“I felt like you were in my head.”
That’s what one scholar wrote in response to my last post on Defensive Writing. Another said they kept nodding their head and “wondering whether you are actually watching over my shoulder as I struggle with these same writing issues right now.” And those are just the things people said to me publicly! The private email I received echoed those same sentiments.
Photo by xenia at Morguefile.com
Sometimes, when I sit down to work on my book, I hear voices in my head. Especially when I’m at the tricky bits—the parts where I haven’t quite figured out how to convey a nuance that’s a distinguishing feature of the work. When I’m wrestling with those sections, I almost invariably hear from the one reviewer (out of ten. That’s right. Ten.) who expressed even the slightest bit of skepticism about my book proposal: “This’ll be great,” I hear her say with a huff, “if she can actually do it.”
Photo Credit: KConnors
Connie admitted that she’d finished everything she’d set out to do that day, but I could sense her hesitation. When I asked about it, she demurred at first. Then, after a few seconds of silence, she admitted what was bothering her. “I’m making steady progress,” she admitted, “but I feel like I could be working more efficiently. I just can’t figure out how.”
Maybe you’ve wondered this yourself. Perhaps you’re writing fairly regularly—or, if not regularly, at least enough to see the pages adding up. And that’s great, you think. That’s fine. But there’s this niggling little worry, it keeps creeping into your head. “Shouldn’t I be doing more?”
A few weeks ago, my mom got that cold that everyone’s getting. When I called to see how she was doing, she sounded kinda down. Not because of her cold symptoms—oh no. She felt down because she was, as she put it, “just lying around doing nothing.” I tried to cover up my snort, then asked, “Um…you are sick, aren’t you?” It wasn’t really a question, since I could hear her congestion and coughing. “Well, yes,” she admitted. “I don’t feel that great.” But my mom is a little brown Energizer Bunny. The real problem, she informed me, was that watching TV all day ‘cause she was nursing a cold “just makes me feel like such a...degenerate!”
“The semester has started,” my client and colleague Penelope said to me recently ”but I’m not on track.” This was a big switch from last semester, when she’d felt in control of her calendar for the first time in her career. She was managing schedule changes with ease, following her writing process (three days of deep dives each week), and finishing off one project after another—some of them on time. When she returned from winter break, she knew she had all the tools needed to set up her schedule to prioritize writing. “But, on the one hand, I’m looking at my calendar,” she tells me. “On the other, I’m looking at what’s due. And it just doesn’t work.”
Photo by Michelle Boyd
When I moved from Chicago to Portland three years ago, I was ruthless about throwing stuff out. We were reducing our living space by half. I was leaving my comfy university job and starting InkWell. And I was ready to leave the person I’d been behind and start all over.
All except two 11x17 cardboard boxes, filled with—honestly—I don’t know what. Every time I tried to go through them, all I could see were decisions I wasn’t ready to make. So I taped up the boxes and threw them in the moving van, justifying it by telling myself I couldn’t yet think clearly about what I wanted to keep. When we arrived in Portland, right before the holidays, I stuck them in a closet and promised myself I’d sort through them in the New Year.
It’s nearly three years later, and of course, those two boxes are still tucked away in the closet. I came upon them last week during another minimizing spree, determined to create more breathing room in my storage space and my life.
The summer before my sophomore year in college, I worked two jobs so I could buy myself a Ford Fiesta. I was moving off campus during the coming fall, unappreciative of public transportation, and that tiny car was the only thing I had any hope of affording. By the end of the summer, I was pretty far away from the amount I needed to get it. So my parents took pity on me and agreed to top off the difference between what I had and the cost of “a real car.” I’d been aiming for something cute, round, compact. But after just a few days searching the used car ads at the back of the Maryland Gazette, my dad and I came home with this sleek little Celica GT I’d had no idea I wanted.
It was low to the ground. It had a spoiler and a sunroof. Its headlights flipped up when you turned them on like a long-lashed crush looking up to focus their gaze just on you. This car was way cooler than I was ever gonna be, and I loved her.
Whenever I meet an academic writer and tell them what I do for a living, they tend to have two reactions. First, their eyes glaze over as they imagine the exquisite pleasure of retreating for an entire week, with no other obligation but to write. I share this enthusiasm, and don’t mind the momentary inattention. They eventually rouse themselves and move on to their second reaction—the one I’m much more interested in.
Photo by TrisOffical at Morguefile.com
So I get an email from my editor a few weeks ago. It is bright and bubbly and gurgling with enthusiasm for my as-yet-unfinished-and-recently-temporarily-sidelined-for-another-project-but-she-doesn’t-know-that book. It’s also kind and patient—she does not press but asks how things are going and wonders aloud if I’m ready to start laying out schedules. Deadlines. Hard, sharp-edged things that make me twitch. She’s careful with them, cause she’s an editor, and has worked with many a slow writer. She knows you can’t rush a good thing. Still, there they are, those tools on the table between us. Waiting for me to take them up.
Photo by dotabe at Morguefile.com
Every August, you can hear it: A thin wail of woe and lamentation, a chorus of voices bemoaning the start of the school year. I’ve sung in that chorus many times, in person and in print, and I was planning to take up its song this year as well.
Ooooweee, I was working myself into a delicious froth! Thinking back to how mad I was every August when I had to start working on my syllabi. All these folks takin’ up my time. And that damn article/dissertation/book still not done. I thought about how the slow burn of resentment faded to a sizzle of panic as the first day of class got closer, and the meetings piled up, and the writing time got slimmer and slimmer.
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Michelle Boyd. Writer, Scholar, Coach