I have been experiencing a fair amount of resistance toward my daily academic writing since school got out. I'm tired, I feel that I deserve a break, and all the aspects of life that were ignored during the semester suddenly demand attention (including packing the house and moving across country for the summer). Basically, I have a bad case of the I don't wannas.
Summer is also the time of the academic's hopes and dreams, what we wait for all semester so that we can finally get ____ (article, story, book, grant, whatever) done.
Ironically, I think the opportunity to finally get done the things we didn't all year turns into pressure, which turns into the I don't wannas.
As I pack up the house, and decide what books are coming with me on the summer road trip, I've been thinking a little about my summer goals and how to turn the don't wannas into wannas.
As part of this process, I've been listening to Kerry Ann Rockquemore's workshop "Every Semester Needs a Plan" (http://www.facultydiversity.org/general/custom.asp?page=About_Us). In the workshop, she talks about making SMART goals, which stands for Specific Measurable Attractive Realistic Time Frame. In her acronym, the A is shifted from it's usual meaning in the management world, where it means attainable/achievable.
The idea of making goals attractive should remind us of how much power we have to determine how we think about the tasks that make up our lives.
Our brains are pretty smart, but they are pretty dumb, too. And they can be tricked by using mantras or the techniques of behavioral and positive psychology. For example. Tal Ben-Shahar writes in Happier about the importance of shifting "I have to" to "I get to." For me, this means switching from " I have to finish this book this summer so that I can get tenure" (NOT an attractive goal!) to I get to revise the last two chapters and submit my book manuscript this summer (maybe not super-attractive, but a move in the right direction.
Additionally, making goals playful might also improve attitudes. I know I want to practice yoga this summer--I have set up an arbitrary goal of 40 practices over 2 months, but I'm deciding to turn this into something more fun. My new yoga goal is to be able to do a forearm balance by my 33rd birthday--fun, right? For an example from writing life, I could make part of my summery book goal include something speculative and fun, such as "decide if I want to make the throughline about turn-of-the-century racism explicit," a goal I might pursue by way of some freewriting.
How else might we bring fun to our summer goals?
This post relates to my post yesterday about playing. It is also inspired by the typos and sentence fragments of yesterday's post.
Part of my practice with these posts is to publish live--no rereading, no editing. It's an experiment with getting work out there, making it public, and getting over myself. This means it won't ever be perfect writing--whatever that might mean.
For me, embracing the idea of error and mess as part of the practice makes daily (okay, near-daily) writing and yoga possible. This is also why I love that writers revise; it gives us permission to make messes and mistakes first.
Explaining her style of yoga, my teacher Melissa Martinez-Chauvin (http://www.melissamcyoga.com/) said , "it's about the healthy pose, not the perfect pose."
And thank god for that. If I thought I had to be perfect each time I sat down to write or unrolled my mat, I'd probably stop doing my practices.
The academic writing expert Robert Boice has shown that perfectionist writers have less influence than writers who are willing to let things be a little messy. They publish and are cited more. I wonder if they might not also be happier.
Recalling my post about play, I'd like to suggest that there's something a bit fun about having permission to be messy, to be imperfect. Embracing imperfection allows work to happen and might just make it something that's pleasurable to do.
Grades are filed. Last faculty meeting done. Article revised and resubmitted. Yoga teacher training complete. Check. Check. Check. Check.
It's summer and many academics are breathing sighs of relief. Only to feel the panic around unstructured time and many to dos in the very next breath.
Because so many of us live unsustainably throughout the academic year (too little sleep, too little play, too much stress), it can be hard to get started on work in the summer time. "No," our exhausted and pleasure-starved selves shout, "don't make me do more work!"
I am feeling this particularly acutely at the moment because I am traveling and spending time with a dear friend and writing partner in a country I have never visited before. Though she and I have discussed our mutual writing project, my daily yoga and writing practices have fallen away this week.
I can't quite tell how to feel about vacation from daily practice. One the one hand, this seems totally healthy and normal: if I've been good about writing and yoga on a regular basis, I can take weeks at a time off. On the other hand, since yoga and writing are part of my healthy routine, something feels a bit off kilter to go a long stretch without.
AND YET, for all the reasons above, in this first week since filing my grades, I resent feeling the pressure of work in my summer weeks. I'm tired! I want to play!
So I have been thinking about ways of doing work that feel playful. Yesterday I did write and I had a light yoga practice, but I tried to approach them each in a fun way. I sat at a cafe with my computer, set a 1 hour timer, and allowed myself to do messy freewriting as well as the hard work (for me) of working on revisions within the draft. I allowed myself to be speculative and to imagine a totally new conclusion to this chapter--what if I made this comparison instead of that? Sitting in a foreign city, drinking a cappuccino, and dinking around on my laptop, the hour flew by.
Similarly, I had yoga "play" with two friends at a city park health class. The teacher was instructing in a language I couldn't understand, and we did have a beer afterward, but we still showed up, and our backs all felt better for having played in this way.
In childhood, many of us wrote, read, made art, ran and tumbled in the yard for fun. As summer is again upon us, how might we take this playful orientation to the work that must get done?
I'm am on a trip to visit an old friend with whom I am writing a book. I am in Europe, with friends, and my semester is at an end. Yesterday, we went to a museum dedicated to a European actor from the same time period as that I study in the cinema. As we sat having a beer in the museum cafe, I expressed my wish to speak more languages so that I could be more of a comparativist, able to write about all the different national cinemas.
On the one hand, yes, it would be a great thing to speak French, Italian, and German. On the other hand, this wish also expresses a problematic tendency of mine--my habit of cannibalizing all pleasure into work.
The proximity between work and play for many academics is part of the joy of academic life. I now read, watch films, and then talk about reading and watching films for my job! The downside of this mostly fabulous state of affairs is that it can get in the way of mindfully enjoying the pleasures of non-work time, as every film and novel becomes an opportunity to think of a new article or class to teach. By getting caught up in stories about future work, the academic risks missing out on the full experience of play in the now.
I once read Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way, in which she recommends that artist's take themselves out on an "artist date" once a week--an outing that involved seeking a creatively nourishing sensory experience, ideally not the same as one's regular artistic practice. At the time, I tended to "cheat" by having my date be to a bookstore or a movie theater (places I do love), meaning that I never shook up the old routine.
As I go further into my career, I see how right she is. While I certainly don't plan to deny myself the pleasures of literature and film at any point, I see the value of two practices: first, bringing mindfulness to play as well as work--being here now in pleasure; and second, being more experimental and playful in the pursuit of fun, trying leisure activities far from work life.
Work eats enough time in an academic life; feeding it's hungry maw with our leisure time is just excessive. Let's let that cannibal go hungry once in a while.
It has not been my practice to post photographs of myself in this blog. I don't plan to make this a regular thing. But I am taking this moment to share a photo from my yoga teacher graduation. That's me on the right, holding my certificate, mouth open wide, singing.
I wanted to share this moment of here because I have been thinking about where I focus my time and energy.
This semester, I was lucky to teach many fabulous students in my English classes. I even got to teach some of my very favorite students for a second and third time. There were moments when I laughed so hard in class that I doubled over. Two of my all-time favorite students won major scholarships and named me as their faculty mentor. That's a lot of teaching wins!
But was this my focus? No, it was not. Instead, I spent lots and lots of time and mental and emotional energy obsessing about the one student out of the 54 students I taught this semester who was a thorn in my side.
Now that the semester is over, I realize what a bummer this is. It would have been so much more fun to focus on the other 53. I've started to realize that I and others I know have a tendency to do this. I spent so much more time analyzing an award that I didn't win than I did celebrating a recent revise and resubmit.
In a world where wins can come hard, why wouldn't we take time to savor them? What would it look like to spend as much time discussing and talking about what makes us happy or what we're grateful for as we do talking about disappointments?
So, this is a picture of me celebrating. It comes from a specific ceremony designed to recognize achievement, but it seems that many of us could do with a bit more celebration in our lives, and it may be that each of us needs to help the others around us to see what's worthy of cheer in their lives. In yoga class, we call this being a forklift.
I find myself writing a lot about busy times right now because 1. I'm in a busy time, and 2. The times seem to be the biggest challenges to daily practice.
During busy times, we often step out of bed and from the minute our feet hit the floor, we're feeling the pressure of a list of "I have tos." And at these moments in the work year, it feels as though the mounting commitments cannot wait.
But this is precisely the time to insist that they can. Taking the morning 30 minutes-2 hours to meditate, do yoga, and write is a way of reclaiming what is truly so important that it can't wait.
From my experience, it's not just because yoga and meditation are my priorities that they can't wait, it's that if I don't put them first they just don't happen. And yet, I tend to not give those practices the feelings of urgency that I assign to much less pressing, and, I'd argue, less time-sensitive tasks such as answering emails and grading exams.
Although emails and exam grading feel as though they are time pressured, I am increasing learning that they will always be there for me, for better or worse. When I finish my yoga and writing practice, those other tasks are still lounging around, waiting for me to come hang out.
This is a silly idea meant seriously.
Like many teachers, I do much of my planning for the next year in the summer. In summer, I have been relaxing, spending time with family, and enjoying free time. It's also during summer that I read books and blogs about exciting new teaching ideas. In other words, it's in summer that I sabotage myself for the rest of the year.
Summertime me thinks its a good idea to assign regular writing assignments as well as term papers and tests. She thinks it will be "good for" everyone to read literature she's not yet expert in in order to have good coverage. In short, she's a real jerk to mid-semester me.
The yogic term "Asteya" refers to non-stealing. And while this over-ambitious planning isn't stealing in any traditional sense, I'm starting to conceive of summertime me as stealing time and energy from mid-semester me. Summer me feels ambitious, idealistic and proud, all while sticking it to mid-semester me.
And this is where it gets a little silly. My plan this year is to give my August self a stern talking to--the ghost of semester's past giving her warnings. I put a note in my August calendar saying, "Hey you, no over planning!"
It's also my hope this weekend to write that arrogant summer self a note, reminding her of the good, the bad, and the oppressive from this past semester. Hopefully she listens.
Oftentimes, meditators focus on a particular object or saying to help focus the mind. The idea is that this can combat the crazy chatter as it rushes by. Another set of techniques, however, engage with that chatter somewhat.
One of these techniques is Neti-Neti meditation. Neti-Neti can translate into "not this, not this." As a thought or worry enters the brain, the meditator responds, Neti-Neti. There is a wonderful yoga teacher who explained this to my training, wagging his index figure back and forth, as though dismissing each uppity thought that would try to tell him that it was his identity or his focus. No, the finger wagged, not this.
The Net-Neti meditation can be particularly useful for those of us who tend towards striving or who work in fields in which seeking acceptance is a large part of the job.
One of the things I wish I had known as a new graduate student is that the handling of rejection is an important part of being an academic. When it's job market season, the academic job seeker sends out dozens of applications, most of which will result in "no." The same can be true of journal articles, grant applications, and conference proposals. At times, it can feel as though the rejection is quite personal and it is as though the self is being extinguished under a tidal wave of rejection.
Neti-Neti can help remind us that we are not this. We care about and invest in our work, but we are not identical to it. When the work comes back rejected (or accepted!) this does not change who we are at core.
While many mantras or affirmations are positive (I am ___), Neti-Neti opens up certain kinds of freedom through its negativity. What a relief to not be this, to not be that.
I had a conversation with another junior faculty friend this semester about an overwhelmed feeling we were both experiencing. For both of us, the source of overwhelm seemed to be located in the ever-expanding to do lists we organized our lives by. While there was a sense of satisfaction in getting to check things off the list, the list as often produced experiences of panic ( I sometimes felt might heart race after looking at mine), failure (not crossing off enough), and entrapment. This last, feeling trapped by the to do list is something I've found particularly horrifying.
I've started calling it "living in the list." Living in the checklist feels like I am serving the list rather than it serving me. It's an experience of constantly ticking through to dos in my head, including during my writing, meditation, and yoga practices. It's also an experience that doesn't allow for downtime, relaxation, or spontaneity because the list-mind is constantly supplying the next thing that could be checked off.
For me, the list was starting to hurt more than it helped.
Recently, I've started experimenting with another way. Using Kerry Ann Rockquemore's Sunday Meeting idea (https://facultydiversity.site-ym.com/), I've been scheduling my to dos into a week and then trying to set aside whatever doesn't fit into the schedule as not happening during the week. A big part of the scheduling involves making time for things like writing long-term projects, yoga, and spending time with my husband--things that are not satisfyingly check-offable list items, but which are far more important. On good weeks, I've even tried to block in a little time for taking breaks.
With this scheduling system, I've found that my mind is a little less chattery. I have clearly scheduled blocks of time organizing my day, as opposed to my old method of trying to squeeze in as many things as possible before crashing to sleep. I haven't perfected this system, but so far it seems more sustainable than living in the list.
This photo is from the concrete balcony of a Vagabond Inn--not my perfect yoga environment. But a possible yoga environment. And that distinction, between the perfect and the possible, is an important one.
Often, I think, we get so into our habits and rituals and environments (all of which can be quite lovely, by the way) that go along with our important writing and yoga practices that we begin to get confused about the fact that the conditions under which we practice are not identical with the practice itself.
I wrote last about those times in the year when everything falls apart (for me the end of the semester). That time of year can be a weird environment in which to write and do yoga, much like this concrete balcony. And yet, practicing under less-than-ideal conditions, or doing a less-than-perfect practice is still doing the practice. And that's better than nothing at all. In fact, that's what the heart of practice's definition--sustaining an activity regularly so that it becomes more and more sustainable. Even when everything else gets a little ugly.
In that way the yoga mat is a nice metaphor. It's that little 2x6 space yogis carve out for themselves, which can be plopped down in any environment. Similarly, we might think about how writers can also plop down their tools wherever they are, carving out metaphorical space, even if it's just fifteen minutes of messy scribbling on a notepad.
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The Thesis Whisperer
Tenure, She Wrote