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.
Partly right, because she hadn’t written that much, especially not on her new project. Instead, she’d been busy doing a thousand other things. She and her husband, both faculty members, had moved to a new university, which meant they’d put their house on the market, sold it, searched for a new place, visited and rented it, packed up their stuff, and moved. Anyone who’s done this lately knows how poorly that list represents the real disruption of moving. And their new institution is located outside the U.S., so that meant moving themselves and their two young kids, not just to a new school or work setting, but to a whole new way of life.
And that was just the summer. She then spent the fall acclimating to her new...everything. This involved getting her kids settled in school, unpacking and organizing their home, teaching new courses, adapting her old, U.S.-based classes to a new geographic and political context, and establishing and navigating relationships with new colleagues. It meant figuring out where the grocery store is, the fastest route to campus during rush hour, and whether it’s actually possible to attend a yoga class in a different language.
Throughout that entire period, she’d wrapped up, pushed forward, and initiated several projects in ways that would support intensive composition in the future. She also engaged in the parts of writing that we most often tend to dismiss as not “real” writing: this included developing the conceptual framework for a new project and revising a second book manuscript. And although she never mentions this as part of her work, she’d also spent a good amount of time enjoying the fruits of her labor—accepting several awards and presenting on panels featuring her latest book.
So, it was true. Ellen hadn’t produced much new writing. But that didn’t mean she had fallen off the wagon. What she’d done is loaded it up with a lot of heavy, valuable shit—stuff that is writing but, as she put it, doesn’t include much “pen-to-paper” work—and driven it thousands of miles to a new location. During the trip, she’d pulled off to the side of the road several times: she was in new territory and wanted to make sure she didn’t get lost; she needed to look over the wagon occasionally to make sure it wasn’t falling apart. Most of all, she needed time to recuperate: to recover some of her spent energy so she’d have what she needed once she arrived on arrival at her new destination.
In other words, Ellen was in transition.
Transition is one of the most disruptive things you can face as a writer. But it’s also inherent to our work and our lives: Every academic term has its own feel and its own set of challenges: You can’t stop dreaming about summer or your sabbatical, but then can’t write without the structure of classes. And every semester, you lose a few weeks on the front and back ends while you gear up for classes and finish grading. On top of those within-year transitions are the many you go through on the journey from graduate student to becoming Full. It just comes with the territory.
Add to that the transitions that we face outside the professional realm. You adopt a baby boy. Your twin is diagnosed with lupus. You get married. You get divorced. In other words, you are a human being who lives a life beyond the borders of your work. So, it’s not crazy that you might be noodling along, look up all of the sudden and find you haven’t written in 6 months. We all know, in some dim and distant way, that transition is a part of life. The question is: what’s the best way to handle it?
The thing about transitions is, while they’re disruptive, and sometimes caused by unhappy events, they’re not inherently bad. Every time I talk to Ellen, for example, she’s floating on a cloud, talking about how happy she is to have landed her “dream job.” What makes a transition difficult isn’t the change itself; it’s the extent to which we’re able to accommodate the instability it brings, a task made more difficult by three things:
The first is that, in many cases, we can’t fully prepare for transition. I was reminded of this recently when I touched base with a former advisee who’s currently in her first year of a tenure track position. While she’s delighted with her institution, and loves her students, she admitted to feeling “lost” without the structure and accountability she experienced when she was finishing the dissertation and expected to regularly submit chapters to her committee. If you’re a prof, you know how impossible it is to explain to a grad student how unfathomable that first year can be. We can talk until we’re blue in the face, but they just don’t get it unless they’ve already been through it—at which point, they can’t make use of the advice.
A similar problem that makes transition hard is that we often can’t remember how we decided to handle it. It sounds funny when you read it, but that was basically what happened with Ellen: She recognized before the move that she and her family were about to go through a huge change, one that had significant implications for her work patterns. She spent quite a lot of time thinking through what she needed in order to focus on her career once she was settled: and sure, that included professional considerations like building relationships with new collaborators. But it also included making sure her home and her life were organized in a way that supported her ability to focus on her work: “I didn’t want to live with pictures lying against the wall,” she said, “or face a crisis mid semester because we didn’t have a family dentist.”
In other words, in casual, off the cuff conversation, what rose first to Ellen’s consciousness was that she’d somehow lost her writing habit rather than put it to the side. It only took a few seconds for her to remember that her choice to move forward her work with something other than new writing was “intentional and well thought out.” Better yet, it was going to set her up “for lots of writing in the near future.” But in the moment, without deliberate effort, it was hard to keep that fact in mind.
The final thing that makes transitions hard for our writing, is that sometimes, we just can’t accept them. This is something I see a lot with the parents of young children—people like Talia, a scholar I’d known in grad school, and ran into at a conference many years later. Talia’s writing habit was hard core when we first met—stoked by fear and ambition, she worked long days and late nights in a perfect island of silence. She managed to preserve the core of her writing practice when she first got married, but the combination of earning tenure, becoming a dean, and having three kids had whittled away her habit, and as she put it, “I can’t seem to get back on track.”
What was remarkable about Talia wasn’t that she’d stopped writing. What was remarkable was that she wrote five out of seven days, but still felt like a failure. Instead of the long, luxurious days she’d had in her 20s and 30s, she squeezed her writing in for short periods of time. Things took a little bit longer, so she often felt like she was "behind." Because she couldn’t let go of the notion of what her writing was “supposed” to look like, she felt guilty and unsatisfied with her work, despite her steady effort and output.
What so often makes transition challenging is that we have a tough time recognizing what’s actually happening while we’re in the midst of it. It doesn’t seem like it when we’re going through it. To the contrary, we’re often hyperaware of what was “going wrong” and how dissatisfied we are. But being aware of our unhappiness isn’t the same thing as being aware of what’s happening. And what I love about Ellen’s wagon is the opportunity it provides to think through transitions and their impact on our writing.
If you feel like you’ve fallen off the wagon—if time seems to be flying by and you still haven’t gotten that proposal done or sent off that chapter—the first thing you want to do is describe to yourself what your journey actually looks like right now.
Is your wagon stuck in the mud? Moving slowly, but not as fast as you’d like? Careening down a trail that’s not on the map while you try desperately to hang on to the reins? Try to concretely describe what your writing looks like now: You write daily but work on the same paragraph for a week; or you write for two days, then don’t write for ten; or (something I hear quite a lot), you’re reading/taking notes/drafting/outlining, but it “doesn’t count” because it’s not in paragraph form and it’s not finished. What you need at this point is a clear, unfreighted description of what’s happening, so lose the adjectives. Judgment about whether the horses are possessed by deities or devils is not particularly useful at this point.
Next, think about the last time your wagon was proceeding the way you want it to. Where was it headed? Was anyone in the wagon with you? How often did you stop? And where? And for what? Here the point is to describe what your writing looks like when it’s regular, healthy, and a good fit for what’s going on in the rest of your life. There’ll never be a time when I won’t recommend daily writing, but what that looks like day by day differs by person. Maybe you like to have one long day every two weeks; maybe you used to split your tasks, doing all the reading and prep work Monday through Wednesday, then drafting for the latter part of the week. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, the question is—when the writing feels good, what is it like?
Finally, try to identify what happened right before your wagon started moving in a way that stopped serving you. Was it when you last found yourself at a crossroads? After you took a long, slow trudge up a steep hill? After you picked up a couple of passengers off the side of the road? You’re looking here for shifts, changes in your outlook or circumstances—moments of transition that may have disrupted your ability to move at the pace and manner you prefer.
Once you’ve thought these things through, you may find that yes—you’ve fallen off the wagon, and you need a serious intervention to get you going again: an extra dose of accountability perhaps, or an extended time away that allows you to dive back into your work. You may find that you’re off course, but not as far off course as you thought. That a look at your map and a quick course correction will bring you back around to the main road.
Or like Ellen, you may be surprised to find that the path you’re on, though unfamiliar, is exactly the one you were headed for.
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