The best of intentions

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.

Dave Barry, The Salmon of Doubt

I love setting goals.

Over the years I have come to realize that I work best when I have clear and articulated goals I can work toward. This doesn’t mean that I have to know what I am doing. Quite the contrary—I like situations where I need to work out my thoughts on paper or come up with a work around or react and adjust. I just like those situations with clearly defined parameters.

Goals set those guardrails.

My problem is that I tend to set too many goals, fail to achieve them, and then feel bad. In the SMART acronym, “achievable” has always been my issue and I have not managed to brush missed deadlines off with the breeziness of Dave Barry.

This is the long way of saying that after setting the modest #AcWriMo goal of a month-long metacognitive exercise, I promptly managed to miss two consecutive weekend reflections.

On the one hand, I have spent most of this month reflecting on why this time of academic calendar is so hard, mostly while buried under an avalanche of grading. I touched on this in my first #AcWriMo post, and it remains true. There is a finite amount of time and both writing and teaching take as much as you are willing to give. Anything I write here is extra; some months are easier than others.

On the other hand, my missed reflections also speak to modest success. I averaged nearly an hour of writing a day during the first week of November. In truth, I would have liked to write more, but an hour is my usual target: long enough to write or edit a chunk, but short enough that it doesn’t consume my entire day. And yet, that one hour also meant that I fell behind on grading such that I spent following week playing catch-up. Here I sit on the first day of the third week and I wrote for nearly an hour and was able to dedicate some time to moving other parts projects forward.

Several of my students told me today that their goal is simply to make it to break next week. I am sympathetic to this position. In the words of Giuseppe from The Great British Baking Show, “my objective for this week is to survive.”

Giuseppe: “My objective for this week is to survive.”

At the same time, I can’t help but hope I’ll find a little spark, something that will plant a burning thought that just has to get onto paper.

Selfish Writing

After what seems like ages of running into walls I have recently gotten good news about several of my writing projects, including about an article that had been stalled for more than a year after being summarily rejected and then falling victim to the malaise I felt when it looked like my academic career might be over. Now, this bits of positivity has not prompted an outpouring of words on these projects, but they have boosted my confidence, which, in turn, has made sitting down to write a little less taxing.

Time is the biggest impediment for me right now. Simply put, I just have a lot of demands on my time and my first semester teaching in a new institution has eaten up the vast majority of my time on campus. I have done a bit better protecting my writing time this week, but I accomplished this in part by spending an evening in front of my computer and with headphones on—to say nothing of coming at the expense of grading time.

This evening I attended a virtual lecture given by UCSB professor John Lee about his forthcoming book about John Wesley Gilbert, the first African American to attend the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (also the subject of next year’s Fordyce Mitchel Lectures at the University of Missouri). Toward the end of the talk someone asked him what he is working on next. Lee laughed and said that next up he was going work on being a good husband and father.

By that point in the talk the audience had already been treated to a child ready to play with dad, but the answer also reminded me of something that Bill Caraher has written several times while documenting his journey toward completing his academic monograph: writing is a selfish exercise.

Books require time and attention to cultivate from the germ of an idea to the final product. Where other types of writing might require a few days or weeks of attention before they see the light of day, an academic book often take years of sifting through research, thinking about issues, and stitching together ideas before even getting to the revision stage.

I happen to think in book length chunks and like this process well enough that I want to continue doing this regardless of where my career takes me. (Seriously: I lay awake consumed with anxiety last week because I only had three history books and one novel that I want to write after I finish the one I am working on right now.) And, yet, I cannot disagree that book-writing can be a deeply selfish pursuit.

It would be one thing if book-writing, specifically, was my job either because it meant securing tenure or because it constituted a significant amount to may paycheck. Right now, though, neither of those things is true and coming to grips with the possibility of changing career paths over the last several years dispelled the last vestiges of the hope that another publication would tip the scales in landing me a tenure-track position. My department supports me as a scholar, but I am employed as a teacher so writing remains something that I do on top of my contract. The difference is largely semantic in practice, but this semester has also made me keenly aware of those evenings when I tell my partner that I have to—i.e. want to—write. In effect this is me telling her that what I want to do with my evening after spending all day at work is to put on music and play with my thoughts rather than spend time with her. There are of course compromises. I almost never write in the evening if I can write earlier in the day, for instance, and I rarely write on the weekends, but these only go so far. The fact remains that I am writing my book(s) because I want to write the book(s).

#AcWriMo 2021

Through some dark magic that I don’t understand November begins on Monday, which means that it is once again time for #AcWriMo. Looking at my archives, I first came across the idea in 2012 (don’t read the post, it is awful) and have used it as a way to think about my writing every year since 2018.

Inspired by #NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in which authors aim to write a short novel in a single month, #AcWriMo aims to fulfill similar objectives of setting goals, establishing writing habits, and building writing community for academic writers.

All of these are very appealing to me, but, even when I set goals like I did last year, I have not yet successfully participated. In truth, November just falls at a bad time in the academic calendar for establishing writing habits.

It starts at a point in the fall semester when my grading load has peaked, my pre-prep has been exhausted, and my energy has reached a critical low.

It ends with a holiday week when I either need to travel or just want to curl up and sleep.

Although I had hoped that the stability of a full-time job would give me more space to write, that has not yet been true. Last year my part-time schedule was particular conducive to my writing habits. I only taught in the afternoon, which meant that I could almost always afford to spend part of the morning at my computer even when I had course prep or grading. The several years before that were more hit-and-miss, but I could make time more often than not, particularly at the start of the pandemic.

I have found this semester harder.

One of the questions I ask the committee when I interview for academic jobs is whether there is a tradition of reading each other’s work in the department. This question is designed to further signal that I an active scholar, but it also allows me to gauge what sorts of support the department has for research and whether there is a healthy department culture.

When I interviewed for this position the chair of the committee, now my faculty mentor, laughed and asked who has time to write. The department members have research profiles and some publish a substantial amount, but his cynicism reflects how much time it takes to invest in teaching, mentorship, and meetings. Given that the sheer number of courses I am teaching is lower than in the past few years, I think I underestimated the time commitment the transition would take, particularly when considering that I am adjusting to the classes as they are taught here, planning for future semesters (a welcome change, if I’m being honest), and participating in programs for new faculty.

Even when I can leave my work in the office, I rarely have energy to write when I get home in the evening. Granted, this is not unusual for me. I discovered years ago that my best writing happens in the morning and I rarely try to write anything more substantial than a blog post at night because any investment won’t be worth the return. Better to spend that time with my partner.

(For similar reasons I try to monitor my exhaustion levels: I do a lot more doom-scrolling social media when I’m tired. I have been doing a lot of scrolling recently. The current state of the world isn’t helping, either.)

The truth is, I actually feel reasonably good about what I have managed to accomplish this semester, I have just also accumulated a not-insignificant number of writing commitments. I am in good shape for most them, provided that I can recover a writing routine soon, but I regret to say that for one of these commitments I have become the sort of academic I told myself I never would be. The order management monitor is blinking a furious red on that one. I think of the pieces I owe in terms of the monitors at McDonalds that track how long it takes to assemble outstanding orders, maybe because I spent several years after college working in the quick-service industry.

However, there is a simple, selfish reason why I want to use the coming weeks to re-establish regular writing habits. There are certain things I need to make sure that I feel balanced. Reading fiction is one, alongside exercising and baking bread. Writing has joined this list. As recently as three years ago, I hemmed and hawed about whether I enjoyed writing, but the answer at this point is clearly yes. Writing is the mental exercise that accompanies my daily physical workouts, so getting these exercises in only intermittently has take a toll on my emotional state.

I did such a poor job of meeting the ones I set last year that I am hesitant to set goals this year. Even by my low standards, it was a poor showing. I want to write a lot of pieces this month, but I also know that I have little sense of what is attainable and a bad habit of working on whatever catches my attention at a given moment. In other words, saying here that I am going to write a certain number of things this month will have little effect on whether or not I write them. As a result, I am trying something different this year.

My goal this month is to be more attentive to how I am spending my time so that I can use more of it to write. That’s it: a month-long meta-cognitive exercise. The only accountability I am assigning myself is a single post each weekend on writing. These posts might be anything on that topic, but I expect that they will be variations on a theme rather than simple recaps—if only because I would need to explain what I am working on for such a recap to be at all meaningful and I am often hesitant talk about works-in-progress in this space.

To be honest, I don’t know how this experiment will go. Possible outcomes range from tapping into a well of discipline that results in significant progress on academic projects and a flurry of posts here, to only being able to focus writing on more frivolous projects like the paper I shelved a while back uses Britney Spears songs as subheadings, to discovering that I simply can’t muster the energy to write despite my best intentions. The answer will likely change by the day, so the question will be whether I can stay on schedule with modest gains more days than not. Tune in next week to find out!