The summer before my sophomore year in college, I worked two jobs so I could buy myself a Ford Fiesta. I was moving off campus during the coming fall, unappreciative of public transportation, and that tiny car was the only thing I had any hope of affording. By the end of the summer, I was pretty far away from the amount I needed to get it. So my parents took pity on me and agreed to top off the difference between what I had and the cost of “a real car.” I’d been aiming for something cute, round, compact. But after just a few days searching the used car ads at the back of the Maryland Gazette, my dad and I came home with this sleek little Celica GT I’d had no idea I wanted.
It was low to the ground. It had a spoiler and a sunroof. Its headlights flipped up when you turned them on like a long-lashed crush looking up to focus their gaze just on you. This car was way cooler than I was ever gonna be, and I loved her.
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.
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So I get an email from my editor one day. It is bright and bubbly and gurgling with enthusiasm for my as-yet-unfinished-and-recently-temporarily-sidelined-for-another-project-but-she-doesn’t-know-that book. It’s also kind and patient—she does not press but asks how things are going and wonders aloud if I’m ready to start laying out schedules. Deadlines. Sharp-edged things that make me twitch. She’s careful with them, cause she’s an editor, and has worked with many a slow writer. She knows you can’t rush a good thing. Still, there they are, those tools on the table between us. Waiting for me to take them up.
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Every August, you can hear it: A thin wail of woe and lamentation, a chorus of voices bemoaning the start of the school year. I’ve sung in that chorus many times, in person and in print, and I was planning to take up its song this year as well.
Ooooweee, I was working myself into a delicious froth! Thinking back to how mad I was every August when I had to start working on my syllabi. All these folks takin’ up my time. And that damn article/dissertation/book still not done. I thought about how the slow burn of resentment faded to a sizzle of panic as the first day of class got closer, and the meetings piled up, and the writing time got slimmer and slimmer.
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 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.”
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A Saturday morning 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, short “shhhh” sound 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.
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“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.