Monday morning I woke up right around 4:00 a.m. This morning it was just before 3:00 a.m. If the past is any measure, I'll keep waking up earlier and earlier, until it feels like there's no point in going to sleep.
Welcome to my life, when I've got a writing deadline.
In a few days I'm gonna get cranky, like a toddler that's been at IKEA too long. My voice will take on a keening quality that will cause other adults to look away uncomfortably. And simple decisions like what I want to eat will suddenly become too complicated to bear. Though nothing I eat will satisfy me anyway. So I'll just move from one kitchen cabinet to the next, leaving a trail of empty snack bags I'll scramble to clean up when I hear my husband's key in the door. It's not a good place to be.
The deadline in question is 11 days away: 5 working days if I stick to my commitment not to work on weekends and finish the paper before I leave. It's my first time presenting at the Qualitative Inquiry conference in Urbana, and (do you even need to ask?) I haven't started the paper yet. There's the abstract of course, a gorgeous confection of ideas that shines like satin in moonlight, whose urgency seemed evident when I first wrote it. Then there's the ragged two-page outline that was the seed of said abstract, an unkempt, disconnected set of thoughts I shared at an informal meeting of a research group a year ago. Finally, there's the paper itself, or rather, there's the idea of it. The press of it in my mind, the need for it to get done. There's the time for it blocked off on my calendar each day, a series of insistent orange blocks that appeared confident, cheerful even, when I first laid them out. Now they seem like nothing more than a visual wail, the hectic, persistent flash of a passing emergency vehicle.
This isn't what I'm supposed to blog about--I know this. I am a writing coach, right? I'm supposed to offer tips and tricks about how to establish a daily writing habit; solutions for what to do when the fear gets in the way. Some of that might show up here, every now and again. But there are plenty of blogs that already do that. And there aren't any--at least not that I know of--that just talk about what it feels like to be an academic and to try to write: to get to the end of the day and turn your face from the fact that you failed to write yet again; to wrangle with the same untameable ideas for months, to defend them in public even, despite the fact that you're not sure of them yourself; to find yourself in that magical, weightless moment when those ideas, seemingly of their own accord, shift to hover just at the edges of one another, and then fit themselves together with a soft, almost audible snick. I wish someone had been writing about that when I was in grad school, so I wouldn't have felt so alone, so hopeless, so...unfit.
As academics, our approach to writing has a Pay-No-Attention-To-The-Man-Behind-The-Curtain quality that makes me nuts. It's the most significant part of our profession: you can do all the research you want, but you won't get tenure if you don't write about it. And yet we rarely talk about it. And when we do bring it up, we mostly talk around it. We don't show one another what it felt like that day and all we had to do to come back to it the next day.
Writing is hard for everyone, even (especially) the ones who seem to have no trouble with it: the book award winners, say, or the tenured professors. Even the writing coaches. So that's what this blog is about. Me and my writing and my not-writing. I don't have any firm plans for it yet: maybe I'll write every day until the conference paper is finished, then post every week; maybe I'll ask some colleagues of mine to write about what it's like when they write. I'll take some ideas, if you have them.
I hope you like it. I hope there's actually a "you" out there reading it. I'm terrified that there's a "you" out there reading it.
That's what it's like to write.
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Michelle Boyd. Writer, Scholar, Coach