Sometimes it takes hearing the same thing a few different ways for something to sink in for me. Here are the three passes of the same message that’s leading me to think about my calendar and planning a little differently:
Though my sources here are variable, there’s a message to be found about the importance of down and off time to thinking and creative work.
Moreover, instituting this kind of practice can be done with the simple tool of a calendar. Too often, I find myself booking conference travel back to back with teaching, often running to or from the airport from my campus.
I love conferences. I love talking to smart people in my field. I love browsing the book exhibit. I fill notebooks with ideas for future classes, writing projects, collaborations.
But because of the way I schedule, much of that gets lost the minute I board my return flight and start planning the classes that have to be taught as soon as we’re wheels down. Or, at best, I get in on a Sunday and manage to throw in a load of wash before crashing to sleep.
But what if I (we) scheduled a little differently? What about building in time to reflect on what we’ve learned, to journal about future ideas, to send those follow up emails? It might be tricky. Maybe it would be better to leave the conference a day early in order to do some meaningful thinking about the experience. Maybe it means planning a really easy teaching day (an in-class video, a peer review set up well ahead of time, a guest lecture) for the return so at the very least the plane ride can still be spent in reflection rather than ramping up to the next thing.
Since we’re in the summer months, this seems a good time to stake out this precious territory in our calendars. There’s a lot that might be gained by clearing time to do “nothing.”
My fifteen-month-old daughter has recently developed the strength and dexterity to draw. Great, I thought, that’ll keep her busy!
Indeed, her crayons did keep her busy, busy drawing on the toilet, refrigerator, and walls (pre-baby, I thought it would be a good idea to paint everything “bistro white”). Now, there’s an exciting looking green zigzag that marks much of the house.
After a few times reprimanding and wresting crayons from the furious infant, I realized that the crayons and white walls were simply too much temptation for my girl. Now, we practice our art skills outside with chalk. The crayons are now out of reach and only come out for supervised play.
It’s summer break time here, which means that I’ve been lately faced with some of my own temptations. As any academic knows, there’s more freedom with scheduling over the summer and a bit of a relaxed pace, but we’re not necessarily “off.” I have family vacation and some work travel planned for late summer, so I need to use these early summer weeks wisely to make strides on ongoing writing projects.
But faced with a more expansive summer schedule, I find that I’m a bit more susceptible to time sucking temptations than I might be during the school semester during which I jealously guard my precious writing time.
Instead, during the unstructured days of summer, I’m tempted by shiny time wasters that I can’t quite handle, not unlike my daughter, who just can’t quite be trusted with those crayons. For me, though, the temptations are slightly less fun, and instead include light cleaning, online shopping, compulsive email checking, scrolling through twitter. I hope some of you have sexier temptations…these tedious ones are mine.
It’s humbling to realize that as an adult I have about as much self-control when it comes to these activities as my daughter does when faced with a white wall and a green crayon. I simply cannot handle them. In response to this realization, I’m trying to institute a grown-up version of putting the crayons on top of the refrigerator. It’s a plan that involves leaving the house and going to the office some days, frequenting coffee shops with no Wi-Fi, working with others to hold myself accountable, and when I realize that I’m really struggling, using apps with names like “SelfControl”—a chiding reminder that I have none!
So, if you’re a creative worker or academic writer, it may be worth asking yourself at the beginning of this summer season, what’s your green crayon? What’s the “on top of fridge” you can institute so that you can accomplish your most important work?
The mind's ability to throw up obstacles is a marvelous thing. Eighty percent of the time, there's a "not-good-enough, not-good-enough" train of thought chugging along in my mind that must be suppressed when I embark on a writing project. But then, when faced with a cool opportunity to publish a new piece of writing, there's a bizarro, arrogant train that shows up. And this train of thought indicates a hoarder tendency. "Whoa Nelly," it says, "what if this idea is too good? Better to save it for another day."
In many ways, this reflection seems to be the opposite of my note on not cramming:
Here, I wrote about not using every single idea in a given piece of writing. I still hold to that. What I'm talking about today is the shadow twin of that idea. In the creative hoarding mentality, I cling to my good idea, worried that I might not have another. In this scenario, rather than the writing being insufficient, every publication venue becomes suddenly not good enough. Even magazine or journals I've spent years admiring.
Both impulses, the impulse to cram a piece of writing full of every idea and the impulse to hoard and hold back good ideas come from a place of scarcity. On the one hand, the crammer fears never having the opportunity to write again. On the other hand, the hoarder fears never having a good idea again. In this second scenario, the writer becomes like Gollum with his "precious" in The Lord of the Rings. And look how that turned out.
Plus, there's this: when I have a new idea I think is good, I get very, very excited about it. I have lots of energy I want to devote to coaxing that ember into a bigger, brighter fire. But when I hold it back, thinking it would be a good book to write when I'm older, wiser, fancier, have more time, etc., that initial energy dissipates and the project tends to languish, never to be realized. Months or years later, when I come back to the idea, more often than not, the excitement has dissipated and even if I have the time, I don't care to pursue that particular line has thought.
The good news, though, is that thoughts are not a finite resource.
Spending a good one doesn't deplete one's creative accounts. Indeed, often thoughts beget more thoughts. Robert Boice's important book Advice for New Faculty Members (linked below) on successful faculty bears this out in its research on faculty productivity.
Here, Boice notes that professors who release their writing into the world without waiting for it to be perfect end up being more cited, more influential. The same might be said of the writer who does not wait for the perfect venue or the perfect life moment to pursue that good idea. The more we let go of our ideas, the less we hold back, the more we end up putting out into the world. And who doesn't want that?
I’m doing some research on Bette Davis at the moment and it has brought me to some amazingly wrong-headed career advice she received early on in a fan magazine. In it, the magazine’s beauty columnist advises Davis to stop playing such unpleasant women and, among other things, not to jut out her chin so much because it makes her neck cords pop out unattractively.
The beauty columnist insists on her appropriateness to offer Davis advice. She writes, “Now maybe you think I’m stepping out of my rôle as beauty doctor when I tell you that in this letter I want to talk to you about your personality. Really, I’m not, for beauty and personality are inseparable.”
Here’s the thing, though, she is wrong. She’s not an acting coach or a psychiatrist. And, luckily for us, it doesn’t appear Bette Davis listened.
So, what does this amusing anecdote about Bette Davis have to do with our creative work and us?
As with the beauty columnist in question sometimes judges of writing and other creative output get a little confused about their role and the kind of judgments appropriate to it.
In addition to being a writer myself, I’m also a teacher and a member of several social media writing support groups, including groups focused on academic work, creative work, and freelance writing.
With some regularity, a wounded writer appears, whether in my office or in these online spaces. Although the contexts vary, the type of wounding is remarkably similar: some gatekeeper has taken it upon him or herself to judge the writer unfit. This judgment often takes the form of unsolicited advice about a change in career.
When I speak of wounded writers, I am not asking that we stick a prize on everyone or make everybody feel good all the time.
Plenty of writing and artwork is bad. I make bad work all the time. Everyone who creates does—it’s a necessary part of making good work! And sometimes, I don’t realize work is bad until a reviewer tells me it is. Sometimes lots and lots of reviewers at lots of outlets need to tell me something is bad. Then I trash that work and try to make something better.
But telling a writer or academic or artist that she is trash (or not fit for X profession) is not only unhelpful and mean, it’s also outside the reviewer’s purview.
If you are a writer, artist, academic, other creative or thought worker just starting out, here’s a guideline for categorizing appropriate responses to your work:
All of these, including the judgment of a thing’s not-goodness are fine and useful. As you receive feedback as a maker of things, consider which of these categories of response you are getting—engage a friend to help you translate.
Importantly, nowhere on this list is the feedback: you, maker of bad thing, you are as bad as this piece of crap thing. Get out you crap-making person.
If you’re getting feedback that doesn’t fit into one of these five categories, especially if you’re getting judgment from someone who is not your career coach, therapist, or God about your value as a human being, bring in that friend to help you see whether the reviewer is stepping out of his or her role.
This picture of a reasonable looking cup of coffee in no way represents the brew I drank on Wednesday morning of this week. Making coffee is a very important task in my house hold. Not because my husband and I are connoisseurs, but because we are working parents. When it comes to coffee, we are interested in quantity, not quality. Also because we're pinching pennies to keep baby in diapers and daycare, we've resolved that all the coffee we drink this year has to be brewed at home, not purchased out.
This Wednesday, thinking about the initial cups for breakfast, the cups that go with the dog walk, and those that travel with us to work, I heaped the coffee maker's little mesh basket to capacity, thinking this would save me from having to brew another pot. First cups, pretty good. For most of the morning, the scheme worked. But then, as I drank that crucial mid-morning cup from my coffee mug, disaster! Nothing but sludge and grounds. Home that afternoon, I saw that the poor coffee maker couldn't handle the dense pack and had sent the grounds burbling over into the water itself.
The desire to pack things overfull, I'm afraid, is not limited to my frankly crap coffee making. I've been working on an essay that will appear alongside the essays of people I find quite intimidating. They are super-smarties from fancy institutions, and I typically conceive of myself as a worker-bee sort of writer, one who toils steadily and consistently.
As I've been writing, I've noticed a bad tendency bubbling up in the essay--not unlike the activity of those nasty grounds. In my anxiety about "sounding smart," I've been overpacking the thing. It's an essay meant to say something about my field, literary studies, by extrapolating from some historical research I've been doing on the think W.E.B. Du Bois's representations of children in the magazine The Crisis. But I can feel myself worrying about a certain kind of not-enoughness. So I've started piling on... maybe I could say this little thing about teaching, maybe I could say just a snip about other historical contexts, maybe I could put in a thought about how I think a particular methodology has been unfairly criticized. Quick, what thoughts can I dump in!
Not surprisingly, writing by accretion has not been improving the essay. It's become overburdened, flighty, weird, even. Talking myself through the revision process, I have to keep reminding myself that I will go on to write other essays. I need to leave behind the scarcity mindset and remind myself that this is not the last thing I'll ever write, nor is it improved by the overstuffing. Instead, I can give these ideas life and room to expand some future day. And, as was the case with my dumb over-filled coffee maker, the ideas would likely be improved by having room to percolate.
(I hope you'll forgive the pun, but I've been working up to it, so I'm not that sorry!)
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.
For those of us who are self-employed, creative workers, writers, or teachers, friends and family often misunderstand the rhythms of our workweek, workday, and even work year. Ask any teacher or academic about her summer “off” and she may not correct you, but she’ll feel that inward groan. So-called “vacation time” is often when major work on dissertations, books, articles, or other creative projects take place.
What our lovely, but misunderstanding friends and relatives are correct about, however, is the kind of freedom many creative workers have with their time. This freedom can be both a blessing and curse. It is this freedom, for example, that allows me to do yoga midday on non-teaching days, or to take a weekday writing break at a coffee shop to visit with a friend after finishing the day’s pages or lesson plan.
It’s also this freedom, though, that means that on Christmas day, I feel that pull to work. Or that when whiling away a Saturday doing nothing in particular, I feel the guilt that I could always being doing something productive.
For writers, creative workers, and the self-employed, the shop never closes and the office never turns off its lights because the worker is herself the business.
In my own life, I am hoping to implement a no work on weekends practice; this is especially important to me because I have an infant daughter and I am trying to develop a good distinction between work time and family time.
I am also trying to implement a similar practice about the end of the workday, after which my attentions belong to my family.
But here’s the rub: when your brain is the office and your home or your neighborhood coffee shop is the cubicle, how do you decide when the workday is done? And how do you finish up the day well?
I’ve been playing around with an idea that I’m calling the “final fifteen.”
The “final fifteen” are the last fifteen minutes of the workday. They are the last chunk of time in which a person could “just touch” her creative work if she’s not done so earlier in the day.
Or, if there’s a nagging but yet-unstarted project on the task list, the “final fifteen” is a great way to open the task so that it’s in process for the following day.
Whenever you choose to end your work day, the “final fifteen” is a good way of ensuring that you’ve done at least a little of what you had intended. This is the working, push side of the final fifteen, but there’s also a work-life balance side of the equation.
For people who have workdays that don’t really end, but, rather, whimper out into the evening, the final fifteen is a nice way of saying, “that’s it workday! We’re done! See ya tomorrow.”
Especially for those of us who tend to feel guilty about not working, the bright demarcation between work and off time is especially important. But a good, hard last push can allow us to feel that work has been accomplished and now it’s okay to play and relax.
What do you want to be sure to accomplish in your “final fifteen” today?
Gratitude gets a lot of play in happiness and mindfulness circles. However, it doesn’t necessarily get its due in discussions of writing, productivity, and creativity.
It’s end of semester time around here, which means that everyone is feeling pretty spent. Colleagues are sick of each other, teachers feel like they are dragging their students across the finish line, and whatever weird emotional baggage the holidays bring up is coming home to roost. Add to this dwindling daylight and an exhausting election cycle and corresponding aftermath and have just mixed up a strange brew guaranteed to interfere with productivity necessary for and (dare I say) the joy that can accompany creative work.
This feels true in my own life as the end of the semester also corresponds with the endings of a couple writing projects that have felt very streetttccchhhedd out. What I refer to as the end of semester “I don’t wannas” are cropping up not just in relation to exam grading and lingering service tasks, but in my writing life as well. It’s particularly bad timing for me to be finishing writing projects at the end of semester because I hate the “cleaning up” part of the writing process, and in the case of the article and book I’m finishing at the moment, there have been many rounds of Hoovering and Windexing already.
So, how to break out of the funk?
Here’s one idea: saying thank you. Many creative pieces offer an official spot for doing this, whether in an acknowledgments section or a dedication. But even if your particular work or creative project doesn’t offer an official area for offering up gratitude, it’s still possible to draft a little list of people to send emails, cards, or even flowers when your work is done.
In what has been a bit of a bleak season, reviewing the acknowledgments section of my book fills me with a bit of a warm glow that extends to the project itself. I get to reminisce about the wonderful independent theater (Nashville’s Belcourt) where I first saw the films I’m writing about. I think about how cool it was to meet director Kelly Reichardt and meet her sweet dog. And, most happily, I am reminded of my friendship with my coauthor Nicole Seymour and how lucky I have been to write with her.
Now, does this mean that I’m going to love chasing down last citations for the manuscript? No. But it does mean that I’m interrupting my negative thought pattern with a reminder of the love and support that has gone into the project so far, and that’s just enough to make me shake of feelings of resentment and to return those feelings of care in kind.
Just a little glow of gratitude at a dark time of year.
At eight months pregnant, the mind starts to play tricks. It can convince you, for example, that you might suddenly do things and enjoy activities you’ve never done before. That is, in addition to the major new thing that is parenthood.
For example, crafting. I don’t craft. Frankly, I don’t like other people’s crafts. The shallow materialist in me loves the store-bought and shiny. Crafts just look so, well, homemade.
But while eight months pregnant I spied a beautiful mobile in a high-end boutique that was priced at some obscene number. That costs a week of daycare, I thought, and it’s just yarn!
Enter the pom poms.
In a fit of optimism and willful ignoring of my own tendencies and preferences, I went to the craft store, purchased several skeins of yarn, two pom pom makers, and something called an embroidery hoop. I would make my baby a mobile. It would be great. An heirloom! Something with a mother’s touch to be cherished by her daughter.
By the time the baby arrived, and with the help of visiting parents, I had crafted half the number of pom poms necessary for the mobile. I had hopelessly knotted one of the skeins of yarn, and there were little bits of fluff everywhere. Oh, and while my mother-in-law’s pom poms emerged cute little colorful balls, mine were sad, thin things—little multicolored hamsters of despair.
And so, after the baby came, I cleaned the supplies away into a plastic bag, placed the bag on a high shelf in the closet, and there it has remained. My baby is now 11 months old and totally uninterested in mobiles.
But there has been pom pom creep.
While the material object that is my depressing, unfinished mobile remain packed high in the closet, it’s been enjoying a second life on my to do list.
Like many type-Aish people, I sit down and plan my week on Sundays. I look at what’s ahead in the next week and what wasn’t completed from last week and make a new list.
And those damn pom poms have been migrating from week to week, never completed, never touched, but lurking at the bottom of my list, infecting the next week’s chores with a sense of failure, a sense of impossibility.
Because I know I’m never going to do it. Unlike things related to my job or to my health or the health of my family, the pom poms are not important. Also, unlike reminder items on my to do list such as “buy Christmas gifts,” or “email Mikaela about going to movies,” or even “get haircut,” the to-do item “finish mobile” isn’t fun or tempting for me. Which means that I’ve been lightly but regularly beating myself up with a thing I don’t really want to do week after week as I migrate this task from to-do list to to-do list.
“Finish mobile” is a pretty frivolous task, as far as things go, but I suspect we all have versions of these lurkers on our to-do lists. I see them as the foul offspring of some blend of American work ethic plus fantasy life. What if I were this kind of person?, I ask myself. What if I were the kind of mother who made things for her children? And then, Practical Polly that I am, I immediately imagine this hypothetical person’s chores and assign them to myself. But the truth of the matter is that I’m not that kind of mother. And that’s okay, but I need to take her chores off my list!
I think the hypothetical selves in our lives can be lovely, allowing us to explore possibilities, to test out ideas--What if I were the kind of person who ran marathons? What if I were the kind of person who volunteered regularly? What if I were the kind of person who organized weekly trivia nights? Etc.--but as we look at these dream lives, it’s worthwhile remembering that they needn’t burden our current existences with guilt for undone chores. If it’s freeing, cross those motherf*ng pom poms off your list!
Get a Life, PhD
The Professor is In
The Thesis Whisperer
Tenure, She Wrote