I've been visiting my family these past couple weeks, and one of the special joys I've had this trip is time spent doing yoga with my mom. We each have different favorite poses, different physical issues, and different yoga styles. She loves to spend time in legs up the wall, and I love working on my balancing poses.
When we practice together, we are sharing space, time and company, but we aren't necessarily interacting. She does her thing and I do mine. This is parallel play as I most enjoy it.
Parallel play (doing different things in the same space) can be a particular treat for those of us who want some kind of accountability and social time without added responsibility.
My dear friend Rob and I did this with our writing when I was at a previous job. We met at a coffee shop once a week, someone would treat the other person to breakfast, and we'd each work on our own writing for the next 3-4 hours. I think that for teachers especially, it's nice to have a writing group that's not about having yet more of other people's writing to read. It's about companionship, making the process pleasurable.
In our writing lives, we have lots of relationships that can feel a little intimidating: editors, anonymous readers, mentors, etc. Why not playmate?
I find this so true. In all realms, we get into our chosen work because we have seen an inspiring example. Ira Glass reminds us that it's okay for us to produce work that is not so inspiring, and that, in fact, our ability to recognize the sometimes crappyness of our own work (whoa--that's a bad sentence! whoa--my hips are not even!) is actually a good thing.
If we didn't know that there was a gap between the junk we produce on a day-to-day and the work we aspire to, that would mean we'd lost the good taste and good sense that brought us to the work to begin with!
Thanks to Kerry Ann for turning me on to this video!
In addition to being butt busting time when it comes to working on academic writing, summer is also a time when I catch up with my magazine subscriptions.
It's summer, and yoga studios are offering classes in all manner of places: at the park, on the porch, at the beach. This novelty in yoga locations is not just a nice way to get in touch with nature, but a savvy marketing move as well. Summer is a time when we want to break with routine, play, and go on trips, even if it's just a trip to the park rather than to the local yoga studio. It's a smart way to keep people coming to class when they are least focused and feel most like they want a break from their disciplined regular routine.
I sometimes feel the need to change the scene of my writing as well.
Traditionally, I think of this literally: taking my laptop to the coffee shop, to the porch, to a tiny closet. Wherever the "energy" feels fresh. Indeed, in grad school, I would often talk about how I'd "used up" a particular coffee shop and needed to find one that felt fresh.
But changing the scene can be less literal as well. Because writing can often feel challenging, trauma-filled, and like an impossibly long-term goal, a particular draft may start to feel like the scene of a crime. There's just too much gore around by the time a chapter hits the 50-page mark!
When a piece of writing starts to feel this way, switching "locations" may be helpful. For example, my current book chapter has become a bit of a monster at 60 pages. Today, I needed to revise the handful of paragraphs that make up its conclusion and the transition to a next chapter, but facing the heinous scene of so many minor crimes (as yet incomplete footnotes, yellow highlights, etc.) was daunting. The solution for me was to pull those paragraphs out from the behemoth and work through them in a clean word document. Like the new coffee shop, the new page doesn't yet have bad vibes associated with it.
Maybe not as fun as yoga in the park, but it worked for me.
I've been reasonably well behaved of late when it comes to sitting down at the computer first thing each morning and banging out my first two hours of writing. I'm in a final push to complete my book manuscript, so my daily writing practice is a little longer than usual--aiming for 3 hours each day.
I think that bring props in can also freshen things up, bringing in an element if play, as with this "egg" my mom showed me how to use to stretch my bad Achilles.
Incorporating different "props" or what I'm calling mixed media into writing might help with that practice, too. I'm talking about getting away from the predictable keyboard typing, opening up with pen and paper, index cards, whatever makes that final stretch sustainable, even, date I say, a little fun.
Not fulfilling obligations to one's daily work often produces a sense of shame. I know that I get super grouchy and snappy when I don't exercise or write for a couple of days in a row. My shortness with those around me is a quick tell that I'm feeling bad about myself.
Unfortunately, I'm willing to feel bad about myself for a little while before changing the pattern and getting back to the computer or getting back to the yoga mat. In other words, I'm the one person that I'm pretty willing to disappoint; I am also the person who is most abusive in the dishing out of shame when I fail.
In contrast, most of us are pretty good about meeting our responsibilities to others. Knowing that other people expect us to show up is a powerful motivator.
It makes sense, then, that bringing other people into the process helps. Even though they are less harsh with the shaming when I don't do my daily work, the fear of disappointing them works pretty well.
This month, for example, I am experimenting with using an accountability partner. Each day this week, we'll talk on the phone for 15 minutes and say what we've done. I also announced to my family that I planned to work on the book for a minimum of 3 hours each day this week. Knowing that I've announced these intentions to so many people is part of my motivation this week.
We often think of fear of failure in wholly negative terms, but consciously introduced, it can do work on our behalf. It's what keeps us lesson planning, writing conference papers, and completing our committee work.
By making other people the people who I am showing up for, the writing process becomes a bit more social, which adds a bit of support, and a bit of productive social pressure.
I don't love the Selfie, and especially not the yoga Selfie, but I have to say that I understand some of the impulse to document.
Process-based work offers little in the way of regular accomplishments and mile markers. And often (at least for me), things get uglier before they get better: thumping around in my balance poses, covering my word document with the yellow highlighting that means "fix me please."
My friend Jen was fascinated by what people's writing processes looked like. She did a wondeful project of photographing writers "in action" and then interviewed them.
In addition to bringing what is private and mysterious into the open, photographs of writing in process might also offer us a small sense of accomplishment: This is what it looked like when I worked today.
In retrospect, I think I might not mind the yoga Selfie so much if it were more about process and less about the perfect product--sharing the journey over showing off.
Perhaps sharing these images can combat the Isolation of process-oriented work. Here's what my process looked like today; how was yours?
Though I was glad to have taken time to be with family over the July holiday, I suffered my typical airplane ride home grumpiness. When returning from trips, I often experience an extreme form of Sunday-evening blahs as I imagine all that I have to do upon returning. The result is not very pleasant: fussing about the wrong frozen yogurt at the airport, declaring that everyone needs to go on a diet the minute the plane lands back home, ranting about the mound of work that awaits. It's the I-Don't-Wannas gone wild.
Some of this is about the difficulty of inertia, which daily writing and daily yoga typically alleviate. it's much less hard to pick up where we left off yesterday than where we left off five days ago.
This is where re-tooling language can become useful, as can bringing in external motivators.
I am a big fan of getting away from the word "have to" in the language stream that rattles around inside our heads. Sometimes I like to replace it with "get to," which is a good reminder that I like my work and life and am lucky to have them both.
As I approach the summer's midpoint and see that I have made fine but not stupendous progress on my yoga and writing goals, I'm playing around with a new rephrasing to see how it animates my work. Rather than "I have to...(write everyday/finish this chapter/get to yoga)," or even the grateful "I get to," I'm thinking about the language of challenging and daring myself: "Can I....?"
Correspondingly, I'm trying to phrase the tasks in ways that are a little more fun: "Can I write about her use of apian metaphors as a narrative problem for Gilman? Can I get Darwin's thoughts on bees into this chapter?" (<--Okay, these phrasings are pretty specific to me, but you can see that it's more fun than "can I finish this F#$*ing chapter?"); "Can I try three new yoga classes before leaving NY?"
My thought is that challenges are fun, they're about rising to the occasion. The have-tos are about returning to earth. As a visual metaphor, I prefer to think about my daily work as something that propels me upward, rather than an anchor dragging me back to earth. A little shift from "have to" to "can I" helps me maintain this perspective.
For another external motivator, check out Kerry Rockquemore's 14 day challenge:
Get a Life, PhD
The Professor is In
The Thesis Whisperer
Tenure, She Wrote