academic work · faster feminism · you're awesome

Writing in Public

Here’s a confession: speaking in public makes me nervous.
When I am lecturing for classes I usually give myself a few extra minutes to walk to class with my headphones in and the music loud. Other times, I dance in my office by myself. True story. The nerves don’t quit when I am giving conference papers. Never mind that I have given dozens in the last few years. I still get a racing heart, sweaty palms, and tunnel vision. It’s the best I can do to keep the shake out of my voice.
I’m lucky. I’ve been told that my performance anxiety doesn’t show. That’s a relief, in a way, because I’ve certainly been taught not to show my weak points. (Or to reveal them in a strategically self-effacing way as a means of making a point. Cough cough.)
But the place that makes me the most nervous to speak in public isn’t necessarily about speaking at all. No. It is writing in public that gives me the most anxiety, and I think there is good reason for this—or at least reason that extends beyond my personal foibles.
Writing in public is risky. It is more risky that speaking in public in some ways. Sure, when your body is there before an audience there is the possibility of physical affronts. There is the fact of your body, the way that it reacts to stress and strain. You might sweat a bit, you might stutter. You might cry. Or laugh. I have done all of these things in public—usually in front of a class—and I have lived to tell the tale. It isn’t always pleasant, but it is almost always a pedagogically useful moment, if only in hindsight. There is also the more dangerous fact of your body as a body in front of others. I have certainly felt threatened when speaking in public or as a result of it, and I have very good friends and acquaintances—almost all women—who have similar experiences or worse. So yes, placing one’s own body in front of the bodies of others while speaking is risky. Why, then, do I feel it is alright to suggest that writing in public is the most anxiety-producing mode of public “speaking” for me and for many others I know?
Again, the body: in the place of my own body is my body of writing. It can’t defend itself, reiterate, or retort on its own. It requires my intervention, my reiteration, my retort. My writing—any public writing—can be taken up and out of context, deliberately or accidentally misinterpreted, and it can become fodder for more pernicious kinds of aggressive engagements.
Some years ago Sina Queyras wrote a post on Lemon Hound wondering where the women bloggers were. Her query was rhetorical. “Look to the margins,” she said. “Look to the gaps, the fissures, the silences.”
Writing in public is risky business, even when it looks innocuous. Today, I want to thank all of the positive risk-takers and public-writing women I know. Thank you, you make me feel a bit braver, and you make me recognize my own responsibility to speak. 

kindness · mental health · slow academy · you're awesome

To Connect or to Disconnect

I came to Facebook rather late, and it was as much a reluctant step as it was a strategic one. I joined once I had handed in my dissertation, and people who knew I was on the job market started sending me postdoc opportunities and such that were posted on Facebook. If that’s the way the cookie crumbles, I thought, then I’m not making a stand here, really, by opting out, but merely depriving myself of opportunities. That was in 2010.

It turns out, my then line of thought finds itself in good company, and it is no coincidence. Apparently, famous business women like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer. I haven’t read Lean In, but it would be highly surprising if a Facebook executive would be advocating anything other than staying connected. Marissa Mayer–of the no-Yahoo-employees-shall-work-from-home-and-I-only-take-three-weeks-mat-leave-cause-I-can-build-a-nursery-in-my-office-bitcheeez fame–also advises us to stay permanently connected if we wish to succeed. The “we” here comprises the usual audience of such dicta, I assume, and I’m not sure I would count myself included. However, it’s no coincidence that social media corporate executives urge connectivity for the ideal neoliberal subject. But I digress. Anyhoo, I’ve decided to opt out most of the time, and to stay disconnected as much as possible, especially when compared to my previous presence and usage.

You see, between Facebook, Twitter, email, Pinterest, and the like, and enabled by my smart phone, I have developed an addiction. I’m not using this term lightly: if I had a moment free, e.g., on my way to the bathroom, or waiting for my coffee to brew, or walking towards my office, I would check any and all of the above. And if I didn’t have a free moment, I would make one. I was enough aware of the extent of the problem that I abstained from getting a data plan. Honestly, I knew I’d check email/social media anywhere, and there would really be no stopping. Plus, I told myself, there’s wifi everywhere these days. Even Safeway. Which means, every time I’d get into a store/coffee shop, first thing I would do is check email/social media. Stuck on the right word during a pomodoro? Check FB. Feeling low? Check Twitter. Yeah, like that’s gonna get my spirits up.

gratuitous picture of the Columbia Icefield

And that was exactly my tipping point: the realization that I was looking outward instead of inward. No wonder I felt like I lacked direction. I was expecting other people’s status updates, tweets, emails, to bring me calm, serenity, and happiness. And you know how often that happens. I was putting stumbling blocks in front of my already-wobbly legs. Whenever I was writing, I would mentally check in with myself, thus breaking my own advice, not to mention my flow. “Hey, I’m doing pretty well here, and I’m sure I’ll be able to pick it up after a brief FB break. I deserve it: I wrote a whole 100 words.” You probably know as well as I do that a “brief FB break” turns into an epic read-athon of updates and interesting articles that my wonderful friends post, and that I simply have to read the moment I encounter.

It’s not productivity or its lack that I’m worried about here. No. It’s mental health. Breaks, true breaks, are good for me. In fact, my brain needs down time in order to process stuff. I used to feel really bad when I was writing my dissertation, because I spent a lot of time doing nothing with a palpable result (read: words in a document). But then I’d sit down to write, and words would flow, because, you see, while I thought I had been doing nothing, my brain was actually working, mulling ideas, finding its way in a maze, synthesizing research, compiling evidence, putting ideas together and articulating them to the overarching concerns, etc.

gratuitous picture of a pine cone

You will notice I used the past tense and its variations a lot in the previous paragraphs. It’s been about a week–I’m not a big fan of milestones, so I didn’t write down the day that I actually started–and things are going well. I’m much calmer, and I’ve been managing the withdrawal with more exercise, more actual down time, and more reading of books that are printed on paper. And other stuff, which I’ll list here. Things like

Read a poem
Read a book (or part of it)
Do a quick savasana (I won’t tell anyone if you take a nap)
Take a nap
Get a coffee/tea/water while looking into the distance
Walk your dog
Pet your cat
Sit/stand while looking in the distance
Pull weeds
Do other gardening
Listen to your favourite music with your eyes closed (I won’t tell anyone if you take a nap)
Go for a walk/run
Play an instrument

I can’t think of any more, but please do add your own suggestions for alternatives to social media procrastination.

heavy-handed metaphors · running · saving my sanity · writing

Writing and running

So, I’m prepping this graduate professionalization course you may have heard me talk about on Twitter. As a result I’m reading a looooooooot of books on writing–academic writing, dissertation writing, creative non-fiction writing. Here’s something I’ve noticed:

A lot of disciplined writers are also runners.

Joan Bolker keeps reverting to running metaphors in Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. In the Chronicle, writing columnist Rachel Toor refers fairly frequently to her own running habit–she does half-marathons, apparently. (William Zinsser doesn’t run, so far as I can tell, probably because he’s too busy wagging his fingers at people [mostly male people], but that’s neither here nor there.) Anne Lamott doesn’t run, but Bird by Bird reminds Melissa of running.

I’ve got more, that didn’t arrive in time for the photo shoot.

I’ve started to run. The writing books inspired me, actually. And since I’m doing so much writing this summer (reading books on how to be a productive academic can produce productivity this way) I need some outlets for when I unpeel my butt from my deck chair. Obviously, I began my running career by reading about running. It’s striking how similar the writing advice and the running advice is, to wit:

  • Make a schedule and stick to it
  • Be consistent
  • Shorter efforts, more frequently, achieve better results
  • Capacity builds over time; start slow and it will speed up!
  • It’s important to build in time for rest and recovery
  • The hardest part is getting out the door / opening the document
  • “Motivation” is never going to be enough
  • The good feeling you get from dragging your ass/pen through it when you don’t want to today will give you momentum for tomorrow
  • When you hit your stride, there’s nothing better than staying in that flow

Writing and running are mutually reinforcing each other for me right now. When I just want to surf Dog Shaming rather than write, I think to myself, “Well, you dragged your ass out of bed at 6am to run, and that turned out really great, so bring that same commitment to the writing!” And then, at 6am, when I’m all snuggy and listening to my whole household happily snoring, I think, “Dammit, you sat in a chair for two hours trying to create a BOOK out of NOTHING yesterday, so you can probably manage to thump your feet down sequentially on a pretty path and listen to the birds chirp for half an hour and not DIE.” (There’s a lot all-capsy thinking when I’m feeling sorry for myself, as you do when the alarms goes off in the morning.)

The academy is full of funny coincidences. A lot of English professors are in therapy / have weirdo hair. A lot of women in Digital Humanities like to knit. A lot of productive writers are runners. Huh. Something to think about.