In 2011, I was living in Nashville, Obama (bless him) was still the president, and none of my hair was gray. Also, Lindsay Lohan was in the news for her bad behavior and the leaked photos from her disastrous Playboy photo shoot.
I do research on celebrity and matters of identity, so I was fascinated by the fact that Lohan, a star in decline, was recreating famous Marilyn Monroe photographs in the upcoming issue of Hefner’s magazine. For the first (and only?) time in my life, I bought an issue of Playboy, I poured over photos of Lohan and Monroe, and read creepy interviews with Hefner—the man bought a cemetery plot next to Monroe, saying “Spending eternity next to Marilyn is too sweet to pass up." As someone who had recently finished graduate school and was beginning to emerge from the attendant insecurities, I also identified strongly with the two actresses who struggled to be taken seriously. (It’s still the case that any time someone mentions the Monroe reading Joyce photo, I want to punch him)
And so, over a series of months in 2011-2012, I wrote an article. I sent it to a pop culture journal, where I received a very dismissive review that explained that because the reviewer had not heard about the Playboy spread, it wasn’t culturally relevant. In the meantime, I was on the job market, working on my first book, getting married, and starting my first tenure track job.
In general, the Lohan-Monroe essay languished. It remained on my CV as a “work in progress,” and, periodically, I’d add it to a list of yearly to-dos. In 2013 or so, I submitted it to a feminist journal that was probably a sight too high for the piece. More rejection, more languishing.
There are a couple such pieces in my life, including a significantly more high brow essay about Saul Bellow and The Partisan Review, which a reviewer described as “a very strange piece” and a piece of literary nonfiction about my husband (Maybe he’s happy to have the piece molder? It’s a loving essay, but still.).
I suspect that lots of writers and creative workers engage in a similarly optimistic to-do list shuffle, bumping failed or failed-for now projects from calendar to calendar, CV to CV, despite the guilt or sinking feeling such projects inspire.
In addition to making a new calendar this particular New Year’s season, I’ve also taken on Apartment Therapy’s January Cure (https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/categories/the-january-cure), a very manageable challenge that involves doing one small thing each day to whip one’s house or apartment into shape (clean one drawer, buy a plant).
Day three of the cure introduced an ingenious mechanism: the outbox. Not a trashcan, not a storage container, the outbox is a place to park things you suspect you should get rid of but that maybe you’re having a bit of trouble letting go. The idea is that you let things sit in the outbox for at least a week before having to make the decision to keep, donate, or discard. For items that feel emotionally loaded or guilty, it can be a way of easing your grip slowly. As a quick example, my outbox now contains a (in my opinion) crappy book by an author I normally love as well as five or so yoga straps. About the first, I have a weird guilty feeling about getting rid of this author’s book, as though she’d somehow know. About the second, getting rid of the yoga straps counts as an acknowledgment that I’m not planning to teach yoga anytime in the near future—unless you got really into Fifty Shades of Gray and built your own dungeon, no one besides a yoga teacher needs the fifty feet of straps I’ve acquired. The outbox is a nice place to park these things. Normally, when faced with the idea of donating or selling these two, my response is a whiny but…maybe…I want that? No, the answer is no, I don't, but I need to ease out of my ownership of these items.
This is true, too, for some of these bad old writing projects. They need an intermediate parking place while I come to terms with the fact that La Lohan is unlikely to have a career renaissance at this point.
Inspired by Erin Marie Furtak, I have a “publishing pipeline” drawn into my planner (https://www.chronicle.com/article/My-Writing-Productivity/236712), but I’m thinking that in addition to quadrants for the various parts of the writing process—brainstorming, reading primary sources, reading related scholarship, abstract drafting, etc.—I need a special place to contain the projects that probably need to be let go, even if I’m not quite ready to do so just yet. I could mix my metaphors and call this my “out box” or, keeping with the pipeline metaphor, maybe this is my sewage pile or the leak into my aquifer. In any case, it seems valuable to park these languishing projects outside my to do list or calendar—capturing them somewhere so they aren’t forgotten, but also recognizing that perhaps their time has passed.
Unless some screenwriter is currently putting the finishing touches on a Lohan project I don’t know about--please?
Get a Life, PhD
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Tenure, She Wrote