A new friend asked me this weekend how I keep myself motivated to write. I had some answers that weren’t particularly original. But one thing I advised didn’t really have anything to do with writing—that is, the act of getting words on the page and the work that surrounds writing. I told my new friend to skip a committee meeting that sounded like it wasn’t actually useful, didn’t really require her attendance, and, most importantly, was frustrating her.
It took me a long time to really understand that, for me at least, the work of writing is about how I manage my energy all the time, even when I’m not writing. My goal is to keep myself as calm and focused as possible so that when I sit down to try to concentrate a host of other things don’t pop up to distract me.
I learned this the hard way.
When I was trying to write for tenure (this is different than the writing I’ve done after tenure which has been to: save the world, rescue long-ignored writers, make people laugh, and save my friends from my long rambling theories), I developed a particularly bad habit. I would sit down to write and almost immediately start thinking about some intractable problem, often about some department nonsense or something in my personal life. These problems were real, and they were important, so I’d try to write something but they would be right there nagging at me until I would get so genuinely upset that there was no way I could write. It got so bad that thought of writing made me anxious because my writing sessions were not actually about writing.
I’m pretty sure this habit formed because I was afraid I didn’t have anything useful to offer with my writing. I was also fresh out of graduate school and didn’t really have a sense of how journal submission worked. I knew that you wrote a thing, you submitted it, someone might like it and another someone would not only NOT like it but make that clear in the cruelest way possible (“this person writes like a second-year graduate student”*), you rewrote it, and two years later it might get published.
Intractable problems that made me cry were so much more appealing.
They were the perfect way to avoid the thing I was afraid I couldn’t do. This is all clear now, but it wasn’t for a while. But I figured it out one day, and it has stayed with me for more than a decade. I remember sitting in the Starbucks in Upper Montclair, NJ and kind of feeling good about the writing for the day when this pattern started up again. I tried a few times to push the thoughts away, until I finally made a kind of weird pact with myself. I told myself that if I concentrated for just this small amount of time, I could fret about the intractable for the whole rest of the day. It worked.
The thing I hadn’t learned, especially about departmental problems, was how to keep them from feeling intractable in the first place. That’s a thing I’m still learning, but when I advised my new friend to avoid a meeting that I didn’t think was helping her and that even seemed to be taking away from her, my advice was based on my own experience as I’ve learned to be a lot more judicious about how I spend my time and more mindful about what I actually do in committee meetings. It’s not enough for me not to take on too much committee work, especially since I’m an associate professor who is expected to do this work.
I guess the best way to explain it is that I’ve come to understand that writing is central to how I see what I’m supposed to be doing right now. It is the most rewarding work I do, and so I’ve worked to build a life that makes it the easiest thing for me to do.
I have a ton of ideas and love brainstorming about how to fix problems, so committee meetings can be like catnip for me. I also have strong opinions and am kind of uptight, so committee meetings can also be draining. Then when I get home, the work of unwinding from meetings takes up a lot of time and energy. I replay things, seethe over bad behavior, fret about what’s next. That can bleed into my writing time.
So I cut back—not on my meetings so much but what I do in them. It’s tempting to think I can solve any problem (and maybe I can), but the humbling truth is that a lot of things run along just fine without my input. And if they don’t the sky won’t fall. Now my calculation is always (always, always, always) about figuring out how much time and energy a committee will take away from the writing I want to do. I carry a draft of whatever I’m working on with me into meetings (an actual print draft) to remind myself that while I have obligations to my colleagues and my department, those obligations end when they take away from the energy I need to write.
I spend my social time with people who are happily engaged with their writing, even if we moan, wrestle, and fret over it. One of my favorite memories from the summer was sitting in the park listening to music with friends and then finding myself talking about writing with a friend over dinner.
I don’t get into protracted email exchanges, and if I feel myself wanting to use email to snap at people who piss me off I close my computer and go for a walk. I figure I can either spend time trying to prove my point (like that ever happens in an email exchange) or I can go for a walk and see where things look the next day. I have a say-it-to-my-face rule for students who get upset about class or a grade. I apply that to myself.
There’s a saying that opinions are like assholes; everybody has one. I think rather highly of mine (my opinions, that is). As a result, I don’t share them so much and only when I think people will a) actually listen and b) they’ll do actual good. It was hard at first (I have A LOT of opinions), but I felt so much better after meetings that I had more energy to write.
Writing time is still the time when big things show up that might get in the way of the work. I’ve been grieving for the last year, and often the waves hit while I’m writing. I’ve learned to let them wash over me (I always have tissues with me) and then keep on writing. It is that central to the work I want and need to do.
*I was in my third year as an assistant professor.