The Cat Tweeted Back

I’m not interested in cruises.

One of my versions of hell is being stuck with 4,000 people listening to muzak versions of Adele (or just Adele, if I’m being honest). The buffet culture doesn’t interest me, and being near large bodies of water gives me an oddly unmoored feeling, one of physical and emotional dizziness. I also love the time between Christmas and the new semester. I have since grad school when I discovered that it’s a good time to get a lot of work done. I have a whole stay-in-the-house winter wardrobe that’s quite lovely and nicely coordinated. So cruises. No. Cruises during winter break. No, no, no. The thing is I adore my father, and as we have grieved the loss of my mother these last months I could see that going on cruises not only makes him happy but also actually changes him physically. He walks more and more briskly when he returns from one, he smiles more. He wears the Batman shirt I bought him (and my mom and myself) one Christmas. So he asked me to go with him on a cruise. And I said yes.

Here’s the thing. We didn’t think it would actually happen.

We both set a lot of rules for it. We could only go when I was not teaching. He likes to go in April (when I am teaching). He would only go some other time of year if the cruise was to the Panama Canal. He knew it would never happen because of things like weather and schedules and when boats actually go to the Panama Canal. I was secretly relieved. To say yes something I didn’t particularly want to do and then to not have to do it. WINNING!

I went on a cruise.

During what would normally be my winter break, I packed up summer clothes, formal evening wear, and a really good pair of flip flops and got on a boat the size of Staten Island. Thankfully, Bill Matthew travels in style. He promised me a life of ease with very few decisions to make. “You won’t have to make you bed” (it’s sweet how he thinks I do that at home). “You can send your laundry out” (oh yeah). “You won’t have to cook or wash dishes” (sold!). “They’ll make eggs just the way you like” (that’s harder than you’d think). And, finally, “the juice is really freshly squeezed.” We had a spacious suite with a balcony large enough for deck chairs and a table for two. We could bypass most lines, and, most important to me, we could eat in dining rooms with table service the way god intended.

My dad understands what my writing work means to me. Whereas well-meaning friends kind of cringed when I said I was taking work with me on vacation, he understood. He even told me the best place to have a quiet breakfast, so I could write in the mornings. So I did. I also opted out of spending a small fortune for very slow, spotty internet and disconnected from social media.

My brain really, really needed that kind of break.

Listen, I respect people who take social media breaks. I get that. That’s not me. I enjoy the companionship of the chatter in the background as I write. I use Twitter breaks as my treat for a good work session, and tweeting helps me from killing people in the real world. A day or so each week I take a breather, but I rarely feel the need to take an actual break.

But, after such a busy fall where I talked more some weeks than I do all year, and where I found myself with the enviable but daunting challenge of talking to multiple editors and publishers about what I want to write next, I found myself being way too performative on Twitter, too aware that people were paying attention to me. I know that for some people that’s the whole point—to make a splash, be a presence, have a brand. I may or may not have those things, but to the degree that I do, they are a byproduct of my time on social media, not the goal.

I read once how Colson Whitehead thinks about Twitter: “I had a cat, the cat died, and now the stuff I used to say to the cat all day, I tweet.” I liked analogy so much that I too tweeted like I was talking to Whitehead’s dead cat.


Then the cat tweeted back.

It was cool and interesting at first, and then a bit unnerving, and then somewhere around November it started distracting me. I was too self-conscious on Twitter, felt I was trying too hard, and was seeking something (I’ve not bothered thinking how to name it) that messed with my brain’s writing rhythms.

I’ve come to know my brain works quite well, how it works at different times of day, what it really needs to produce, the importance of leaving it alone, trusting it to do its job while I do other things. I’ve compared it to a toddler—not just to be funny but because I can tell that sometimes “writer’s block” is really my brain wanting something it can’t articulate. I joked on Twitter about a frustrating morning where every medium I normally use to write (pencil and legal pad, lap top, large sticky notes) didn’t work until I figured out that this brain of my mine simply wanted a blank piece of paper. As soon as I gave it one, it got to work giving me new topics and questions for the abolitionist book. I had to draw my way to a new vision for the book. These days it works spatially and orally rather than through prose. That’s weird for me, but I’m going with it.

And it works best when it feels like no one is actually paying attention to it. That’s the thing I didn’t really understand before this break. When the cat talked back, I developed a sense of an “audience” and ideas about expectations (real or imagined, I don’t know). I started fretting about who might be reading my writing. I convinced myself no one was reading the blog, most people ignore my tweets, and that I was in a little corner just doing my thing, even with evidence that this is not quite true.

Especially about Twitter.

I am a pretty performative person, and social media rewards that. Plus I’ve been excited and felt honor bound to broadcast every little thing about Written/Unwritten because the contributors deserve attention and praise. They trusted me with their stories, put up with my revision requests, held tight to what they wanted to say and HOW they wanted to say it when I lost track of their agency, and when I was afraid the book would feel passé, one of them would invariably drop a note telling me to keep at it. I have gotten so much attention and praise because of the book, and it has given me a platform to say things to people who have the power to change how institutions work, but my chatter about it is more about making sure it does work for everyone, that it is useful, that the contributors’ time was well spent.

Beyond that goal, Twitter and my blogging are really just for me, for my own amusement and reflection. For me and an imaginary cat. I’ve been happy to do it in front of people (and I obviously want people to see what’s going on in my head and to read), but I found myself thinking too much about what other people might want to see and read. Was I saying something “new” and did it all really matter? My brain didn’t like that one bit, and writing that should have come easily wasn’t.

Worse, I couldn’t tell what was SUPPOSED to be hard (planning a new book), so I decided to disconnect bit by bit. I disconnected just enough to remember the real reason I blog is so that I don’t talk my friends to death, to think through how I am feeling about all kinds of things including my writing, and to keep my writing brain limber during reading and research phases. And I disconnected just enough to remember that Twitter only works for me to the degree that it keeps me company during the day.

It was a good break. Being in the middle of the ocean helped a lot. I worked on a few short things I’ll be sending out soon, I reread McPhee’s Draft No 4. I bought copies for Tressie and me and read it quickly in October, but reading it again, I’m reminded a bit of this post I wrote about how much I liked the the structure of The Skies Belongs to Me. I daydreamed about my Frankenstein class. I wrote in the mornings like I like to do. Very nice people brought me eggs cooked properly.

Don’t fret, dear reader/cat, I did plenty of nothing. I read trashy novels and realized that everything I know about regency culture I learned from narratives that include a lot of bosoms heaving above corsets and other throbbing bits. I read a very respectable novel I’m happy not to have a single opinion about. I spent more than an hour dressing for dinner every single night, twice in dresses I’ll happily put back in garment bags. I had massages (more than one). After trying to convince my dad I was hearing dinosaurs in Panama, we worked out a which crisis James Bond would solve while we went through the Panama Canal, and then, I kid you not, sat down to dinner with a man who looked so much like Gold Finger that I hummed the theme song at my dad all evening. I saw dolphins in the wild and flying fish. God bless this cruise for serving a proper tea every afternoon. I spent a lot of time on the balcony by myself, staring at the water and dealing with feeling unmoored.

I returned to a lot of emails including queries about what I want to write next. That feels good. In the midst of what I now recognize is a transition to a different relationship to what I write and for whom, kind and wise people have been helping see what’s possible. I’m feeling very lucky and grateful these days. Publishers and editors want to read what I have to say. What a great way to enter 2018.

So I’m back and am going to keep writing, blogging, and Tweeting like the cat isn’t actually paying attention to me.


Protecting Writing Time

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.