Hitting the wall: Finding some space to have space

I read something the other day about surviving crises and how about 6 months after the initial crisis starts we hit the wall. We have adjusted, more or less, to a new normal but there is still no end in sight, and we’re not completely sure we can let go of the old normal yet. So we’re kind of stuck between accepting that this is our life now and not wanting this to be our life now and we’re tired. I think I have hit this wall. I have more or less made my peace with teaching online (but I long for face to face classes again), I have kind of liked not having to get on planes and go places and be away from my kids and my cats and Lovely Husband (but I kind of miss lazy evenings by myself in a B&B watching Netflix and all the hustle and bustle of traveling). I am in this in-between space, trying to find a way to have some space for just being.

Mainly, I just need a break. I need some actual proper space and I have been grumping around the house feeling cross that I have to get up every day and stare at my screen all day and be there for other people all day and, like, who is being there for me? Where is my time and headspace for being creative with my own writing? Where is my sleeping in and reading my chick-lit novel all morning in my PJs while my boys make me pancakes? I’m whinging, I know. But, I’ve hit this wall hard and I can’t have a break because I am teaching three courses right now and have heaps of student work to read and comment on and weekly teaching prep and a journal to manage and people to be responsible to and for and I just want it all to stop.

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So, I am grumpy and tired and I feel guilty all the time because I never get enough done in a day. And I feel bad for wanting everyone to go away and leave me alone, especially my students. But, one thing I have learned is to own my feelings, the ones that I am happy to share and the ones I am not, because pretending I don’t feel those feelings only leads to feeling invisible and therefore more resentful and grumpy. So, I’m owning them. I’ve hit the wall, I’m tired, I’m cross, I’m grumpy, I need some space in a part of the year where taking space for me makes me fall behind in my never-ending to-do list and then feel guilty and bad. It’s not good, basically.

But then, I have a day like today. I read bits of drafts that students on my writing course are working on and see them using feedback and patience and perseverance to create clearer, sharper, such interesting paper drafts. And I know I am so lucky to do this work, to be part of helping early career and postgraduate scholars to publish and share their research. I get to make creative and fun learning materials for students that will help them with their writing—something all students struggle with, some far more than others. And that’s pretty cool too. And I get to go the wool shop and buy lovely yarn to start a new knitting project with. And it feels like, even though I did not get right to the end of my list for today or yesterday, I had a bit of balance. I knocked work off my list, I went to Pilates, I bought wool and got to chat for 20 minutes about knitting and yarn colours to someone I don’t live with, albeit behind masks. I created some space and I feel a little less frantic, even though that may be temporary.

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I am also falling back on some old reflections and some new advice:

These little soundbites of wisdom really help me to hang on and work through the grumpy days. As does the knowledge that days like this come around and lift my spirits. I think I am mostly learning that in order to offer others my energy, creativity and help, I need to make and protect my own little spaces to recharge myself and feel like I’m not a slave to my screen. I’m still going to feel bad when I let people down by missing deadlines, and hopefully get better at setting more realistic ones. I am still going to struggle to say no, especially to exciting and interesting projects I want to be part of but have no time for if I want to actually move forward on my own new research—but I’m going to keep trying. We all need space, but more and more these days that space had to be made and protected, sometimes fiercely and sometimes from ourselves. And it’s important to give yourself permission to have that space. Take care out there.

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

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.

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 stopping 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.

Taking a break: how long is long enough (or too long)?

Every year while I was working on my PhD I would struggle to get back into the reading and writing after the December holiday break. I took around 3 weeks off each year before Christmas and then into the new year, and it was so hard to come out of idle speed and back up to work and PhD speed. I wrote about the need for a break, acknowledging the challenge of making this break neither too short nor too long. Too short and you are not rested enough to get going again with fresh energy and drive. Too long and you may get stuck in holiday mode for too long, leading to writing and research paralysis and anxiety.

I find myself, right now, in desperate need of a mental and physical break. But, and this is a big but, I cannot take one because my book manuscript in its entire, finished form is due in mid-January to the publisher. I cannot ask for a new deadline, because I have already done that. Also, I don’t want another extension. I want to move forward with a new project next year and I need to complete this one first. So, it needs to stay on schedule. Hence, there is no break this year for me – not really. I will be writing over Christmas and new year, not lolling about all day by the pool or on the beach, reading holiday-for-my-brain chick lit on my Kindle.

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That said, it has been a long and exhausting year on the work front, and if I work too hard over this supposed break time, and then launch myself right out of the book and into 2020 work, I may well be burned out by Easter. This would be a poor plan for a productive start to my new research, not to mention all my 2020 teaching, supervision and writing development work planned. So, I do need some sort of plan for rest in amongst the writing, even if that rest is more physical than mental.

Ideally, your end-of-year PhD or Masters or work break needs to be both: physical and mental. You need to actually not turn on your computer, or check email, or write or read anything, or be near your office. You need to physically and mentally change the scenery, reading fiction, going for walks outdoors, binge-watching a new series, spending time with family and friends, drinking a G&T in the swimming pool under a wide-brimmed hat (that last one might just be mine). This change of scenery, I have learned, is important for putting work in its place, and for rebalancing your energy after a long year. There is no rule for how long is too long for a break from email, research, writing and thinking here, but I think there is a rule that breaks are important and need to be properly taken when they are needed.

Work is just one of the things that we do and that shapes us, it cannot be THE thing otherwise that work-life balance will be quite skewed to the detriment of physical and mental wellbeing. This has been a hard one for me over the years, and something I have only gotten better at since my late 30s, when I stopped trying to push myself to ridiculous lengths to be the Best Ever at Everything. I think all (over) achievers can perhaps identify with a struggle to slow down, delegate, turn the out-of-office email on without the fear that something will go down while you’re not looking and leave you out.

I certainly have struggled, and while I am by no means over all of this, I do now find it easier to realise that my own physical and mental health, and emotional wellbeing, is so much more important that being online and available to anyone who may need my help 365 days a year. That is neither possible, nor desirable as a work-life goal. I can say ‘no’, the world will keep turning, and I don’t have to feel terrible about putting myself first. I think there is something in this about learning to put ourselves first, and seeing that as selfish in a positive, rather than negative, way.

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There is a certain kind of humility, perhaps, in being selfish like this: realising that you are tired, and need a rest, and may even need help to take a rest properly. As the saying goes: you cannot pour from an empty jug. If you are depleted, then what will you have to offer your peers, colleagues, students, not to mention your family and friends? Not very much. And the result of spreading yourself too thin for too long, apart from burnout, may also be feelings of resentment towards those peers, colleagues, students who keep asking for your time. In my experience, pushing myself too hard for too long has also lead to writing paralysis, and then guilt and shame after neglecting my writing because I was just too tired to face it.

So, this year, stuck as I am writing like a fiend now because I procrastinated too much a few months ago, I need to take little mini-breaks and make them count. Obviously, I will have Christmas day off, and probably will have to rest off the champagne on new year’s day. But, in between I have to write and write hard. My plan is simple: a few good hours or more of writing every day, and then a proper rest. My novel, or a game of Wii tennis with my boys, or a swim in the sea, or a surf with my son, or a walk with the dog. And then back to writing. I am hoping, with a conscious balance between important writing time and important resting time, I will reach this particular finish line with enough energy intact to keep the work going until I can take a longer rest later next year. And perhaps, I will learn enough from this year’s “break” to achieve a better work-life balance in 2020.

Thank you all for your support, likes and comments this year. I am looking forward to sharing more writing ups, downs, advice and journey in 2020. Happy holidays to you all!

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