best laid plans · body · busy · family · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · writing

From the Archives: The More She Sleeps

Last Wednesday our daughter was born. Every day since then has been a wonderful–and somewhat exhausting–blur of getting our bearings in this new life of ours. While I plan to write a post on navigating being pregnant and on the job market that’s not what is on my mind today. Rather, after a bleary night of feeding and rocking and trying to sleep, I’m thinking about my partner who has a writing deadline. I am thinking about all of you heading to Congress. I am thinking about the summer research and writing plans. And of course, I am thinking about this wee little person who is strapped to my chest while I type.

Here, in the spirit of writing and sleeping and finding your bearings, is a post that Aimée wrote about how writing is like sleep training.
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When my daughter was an infant she and I both often sported the wild looks, red eyes, flailing movements, and terrible mood swings associated with chronic lack of sleep. Every day was a battle, both of us to try to stay awake, only one of us with reason. Sometimes, of an afternoon, I wandered glassy-eyed through the local grocery store with her staring glassy-eyed out of the sling. No morning nap, no afternoon nap, and oh dear lord the colic hours approaching. Well-meaning friends, strangers, and cashiers of all sorts would cluck and say, to comfort me, “Well, at least she’ll sleep tonight for sure!”

But here’s the thing: her worst nights for sleep were the ones that followed the days that she didn’t nap. And, those weird days where she’d get 2 hours of day-time sleep? She’d conk out at 7pm for 12 hours.

My husband and I developed a saying, repeated like a mantra to everyone who completely misunderstood her sleep cycle. The saying is this: The more she sleeps, the more she sleeps. And it was absolutely true.

Writing is like that, too, I’ve been recently thinking. Looking around at my friends and colleagues online and off, the conclusion I’ve come to is this:

The more you write, the more you write.


I’m thinking particularly about the relationship of informal, lower- or different-stakes writing to the much higher-stakes academic writing, the peer-reviewed articles, the dissertations, and the books. Extra-particularly, I’m thinking about the role that blogging plays in my practices and productivity as a writer.

I have written a ton more, in a ton more venues, and a ton more easily* since I began blogging. That’s the truth!

In the early days of academics blogging, many in the professoriate espoused the belief that time spent blogging was time away from research. It seemed to me that the view of “writing” was very narrow and very parsimonious. Certainly, blogs (and op-eds, and public talks) were held in much lower esteem than the gold standard represented by the peer-reviewed article. And that’s fine, as it goes. But there was something else, too, almost as though many in the academy believed that we had each only a finite lifetime allotment of usable words, and that it was a terrible waste to let these spill out onto the screens over the internet rather than pages through the library.

[You may develop your own quasi-religious metaphor involving masturbation and spilled seed here, if you wish. I’m not going to go there.]

But in my experience, words don’t work like that. Words are more like kittens: the more you have of them, the more you’re likely to get. If you nurture a couple of them, they’ll soon start to produce more and more of them without much conscious effort on your part to increase their number. And so it is with my words: I nurture a couple of small ones, and suddenly every computer I have has open documents full of jottings for a book project or an article or a syllabus or a blog post or an op-ed, a crazy crowded mishmash of self-multiplying words and ideas.

Why?

For me, first, blogging has developed the writing habit. I carry that mental pencil and pad with me all the time, always busy trying to convert my experience into blog bait. I’m pre-writing, that is, all the time. And this habit spills over to my research: I’m always busy trying to convert my reading into article-bait. This is a habit I did not have before blogging.

Second, the feedback I receive from blogging (and media appearances, and public talks) offers nearly immediate positive reinforcement, and that makes me write more. When people tell me they think an idea is great, I’m more likely to push harder to write something more substantial about it; when people tell me the like reading my writing, I know that the work is not solitary or without a point or audience. Writing starts to feel good.

Third, informal writing has clarified my voice and made me a more confident (and, I hope, effective) communicator. Blogging (etc.) does not tie me in compositional knots relating to disciplinary jargon (or, worse, interdisciplinary jargon). There’s no onerous citation requirement. I don’t have to tone down my metaphors for an imaginary international audience. I write to please myself, largely, and as a result the writing process is pleasant, and the results are more conversational. For high-stakes professional writing, jargon is necessary, adherence to strict rules of citation is necessary, and (I think) some of the enforced clunkiness of writing style is a historical artifact that I can only chip away at one little piece at a time. But that’s all very tiring. High-stakes writing is an 800m butterfly swim in a tech-suit at the Olympics; low-stakes writing is skinny dipping from the paddle-boat at 11pm at the cottage. It’s fun, but I’m probably still building muscle and endurance.

I know that many of you have digital lives or write in public as well. I would be very, very interested to hear how you think your own “low-stakes**” writing has an impact on your “high-stakes” work. We could maybe change the prevailing narrative!

Maybe we’ll start worrying about the productivity of people who don’t fart around writing stuff on teh intertubes 😉

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* “easily” is relative. I still really hate writing. It’s just that the hating part is so much less debilitating than it was before.


** the degree of stakeness is relative to your perspective, of course: in my JOB, articles count more than blogging or public appearances, but this month I’ve had a) an article appear in a big journal and b) a five minute appearance on national radio and I leave it to you to guess which of these events prompted more hallway talk and productive debate about digital culture, more emails from friends and relatives, more phone calls, more Facebook posts, more debates, more Twitter RTs, and more “Wow, I’m impressed.”

#alt-ac · academic work · bad academics · balance · busy · collaboration · enter the confessional

But what about me?

Negotiating priorities in my work has been really hard recently. And by recently I mean, oh, since the MLA back in January.

It’s not that I haven’t been working. I have. Oh, I have. York is undergoing a pan-university review exercise much like the TransformUS initiative that’s been causing so much of a ruckus (and rightly so) at the University of Saskatchewan, and as one of only a few writers in my office, I’ve been heavily involved in the writing and editing of our Faculty’s report. Scholarships and grants are never ending, and overtime has been rather more plentiful than I would like. A friend and I have (fingers crossed) a book-like online project about graduate training and reform launching soon, and that’s required lots of tending, as has the newly published Digital Studies article about grad students in DH that he and I wrote with a bunch of wildly talented folks. I’m just finishing up the paper for the panel another friend and I put together for the ACQL at Congress, and a good chunk of my free time has been spent researching and editing for a scholarly edition of a Canadian play another friend is working on. Writing this paragraph, it seems that I’ve been doing a good job of working on collaborative projects, or stuff for other people, but not things for me.

In fact, in writing that last paragraph, I’m realizing that neglecting things for me–not just in terms of work and writing, but in terms of all the things–is precisely what I’ve been doing across the board. My dissertation is languishing in Scrivener, a fact that weaves a low hum of anxiety through most of my days. When my Dean asked me recently if there were ways that she could help facilitate my finishing, it didn’t make me feel happy, or supported–it just made me feel guilty. I haven’t kept my Thursday appointment with Hook & Eye for longer than I’d care to admit. I went for a walk after work today, stopping for gelato midway (because spring), but almost didn’t go because I felt a little panicked about all of the things I need to do tonight (write this post! finish my ACQL paper! start packing!) and less than entitled to a break and some exercise. I’ve spent too much money on new clothes recently, because spending money on myself is the easiest way to remedy the feeling that I’m not doing a very good job of actually taking care of myself. When was the last time I did something creative? When was the last time I took an entire day off work, or took time off work and didn’t feel guilty about it? No idea. And aren’t those the things I was trying to steer myself away from by deciding to step off the tenure track?

I think the thing that frustrates me the most is the feeling that I’ve written this post before. I know that I’ve written this post before, and I know that there are so many other things that I could write about, that I’d rather write about, but I’m just…tapped out. I get it–it’s not just me. We all know that we shouldn’t be the last people on our own to-do lists. We all preach the gospel of self care. But we all live in a culture of productivity and anti-procrastination and self-realization through work. And when it comes down to the wire, do I practice what I preach on those subjects? You’re damn right I don’t. And if I think it’s bad now, what about when the day comes that I’ve got a child? I’m nervous (read: terrified) just thinking about it.

I don’t know what the solution is. I love my job, truly, and I really don’t mind the overtime or the end-of-day mental exhaustion, most of the time. I really do want to finish my dissertation, for the personal satisfaction, and for the sunk costs, and because I do think it will get me ahead at work. I’m not willing to give up my writing on #altac or my other academic collaborations, and I’ve already cut most conferencing ( I go to the MLA and Congress, fin) and all additional training completely out of my schedule. I already have someone to help with the cleaning, and a partner/takeout to take care of the cooking when I don’t have the time or energy to. I have the lowest maintenance pet I can imagine, except for when he misses my partner and takes some serious consoling before he’ll stop crying at the top of his lungs (who needs a baby?). So what gives? In the end, it’s quality time with my partner and my friends, and it’s sleep, and it’s me, and the things that no one but me is depending on me to get done.

I’m at a bit of a loss, because I can’t see where something else can give, and something else has gotta give. In the meantime, until I figure it out, I guess I’ll keep trucking along, put the credit card away, and hope that my annual Congress visit with the other lovely ladies of Hook & Eye will bring some enlightenment, or at least some sympathy.

See you in St. Catherine’s?

balance · body · busy · grad school · modest proposal · parenting

In Praise of Sleep

It’s Reading Break! Phew….

Somehow I’ve managed to get halfway through my first semester of teaching, and coincidentally, half way through my first stack of papers. I’ve been grading leisurely this past week, with curling in the background (the Canadian Women’s Curling Championships ended a week ago), finally with space, it seems, to breathe.

This past weekend was one of the most relaxing I’ve had in quite some time. With no teaching pressures for the next week, I wasn’t trying to cram every spare moment with reading, writing lectures, or class prep of some sort or another. I took my daughter to an indoor playground, baked muffins, slept in, lazed around my house in my pajamas, and vacuumed my whole house for the first time in (gulp) over six months. It was really nice.

If I haven’t said so before, I’m going to say it now: teaching for the first time is intense and exhausting. Selecting books and writing the syllabus aside, the weekly lecture writing, assignment creation, and grading (my students do weekly reading responses), has made me, well…a bit frazzled. So far, I’ve been managing (with only a week of major slip-ups) to stick to my semester goal to keep my teaching prep to teaching days, write two days a week, and spend daily and weekend time with my family. But it has come at a cost: my sleep.

Sleep has been shown to be essential to all kinds of things: memory, focus, and concentration, safety, immune function, cardiovascular health…I could go on. But one of the things I’ve just started to piece together about myself and sleep is that when I don’t get enough of it, my stress levels go up exponentially. It doesn’t matter if all my work is done or if I’m fully on top of all my responsibilities, if I’m not getting enough sleep, I’m stressed. Period. And stress, apparently, does not do good things to your brain.

You’d think being several years into a PhD program would mean that I would have already figured out this crucial bit of information. But, believe it or not, PhD + Baby ≠ deep and intimate knowledge of the value of sleep. Although I’ve learned to deeply appreciate the moments when I have the “luxury” of sleep, I’ve failed to make it a priority.

This reading week, I’m determined change that, and I’m hoping my resolve will stick around for the semester. 

Do you prioritize sleep? Or is it often the first thing that falls to the wayside when you’re busy?

balance · busy · commute · day in the life · enter the confessional · job notes · mental health

A day at home: downtime as worktime

Greetings, internauts! I write to you from my white leather IKEA Poang chair, be-Croc’ed feet up on the footstool, cosy in my Waterloo track pants, my Lululemon thinking hoodie, and a big mug of tea. It’s 5pm as I write this; I’ve been sitting here pretty much all day, except for that chunk of time I was reading on the couch so the dog could warm my feet up.

I’ve had just the most amazing day, frankly, and I wanted to share it:

  • 6:45-8:20: shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, roust child and animals
  • 8:20-9:05: take kid to bus, take dog for walk
  • 9:05-10:30: write conference proposal, reorganize 30 open Safari windows
  • 10:30-10:50: dancing break (Violent Femmes), empty dishwasher, call husband
  • 10:50-12:00: read intensely and rapidly through materials for summer workshop
  • 12:00-12:20: lunch, make latte
  • 12:20-2:00: read opening two chapters of new book in my exact area
  • 2:00-2:20: play piano
  • 2:20-4:00: intense blitz of organizing research notes and web clippings for project
  • 4:00-4:30: goof around with the dog, eat apple, make tea
  • 4:30-5:00: write research blog post for other blog
  • 5:00-now : work on this blog post
What’s amazing is the kind of sustained focus I’ve been able to bring to a variety of important but awful tasks: reading, writing, databasing, etc. And how even though I’ve worked way hard on these really intense tasks, I don’t feel burnt out. I am looking forward to my family coming home. I’m ready to talk to people again.
There’s something really important about these days where I don’t have to go to campus, that many of you probably feel, too. This is probably only the second or third day since new year’s where I have not had at least one on-campus obligation to attend to. Being on campus every day, day in and day out, can be very productive in a lot of ways, but it’s really unproductive in others. You know I hate the getting dressed and putting makeup on and doing the commute and trying to pack a lunch or find something edible on campus. And people see me and suddenly I have students lined up at my door, or someone pops in with something that wasn’t urgent but since I’m around do I have twenty minutes? Then I have to commute home again. The clothes are itchy. I don’t have a good reading chair.
I hear that it sounds whiny. But believe me, I am on campus a lot and for a lot more meetings than many people–I am a VP on our Faculty Association, and there’s a LOT of meetings associated with that. I’m not complaining about that. What I want to do is stress the importance of the at-home days.
It’s not really down time. It’s a different, essential kind of work time.
My sister jokes about me working in my pyjamas. And essentially, I am. But it doesn’t mean I’m not working hard. Arguably, the kinds of work I got done in my pyjamas are much more efficiently and competently accomplished in that attire and in this location than they would be at the office in my heels.
I guess that’s what I want to say. In this era of professor accountability, and “room optimization” scheduling software that sees non-teaching days as a kind of luxury professors ought to count themselves lucky to have any of during the week, I strike out a blow for home work. Working at home means that I can intersperse really intense, exhausting brain work with a bit of downtime I really enjoy. I am physically comfortable, and I am psychically comfortable. I have my fridge and my dog and my cat. My latte machine. There are no students here, and no administrators. I have the freedom to give it 110% for 45 or 90 minutes at a time, then lie down on the floor with my feet up on the couch doing yoga breathing.
It matters. Without intense kinds of downtime there is no intense kind of worktime. Without my track pants, there is no book project. 
busy · chaos · mental health · running

How Read For Pleasure (And Other Impossible Tasks)

Lately I have been thinking a lot about free time. I think it is due largely to the fact that I don’t really have any.
One of the first thoughts I had upon graduating university was that of the sprawling amounts of time I would have to tackle the enormous stack of unread books that I accumulated over my undergrad or the Sunday morning long runs that would no longer be hampered by papers and research.
Sadly, it didn’t take long to realize that those books would remain shut and my long runs would remain unrun as the stack of research and writing assignments on my desk grew. To be honest, when I have an important project on the go, I find it difficult to find time to take a proper breath, much less indulge myself in something I enjoy.
It appears that busyness and academia go hand in hand which would explain why I was so empowered by my female professors during my undergrad. They were organized powerhouses who somehow balanced children, academia, research and a host of other responsibilities and I loved them for it. I thrive on being busy but operating at full speed for weeks on end sets me on a fast track for burnout, usually resulting in an unjustified emotional response to a mundane daily situation or blindsided by whatever illness my compromised immune system is unable to stave off.  
Knowing this, I have tried to sneak things I enjoy while rushing from place to place.  I listen to audio books while I commute and keep a book in my purse for brief moments of quiet during the day where I am riding the bus or waiting in lines. I no longer run during normal waking hours, but find myself setting my alarm clock earlier and earlier in order to fit it in.
Overambitious? Probably. Common for a woman in academia? Yes.
So I ask you, Reader, (knowing you probably are reading this in between meetings, or on your iPhone or eating at your desk while you work on a project) how do you sort through the chaos and find time to do things that you enjoy?
Or do you?