Last Wednesday, I shouted myself hoarse. Or, more specifically, I talked so much and so loudly for so much of the day that I gave myself a pounding headache and my braces tore up the inside of my mouth. I told myself it was because the “Faculty Speed Dating” orientation session was really loud, and since I was the one that had to get people to move tables every five minutes, it was the yelling that did it (note to self for next year: buy a bell, or a gong). But then Thursday: headache again. And all I had done was a presentation to 20 continuing PhD students, for an hour. Perhaps I was coming down with something?
Friday found me standing in the graduate coordinator’s office, clutching my throat and my head, moaning. J is a singer, with a degree in music. She knows about throats, and yelling, and of course, about managing grad chairs. She offered me a headache pill and then some advice.
She said I should stop yelling and start speaking loudly, from the diaphragm. Pfft, I said, I know how to do that, I’ve done theater! And singing (very very poorly)! And public speaking! She told me, then, kindly, that her own speech therapist noted that every September, she was besieged by … teachers. Experienced ones.
July marked the 10th anniversary of my hiring at Waterloo. I’ve been a professor for ten years. Ten! Tenured now for three. The “new carpet” I brag about my office having is now ten years old. Some of the books I bought new with my first grant now have sun-scorched spines. I’ve taught somewhere in the vicinity of 35 classes, ranging from 10 to 200 students, and given what feel like countless presentations and papers.
But here I was, like a rookie, squelching up my throat and squeezing my vocal cords and pinching my voice and yelling. Like a rookie.
Ten years in the same office, with the same departments, many of the same colleagues, and surprisingly many of the same classes. This stability is, of course, one of the great privileges of tenured and tenure-track appointments, but in the midst of all this incremental moving from one September to the next, it’s easy to forget that I am changing, still learning, forgetting things. This year, over the summer, somehow I’ve started yelling instead of projecting. So my project is to remember how to be loud without giving myself a headache.
My career here attains the rhythm of a long, slow, Sunday run. I’m focused on endurance, and maybe enjoying the view, listening to the birds. Ten years behind me and at least another 25 in front of me, in the same office with the same carpet, and many of the same colleagues. I’m not racing to put together enough work for the fall. Not sending applications out wildly into a future I can’t see. Not packing or unpacking for or from a major move. In ten years? I’ll still be here, most likely, doing much what I’m doing now.
Yet, things change. To keep to the running metaphor, if the job hunt is like racing for the bus in heels while dragging a laptop and 50 student papers behind you, and tenure is a long, slow training run, you might say that I’ve got time to work more carefully on my form. And so I am. This term it’s my own voice, as well as using informal daily writing in my first year class. Last year it was shifting my fourth year design course to a fully major-project focus. I’m learning about anti-racist feminism and how to integrate this better in my teaching. I’m trying to figure out how to help graduate students train as writers rather than just as subject-area experts. I’m writing my first book. Since I finally understand how the courses fit together in our degree programs, I’m starting to think of new and old courses in terms of their fit in the curriculum. I’m taking on bigger administrative roles.
Ten years ago, I was having trouble imagining how I could do one thing for 35 years. I was used to running pell-mell from one milestone to the next, waiting for my real life to start. Ten years in, I can say it’s started. It turns out I’m still feeling just as challenged as ever, and even if I’m in some ways developing new and more advanced skills, sometimes I’m learning the same lessons over again. Like how to project my voice into a big room.
I’ve been catching up with my departmental colleagues this past week, and like they do–like I do–every year, they report the same dream we all started having as children: it’s the first day of class, and I’m not wearing anything; I’m in the wrong room; I’m meant to be teaching in Japanese; the books didn’t arrive on time. Ten years in, I’m still as excited and nervous–nervouscited?–about the new school year as I ever was.
Once I get this headache under control, that’s going to be really cheering to think about.
I just finished Week 3 of my running app. I have the settings arranged such that while my music plays in the background, the soothing British electronic lady not only indicates when to shift from running to walking and back again, but also encourages me and gives me tips. So she’s like: “Start your one-and-a-half-minute run now.” But she says more: “You have 45 seconds left! Keep running!” And, crucially, “If you find this run hard, slow your pace a little–remember this run is three times longer than what you were running last week!”
Luxuriating in my five minute cool-down walk heading for home (“Remember to keep your pace brisk! I’ll let you know when it’s time to slow down and stretch your muscles!”) I got to thinking about how easy it is to move from Couch to 5K.
And I got really mad. I got to thinking about how I spent most of my life thinking I had a hidden heart defect or lungs the size of mandarin orange segments that made me incapable running from my house to the corner, let alone in increments longer than televisions commercials. Never mind movie-length runs. Because years and years of elementary and middle and high school pays ed had painfully demonstrated that some people can run and others can’t. This is how we were taught running in high school gym: here’s a map of the route, and we’ll meet back here in 45 minutes. And then the teacher trotted away, leading the two students who could keep pace with her. Basically, the teacher set a goal, and gave us absolutely no indication of how to meet it.
Don’t we often teach writing a lot like this?
Let’s read a lot of books and discuss them in class. Now go away and come back with an essay. Oh, we’ll teach you some rules, about academic integrity, and topic sentences, and proper citation. But the way that most of us were taught writing there was no: process, strategy, training tips.
Teaching phys ed is probably a lot like teaching English. Most of my phys ed teachers were strong and tan and wiry and fast. They looked like they were born with whistles around their necks. They were naturally really good at tennis or running or basketball. They made it look effortless. It was, for me, completely alienating and mostly served to reinforce the message that I could never do any of those things and it was useless to try.
I teach English. I write every day, and I read constantly. Give me 200 words of text and 30 seconds and I can craft you 400 words of analysis in the critical school of your choice. I speak and write in two languages and as I get older my command of allusions only grows. I make it look effortless. And I can see that, if my teaching style, like my phys ed teachers, is to simply model excellence, it’s quite likely that a lot of my students are demoralized and alienated.
I spent decades on the couch, thoroughly convinced that it was impossible for me to be fit and enjoy it. That I was a loser who would never be able to do it. That’s what phys ed taught me: that I would never be strong. Are there ways that I teach English that convince my own students that they will never be writers? That English is something they’ll never be able to “do”?
If so, it’s a terrible waste. Experts who become teachers risk working in a blind spot big enough for their students to disappear into: we are so good at this, so easily compared to most, that we don’t even know how to coach novices into the practice.
It took me a free app with a recorded British lady doing nothing more than setting 9 weeks of goals and explicit instructions of when to trot and when to walk to get me running, happily. What simple steps can I take to draw my students into writing with as much joy and curiosity as I do?
I went for a run yesterday. This was my first run since mid-November, when I got banned from running because of a knee injury that needed several months of zero high-impact activity to heal itself. In mid-November, I was gleefully running 7k at a steady pace, floating on endorphins, listening to albums, melting snow on my eyelashes and filling my lungs full of fresh air, smiling all the way. Yesterday, I ran for one minute, then walked for 90 seconds, then did that seven more times. Yup, I’m back on my couch to 5K app, the one I gritted my way through last year.
I’m starting over but I’m not back to zero.
When I started running last year, it was hard. I was nervous and insecure and unsure. I didn’t know how to pace myself. I didn’t know if I would ever start to like running, instead of liking to bask in the glow after I stopped. I didn’t know if I would ever be a “real” runner. I sometimes got too hungry mid-run. I sometimes drank too much beforehand and had to pee. But by mid-November, running in the snow with my nice neckwarmer and my Young Galaxy and my new app, I had mostly solved those problems.
So yesterday, running those 1 minute intervals made my heart pound harder than those 7k runs did. And today, my quads are burning more than I would like. But I do know, now, that I’ll improve pretty rapidly. I already have the right socks and the right sports bar. I know when and what to eat and how much to drink. I am a real runner–I’m just training up again.
It might look like I’m back at the starting line, but there’s something different and better that comes from my earlier experiences.
Writing is like this, too. Every new project–every new class, even–feels like starting over. Feels like getting winded going up the stairs, an embarrassing kind of weakness. But at least for me, I’m finally starting to learn the patterns. We all already know enough to be suspicious of teleologies, right? That progress narrative by which successful persons move from strength to ever greater strength, to the summit of their potential? Sometimes our narratives are more like spirals, looping back on themselves while still expanding: starting a new research project, a new grant application, a new conference paper, a new curriculum revision puts me back, in many ways, to zero. But in other ways, not. Things are maybe not getting easier in the sense that I no longer feel helpless and overwhelmed by the wide open expanse of a new writing project. But they are getting easier in the sense that I know some good ways to move past the helplessness without too much emotional difficulty, and that I know this is a regular part of my research cycle. That’s progress, I think.
So I’ll do my nine weeks of running and walking, moving back off the couch and into 5k, benefitting from my experiences and showing myself some compassion along the way. I hope I’ll be able to do more of this in my academic work in the coming year as well.
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.
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?