparison, anxiously checking to see if my work measures up to that I see being done around me. A mentor of mine (one of the generous thinkers to whom the most recent book is dedicated, in fact) tried to steer me away from this kind of invidious comparison years ago, when I was one year behind an award-winning super-genius on the tenure track. Such comparisons do no one any good. At the pre-tenure moment, I was of course caught up in the (not entirely mistaken if undoubtedly overblown) impression that my colleagues would be comparing my work to that of my immediate predecessor. Now? If there is comparison going on, it’s fully internalized.
These are the moments when I most need to remember what my colleague Beronda Montgomery has taught me: the importance of establishing my own index for what I consider success and keeping myself focused on it. By articulating her own personal metrics for evaluation, Beronda keeps herself focused on values and purpose and ensures that the work she is doing fulfills them. Even more, she ensures that she’s working from affirmation, not for affirmation, as she shows up to the work already valued and affirmed in her purpose.
When I start from a conscious sense of my own purpose, rather than the markers of success I’ve unconsciously absorbed, I remember how much of the work in my portfolio that means most to me has been focused on fostering better conditions within which other people can do their own creative and connective work. It’s been about creating and transforming systems and structures that allow that work to be more engaged and more fulfilling for all of us. Perhaps I could write more if I weren’t doing all that other work — if I weren’t directing a program and two centers, if I weren’t building the Commons. But I think I’d feel less satisfied with a portfolio that focused mostly inward — a deep irony for a committed introvert, but true nonetheless. It’s much too important to me to work on projects that have the potential for building community, and for changing the ways that all of us work.
File this under “things that are perfectly obvious as soon as I say them, but of which I nonetheless have to remind myself repeatedly.” The great news, I guess, is that these reminders present an epiphany every time: light dawning over Marblehead may come as sudden wonder at the glaringly obvious, but it’s awe-inspiring nonetheless. The internal effects of the competitive structures of institutional reward that I described in Generous Thinking are pernicious, and rooting them out may well be the work of a lifetime.