A few weeks ago, my mom got that cold that everyone’s getting. When I called to see how she was doing, she sounded kinda down. Not because of her cold symptoms—oh no. She felt down because she was, as she put it, “just lying around doing nothing.” I tried to cover up my snort, then asked, “Um…you are sick, aren’t you?” It wasn’t really a question, since I could hear her congestion and coughing. “Well, yes,” she admitted. “I don’t feel that great.” But my mom is a little brown Energizer Bunny. The real problem, she informed me, was that watching TV all day ‘cause she was nursing a cold “just makes me feel like such a...degenerate!”
It’s always fun to make fun of your mom. But just a few days later, I was talking to a client—commenting on her snazzy new glasses—and she tells me “Oh yeah, I never wear these. But my eyes are kinda bothering me and I couldn’t get my contacts in today.” Turns out she’d accidentally grabbed the wrong bottle from her medicine cabinet that morning and inadvertently squeezed an ear drop into her eye. The nurse she’d called earlier had said she could skip the ER, but should make an appointment with her PCP. But she didn’t really have time that day, she told me—she had this IRB submission hanging over her head that she really wanted to get off her plate.
Sound extreme? I’ve heard and read the whole gamut—and I bet you have, too. Working while in labor. Down with the flu, but afraid to cancel classes. Collapsing on the job. Not only have I heard about it, I’ve done my versions of it. I’ve held my bladder through more than my fair share of hour-long meetings, just because I didn’t want to be late. The problem that afflicts me, my mom, and my client isn’t as simple as perfectionism. Or the desire to always be doing. It’s more subtle than that: it’s this sense that we’re not allowed to take time for the fundamental activities that actually fuel and sustain us.
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One of the most paradoxical ways this shows up in our writing is this dual feeling we sometimes have of being desperate for time to write, while also feeling that we’re not really allowed to take it. Let me give you some examples of what I’m talking about:
Mothers of toddlers who are early morning writers and feel guilty asking their partners to take over childcare before breakfast. Don’t even think about the ones who are also in charge of eldercare, and whose guilt is doubled by the thought of taking time for their writing first thing in the morning. Assistant professors who coauthor a lot, who are afraid to write before checking their email—what if someone from their team needs something from them? Scholars on sabbatical who cannot say no to committee and advising work—even when the terms of their sabbatical clearly release them from these duties. Want the best example ever? Me, last October, explaining to my friend Tiff why it was not acceptable for me--the person who leads retreats for a living--to take a week-long solo retreat at the end of the year.
Why do we do this? Why do we regularly deny ourselves the very thing that we most desire and by which we’re best served? I’d been wanting to do this retreat for three years, but I had a long, elaborate list of reasons why it was not OK. And they all boiled down to the same thing:
Going on a retreat felt indulgent.
The indulgence was layered, like one of those spectacular wedding cakes that costs a month’s rent. First, it felt temporally indulgent. A whole week? Just to sit? And think? And plan? The schedule I’d dreamed up involved spending the first full day just re-reading my personal and professional journals, so I could get a sense of where I’d been last year and how I’d gotten to where I am now. I knew from previous, shorter retreats how much clarity and resolve I’d get from spending my time that way. But the idea that I’d spend an entire week on this just seemed…well, it seemed delicious. But in the Bacon Cheeseburger kind of way, not the Butternut Squash and Black Bean Chili kind of way.
It also felt financially indulgent. I’ve never had trouble banging stuff out from home—it’s one of the greater pleasures of a coaching life. Haven’t I created an office space that breeds focus? A routine that nurtures flow? Bowed down by guilt and self-dismissal, I initially didn’t bother to calculate the actual cost—since I’d already defined it as wasteful, there was no need to gather any real data.
Going on a retreat felt relationally indulgent as well. I’d be away from my husband and my pup for a whole week. I’d have to impose on the former to take care of the latter—a clear breach of our contract stipulating that the dog could only join the family if the husband was released from canine care. I’d also lose track of the day-to-day events in my parents’ lives as well—a loss that’s greater for me than them, as I prefer to watch their health with both eyes.
Add to that my final worry—that retreating would also be professionally indulgent. To truly retreat—to make myself unavailable to the outside world—I’d have to put an out-of-office reply on my email and tell potential clients that I wouldn’t get back to them for an entire week. What if people read that and I lost out on the opportunity to work with them?
When I got back from the retreat (yeah, of course I went. And it was a Bacon Cheeseburger Every. Damn. Day.), I began to see how my own fears around indulgence were the same ones I was seeing from so many friends and colleagues and clients. When a writer can’t give themselves the time they want and need, it’s sometimes because the price seems too high. But a lot of time it’s because some part of us has defined the need itself as extravagant.
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So what if this is you? What if there are these deep pools of writing you could be diving into, should be diving into, but you can’t stop seeing them as somehow illegitimate? I could give you lots of reasons why you should do it, as the evidence is all on my side: I could cite the research on the value of deep dives. I could point you toward the work on the benefits of creating a context that nurtures focus and flow. I could use my own experience and tell you all the reasons my own retreat fears were unjustified (TLDR: a week ain’t that long; the value far outstripped the cost; that’s what family’s for; and people are flexible).
But I’ve found that often, when people are struggling with writing (whether they are avoiding it, binging on it, or depriving themselves of it), it’s not evidence that matters, it’s framing. So instead of a mound of data, let me offer you this one idea:
Taking time to write is not an indulgence. It’s a privilege.
I was incorrectly conflating the two, and I’m guessing you are as well. An indulgence is a luxury. It’s an extravagant add-on notable for its sumptuous excess. A privilege, by contrast, is a rare and special right granted only to a select group of people. In comparison to other forms of work, yes, our profession itself is a luxury. But within this professional world, taking time to write is not an extravagance. It’s an absolute essential.
It’s uncomfortable, no? To fully sit in the privilege of intellectual work. Time to write is not a privilege that every academic worker has. It may be that your own privilege is itself a temporary, shifting thing. My point is not that those of us who have this privilege should glory in it and forget the lot of those without it. My point is that to be a scholar, we actually have to take advantage of that privilege. We cannot deny ourselves our work by redefining it as extravagance.
You are not being precious if you yearn to actually read a book instead of skim it. You are not being extra if you want a full day of writing instead of a full day of meetings. You are not a bad parent/kid/colleague/friend if you wish you could put these blessed folks on mute for several hours, so you can get lost in your own head.
I think one reason we conflate these two—the reason we mistake privilege for indulgence—is that, ironically, when we do our most essential work, it often feels like a luxury. Do you remember the last time you dove into your manuscript, then looked up a few minutes later to see that the sun had changed position? If you struggle with writing, those moments may be few and far between. But I bet that you can think of at least one, no matter how long ago. And I bet the memory is one of the richer ones you have.
I never feel so wealthy as when I have the time to do the thing that matters most: whether that’s hanging out with my family, recovering from the flu, or wrestling for hours with a formidable chapter. And that’s the evidence—your own embodied experience—that is far more convincing than anything I could ever say to you.
It’s true: as scholars we are privileged. Beyond measure. It’s a gift to be paid to devote our lives to learning, and thinking, and writing. Whether you’re a grad student, an independent scholar, a writing coach, or somewhere on the tenure track. You worked for that gift. You’re working for it right now. It’s sitting there in front of you.
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Michelle Boyd. Writer, Scholar, Coach