What are the stories we tell ourselves about our days? And what are the events that weigh most heavily on these narratives?
Mornings in my house run a little bumpier than they used to now that there’s a child in the house. Whereas I used to be able to count on taking my hour to two hours to write before teaching or meetings started, now there is a tiny despot capable of reshaping the day’s opening based on what’s in her tummy, on her face, or in her diaper.
I had a particularly grouchy start (for baby, and therefore, dad and me) last week. The baby was slow to wake up, my husband hadn’t started breakfast while I was walking the dog, it was 7 am and we were already off track for the day.
Quickly, I started slipping into catastrophe mode—now I’ll never write today! Bah! I’ll never finish this article! The power of beginnings had snuck up on me.
In the field of literary studies, my institutional home, the wonderful scholar Peter Rabinowitz has this to say about the power of stories’ beginnings and endings:
“If you ask someone familiar with Pride and Prejudice to quote a line from the novel, the odds are that you will get the opening sentence. Similarly, most readers of The Great Gatsby have a stronger recollection of its final image than most of the others in the text. This is not because those passages are inherently more brilliant or polished or interesting than their companions. Rather, out of all the aphorisms and images that these novels contain, these gain special attention because of their placement.”
The same might be said about the stories we tell ourselves about each passing day. Which means, in turn, that our feelings about a given day may depend on how it starts and ends.
For me, and, I’d suggest, for most writers, creators, or really any one, this means it’s important to do some meaningful work on both ends of the workday.
Even on grumpy baby mornings, I find I’m typically pretty good at salvaging at least a half hour of good work at the start of the day. What’s harder, and I don’t think I’m alone here, is putting a good end cap on the day—the more workaday version of Fitzgerald’s lovely last lines ("So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."—pretty good, no?). Alas, I tend to spin out into email checking and social media goofing in the later hours of the workday.
But this is a real lost opportunity. Thinking in Rabinowitz’s terms of story, just a little quality writing or artistry in the afternoon (or whatever your meaningful labor of choice is can) means the difference between the story of day that just stops and one that concludes.
I’m a big fan of cross-training, whether creatively, professionally, or athletically. Learning to work the mind or the body in new contexts sharpens both my appreciation for my home discipline (in my case, academic writing) and helps me learn about and develop new skill sets.
In my case, I didn't learn to love academic writing until I participated in a narrative non-fiction writing group with historians and law professors. We read a bunch of long-form narrative journalism, and I came to appreciate the beauty of scene setting. I took this appreciation from another style of writing and ported it back home to the critical essays that are my bread and butter.
Similarly, I find that my running habit helps with the vigorous Ashtanga yoga that I do—the endurance required to run a 10k or a half marathon helps me make it through the many challenging poses of the series (though, to be honest, I’m still plugging away on the First Series—more on this momentarily).
And so I think it is for many artists and athletes—who doesn’t love the stories of giant football players learning ballet to become more nimble on the field or tales of the writer who takes up painting and sharpens the imagery of the poetry and novels that make up her daily work.
But because cross-training is a bit like playing—it’s not your main work, and when your main work gets hard, anything—cleaning bathrooms, anyone?—can seem more fun than the task at hand.
I’ve been thinking about this in both my yoga life and my life as a teacher of graduate student writers.
Because I’ve been tired and a little scattered feeling lately (blame the baby, blame the election, who knows), it has felt easier to run than to make it to the yoga room. Running is faster (in time and pace); it feels like blowing off steam, I can listen to podcasts! On the other hand, listening to podcasts and pounding the pavement angrily is perhaps exactly what I DON’T need at the moment. The harder work of quietly focusing on breath and struggling through poses that don’t come easily is, which is why I’m resisting.
But as I look at my week and see I’ve run three times and gone to yoga just once, I can see that the supplement is sneakily becoming the meal.
The same can happen to writing or other creative practices. Today I am giving a presentation with other faculty about having a social media presence as an academic. I’ll be talking about this blog, twitter, and Facebook.
I will tell the graduate students in the audience that I believe in writing an academic or tangentially academic blog. It gives the opportunity for them to write about research in plain English, it helps a writer to conceive of audience; it’s low stakes writing at a time when putting word to page can feel quite tortured. And yet, I’ll also warn them about the pleasure of the new and different taking over from that which it is supposed to supplement. I’ll ask them to think about what the tipping point might be from help to hindrance.
When not watched carefully, cross-training can be an attractive lure away from the harder work to which we’ve committed ourselves. At its best, it reminds us of all we love about the main event.
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