Last week I surrendered to the it-burns-it-burns-but-I-cannot-look-away impulse that marks the moment that we’re in. For me that meant, among other things:
In short, I did exactly the opposite of what I teach, what I typically do, and frankly, what I find most comforting.
So my brother and I are hanging out with his 2-year old goddaughter a few weeks ago. She’s the kind of kid who, as he points out, smiles not just with her face, but with her whole body. At the moment, her smile is trained on a plush, kid-sized, easy chair. Which, she has just discovered, can be tipped upside down into a little triangle, so that it doubles as a soft-sided slide. She starts climbing up one side, then sliding down the other. And when she does this, we all clap for her. And then she claps for herself. Which gives all the adults that idiotic warm feeling inside.
Inevitably, the slide turns into a tumble. Instead of landing feet first, she rolls over and bonks her head. We all hold our breath while she takes the requisite 3-second pause to decide whether this fall is a good one or a bad one. Then, having determined it was bad, she takes in a huge breath, and bursts into tears.
Her mom and dad, in smooth, wordless agreement, immediately launch a play they’ve doubtless run several times before. Dad moves toward kid. Mom grabs paci and hands off to Dad. Dad swoops up kid, pops paci in mouth, and gives her a kiss. It’s a gorgeous display of parental teamwork. But the best part is what happens next.
“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?”
One year my mom got a cold that everyone was 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. So she rarely lets sickness stand in the way of getting things done. As she explained it, 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.