best laid plans · mental health · research · sabbatical · writing

The selfishness of writing

I’m writing a book.

There, I’ve said it. Now I’m going to have to follow through, if everyone knows. Right? I managed to get tenure without writing a book, even though I had every intention of revising my dissertation into one. One awful day I found a new book that seemed to replicate 80% of what I’d written, threw both it and my dissertation across the office, cried and cried, and gave up. I wrote a bunch of article and book chapters, and learned to be comfortable in that mode of writing and publication.

In fact, I’m finishing off a 6000 word piece right now, and it’s been pretty painless. But now I’ve decided the next thing will be a book.

I’m scared.

I’m scared of the usual things, like getting rejected (bad) or getting scooped (worse). I’m scared of doing it poorly, and I’m scared of missing something important that exposes my stupidity. I’m scared of the sheer volume of writing, the organizational nightmares of printouts and research notes, and interlibrary loans, and lost citations, and detail work.

What I’m most scared of, though, is this: the selfishness of writing.

Writing my dissertation was like an intense, overwhelming romantic entanglement. My dissertation and I spent nearly every waking minute together, and in our moments of separation, it was what I thought about. My whole conversation was dissertation. My whole schedule, hell, my whole apartment was dissertation from top to bottom. I have, from that period, a lot of pictures of my cat, ensnarled in piles of printouts, batting coloured paper clips around in kittenish fashion. My life was like this: get up when feeling rested, eat oatmeal and make latte, walk 10 feet over to computer, work until tired, take long walk to refresh brain, eat lunch, work until tired, have nap, wake up around 4 and work until 7, do stuff that makes the writing go away until tired, go to bed, repeat. Even the non-writing tasks are just designed to facilitate the writing. When the writing is able to come, everything else shifts over.

It’s hugely selfish. And that’s not a kind of life my life supports right now; it’s not the kind of life I want to be living.

For me, service work can be picked up or put down in five minute increments. Teaching prep and grading and such, too, while interesting and important, is not engrossing in the way that writing is. Even writing articles is exponentially less intense than book-format writing and thinking. It’s the difference between juggling beanbags and juggling bean fields: the sheer scale of the thing requires herculean increases in both strength and focus.

When I’m really writing, I don’t want to talk to anyone. I don’t want to cook supper because someone else is hungry. I don’t want to do laundry until I run out of underwear. I don’t want to shop for groceries. I don’t want to get out of bed while I’m still groggy. Or shower so that we can then run the dishwasher. I don’t want to put my printouts somewhere out of sight.

I turn into a jackass, really. And I don’t want to do that. But I do want to write the book I feel is kind of asking me to write it.

I have no experience of long format academic writing that doesn’t burn up everything in my life except the writing. I don’t know how to be reasonable and write like that. How to have balance while juggling those bean fields.

Do you know how? Do you have any advice? Because I’m not sure how to do my best writing and thinking, and still live my life with the kind of balance and joy of family I’ve come to enjoy.

heavy-handed metaphors · job notes · research · sabbatical · writing

Writing on spec

In a fit of deadline-produced procrastination, I was looking up the word ‘spec’ yesterday. Interestingly, it has some conflicting meanings in idiomatic use. “Spec” sometimes means “to specification,” as in “the contractor built the new porch to spec.” This meaning describes something planned and agreed in advance, contractual. Another meaning, though, arises in common usage: to do work “on spec” means, “on speculation”–to produce something complete and for a particular purpose without being contracted to do so, and hope to be paid. Both kinds of spec apply to academic research writing, I think.


Here’s a question for you: which of the two following scenarios prompts your best work? Please circle your answer below:

A) To specification: You commit in advance to a project / abstract / topic / argument / idea to be submitted in advance of a real deadline for inclusion in a conference / proceedings / special issue / book / collection.

B) On spec: An idea somehow comes to you, unprompted, and you follow it up with research and writing until such time (whenever such time might eventually come) you decide it’s well and truly Done, and you seek out a venue to which to submit it, and hope someone will take it.

This is really a vexed question for me. Like all undergraduates, I used to think I did my best work under very heavy deadline pressure: after all, all my essays were prepared the night before they were due, and I got A+ on everything, so that means it was the right way, right? That I need strong deadlines? Err, maybe not. Often, I was three-quarters through something (at 3am) and realized my main idea was wrong. I was, of course, unable to go back and start over, seeing as the paper would be at that point mostly written and due very soon. And the library would be closed. So I’d make the sentences nicer around a stinker of an idea.

The funny thing is, I have often thought as a tenure-review-fearing faculty member that deadlines might produce my best work. I would tell myself that if I committed to a conference paper on Topic X, I would surely be motivated to create something awesome. Or at least get my literature review done. But it turns out the same thing would happen as in my undergrad: I would back-end load a lot of the work, particularly during a teaching term. And worse, if I’d submitted a really detailed proposal or abstract, outlining my conclusions in advance, I was sort of committed to those conclusions, even if the research, as it advanced, was pulling me in a different, sometimes contrary direction. So … B?

Then again, in the year or so before I went up for tenure, those deadlines, some sought out by me and some being the result of direct invitations, actually lit a kind of productive fire under my rear end. I produced more and better work than I had managed before. So maybe those obligations, those firm external deadlines, made me do more than I would have made myself do otherwise. And maybe I thrived. Like how sometimes a yoga teacher can make you do a one-minute plank, or 15 sun salutations in a row, that you would never push yourself to do at home, and you discover your own strength? Hm. Maybe … A?

When I finally handed in my dissertation, I swore I was going to let my research breathe, give it air, let it take the time it took, until it was fully cooked. My discretion, my meandering scholarly path, my digressions and side projects, my integrity. I would let the ideas lead me. It would be great, organic, natural. Except my productivity slowed, and I procrastinated a lot, usually out of terror either that my ideas were terrible or that they were good. Yeah. Definitely … A.

Only, sometimes when I commit to something in advance, I change my mind on the whole fundamental idea, or the topic, or the theory, or my conclusion contradicts my initial aims. Sometimes, I just can’t get it done on time, and the guilt and panic prompt sleeplessness for months. Or maybe I can get it done but I really think it needs six more months and a different venue. I send it off and see it in print and think … no, that’s not quite right yet … so, B?

I think maybe that this last couple of years, with all of its B-prompted writing, I have seen how much I can get done when I apply myself. I’ve maybe learned not to be so afraid of my own ideas or my own inadequacies: with application, the work gets done and it’s usually pretty good. So maybe, left to the whims of A-prompts, I might not procrastinate so endlessly, revealing in the potential of something rather than the execution or completion of it.

Do I need hard deadlines to make me work to potential? I’m not sure. Do you? Do you write best on spec? Or to specification? Do tell.

advice · balance · job notes · new year new plan · reflection · sabbatical

Sabbatical: wide, open space

The desktop dictionary* on my Mac defines sabbatical as “a period of paid leave granted to a college teacher for study or travel, traditionally every seventh year: she’s away on sabbatical.” That’s nice they used a lady professor for their example, but isn’t it funny, the idea–the very definition!–that a sabbatical is for study or for travel? I absorbed through my thin academic skin very early that the sabbatical is the time that FEVERISH WRITING FOR PUBLICATION happens. If those professors on sabbaticals were often spotted in flip-flops and muumuus wandering dazed through the ValuMart, it wasn’t because they were just back from (an exploratory trip to an archive in) Hawaii, but rather that they didn’t have time to shower, so frantic were their intellectual labours. Study! Travel! Isn’t it really all about “getting the book finished and out to the publisher,” or “slamming all those research notes into several articles, pronto”?

And I like the leadoff phrase: “a period of paid leave,” again, as though one is absent from ‘work’ and getting paid for it. But that’s not quite right, is it? Usually, a sabbatical involves a pay reduction and a replacement of teaching work with other work.

So my definition, if I were to rewrite this, would be: “sabbatical (noun): a period free from teaching or internal service obligations, at reduced salary, granted to a college teacher to generate publishable research, traditionally for 12 months after six years of teaching, or for 6 months after three years of teaching.”

Still. A sabbatical is a pretty sweet thing, a shift in the routine, a break from what can sometimes feel like an unceasing hamster wheel of prep / teach / grade / meetings / more meetings / email / rinse / repeat. I’m on sabbatical, as of January 1st, and until June 30th.



You know what? On my last half-sabbatical, I actually did go to Hawaii (International Auto/Biography Association biennial conference, can I get a what-what?!), but it seems funnier to both acknowledge it here and leave it in the text above. It struck me at the time as funny enough that I took this photo on the beach at Waikiki:


Everyone here was back in class, as of 8:30 Tuesday morning. I’m in … limbo. I’m wearing my writing clothes, but since my daughter is still on Christmas vacation until Monday of next week, I’m doing the stay-at-home mom thing until then. Which is a kind of neither/nor situation. It was jarring, driving to campus to pick up my husband after work on Tuesday, and to suddenly realize, hey, it’s on, and I’m not in it. But I’m not yet out of it either, in that all-research-all-the-time zone that the sabbatical is supposed to foster. Next week.


During my last sabbatical, my husband and I were forced from our home by condo developers, selling and buying in a frantic sort of way. He was between jobs. Then we moved, right when he was starting a new job. Two new jobs, actually. Our daughter was about a year-and-a-half old, in that first year of catch-absolutely-everything germiness at daycare. She got pneumonia. I got four sinus infections, and was pretty sure my eardrums were going to explode on one research trip that involved flying to California with three hops along the way. I gripped my armrests and howled silently, willing my ears to stay intact, and wondering how I could talk to my real estate agent on the phone if I was deaf. I was terrified about everything: my house situation, our jobs situation (would I get tenure? would hubby get established in his new career?), my daughter in daycare, being sick sick sick for months on end, moving, all of it.

So I guess my Pavlovian reaction to thinking about the sabbatical is this: panic.


What does a sabbatical mean now, now that I have tenure, and a research grant, never mind a stable housing situation and everyone in much better health?

What can drive me forward now, if not the panic of the last sabbatical, of the whole pre-tenure time generally? What do I want to do: to think about, to write, to read?

So far, I have no commitments. I want to find out what I can get done, when I’m at liberty to do it, but not driven by the lashings of someone else’s (book, conference, public talk) deadline snapping me in the ass.

I’ll let you know.

And of course, I both welcome and solicit any advice or stories about sabbaticals that you can share.

* it’s funny to me to start out this essay like so many of our undergrads do, by recourse to the dictionary. It’s funny because, I suspect, I’m not teaching this semester and so won’t have to read any of those essays … does the sabbatical then have it’s own special brand of humour? I’ll keep you posted, dear readers.