Drowning, or In Need of a Flotation Device

I have a serious case of the Mehs, or what I am thinking of as Lockdown Ennui. I mean, we’re not technically in full-on lockdown anymore because we can get haircuts and buy all the shoes, if we so desire and feel a bit reckless with our health in being out and about. But, we still are living small lives, with no visits to friends and family, none of the usual work-related travel, and way, way too much time in front of computer screens trying to create engaging learning experiences for our students, and ourselves. It’s freaking exhausting. And strange, oddly lonely, unsettling. Perhaps the worst thing, for all of us, is the uncertainty. There is this new ‘normal’ now, and we don’t know when, or if, that will end. What will our lives look like when the coronavirus has finally been brought under control? We’re not built to not know – humans need answers, and plans, and dates and deadlines. We need to know. And we do not. Not right now, anyway.

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This uncertainty – for me, anyway – seems to be creating a listlessness. I have SO much to do – I feel I am drowning in supervision, and marking, and feedback-needed-please, and consulting work, and my own research (which is pretty much permanently on hold right now), and admin, and online teaching. But, instead of being industrious and focused and knocking off the to-dos every day, I do a few things and then tell myself I am too tired to do more, even though it’s barely past lunchtime. I work from about 9.30 until about 2, and then I knit, and scroll through my Twitter feed, and indulge a mild panic about all the work I should be doing but can’t seem to actually make myself do. And then when I do the Big Things, the things that require Thinking, I feel like I have done nothing of any consequence. I don’t quite recognise, or understand, my work self right now.

I feel at a loss as to how to help myself out of this. I find myself longing for some kind of legitimate reason for being so flaky about work, like a mild illness (but not corona, or anything serious). The bronchitis I wrote about the last time I had the energy to blog turned out to be asthma that was out of control and on the wrong meds. I’m on the right meds now, and apart from the odd bad day where my chest is tight and the stairs seem like a mountain, I’m better. So, I can’t actually lie around in my PJs and cough pathetically and have everyone fuss over me. I have to Adult, and work, and be Responsible for All The Things.

I see all over Twitter that I am so not alone. So many people are tired, Zoomed-out, frustrated. My lovely colleagues respond to my apologies for late email replies and requests for extensions with kind emails and Whatsapp notes telling me to be kind to myself, that we are all in the same boat, that this is hard on everyone and it’s okay. But it doesn’t feel okay. It feels like a slippery slope, to me. The more I stop work at 2pm and cite tiredness to myself as a reason, and then follow that with: ‘It’s okay, we can try again tomorrow’ (in a kind voice), the longer my list of work gets, and the greater the likelihood of more emails to students and peers, apologising and asking for more time, and feeling (and looking) like a flake. This is not a feeling I like, and letting people down – even if they are kind about it – is not something I like to do.

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I’ve written posts in the past about how to get yourself out of a funk and get writing, and reading, and thinking again. I know cognitively what I need to do. Take all the tasks and create a realistic daily list. Break it down into small chunks, smaller tasks. Not all the assignments, just 2 at a time. Not all the reading, just a paper at a time. I know all of this. But knowing a thing and being able to do the thing are not always the same thing. External deadlines from people I cannot let down really help, but they skew my list because I end up pushing down other things that have been languishing for too long and need to be finished. I end up feeling a bit flat before I have even started. But start I must, and finish I must.

There’s no moral or magical learning here. Just, solidarity, I suppose. If you, like me, have ennui, and the Mehs, and feel like everyone around you is Adulting like a pro and there you are longing for your PJs at 1pm on a Tuesday afternoon, or harbouring fantasies of spraining a wrist so you legitimately cannot type anything. I don’t think we are all in the same boat. Our boats are very differently filled with kids and families and pets and care work and loneliness and everyone in your space and no one in your space and good wifi and bad wifi and no wifi, and so on. But, we are all in our boats in the same sea, paddling against this strange new tide that is moving us into a really uncertain and unknown future, an uncertain university and learning space, an uncertain job and career space.

Socially distanced boats heading into the unknown; Photo by Humphrey Muleba from Pexels

Take care, be safe, wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands, be kind to others, and hang in there. Perhaps, for now, that’s all we can do; that and get some freaking work done!

Writing in a time of crisis

This COVID-19 or novel coronavirus pandemic has been kind of unbelievable on so many levels – the speed at which it has spread, the closing of borders, the cancellation of conferences, seminars, and the closure of schools and universities. I have seen many, many tweets about online teaching (and the many issues related to that of access, success, engagement and so on), and also about writing. The writing discussions are interesting, as they seem to be split-ish between encouraging massive bursts of productivity because we’re all home (and apparently the rest of our lives have vanished), and encouraging gentle, realistic bursts of what you can manage. Of course, there is a a fair bit of middle ground here, but what I am wondering is what that is, for me specifically but also for writers I need to start working with online in April. So, I am grappling with two related questions: 1, how do I keep writing in a time of crisis? and 2, how do I help others do the same?

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There are so many people I am connected with through Twitter are struggling to write and feel productive and focused and calm enough to think, not least because they are home with cats and dogs and kids and partners and noise (so much noise). But, even those without all of the noise and people and distractions are struggling, because being alone is not easy either. This begs the question, again, of what we need to make the work of writing possible? What makes us feel like we can be ‘productive’ in terms of creating finished pieces of writing, in whatever shape those take?

I have written many different kinds of posts over the last five or so years about affective and also intellectual or mental blocks to writing, and how to work through or past these. One of the posts I come back to often in my writing courses is on making time to write: about how we don’t find time to write, we have to make it. And we don’t just have to make physical time – hours and minutes in a day – but, more importantly, mental time – space in your head that can be focused just on writing and not on everything else. This is often hard to do, but perhaps no more so than when your head is full of quite unexpected and largely unprecedented uncertainty and anxiety. We have no idea how long our schools and universities will have to be closed, or what kind of ‘normal’ we will return to when they re-open. How long will we be trying to work and teach online?

We have no idea when we will be allowed to travel again, for meetings, and teaching. Many of us work on a contract basis, and if we don’t work we don’t get paid. This is true for me. Am I going to be able to actually do the contract teaching I have budgeted for and signed on for, or will that fall away? I cannot do it all online. Am I going to be able to pay all my bills after June? This is a big part of the anxiety filling up my headspace right now, along with unplanned-for work in trying to plan to actually teach a face-to-face writing course, with feedback and peer engagement, online. And, in the midst of trying to keep my supervision feedback, journal administration, and materials development work going – thankfully all things I can do online – I also need to keep writing and being ‘productive’ around publishing.

But, I am listless, figuratively and literally. My kids are home all day. My husband is home all day. The dog is going mad because we are not allowed to take him for walks at the park and our garden is not very big. The cats are confused – why are we always here? We are at on school holidays now, but these end on Tuesday next week and then we have to add cajoling the boys into doing their schoolwork in the mornings every day to a long list of things we don’t usually have to do. It feels like holidays all the time, but it is not. The emotional toll of all of this should not be under-estimated. It has a significant effect on our ability to focus our minds on tasks that have a cognitive load, and that require concentration and cleverness.

I think, for me as a writer and as a facilitator of others’ writing, this is point 1 in answer to my second question: I need to acknowledge the extra-ordinary emotional strain that people are under. The uncertainty is perhaps the worst of it – how long is this all going to last, and what will the world (and my job) be like when this pandemic is past? We need to not just quietly acknowledge this, but perhaps make a small space in our online engagements with peers, colleagues and students, to voice some of the anxieties we feel. We are not at all alone in this, but we often feel we are, and what we feel is what creates both emotional and mental static* that can be hard to work around.

I need, also, to acknowledge my own stress and anxiety, and make that okay for myself for now. Following on from my last post, I need to seek a new balance for now at least between being kind to myself in the sense of allowing myself time to just be and work through the other stuff in my head right now, like how to shop for groceries during lockdown and how to keep my asthmatic son safe, and being kind to myself by creating a work routine and pushing myself to get things done every day, Monday to Friday so I don’t meander around aimlessly feeling like I’m not doing anything useful at all. I need to just see that this is all not business-as-usual-working-from-home, or even school-holidays-working-from-home, and let myself have a few more moments of listlessness and meh than I usually allow.

In my planning for teaching, I want to create a little more space than I usually do to talk about the affective dimensions of making time to write, to show students that it is completely normal – usually but especially perhaps at the moment – not to feel like writing, or thinking, and to even feel that all of that academic work is a bit silly or non-essential in the face of this unprecedented global crisis. We need to adjust our understanding of what it is to ‘be productive’, and offer ourselves and others kindness and understanding as they navigate these new anxieties and stresses in their day to day lives, whether they are constantly surrounded by people and noise or all alone (both of which can be very hard to live with day in and day out with little respite). We all need to be patient, with co-authors, with supervisors, with critical friends, with colleagues, as we work out a new normal that may last quite some time.

For myself, I am making a list, highlighting tasks I really need to push myself on, like bits of my own writing (all co-authoring currently), and feedback to students on their writing. Other tasks, like ongoing admin and planning and reading I’m fitting in when I have focus and energy, and I’m taking it easy on keeping that stuff ticking over. I’m building a massive puzzle of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and I’m mending some curtains I have been meaning to mend since Christmas — 2018. I’m tidying bits of the house that have been ignored for too long, and sorting clutter (Lovely Husband is super happy about this one, and the curtains). I’m trying not to snap too much at my poor kids, who miss their friends and their routine, too. In short, I am doing what I can do to be ‘productive’ and to be well, in a time when both of those things seem tenuous. I think this is all we can all do, and we need to encourage and support one another as we work this out. Hopefully that solidarity and kindness will be what we carry forward into the future that we create out of this present. Take care, everyone. Stay home and stay safe.

*This is Kate Chanock’s term.

When you hate your writing and everything sucks

*You can listen to this post as a podcast.

I have less than one week left before the (second) deadline for the submission of my book manuscript. I am trying to write the final chapter, which is also the Introduction. Every word is being agonised over, sounds awful, and I really just want to cry and throw in the towel to binge-watch The Witcher. But, I can’t. Because deadlines and expectations and definite self-loathing for tripping at the finish line. So, what do I do? What do we do, as writers, when we feel like complete frauds, hate all the words we put onto the page, and everything just sucks?

I don’t actually know exactly what to do. I have been calling on all the old standbys: ‘If you just slog it out, there will be words on the page and you can always change and edit them later. You just have to start writing’, and ‘You can’t say your writing is trash before you’ve finished the draft – all drafts are terrible but terrible writing is part of good writing’, and ‘You can’t build sandcastles if the sandbox is empty – drafting is filling the sandbox’. Blah, blah, blah. I have a lot of these platitudes and positive, peppy soundbites going round and round in my head, and while most of them are actually true, they don’t really help me find the words I need to open this book on the right note. They just make me feel bad, right now.

The thing is, I am tired. I had a full-on year last year, and I really needed a rest at the end of it. But, because of my own ridiculousness in terms of saying yes to deadlines for BIG projects in January, and my old BFFs Procrastination and The Mean Voice, I ended up not having one. Rather than doing the bulk of the drafting in October and November, leaving me just editing and polishing in December, and time for a proper rest, I had to spend all of December writing, writing, writing. I had bits of rests, but not a proper brain-off, computer-off recharge. So, I’m freaking exhausted. And all my brain wants to talk about is how tired I am and how much I don’t want to be writing. So, the first thing I’m trying to figure out is how to turn off that track in my head for the next few days. Like, I know we’re tired but this has to get done.

I think another problem is I keep getting ahead of myself. I look towards pressing ‘send’ on the book files, and that feels potentially awesome, but then my teaching starts and this other big project has to be finished, and I have three reviews waiting, and I have journal stuff to manage, and I have to go on a work trip, and my kids have all this school stuff, and I have to do laundry and … All The Things, you know? I just feel flattened by the weight of all the work waiting and then I can’t actually do the work now. So, I have to turn off that track too. One thing at a time, one day at a time. Just do The Things for today, and tomorrow will wait. This is actually helping, a bit. If I don’t check my email too much. Or think too hard.

The biggest problem, linked to fatigue and overwhelm I am sure, is that I genuinely hate my writing right now. The words are all wrong, and the sentences don’t flow and I can’t find my thread and it feels clunky and awkward and stilted and boring. The Mean Voice has the microphone right now, and is pretty sure no one will like this book. Now, I have enough practice at this academic writing gig to know, under all the rampant self-doubt and frustration, that people will like the book and my writing does not suck (that much). But, right now it is really hard to push this voice aside and write through the frustration and sucky words and malaise. I just want to stop. I am struggling a lot more with turning off this track. I am not sure I can, so I’m writing anyway and hating it all but the pages are being created and the words are there. I am hoping for a final burst of kind energy from my lovely, tired brain to edit it all into a golden thread that opens the book on the note all my work over the last few years deserves.

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Basically, there is no avoiding the days and weeks where you hate your writing and it all just sucks and you wish you could just stop. It’s part of the deal of being a scholar, whether it’s just for the PhD or whether this is your day job. I think we just have to feel our ways through it, actually. It is okay to not love your work all the time, to not feel super productive and shiny about writing all the time, to not like your words and thoughts. It is okay to have really, really bad days and wonder what on earth you were thinking choosing this project, or paper, or career. These days seldom stick around for that long, in my experience. I will get out of this funk, as I have others, and I will start to feel less awful about this book and my writing and things will stop being so sucky. Hopefully, before Sunday! My plan now is to feel what I feel, and make myself write the crap words because not writing anything is not an option, and then pull it together in the end. I do kind of have to trust the process; I have before and it has been okay in the end. I may not ever love this book, but I am proud of it, and that’s enough.

Turning your writing ship around: pushing back against individualism and isolation

In 2014, while I was deep into reading Cressida Cowell’s How to train your dragon series to my boys, I blogged about PhD theses and ocean crossings, likening the early stages to small, leaky, slow boats, and the end stages to faster, sleek racing ships. Writing can be a lot like this, as I also argued in a more recent post: that slogging is really necessary for sailing – the ‘bad’ writing says where the words are clunky and awful and the process is painful need to be worked through for the less common, but completely lovely and faith-restoring days where the words flow from your fingers and the ideas all work and you feel like a writing goddess. Last week I wrote about my AcWriMo fail, so far, and how I was trying to just write – anything, really – to get the month and the book back on track. These posts all touch on two things I want to blog about today: work ethic and resilience, and community, and pushing back against individualised, isolationist notions of success.

I currently work on a consultant basis, attached to different projects, teaching contracts and so on. This means that I work a great deal from my home office (aka the couch, most days), and that need to work between my own deadlines, and externally set deadlines. This requires a pretty decent work ethic, as the work I do is varied, and often amounts to a little bit more than a full-time job, because of the way the deadlines and workloads are distributed (i.e. it’s more like feast and famine than steady labour). But, my work ethic, like my workload, is not consistent. While I am super-capable of pulling rabbits out of hats close to a deadline, I find this immensely anxiety-invoking. The downside of this ‘feast or famine’ workload and concomitant work ethic is that I have more anxiety than is healthy, and this spills over into other parts of my life, causing me to snap at my family, or yell at drivers being stupid on the roads, and so on. In other words, the work anxiety feeds social and personal anxiety, and the cycle can become pretty nasty and stressful.

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The upside, though, is that in working through all the anxiety and getting the work done anyway, often on time but sometimes with kindly granted extensions, I am developing researcher resilience. I am learning to be resilient in two key ways, I think. The first is that I am learning that, as a friend says often to me, my work is not life-or-death. If I have a day in my pjs where I do no writing or productive thinking, no planes will fall from the sky or something equally catastrophic. Thus, I don’t have to treat every email and every request and every sentence as urgent. I can moderate, and balance, and take time. This is really important, because as the current Twitter threads around the UCU strikes in the UK are showing, balance and moderation are in short supply, especially for academics working on contract and in precarious income positions, as many consultants are. If I say no to this job, will I be closing the wrong door? Will more work and money come, or not? These are questions those in a contract-y space constantly battle with, meaning we probably don’t say no as often as we need to, to protect our own physical and mental well-being. We may also not often-enough say yes to help, for fear that the work and money may be diluted or assigned elsewhere in future.

This brings me to the second thing I mean by resilience. I am learning that I cannot, and should not, try to be Wonder Woman. I cannot do all my work things on my own, without help and support. I think those of us working in or around university contexts that are strongly influenced by shades of neoliberalism and corporate culture are pushed into different forms of a bigger liberal-capitalist notion of individualism. To achieve is to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, work really hard, take no hand-outs or favours, and claim all your achievements for yourself, as the product of your hard work, focus and so on. So, we slog and slog, telling colleagues and friends we’re fine, and refusing offers of help because we’re fine, and because we need to claim our work and any success than emanates as our own. And if we have help, then is our success really ours alone? If you can hack this, you are pretty resilient, but at what cost? Like Wonder Woman, I can do it on my own, but I have more fun, I’m more able, and I probably recover faster if I have the Justice League with me to share the load.

While some disciplines have collaboration built in, such as in many of the natural sciences, where I work in the social sciences and humanities in South Africa, we still have to fight to justify collaboration and co-work, especially in relation to published papers, books and so on because of government funding formulas that reward sole authorship. As an early career researcher, with less symbolic capital and clout, it can be hard to fight against these systems, and the individualism they seem to encourage and reward. But, this brings me to the other factor my earlier-cited posts were about, and a key aspect of building resilience in research: community. The colleagues and peers you are able to surround yourself with and actually lean on and draw help from is a crucial part of pushing back against this overly individualised culture in academia. It’s not enough to have peers who will believe you when you say you are fine and are actually not fine. These peers need to be people who will offer some form of help and support that you can, and will, accept and also offer back.

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Community needs to be active and reciprocal to really work in helping researchers, especially earlier-career researchers, build resilience and a workable work ethic. Ideally, the community you connect with also needs to be composed of peers in a range of positions, in terms of empathy but also power and influence – your own form of the Justice League, if you like. If you are all early career researchers in precarious labour positions, you can offer a great deal of moral support and empathy, which helps, but you need people on your side who know the system and can help you find the means, courage and tools to push back where you can. For example, a big help for me has been joining projects on recommendations from my former supervisor, who has connected me with different scholars and enabled co-writing and co-researching projects to take shape and happen. I now have connections for new projects, and an experience of not working alone to bolster me in creating and running new, collaborative projects in the future. We need to seek out and nurture these connections.

This week I have turned my writing ship around with the help of a new online community, which I joined on recommendation from a new friend who found her way into this space during her PhD. My community is working for me this week, big time, but in a way that enables me to reciprocate and offer mutual support. I have gone from no chapter to an almost finished chapter, partly because the anxiety has finally turned from paralysis into action, as this rabbit must be pulled from the hat or else, but mainly because I have been brave enough to admit I am not fine, I cannot proceed on my own, and I need help to get writing and keep writing. This new community, in conjunction with my existing community, is helping me immeasurably to find my own inner strength and resilience and work ethic, and put it all into my writing. It has not been easy. I am slogging, for sure, and will have to keep slogging. But I am hopeful that this ship will become sleeker and faster as the finish line approaches, and that my communities – online and face-to-face – will be there with me as I cross it.

Hashtag AcWriMo fail (so far)

So, it is AcWriMo again. For those who are unfamiliar with this term, it stands for Academic Writing Month, and is a global phenomenon with academic writers all around the world committing to putting words on pages, and tackling writing goals within both face-to-face and virtual communities that offer encouragement, support and accountability. My own university has a Facebook group (although I am avoiding Facebook for mental health reasons right now), and we have a Google sheet where we have written down our writing goals, and update the group weekly. So far, my updates have read: I did nothing, and I did nothing. So, thus far I am basically a #AcWriMo fail.

I think I am starting to actually feel very badly about this, because yesterday I woke up with chest pains, and my mood is declining. I could say it is impending end-of-year-itis, as Lovely Husband and I term it, and that I am always tired and grumpy in November, in the middle of the kids’ exams and last minute requests from people to ‘just quickly please look at X and send some feedback’, and, and, and. But, because I actually know myself better than this (damn it), I have to acknowledge that I feel crappy because I am supposed to be writing, and I am not.

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I have done that thing you’re not supposed to do as a writer and left it all alone for too long. Now it is properly feral, to borrow from Annie Dillard, and I am very afraid of what I will find when I open that door. And even thinking about opening the file, and reading and revising and writing fills me with tiredness and dread. I am in a proper state about it all, and am therefore quite, quite paralysed. Which, you know, sucks. I have chest pains just writing this. Seriously.

I have no magical solutions, and no grand plans. I think the time for these kinds of delusions has passed for 2019. It’s too late in the year for that. What I have is me. I have to dig deep (very very deep I fear), and find my resilience and my strength and just actually sit down and write. Write terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad words (thank you Judith Viorst), and just let them come out of my fingers and settle onto the page. I’ve been seeing all these tweets about how you can’t edit a blank page, and I tell writers in my own courses this exact thing: you can’t make sandcastles out of air. You have to shovel the sand into the sandbox first. You have to have something to work with.

But, you also can’t really work effectively and efficiently with complete nonsense. So, not just any sand will do. You have to have the right kinds of sand, or words and ideas, to actually create a paper or chapter that readers will find useful, interesting, and so on. I think this is the problem, for me. Well, this and the fact that I am just over it all right now. I have kind of lost my faith in my words and ideas. I feel like they’re just blah and meh and ugh. And this prevents me from actually putting them on any page. I don’t know how to get over this. I have tried bribing myself, but it turns out I don’t have anything I want badly enough. I’ve tried being mean, but that just makes me feel worse, so I’ve stopped doing that. I’ve tried gentle cajoling, which sort of works.

Mostly, I just need to write. Write the trash words, which are probably not nearly as trashy as I think they are, and then work them into the shape and form they need to be in. And just keep cajoling, with kindness, because I think most writers actually respond better to kindness than any other form of ‘motivation’. Well, at least in my experience. And I need to not feel like I am the only one having a #AcWriMo fail so far. Because I’m pretty sure I am not. So, solidarity friends, if you are stuck in the molasses like me.

November isn’t done yet, and tomorrow is a new day. Every day is a new day to try and fail and try again and fail better, as Samuel Beckett said. And in failing better, we succeed. But we have to be brave enough to fail. I am not very good at this, and never have been. I hold myself to rather impossible standards, really, and it’s not helpful – certainly not always well conducive to a step-by-step, word-by-word approach to writing. But you know, I’d rather not miss my deadline, and miss this chance to write this book and say these things I think I need to say. This failure would be so much worse than writing a crappy page or nine en route to the finished Thing. So, tomorrow, I will write. Rubbish, brilliance, averageness – I will write it all and then see what I have, and go from there. Who’s with me?

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