good things · health · sabbatical · summer

We Need It

Because, by the end of the semester, despite best intentions, we are tired to depths that don’t have words.

Because that tiredness separates us from ourselves and from our loved ones.

Because we need to tend to our own selves.

Because we want to tend to our loved ones, be they babies, beloveds, books, or all the above and beyond that ad infinitum. 

Because we need bike rides, and walks with our dear ones.

Because it is nearly picnic season.

Because that damn conference paper needs writing.

Because soon the lakes will be warm and the ocean swimmable.

Because we may have accidentally, again, neglected self-care.

Because sometimes, for some of us, a wild panic sets in, and that panic needs listening to, and quelling.

Because we have not had wine on a patio without feeling guilty.

Because despite feminism, we feel guilty.

Because administrative work wears us down.

Because precarity wears us down.

Because finishing dissertation writing is difficult, necessary, and energy-consuming.

Because Sunday brunch.

Because sometimes we need rest, and we forget that we need rest.

Because we want to come back stronger, more articulate, more focussed, for ourselves and for you, our readers.

Because we deserve it.

Because we want to remember we love our thinking selves.

Because we want to fall in love with writing again, or keep that wild love burning bravely.

Because self-care is, as Audre Lorde writes, warfare, and we live and work in a neoliberal patriarchal culture that does not want us to take care of ourselves or each other.

___________________________________________

We will be on self-care sabbatical until August, dear readers. Take care of yourselves and we will too.

Pitches, guest posts, and the like can be sent to Erin Wunker at Gmail.

health · mental health · yoga

Maintaining healthy habits

I’ve finally done it! Unbelievable as it still seems to me, I’ve managed to undertake a regular yoga routine at home. Even more startling? I’m doing yoga in the morning. I know this revelation might cause more of a “duh”-style reaction from you inveterate yogis, or disciplined part-takers in physical activities of different kinds, but for me, it finally signals a return to a less hectic era in my life, when my time was mine to schedule and dispense with as I pleased [cue violins and nostalgic waxing]. That it took my hitting a wall to reinstate this routine got me thinking: what’s the key to maintaining healthy habits, especially this time in the year and academic term, when the beginning of cold and flu season colludes with high-volume marking or deadlines of all kinds? (I’m not even looking at you Aussies, Kiwis, and your fellow hemispheric dwellers basking in spring sun and the many possibilities of incipient summer.)

When the brick-laden cargo of September fades into the past, October brings the expectation of a more routine, tamed, under-control chaos, but it also carries shorter, darker days, the impending doom of ______ (insert # according to geographical region) months of winter and cold weather, and a general malaise that’s hard to counteract. Just as with September’s ton of bricks, in spite of knowing about this cyclicity, I’m still surprised and disappointed when it happens. It’s like, in the interest of survival, I forget the pain. I think I’m all set: here’s my SAD lamp, here’s my determination to go for runs, walks, etc. The reality is that the SAD lamp helps, but it’s not enough when the crazy schedule means there is no time for leisurely walks and/or runs.

So what gives is always the very activities vital to survival, because I always trick myself that “I’ll just finish marking this batch,” or  “I’ll just do another pomodoro to better structure this section of the paper,” and then I’ll go for a walk. Mmhmm. Exactly! The walk never happens, because the daycare program ends at 5:30, but if we don’t get the kids home earlier, they’ll eat a hole through my head, or throw a tantrum so big, even the easy-going, spring-sun-basking Kiwis might feel it.

And that’s why finally starting a routine of morning yoga seems like such an accomplishment to me: it might just save my sanity. I’m determined to make it into a habit, because I’ve put it in my schedule: every morning, after my partner takes the kids to school, I allot it 30 minutes. Après yoga, le déluge, I say! 

What’s your healthy habit (aspiration), and how do you (strive to) maintain it? The more we talk about these health-determining habits (no, I don’t actually speak for your public health authority), the more potential they have to become reality, and keep us sane through the winter. 

grad school · guest post · health · kid stuff · slow academy

Reset

Today’s post comes from Jana Smith-Elford, PhD Candidate in English at the University of Alberta.

We have reached the end of April. 

My fellow Edmontonians understand that this is serious cause for celebration. A horrible month of snow, snow, and more snow, interspersed with a handful of sunny days of futile hope, followed by several more days of soul-crushing snow is finally over. Goodbye flurries of snow, goodbye horrifically icy roads, goodbye indoors-only playgrounds, goodbye cooped-up, house-bound, over-energetic child. 

This was my view just a couple of days ago:

But two days ago, the first day of May! Sunshine! Somehow, no more snow in my front yard for the first time all winter! My daughter ran around our backyard for the first time in her life! Climbed up the steps of the deck! Chased a ball around the trees! In the matter of a couple of days, temperatures went from the negatives to plus eighteen.

It kind of felt like when the page of the calendar turned to May, someone pressed a giant reset button on the weather.

Lately I’ve found myself wishing I had the ability to press a giant reset button on my life.

I just finished a long, exhausting winter semester: candidacy exams (passed), language requirement courses (completed), and an entry for The Orlando Projectresearched, written, and submitted. I’ve read additional texts suggested by examiners at my candidacy, started writing my introduction, began to explore more deeply the theoretical side of my project. I’ve helped train new research assistants with Orlando, continued testing for a new visualization tool developed by the project, and prepared to attend an upcoming conference on vizualization tools. All good things. 

But I’ve also been sick four times in four months: laryngitis, cold, cough, flu (often multiples at once). My office mate probably feels I should just constantly wear one of these. In the month leading up to the candidacy, my dear daughter had the norovirus twice, and consequently slept through the night only once that entire month. I did a poor job of taking time off after my candidacy. I visited a dear friend in New York sans baby, but brought work along with me. I’ve found the cuts to post-secondary education in Alberta to be demoralizing and unmotivating. I’ve been plugging away for a few months, but I’m tired. 

We’ve talked a lot here about how April is often an exhausting month for women in the academy. Aimée wrote just last week about overcommitting and disastrous ends of term. And Erin wrote an inspiring post about attempting to reengage and reinvorate despite term-end fatigue. But, with an absense of vacation serenity (or with no vacation in sight), how do you maintain or re-gain momentum? After many months of hard and fatigue-inducing work, how do you reset your life?

For me, pushing the reset button has meant: 

1) Not working when I’m sick. It took three-and-a-half separate illnesses, but halfway through this last one I realized that I wasn’t going to get any better by going in to work, and despite how much work I needed to get done, I wasn’t going to do it well if I didn’t take time off. My productivity isn’t helped by plugging away on one cylinder for several weeks; it’s better to turn things off and then restart on all four. Especially at the end of term, when bodies are crashing and illness is rampant.

2) Taking care of myself. I decided to go to the doctor to check out my vitamin levels to make sure I don’t need to up my intake of any nutrients. And I commandeered the car in our one-car household for a week so I could sleep in, leave work early, and take some time to do some personal shopping. Sometimes it takes a bit of effort to organize, but in the end it’s important and definitely worth it. After the big push to complete term-projects, we need to take time to do all those things that we’ve been putting off.

3) Booking a weekend away at the end of term. I think sometimes a real break is necessary–a break without work. It took me a few weeks to realize, but I think it’s difficult to get a real reset without being away from my work, my house, and my child. My partner and I recently decided to leave our daughter with her grandparents and spend a few days in Jasper. Yay! Now to hold things together for the two weeks until we leave…

How do you reset after the end of term?

balance · body · grad school · health · running · writing

Bird by Bird

I ran 16 kilometres yesterday. Even though it was my feet hitting the pavement, my breath making clouds in the cold air, that statement still shocks me a bit.

You see, it was only a little more than a year ago that I started running at all. I was out of shape (life of the mind, and all that) and just so envious of all of the local runners I saw out and about. I wanted to do that–to be a long-distance runner–and I was genuinely unsure if I could. Would I hate it? Would I be terrible at it? Would I fail?

Like any good student, I did the obvious–sought out a teacher. I enrolled in a Learn to Run class with the Running Room. Goal race: a Christmas 5k. The idea of running 5k was intimidating. It seemed unattainable. But we started small–we ran for one minute and walked for one minute. Then two and one. Then five, and eight, and ten minutes, with a one minute walk in the intervals. And we just kept stringing together those ten minute intervals. 3k. 4k. 5k. 6k.

I ran my 5k race, and had a blast doing it. Then I ran a 10k, and loved it too. And now I’m training for a half-marathon. I ran 16k yesterday. But what I really did was run for ten minutes, then walk. Over and over. Little by little, I ate away at those kilometres until there weren’t any left. The idea of running 23k (our longest training distance for the half-marathon) is still terribly intimidating, but ten minutes? I can do that.

It look me awhile–and the purchase of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird–to realize that in my running was also the answer to my search for a sustainable academic writing practice. With my dissertation proposal approved, the idea of writing an entire dissertation was terribly intimidating. All those pages! All those ideas! I found the scope of it difficult–and sometimes paralyzing–to wrap my head around.

But reading Bird by Bird (which I feel like I was the last writer on the planet to do) made me realize that ten-and-ones worked just as well for writing as for running. For those of you who haven’t read it, the key message of Bird by Bird is to break down large writing projects into small chunks–tiny ones, even–and tackle them one-by-one. It seems commonsensical, but when faced with writing a book, common sense sometimes flies out the window. But I got it–I didn’t have to write a dissertation. I just had to write for twenty-five minutes–one Pomodoro. And then do it again. Little by little, I’m eating away at those pages until there won’t be any left. The idea of writing an entire dissertation is still terribly intimidating, but writing for twenty-five minutes? I can do that.

So I’ll keep writing my Pomodoros and running my ten-and-ones. And little by little, my dissertation will get done, and my kilometres will add up. And who knows? The dissertation is definitely a marathon, but maybe I’ll run an actual one of those too.

What about you? What strategies for a sustainable writing practice do you use? How do you tackle projects or goals that are ambitious or intimidating?

balance · body · day in the life · health

No pain, no gain

Academic work can be painful. I’m not being figurative here. I actually mean physically painful. After I wrote my comprehensive exams, my neck and mid-back were completely destroyed. I couldn’t stand-up straight. I needed a full chiropractic overhaul. I was prepared for comps as a mental exercise, but I hadn’t fully considered the extent to which that kind of intensive, one-week writing stint would be so physically demanding. Today, having finished my PhD, I find myself in a similar situation. I’m probably in the worst shape of my life. I just couldn’t stay on top of taking care of myself. Grading, articles, research work – they all add up to no time to work out and no time to buy groceries.

I should note, that I’m actually, generally, a pretty healthy person. I took ballet until my early 20s, I was on a rowing team during my MA, and I ran two half-marathons during my PhD. My PhD supervisor always started out meetings with the question, “are you still running?” She emphasized the importance of remaining physically healthy throughout the process. Graduate school can be long, stressful, alcohol-fueled, and surprisingly hard on our bodies; it is important that we make every possible effort to remain healthy.

Now, being generally healthy and not having any kids (or any pets for that matter), I would think it would be somehow easier for me to make sure that I have time to get some kind of physical exercise. I have no major obstacles to fitness, and no one dependent upon me that might get in the way of taking time for fitness. As multiple blog postings on this website regularly make clear, however, making time for ourselves somehow always ends up at the bottom of the priority list, no matter who we are or what we have going on. When we do finally find time to be good to ourselves, we still feel guilty as hell about it.

So here I am, on a Thursday morning, in pain. My back is seriously out of whack. I need to finish writing an article this week, and I’m not sure I can sit at the computer long enough to do it. Basically, I think it is resolution time. These are the commitments that I can make to myself, to avoid the physical toll of academic work on my body. I’m making them public, so you can hold me to them:

1) No more writing on my laptop – ever: I wrote my comps and my dissertation on a laptop, and every physio, chiro and RMT that I encounter scolds me for it. Laptops cause a little thing that I call “laptop neck,” that sloping bad posture that you get at the base of your neck from leaning into the screen. It’s time to go back to the desktop computer.

2) Get outside everyday: This one is a bit of a no brainer. We mandate that children run around outside everyday, and moral panics ensue when some piece of technology is deemed to interfere with this activity. Like most of you, I am guilty of always working, even when I’m not working. My little brain is constantly churning around ideas and sentences, so getting out for a long walk is actually a really important aspect of my writing process, one which I have tended to neglect lately.

3) No eating in front of the computer: Time to stop working, relocate to another room, and sit at an actual table while eating food like a normal person. I’m not ashamed that my dissertation laptop has food splatter all over the keyboard…but I am ready to make a different lifestyle choice.

4) Write everyday, not all day: The people I know who write for a couple of hours everyday are really prolific. The panicked, day-long write-a-thon seems like it should work, but I think we all know that it isn’t a great method. The stuff I write at the end of an 8-hour shift is never that great, and my neck generally looks like a J-hook by the time I’m done.

5) Keep a schedule: This is the thing that academic’s with kids are really great at, and it seems like a crazy indulgence for me to even list it as a “problem” that I have. When someone is dependent upon you making them food, taking them to ballet, helping with their homework, etc., you have no choice but to walk away from the computer. Scheduling is the only way that I have found to alleviate the academic guilt that comes with nights off. We can’t work all the time, and we need time away from the computer, so we might as well enjoy it when we have it (rather than feeling guilty about it).

These are changes that I am trying to make. I guess, by putting them up here, I am committing publicly to them. Maybe this will help. Maybe it’s just self-indulgent. In any case, I’d like you to hold me to them.

Oh, also, I’m going to eat salad. Salad is lame and I pretty much hate it, but I’ve heard that it is good for you or something…

best laid plans · health · heavy-handed metaphors · kid stuff

What’s the best time to have kids?

The topic for this week’s #ECRchat, which stands for early-career researcher chat on Twitter, was “Deciding when to have a family.” As I sit in my office during office hours (on the most recent Wednesday in your past), while my oldest is at home with yet another cold and hacking cough, I cannot help but wonder if there is ever a good time. Apart from the knee-jerk reaction, however, and because I cannot participate in the live-tweet chat due to time-zone conflicts (with my sleep!), I wanted both to think through this question here, and to ask you, lovely Hook & Eye community, to do the same.

To reply to this very thoughtful question with yet another one along the lines of “Is there ever a good time?” seems a cop-out, especially in the case of academics, who like to plan their future, but have little control over it. Even though one can make the case that nobody can actually control their future, this inability pervades the lives of early-career academics more than others’. The better part of PhD students know they commit to their chosen grad school for a good chunk of time, but when the PhD is over, unless one is a superstar with her choice of employment, most PhD graduates have little choice and limited possibilities of decision about their immediate next steps.

So, if one in that situation wants a family, what does one do? I don’t think there can ever be a blanket answer to this question. However, hearing other academics’ experiences might help one take a more appropriate decision. [Maybe I should stop hiding behind the neutral form of the personal pronoun and say “she,” especially since even The Globe and Mail recognized yesterday appropriate childcare to be a major obstacle in women academics’ career path. They say nothing of systemic sexism, of course.] Personally, I took the advice of one of my profs from my MA, a very generous woman in her openness to mentor (female) graduate students (Hi, HL!). She said to the women-only class of graduate students: “If you want to have kids, have them in grad school. Don’t wait to finish, because then something else comes up, and you end up delaying too much.” I’m very grateful for this advice, because it worked for me.

I did have my oldest during graduate school. As it happened, it was the perfect timing for me: five months after my candidacy, which made the pressure of the imminent arrival productive for my dissertation work. Well, that and my wonderful supervisor, who knew exactly how to guide me, what to suggest I do, so I “will be able to come back to something written, and be less daunted” by the amount of time that had elapsed between the last graduate milestone and the end of mat leave.

As it turned out, having a kid in graduate school worked wonders on my time management skills. All of a sudden, the time she was in daycare–which was so hard to find, it nearly caused me a breakdown–became immensely precious. I had to work, research, write. Because when I took her home, it was kid-time. As a rule, I don’t work after I’ve picked up my kids (now I have two, as you might know) from daycare. It’s kiddie time. After the kids go to bed? It’s relationship time. I made the decision of treating my PhD as a 9-5 job when I started it. Is that always possible? NO! But the important thing is to have the rule, and to treat the exceptions as exceptions, without allowing them to become generalized into the new normal.

Time for a privilege disclaimer: I would tell you about my wonderfully supportive (emotionally and financially) partner, but he’s opposed to being talked about online, so I’m not. But I do realize my privilege, and it stays with me (it’s because of his taking care of my sick kid at home today that I can even be at work and write about this stuff). It’s why I’m reluctant to give advice. Babies and kids take an exceptional amount of emotional and financial energy. Much more than a person who’s never been around them can imagine. Much more than I could have imagined. Much more than I still think possible, because parenting relies on amnesia. How else would be reproduce? Multiple times even? Of course there are immense and proportional rewards. There are studies that show parents of one or two kids are happier than childless couples. There are other studies that argue the reverse.

Take your pick, but think about it hard. Borrow a child (babysit, you’ll score many karma points, and the eternal gratitude of those parents), try to model (not just imagine) your life around a baby/kid for a week. AND for the love of all things baby-related, please stop using the birthing and labour metaphor for dissertation writing.

I would love to hear from both sides of the camp: anxieties, fears, desires, words of wisdom, 20-20 hindsight? Whatever you got:

bad academics · body · health · slow academy

The Tyranny of the Office Chair

I have a not-so-secret fantasy. I really want a beanbag chair for my office. This is a well-known fact at my workplace. We joke about how I could make some extra money on the side by allowing other faculty and staff to sit in it for a small rental fee.

Like most office spaces, my office is dominated by hard, rectangular, pointy-cornered objects: the desk; the shelves; the filing cabinet; the books. Even my chair, while ergonomic, does not satisfy. Every now and then, I want to slouch. I want to sprawl. I want to find a way to let my body relax for a few minutes. Hence, the beanbag dream. I want a structureless blob of over-sized cushion plonked off in the corner that’s just for me.

I recognize that I’m fortunate in that I can entertain this fantasy: I have an office that would be large enough to accommodate such a wonderful object and a windowless door that would let me sprawl sans surveillance.

I think about seating a lot, especially at conferences. I love conferences because they give you the opportunity to meet and interact with lots of folks. You start having “conference buddies.” But even if the conference is awesome, the chairs are not. Conference chairs are always uncomfortable. And I’ve been well trained to not squirm around in my seat, no matter how uncomfortable it is.

One notable exception was at a Feminist Disability Studies panel that I attended last year. People were encouraged to move the furniture around. People were invited to stand. People were invited to do whatever they wanted to do to make their bodies feel as okay as possible in the space. Revolutionary! Why can’t we have more of this?

I remember how important comfortable spaces were to me as an undergraduate. The university that I attended had a large quiet room with red (slightly cruddy) sofas: in my last year, the space was renovated, the sofas were removed, and the space was repurposed for private functions only. I think these kinds of spaces are becoming less and less common in universities as they adopt more of a business culture. And I think that’s unfortunate. I don’t think it’s “unprofessional” to have a quiet space to take a break.

day in the life · health · heavy-handed metaphors

Breathe!

It has come to my attention recently that I hold my breath. What does this have to do with academia? Probably everything.

I hold my breath when I am nervous, when I am excited, when I am thinking, and when I am working. I hold my breath when I watch television. I especially hold my breath when I fret, and goodness knows this is a profession that facilitates fretting.

I may well have reached a new fretting-record in the last few months. Between teaching four courses, travelling to several conferences, attempting to write, and trying to keep my personal life afloat at home and with my friends I suspect I have held my breath for a sum total of about six weeks. Sometimes I feel kind of smug about being able to ‘handle’ the stress of the schedule I keep. Lately though, I have felt like lying on the floor and drinking wine through a straw while watching reruns of Mad Men. The end of the semester always leaves me feeling depleted and even more breathless than usual, and not in a Godard/Truffaut kind of way. My thought pattern goes something like this: I have accomplished so much! And there is so much more to do! So much! All of the things must be done! I will write a book! I will make bread from scratch! I will write a book while making bread from scratch and learning French and teaching a spring course!

Gasp.

I practice yoga pretty regularly and have just started working on drop-backs. Drop-backs require that you go from standing at the front of your mat to ending up in a backbend. The in-between bit is where the dropping comes in: to make it into a drop-back you have to have a balance between leaning forward from the waist down in order to counter gravity. You also have to lean waaaay back from the wait up and look toward the floor. Somewhere between upright and upside down your hands catch you and voila! You have dropped back. It looks a little like this:

Well, actually my drop-backs look nothing like this, but you get the picture. Here’s where the breathing comes in: if you hold your breath at any stage of this crazy set of moves things do not proceed well. I get tunnel vision, constriction in my chest, and find it hard to think straight and remember seemingly obvious actions such as ‘place hands on floor to save head.’

The third or fourth time through this morning–after having forgotten each time to breathe–I asked my teacher why it was so difficult. It was a rhetorical question, I did not expect him to answer, but he did. He told me that I was thinking too much. As I thought about that he tipped me backwards quickly. I had no time to think, I just popped my hand down and landed. He did this several times in a row. It felt like I was moving faster than a speeding metronome. And just like that I realized that I was breathing without thinking about it.

Huh. Heavy-handed metaphor for surviving academia? Yes. Compelling for me today? Yes.

best laid plans · emotional labour · health · notes from the non-tenured-stream · work

What I Have in Common with Conan O’Brien

My teaching semester ended on Thursday at 2:30. After I gave my final lecture I packed up my belongings and walked back to my office. While I was walking I ran into a student I know, a lovely, smart, kind student who asked me how I was. “I’ve just finished my last lecture of the term, and I am feeling a little lost” I replied. Poor fellow, sometimes I’m too honest.

But the truth is that I seem to have a pattern every spring: finish an intense teaching semester and crash. Hard. This past term was the most difficult one I’ve had in my relatively short teaching career. I was teaching four courses (all different, no repeats), I was teaching my first graduate course, I submitted a large grant application, I travelled to two conferences, and I had a job interview. Our faculty nearly went on strike, and for the weeks leading up to what seemed an unavoidable strike action I, like others, spent extra time meeting with stressed students, grading papers much more quickly than usual in an attempt to prepare students for working on their own should faculty have to walk off the job. All in all it felt like an especially trying term.

I know I should feel justified–even entitled–to take a bit of a break before the grading begins (not to mention the fact that I am teaching a new course in May…) Indeed I’ve encouraged friends and colleagues to take a break. “You need to recharge!” I tell others. So why is it so difficult for me to take my own advice? This weekend I had brilliant plans for a mix of work and relaxation. I planned to grade a few papers each day, to spend a little time doing cursory research for a new article, and to spend the evenings cooking and hanging out with my partner in crime. Instead I took three hour naps each day, woke up feeling groggy and disoriented, and then felt horrible for not grading any papers. What gives?

I got a bit of a hint on Saturday evening when my partner and I watched two movies in a row. I didn’t even feel I had the mental capacity for a complex narrative, so we watched an action film and then we watched Conan O’Brien’s documentary about his post-NBC-firing stand-up show. As I am an early-to-bed-early-to-riser I didn’t really know much about the Leno-Coco debacle, so I went into watching the film with what began as cool detachment. Cool detachment quickly changed to concern and frustration: O’Brian appeared stressed, angry, high-strung, and exhausted. But what bothered me most was not his increasingly dark circles, what bothered me was that he was getting it done. Clearly the emotional toll of being fired as well as the emotional and physical toll of performing were getting to him, but ultimately he was killing it. The show was good.

I didn’t get to see how the documentary ended because the DVD we had was scratched. He had just been asked what he would do if he didn’t have his work. I didn’t get to hear his answer because the screen froze on close-up on O’Brien’s face: tired, frantic, and, as he’d said a number of times in the documentary, unable to stop.

Now I’m no fool, I’m not Conan O’Brien, and while there might be some similarities to be drawn, my classes are not really anything like late night television. I’m struck though by the ways in which I feel like that frantic, frenetic version of O’Brien that makes up the majority of the documentary: unable to stop because stopping means the unknown. Stopping means dealing with all the other parts of life that have been put on hold to get the job done. Friends, that is a scary thought.

I offer this little confessional not (only) as navel-gazing wallowing, but rather as a conversation opener: how do your recover from an emotionally and physically exhausting term without completely shutting down?

health · mental health · saving my sanity · writing

Guest post: The Power of Procrastination!

Today’s post is written by the wonderful and witty Lourdes Arciniega. Inspired? Drop us a line, you too can write a guest post!
_________________________________________________________________


Yes, dear reader, I am writing this blog contribution instead of writing a conference paper. But, I am also at that point where I just finished writing another paper, and felt I couldn’t tackle another heavy-duty bout of academic writing without taking a break. The irony is not lost on me. Are all English students and academics destined to take a bus man’s holiday? Do we read as respite from reading, and write to relax from writing? Let’s face it, we all play those rewards games with ourselves: If I write three pages of my dissertation, I can write a few emails. If I finish this theory book, I can read the latest bestseller lying on the swing in my patio.  But what happens when we hit a writing wall, when you receive a nasty peer review, or when editors fire back comments that make you question your abilities as a writer? How do we overcome those blows to our self-esteem and look past a failed a project? In other words, how do we keep on writing, researching, and thinking about academic work when we have encountered rejection?


Some well-known fiction writers recommend having several projects on the go to keep the creative juices flowing. Certainly, if one article is turned down, I don’t panic as I have two more ideas I am developing which I can then submit to other journals. If one abstract is not accepted, I can tweak it and submit it to two other conferences. If a chapter is not working, there is always something I can salvage, and use it as a starting point for a revision. If I don’t feel like tackling an academic article, I will write a book review, or a blog posting, or work on formatting a bibliography.


All of the above methods work well for me, but the one thing that seems to work better at times is to do nothing. Nothing related to academic writing, that is. Sometimes when I have a deadline, I eat, live, and breathe the project without being truly productive. I burn out early on, freeze up, and then enter a vicious circle of panicking about not writing because I don’t have the energy to write, and I don’t have the energy to write because I have been thinking too much about writing. This is the point where smocking, embroidery, sewing, and gourmet cooking come in.


I recently spent weekend sewing a First Communion dress for my niece because I had hit a wall on writing a conference paper. When I was stuck for an idea on a chapter, I began embroidering the front piece of blouse. I prepared an elaborate four-course meal the week before a national conference presentation. These projects require following a lot of instructions. With my mind fully engaged and focused on them, there is no room for anxious thoughts about papers that may be due. Moreover, I get a great self-esteem boost from seeing the finished projects. These tangential results of my efforts reinforce the fact that I have not lost certain skills that I can produce some great work, and that I am able to follow a project from start to finish. When it’s time to get back to the academic project, I do so with renewed vigour, and sometimes one or two extra pounds, but overall with a more positive perspective. 


So, if you ever come over to my house, and I offer you a triple-layered hazelnut chocolate mousse cake with coffee ganache and raspberry coulis for dessert, it is probably because I am in the middle of a major writing project!


Lourdes Arciniega is a PhD Candidate at the University of Calgary