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.
I hated April when I was a faculty member. Whenever I tried to sit down to write, I’d think about how far behind I was, and I’d get that tight feeling in my chest that made thinking nearly impossible. It seemed, at that moment, like the end of the year was lurking just around the corner. But then, when I thought about classes? Somehow the end of the year felt maddeningly far away.
I was reminded of this when my writing buddy and I got our wires crossed, and had to reschedule our meeting. “It’s a shit show,” she said, when I asked how things were going. “Between teaching, hosting speakers, conducting an accelerated job search and trying to write a book…I am done.” When I asked if there was anything I could do to help, her answer was clear. “No,” she said, shortly. “Not unless you can make the semester end now.”
I was rereading my journal a few weeks ago, when I came across the following line:
I’m so tired and scared that I literally can’t think straight
When I wrote those words, I was at the end of a long stretch in which I’d uncharacteristically overworked myself. I’d consciously chosen to work every day, for too many hours, for several weeks in a row, but was resentful about it. Having to do so was unexpected, undesired, and—as my journal entries repeatedly insisted at a nearly audible whine—Not. My. Fault. I can’t believe that [expletive] [expletive]. If that [expletive] hadn’t [expletive] done what they did, I [expletive] wouldn’t have to be…you get the point.
So a few weeks ago, I’m having dinner with a poet friend of mine, and she’s telling me about her new book. Her editor had been ignoring her emails for months, she said, then all of the sudden, just that day, she’d gotten a response saying the book was in production. Was she ready, the editor wanted to know? Was she prepared for her first book event in September? O how nice, I thought to myself, such a nice way to start the fall. While I was thinking that, she said “That’s just six weeks away.”
“I have to confess something,” Trina said, gazing directly at me. “I haven’t done any writing since the last time we talked.” She’d just finished one of my writing retreats a few weeks earlier, and this was our first time talking since then. “I had these long blocks of time set aside in my calendar to work on my book proposal,” she said, her face pinking up. “But I just didn’t do it.”
When I asked Trina what she’d done instead, I expected to hear she’d gotten distracted by the joys of summer, and had never even made it into her office. Or perhaps her partner had been on vacation and lured her away from work. Instead, she told me she didn’t work on her book proposal because she had to complete a different writing project. “The deadline was pretty short,” she said, the pink in her cheeks blooming from a gentle rose to bright bubble gum. As if she hadn’t done any work at all. As if she’d sat around poolside, sipping Negronis for the last two weeks.
During my first meeting with the man who would become my dissertation advisor, I told him, with complete sincerity, “If I'm not done with this program in four years, I want you to kick me out.”
I should say that my program required two years of coursework. We had to take written and oral prelims. Not the kind of prelims with a reading list built around your dissertation proposal, oh no. These prelims were in three distinct subfields for which the department may or may not have offered coursework. I also planned on doing a qualitative study. More precisely, an ethnography.
You don’t need me to do the math, but I feel duty bound to lay it out anyway: Even if I’d zipped through all the steps of becoming ABD in the first three years (I didn’t), there was no way I was going to enter and exit the field, code and analyze my data, write the diss, get feedback from my committee, and revise to their satisfaction—all within the fourth year of my program. To say nothing of depositing it, a poorly explained process with the grad school that required submitting the proper paperwork months ahead of time and enduring an in-person, page-by-page formatting review that reduced the heartiest of grad students to a jellied bundle of tears.
In other words, there was no frickin’ way I was going to finish the program in four years.
I don't know about you, but I come from a people who believe deeply in follow through. When The Boyd Family says we're leaving at 6:45 for a 7:30 movie, we are all assembled at the door at 6:43. Shoes tied, coats on, keys in hand. At 6:44 we are climbing into the car. At 6:45 we are rumbling down the driveway. When my laid-back, unsuspecting husband strolls down the stairs in his socks at ten to seven and says "oh is it time to go?" my parents just give him the side-eye. But if one of the Original Boyds is late...watch out. Accusations are made. Aspersions are cast upon one's character. It doesn't matter if you can't find your glasses or just got a call from your best friend in London. If you aren't serious about getting to the movies on time, then why'd you say you wanted to go?
With standards like these, you can imagine how pained I am when I do not meet my deadlines. And if you're a regular reader of this baby blog, you might realize that that pain applies to this very blog post, which I am three weeks late in publishing. Think back (it might be hard, it was so long ago) to two posts before this one, in which I boldly suggested that I'd write every day, at least for a week or so--then winnow my posts down to one a week.
"I think I've just done something rash," I say to my husband. I'm standing in the bathroom doorway while he finishes washing his face. As if standing just outside the room will somehow mean that I'm not breaking his ban against talking during the hour after he's woken up.
"What's that?" he asks, slowly, reaching for the towel. He doesn't realize it, but he backs away just a little bit as I hand it to him. This kind of thing is exactly why he doesn't want discussion in the morning.
Monday morning I woke up right around 4:00 a.m. This morning it was just before 3:00 a.m. If the past is any measure, I'll keep waking up earlier and earlier, until it feels like there's no point in going to sleep.
Welcome to my life, when I've got a writing deadline.
In a few days I'm gonna get cranky, like a toddler that's been at IKEA too long. My voice will take on a keening quality that will cause other adults to look away uncomfortably. And simple decisions like what I want to eat will suddenly become too complicated to bear. Though nothing I eat will satisfy me anyway. So I'll just move from one kitchen cabinet to the next, leaving a trail of empty snack bags I'll scramble to clean up when I hear my husband's key in the door. It's not a good place to be.
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Michelle Boyd. Writer, Scholar, Coach