Photo by dotabe at Morguefile.com
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.”
Photo by Slideshowmom at Morguefile.com
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.
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.
“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 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.
I used to feel, when I was a graduate student, that working on my dissertation was like being in love. It was the first thing I thought of when I woke up in the morning, and the last thing I thought about before falling asleep at night. I spent long, empty hours in between dreaming of its shape: who it really was, what it meant when it said this or that, whether or not our ideas were compatible. Whether it would leave me for someone else.