I’m always grateful when someone else writes a piece that expresses exactly what I think. Sure, it’s nice to find that someone agrees with me—but the real boon is that I don’t have to spend the time to work the ideas out myself.
That’s how I felt a few weeks ago, when I posted Louise Seamster’s ChronicleVitae article on writing groups on InkWell’s Facebook page. Writing groups, Seamster insists, don’t just increase writing productivity: they’re also “automatically subversive—a parallel universe [that] offers a place to find support and mutual collaboration, and can help you take control of your own destiny and define success for yourself.”
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.”
Photo by Slideshowmom at Morguefile.com
Saturday mornings from my childhood is on the other side of the bedroom door. It wafts in on the braided scent of coffee and bacon, makes muted clanking sounds as skillets hit the burners. I can hear my parents’ footsteps on the other side of the door and the faint “shhhh” that means they’re saying my name. I’m pretty sure that if I check my phone there’ll be a text from one of them. But precisely because I know this, I’ve put the phone on mute. I’ve laid it face down on the nightstand so I can’t see the screen light up. Then for extra measure, I get up, move it to the bathroom counter, and close the door.
Photo by Robenmarie at Morguefile.com
“Don't get all romantic about my writing habits,” my friend Ellen insisted. I’d made some offhand comment in an email about how consistent her writing practice is, but she wasn’t having it. “I’ve written barely anything since June, no joke,” she wrote, quick to correct me. “I fell so far off the wagon.”
Sound familiar? When I first read it, I didn’t really believe her. Whaaaa??? I thought to myself. That can’t be true. But then I thought about what Ellen’s life had been like since June, and realized she was partly right.
Photo Credit: M. Boyd
One of the things I loved most about faculty life was the fact that New Year’s Day came three times a year. First, there’s the Academic New Year: the start of fall semester, which somehow manages to feel hopeful, despite our recognition of how buried we’ll eventually be by an excess of obligations. Of course, there’s the last New Year, undoubtedly the favorite, when summer begins. This one is a slow unwinding, a long-awaited loosening of a grip we hadn’t realized we’d been holding so tightly.
Finally, there’s January's New Year, which nonacademics celebrate along with us, and which feels like a brisk wind whipping through our lives, sweeping aside what’s stale and making way for things unseen. This New Year provokes a degree of reflection that isn’t always part of the other two New Year’s Days, where we sift through what came before to try to figure out what the semester and year ahead will look like.
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.
We’ve just made our way through security and are headed toward our gate when it hits me. “O no,” I say, “no, no.” Whispering to try to make it less true. “Noooooooooooooo.” My husband glances up at me, wondering what I’ve forgotten, and how badly it’s going to screw up our trip.
“The charger,” I say. “I forgot the charger.”
"Look!" he says, as he smiles and brings his rollybag to a why-do-you-worry-so-much stop in front of the airport electronics store. “No big deal.”
Except it’s not the phone charger I’ve forgotten. It’s the laptop charger. And we’re on our way to Juneau, Alaska—a small city at the bottom of a big bowl of mountains. Juneau is beautiful. It’s remote. And it’s refreshingly free of big-box chain stores. On any other day, I’d be smugly approving of that fact, patting myself on the back for shopping local. Today, with my laptop charger back at home in its socket? Not so much.
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 heard a rumor last week that summer was over. The person who mentioned it didn’t actually refer to summer’s death. It was more like she announced its funeral. “July is ending,” wrote my friend Amalia, in her no nonsense way, “which means one thing: the syllabus must happen.”
At the time I snorted, filled with the starchy hauteur of a woman in denial. It’s the middle of July, I thought, as I rolled my eyes. That’s a little excessive, isn’t it? Even those of us wrapped in the cocoon of a forthcoming leave feel a muted sense of alarm when August comes around—so I blew off her comment. Then a few days later, I was trying to think through what I wanted to get done the next week, and I saw that “next week” and “August” were the same thing. Damn, I thought. Summer’s over.
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Michelle Boyd. Writer, Scholar, Coach