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 had to grip the sides of the table then, to hold back the hostility I felt toward her at that moment. Before she’d spoken, it was a slow summer evening in Portland. Five words later, summer had disappeared and I was listing all the things I need to do to prepare for the October retreat. I was trying to figure out how far behind I was on my chapter, and wondering who we were visiting for the holidays—would we get a better deal if I shopped for plane tickets now? I was wearing shorts, but my mind was wrapped against a fall chill. In other words, I was in planning mode.
I shouldn’t have been so salty, really. Planning our writing is one of the most powerful things we can do to keep from being overwhelmed by the start of classes. And it’s actually a pretty simple process—you block out your writing time, you figure out what you can reasonably get done in that time, and boom!—you’re much more likely to actually get some writing done during the semester.
This kind of planning is what a former client of mine used to call “Scheduling Tsuris,” Tsuris being the Yiddish world for Trouble. Most people think the Trouble, in this case, is all the work that needs to get done. But the Trouble isn’t the work itself; it's our inability to accept that we can’t get it all done in the time we have.
If making a writing plan feels like Scheduling Tsuris to you, it might be because you start off the same way I do: I lay this enormous list of goals out on paper, all this stuff I need to get done in order to keep the panic at bay. These To-Dos sit, glittering at me. When they were in my head, they made all kinds of promises about how awesome everyone would think I am if I could just get them done in time. But once I see them there, stacked up next to each other in black and white, it becomes sickeningly clear that there’s no way I can do all that in one semester.
It’s usually at this point that I start insisting to myself that I can do it all if only I can properly tweak my schedule: shave my workout down from an hour to 20 minutes, for example, even though I’m training for a race. Or start Date Night a little bit later, even though we’re old and never make it to anything that starts after 8:00 p.m. I start pretending that things don’t take as long as I know they do. It’s ridiculous, but I just cannot accept the idea that I can’t draft five chapters in two months. It’s as if I'm, as Octavia Butler wrote, “ignoring a fire in the living room because we’re all in the kitchen, and besides, house fires are too scary to talk about.” Even though I know this, even though I coach this, I have the same problem every time I do it.
Eventually I wind around to a different way of Scheduling Tsuris, usually with the help of my writing buddy. It’s not any less scary or difficult. But it is more fruitful. And it doesn’t light your living room furniture on fire.
The other way to Schedule Tsuris is to first ask yourself: What do I truly want my semester to be like? By which I mean, if you had your ideal life, what would your days and weeks look like? What time would you get up? How many hours would you spend writing? And would you really change the readings for your class? How about that appointment to the Faculty Senate? I’m not suggesting that by asking and answering this question you can magically make it so. I want to be absolutely clear that the constraints placed, especially on junior faculty members, are too strong for that to be the case. What I am suggesting is that many of us feel so pressed for time that we never stop to think about what we want. We assume it's impossible so we don't ever bother trying to figure out how to get it.
If, for example, your prime writing time is 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. and you have a preteen in the house, can you ask your partner for just one night a week where you get to stay at the office instead of going home and doing the dinner-bed time routine? It’s not perfect. It’s not complete. But if you never admit to yourself that really all you want is a big block of time in the evening, chances are you’re never gonna get it.
Asking yourself what you really want is just as scary as laying out everything that you think you should be doing. Actually, I think it’s a little bit scarier. Cause once we start thinking about how we wish things could be different, we have to come to grips with the things that keep us from making them different: many of them are out of our control. But not all. Clarifying what we really want forces us to admit our own contradictions: how you say you want more time with your family, but the truth is, you carry your chapter home with you in your head, and it takes you about 30 minutes to stop giving your kids a vacant look when they ask you something. Or you say you should stop doing all that service work, but what if people get mad at you for saying no? So the minute someone asks you to do something, you say yes without giving even two minutes to brainstorming how you could say no without damaging that relationship.
Me, I’m always whining on and on about how I want to take care of my body and prioritize my health. But the truth is I’ll sit at my desk, not just until my back starts screaming, but long past the time it’s lost its voice from howling at me. We want to do things differently, but sometimes we do all we can to stand in our own way.
This leads to the second question you need to ask yourself, once you have a clearer idea of what you really want. And that is: What am I willing to suffer? That is, what discomfort, what sacrifices am I choosing to endure by pursuing these writing goals, according to this schedule? If you’re trying to minimize class prep by giving yourself only 2 hours each week to do it, chances are you’re choosing to suffer through the fear of being unprepared. If you’re insisting on allotting 3 hours everyday for it (or allotting 1 hour and going over each day) what you’re choosing to suffer is less time for writing. In my case, when I decide not to exercise, or fail to get up from my chair every 30 minutes and walk around, I’m choosing to suffer radiating back pain, along with the disappointment I feel in myself when I say one thing and do another.
This second way of doing a writing plan might bring you to conclusions that feel threatening. Perhaps it feels a little reckless to start your writing plan by thinking about something other than your publication deadlines. But making an unrealistic writing plan doesn’t make you any more likely to get things done. It only pushes off that inevitable moment when you have to admit how impossible those goals were.
You’re Scheduling Tsuris anyway. There’s a fire in the living room whether you like it or not. Don’t sit in the kitchen and pretend it’s not there. Don’t let the fire reach the kitchen before you decide what to do. Think it through now, and decide what things in your home matter most. Then, and only then, will you know the best way to put out the flames.
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