I hated April when I was a faculty member. Whenever I thought about my writing deadlines, and how far behind I was, I’d get that tight feeling in my chest, and it seemed 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 one day 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.”
April is academia’s version of what happens at the end of any work season. Everything’s coming to a head and there’s a final push that can’t be escaped, no matter what you do. When that happens, it’s easy to feel like your writing has to fall to the wayside. If you’ve got a steady practice going, it’s tempting to schedule other work into your writing time—you know, just to clear your head. To get everything out of the way before you write. (Which, you end up not actually doing).
And if writing is a struggle? Then it’s even more difficult to resist that false sense of accomplishment—the one that comes from plowing through your email, or finishing off that overdue committee report. At our summer writing retreats, I hear the same story over and over: April writing abandoned in despair, with the promise to make it all up in May.
The difficulty, of course, is that Academic April always last longer than we want it to. Sure, May comes, and then classes eventually end. But then there are exams to give and grades to submit. There are Digital Measures to report and final committee meetings to attend. To say nothing of the defenses and capstone presentations that have to happen before everyone disappears from campus. If you’re on the quarter system, you might not have reached your Academic April yet. It might not start for you till much later in the month. But you’re still heading into that last quarter of the year, where you have to muscle through a torrent of non-writing obligations.
By the time everything is over, most scholars I know are so exhausted that they need several weeks of down time to recover. “I'm actually taking the first week of May to basically sleep and binge watch something,” said my writing buddy.
The problem here isn’t really Academic April. The problem is that we refuse to accept Academic April for what it is. We refuse to surrender to it or adjust how we work so that we can stay steady in our writing habit. Academic April comes every year. Every year it’s just as bad as it was the year before. And every year—in December and January when we’re planning our syllabi and saying yes to yet another talk/committee/conference—we forget how bad Academic April is going to be. And then, every year, when it comes again, we respond to it in one of two ways.
Some of us stand in mute and frozen awe at the tsunami of demands headed our way. It’s all just too much (Not metaphorically. It really is too much. You know that, right?). And so we turn away from everything that’s happening, too panicked at the thought of what's coming to even think about writing. When I look back over my App store receipts, I always notice a spike in purchases around this time of year—usually of mindless, addictive, soothing iPad games. The kind that allow me to grow farm vegetables. Or raise bunnies.
The second response I see is the mad scramble to outrun the tsunami. This scholar is convinced that if she plans her schedule juuuust right, she can do All The Things. This usually involves unrealistic intentions of pre-dawn writing, followed by a full day of teaching and events, rounded out by an evening of patient, loving frivolity with the fam. Not to mention the quick pass through email before bed.
Each of these strategies are understandable. Neither of them is particularly effective. And both prolong your sense of overwhelm and leave you exhausted and resentful by the time the term comes to an end.
The key to writing through this point of the year is getting crystal clear about what you most need from your writing practice right now. It’s easy to assume that the only kind of writing that counts is what you were able to do over spring break, or at the beginning of the term. Some of you might be harboring the assumption that your writing should look exactly as it did during the summer. But trying to maintain the same kind and pace of writing could be the worst choice possible for you and your writing habit right now. Here’s what I mean:
Some of you have struggled long and hard to get to the point where regular writing feels automatic. So for you, you might really need to stay regular in the writing, regardless of how much gets done. In this instance, what might serve you best is Tiny Bite Writing: making sure you do a very small amount of writing, something that can be completed in 15 minutes or less—just to make sure you stay in touch with the habit of interacting with it.
Or maybe you’re right at the point where you’re working out the thorniest, most complex idea in your writing. You might also need Tiny Bite Writing. Not necessarily because you need to maintain your habit. But because you need to stay in touch with the ideas—touching them briefly and then giving your brain time to think them through when you’re not actively writing.
Or maybe you used to hate writing, and have finally figured out how to get joy and satisfaction from it. That’s what keeps you motivated to write—but you can easily be tipped over into a sense of dread that keeps you away from it for weeks. In your case, what might matter most is maintaining the pleasure that writing brings you. Making sure it feels like an indulgence, rather than a chore. If this is you, maybe all your writing time becomes reading time, when you give yourself permission to, not just skim, but actually read through, make notes on, and puzzle over the ideas in some new books you haven’t had a chance to read.
And let’s not forget the option of actually just…taking a break from writing. This isn’t the same as missing the writing time you’ve scheduled in your calendar and retroactively referring to is as a break. Nor is it the same as trying to write if you can "find the time,” but then being ok if you miss it. Taking a writing break involves deliberate planning, for both the pause and the resumption of your writing practice. If you don’t have any pressing deadlines, and can trust yourself to hop back into work at the beginning of the summer, then it might make more sense for you to give all your attention to Academic April, so you can come back fresh and excited about your writing when summer starts.
I could go on and on. There are as many options available as there are scholars on the planet. The point is, I don’t know what you need to keep writing this month. Only you know the answer to that question.
And here's the thing: you can trust yourself to figure it out. Not when you’re in the grip of a panicked early morning writing session. But if you take a quiet moment—maybe on a walk with the dog, or after everyone's gone to bed—you can determine what makes most sense for you, outside of the rush and tumble of campus life.
Take a moment and ask yourself: Where am I with my writing projects? Where am I with my writing practice? And what do I most need from it right now? If you do, I think you’ll enjoy a rather frank and illuminating conversation with a part of yourself that’s exceptionally clear about what will serve you best.
Will having this conversation with yourself make Academic April any less frenetic? Nope. Will it make the time go by any faster? Sadly, no. Will it help you stay focused and centered on your writing, amid all the noise and rush? It will. Even when everything else in your world is trying to keep you from doing so.
And then, I promise, summer will come.
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3/26/2019 09:12:05 am
Perfect timing as always, Michelle! I am going to decide this week (intentional time off for Spring Break) how I want my writing to look during Academic April.
3/29/2019 12:30:49 pm
Edelina! I'm so glad--this always works for you when you take the time and mental space to do this :).
3/26/2019 10:13:40 am
Thank you for this. It’s both such a relief to read in tat it confirms/describes the horrible feelings of this time of year yet also inspires proper action on how to deal them! Thanks!
3/29/2019 12:32:47 pm
Heidi, you're so welcome. I hate that others get what I'm talking about so easily :). But I'm glad it helped.
Thanks as always, Michelle! I'm still in the throws of March Madness so I haven't even begun to think about "Academic April" but your guidance is well-timed. I had already planned to lower my expectations this week but your post re-affirmed that intention and offers a wonderful array of possibilities for doing that with my writing while still making progress. This idea that surrender and progress can go hand-in-hand is one I continue to struggle with even though I know that it's the only way forward.
3/26/2019 10:45:59 am
I meant to write "throes" (not throws)...typing too quickly.
3/29/2019 12:34:29 pm
Tisha, you and me both! That surrender/progress dynamic is a life long practice, for me and many others.
I love this! For me, my academic April comes in January... for some reason I've done a good job of accepting that spring term will be a "shit show"... it's the term I'm usually teaching the most classes, I've been working my butt off the previous two terms (on the quarter system) to get my writing out the door, there are a bunch of family events (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.). However, I'm always surprised when winter break ends and winter term begins in January how much of a struggle it is, there's a big conference that's every January, classes are intense, the weather is crap, students are in their second term of grad school and are really feeling it, I'm thinking how can I possibly get anything done in the midst of all this! My goal for next January (and Feb) is to accept the winter chaos and let go! Focus in on one writing project where I'm the lead and let everything else go until I feel stable again!
3/29/2019 12:29:19 pm
Yesssssss Jill! We gotta work our writing into our real life--that's the way to do it.
3/29/2019 08:25:33 am
Thanks for your on point encouragement Michelle. My key take away is from the following because that is where I am at:
3/29/2019 12:30:05 pm
Kareen, I'm so glad this helped--it's hard work allowing ourselves to accept where we are in the writing process. Nice work!
3/30/2019 10:19:02 am
So timely, Michelle, as my spring break wraps up and I feel myself dreading the last 5 weeks of the semester. I really gravitated toward your quote about "getting crystal clear about what you most need from your writing practice right now." I going to try to be intentional about reflecting on this as I approach the remainder of this semester. Thanks for writing this, Michelle!
4/1/2019 03:11:29 pm
Lorena you are so welcome! It's so hard to be intentionally in conversation with your writing practice--glad this helped.
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