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.
Soooooo, guess what? Summer’s finally here. I’ve got all the time in the world…
And I don’t feel like writing.
The reasons are varied, and maybe you can relate: After a long, wet winter, summer has finally arrived in Portland. The afternoon skies are so sharply blue, it nearly hurts my eyes to look at them. This beauty only lasts so long. So, every day at lunch, I find myself drifting onto my balcony, where a faded lounger and a novel rob me of any interest I might have in writing.
I’m also running again, which means I’m using up a fair amount of discipline to heave my 47-year-old body out of bed at the crack of dawn and fling it down the road several miles. By the time I’ve stretched, showered, walked the dog and fed us both, it seems like the middle of the day, not the beginning. At that point, it’s way harder to make myself write, as I’ve nearly depleted my reservoir of self control.
I could go on: Spanish conversation class, hosting dinner for a vegetarian couple (what the hell are we gonna make?!), tricking out my tiny balcony garden—all these things are much more attractive than writing. Not to mention visits from dear Chicago friends, day trips to the Oregon coast, my annual Fun+Food Fest with my brother. It all adds up to the same old thing: I’m distracted by all the fun in my life, and I just don’t wanna work.
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.”
“Your core’s weak,” Caileen says, nodding her head in woeful self-confirmation. She’s watching me struggle through a leg lift that shouldn’t be hard, one I can’t complete without tilting my hips all off kilter. It’s a compensation I can’t even detect, much less keep myself from doing, and watching me turns Caileen’s nodding to a slow, regretful head shake. “Your abs are so weak they can’t maintain your posture for you,” she says, reaching down to help me and my ego off the floor. “So your back has to work double time to make up for it. That’s why it hurts.”
“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.
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Michelle Boyd. Writer, Scholar, Coach