The year 2020 in writing and research: a review (of sorts)

At the end of the year for the last few years I have written a “what I learned about writing this year’ kind of post (see here for 2019, for example). But, this year has been quite unusual in many respects, not least because after March, all bets were off for meeting early writing goals and Being Productive on the research front. Some people has a super-productive year, if my Twitter feed is to be believed, but this was not the case for many and I include myself in this group. This post, then, is a musing on the year that has been, and a stock-taking review of sorts.

I started this year sending off a full draft of my book to colleagues for peer review, and thought: Fabulous! That’s Done. Now I’ll write All The Other Things in my queue (mostly co-authored papers with students and colleagues and starting a new research project – long reading list – and applying for ethical clearance so I can start gathering data – yay). First thing, the book was by no means done (what was I thinking?). It came back in May with lots of constructive critique, which was great but also meant a whole-book revision and some rewriting and new writing and reading. This was now 2 months into Lockdown, and the world was a whole new place. I was moving all my teaching online, which was so much more work than I thought it would be, preparing to teach a Master’s module online, and trying to make my children do their schoolwork at home and not watch YouTube and play online games all day. So, the paper writing and new research reading I had started was paused (really stopped, but let’s say paused ’cause it sounds better).

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Second thing, do you know how long reading brand new theory and substantive research takes? I didn’t. I should have, having done an MA and a PhD in the last 15 years. But, somehow, I forgot that reading with concentration, and reading Theory, is flipping hard. It takes time and energy, and by the time I had revised the whole book and sent it to the series editor in July, both were in short supply. So, there was more pausing and putting the new project off, and I couldn’t do fieldwork anyway, so it was all moot, it felt like. The book came back, more revisions and corrections, more emotional and mental energy. But, by now my kids were back at school at least part of the week, so the homeschooling was a bit easier, and my lovely co-author was teaching a full semester online and I was teaching two professional development courses alongside the MA module. So she didn’t mind pausing the paper a bit (or a lot) longer. Writing and research, what’s that? Just making myself wash my hair and get out of my PJs for Zooms-with-no-cameras was a lot, most days, in August and September.

The book went back in August and passed muster, and then went off to production. Big milestone. Big relief. But short-lived. It came back rather quickly, copyedited, and the whole thing – all 177 pages – had to be re-read very carefully and corrected, edited, checked. There were many long-sentences I missed as well as puzzling typos and referencing mistakes. That was hard. I read that manuscript just hating it and feeling very strongly that no one would want to buy it, let alone read it, and what on earth possessed me to believe I could write a book? I really dragged myself through the revisions and sent it back. But, the process of doing that oddly gave me a second wind for working on the one paper I had paused earlier in the year. It helped that my teaching and marking had started winding down, too, in early November. We signed up to present a work-in-progress at an online colloquium, which gave us both a bit of a boost. Although it now all on hold again, because we are pretty finished in terms of energy and brain-power.

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So, now it is December and I am three days away from activating my out-of-office on 3 email acccounts, after which I will be deleting my social media apps and my gmail app from my phone for the 2.5 weeks I am on leave. Last night at 10pm I sent back the proofs and index for the book – I had to read the whole thing again and make more corrections and comments – and it’s back in the production queue. The co-authored paper is still in a paused state, but the argument is becoming less opaque and we hope, with fresher brains, we can finish it early next year. The new research project is not anywhere, really – no further along than it was this time last year. Maybe 2021 will be more productive on that front now that the book is done and that research chapter is effectively closed. As to the other papers in the queue? I don’t know. I have no idea what next year will look like. Am I still going to be teaching online all year, part of the year? Will I be allowed or brave enough to travel? I know I will have to make time to promote my book – I have no idea what that will look like yet as South African university campuses have not announced clear plans for being “back at work” in any kind of old-normal way yet. Just thinking about that makes me want to take a long nap.

I am anticipating unforeseen emotional labour and drains on my energy, maybe more consciously now that I have in the past. I am trying not to make too many plans that will be a basis for being mean to myself for not Being Productive, and I am trying to have looser, less formal plans for 2021’s writing and research. I mean, I probably say this every year, but the craziness and upheaval and fatigue of this year has really driven home the need to pay attention to my energy, to accept rather than rail against it, and to work with myself kindly and gently, rather than holding myself up to some external standard that may be fine for someone else, but not for me. This is not easy: I had to actually stop myself from berating myself for only uploading two publications into the university database as proof of my research “output” this year (both written in 2019). Two publications in any year is just fine, and in 2020, it’s great. I suppose, what I am learning more and more is to work at my pace, not someone else’s pace, and to celebrate all the small milestones, like papers read and proofs edited and productive, fun co-author meetings that push the process a few steps further, even if the finished draft itself is a way off. Focusing on the steps rather than only on the big product at the end seems to be a healthier way to Be Productive, in this or any year. So, that’s what I am taking forward with me. That and a resolution of sorts to embrace slower forms of scholarship and self-care that give me time for rest and recharging and eating properly and sleeping better and exercising (not my best thing).

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I wish you all a merry, safe and restive end-of-year break, and a happy festive season if you are celebrating. I am grateful to all of my readers out there for your support – thank you, and see you in 2021!

When you are just over it all: being nice to yourself vs being kind

I am tired. My skin and bones and hair are tired. All I want to do is mooch around in my PJs and read undemanding novels with happy endings, and eat pancakes. I’m pretty sure this is a version of the post-PhD funk, but this time round it’s post-book funk, and the lingering effects of not taking a proper end-of-year break. And maybe I need to eat more vegetables. But, what I am struggling with is what to do with myself so I can actually keep up with work, and not let myself and others down by missing deadlines and generally just flaking out.

All my life I have been an over-achiever, and a people pleaser. ‘A’ student, school prefect, in all the school plays and concerts, putting my hand up to get involved in everything I could, hardly ever saying no or drawing healthy boundaries around my time. The overachieving was tempered at university, where I was a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond, but the desire to be the ‘A’ student, and the best at everything, and make people pleased and proud, remained. This carried over into my Masters and then my PhD, where I wanted to write the best thesis ever, and be the best student ever, and write the most amazing papers ever.

It’s not easy to live and work like this: it requires the presence of what I have always called “the mean voice” in your head. This voice’s job, basically, is two-fold (for me, anyway): on the one hand, she tells you to keep going, and say YES (not no) and take on all the things, and she kind of makes you get down to it and work. But, this means, on the other hand, that she’s not always very kind when you are tired and need a rest, because she might well call you a flake, and tell you that if you say no that work will never come your way again, and that if you don’t finish the paper right now, people will be disappointed and cross (a people pleasing overachiever’s worst thing). She’s mean, basically, and if you let her be mean to you about work and writing, it’s not too hard for her to be mean about everything.

I got to a point where I needed her out of my head: I needed to learn to be kind to myself and mean it, and take proper breaks, and say no and not second-guess that, and let go of this fear of letting people down if I did say no, and draw healthier boundaries around my time and energy. So, I went to therapy and I worked hard, and that mean voice is pretty quiet these days, about everything. I am much better at saying no, and not stressing (too much) over that, and also giving myself time to go slower and take breaks. This is all great. But, I am discovering that I actually miss the mean voice – specifically, her ability to cheerlead (however bossily), and get me off the couch and away from the novels and focused on writing, and reading, and supervising, and emailing, and adminning and all that. I don’t miss the mean-ness, but I miss the pushing.

I have found, in quieting this voice and learning to be nice to myself, that I have slowly become less good at being kind to myself, in the more critical sense of kindness. There’s a difference between being nice, and being kind. Niceness doesn’t really require care. You can say nice things without actually meaning them, and you can be nice to people without really caring about their welfare or wellbeing. Niceness is not about others, niceness is about ourselves, making ourselves look good and feel good.

Kindness, on the other hand, is all about others. The act of being kind is about actually considering someone else’s interests or feelings or needs, and acting in a way that shows consideration. Feedback is a useful example. I often explain to my students that if I just said things about their work like ‘this is a good draft’ or ‘interesting points here’ and nothing else, that may be nice because it would make them feel good and would make me look like an engaged reader. But, how would they get to draft 2, and to a better final piece of work? If I rather say ‘this is a good draft, but there is still work to be done on supporting your argument, using more updated sources, and deepening your critical engagement with supporting texts’, they might think ‘oh no, more work, she doesn’t think it’s (I’m) good enough yet’, and feel a bit bleak, initially. But, that feedback is kind because I actually care about you getting to a more confident and capable place as a scholar.

So, back to me: I think, right now in the wake of this post-book slump, I am being way too nice to myself and not nearly kind enough. I am giving myself too many free passes, too much time to loaf-off, and the more I do that the harder it is to come back to a place of focus and productivity. I am not sleeping well because I keep dreaming about all the work and writing I am not doing. So, starting right now, as soon as I post this rather personal post, I am going to be kind to myself. I am going to make myself send three emails I need to send, read three pieces of student work I was supposed to read yesterday, and finish two outstanding pieces of work that are overdue. Then, I will have a proper lunch, and give my own work some time, with some reading and writing in my reading journal. Day done. Then, tomorrow the same again: making kind choices that show my care for myself, and also for others that I have a responsibility towards.

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I reckon this is not going to be easy, and I’m going to have to work at this for a while until I get myself back into a different, more productive, less ‘meh’ place that I am currently in. But, if not now then when? These lessons we have to learn about ourselves — who we are, how we work, what we need to focus and be productive, and have enough energy for ourselves and for others — keep having to be learned and relearned because as we get older, and we change and our lives change, the demands on us change, as does the way we respond. This can feel like failure – why don’t I know how to do this properly already?? But, I am trying to see it more kindly, as an opportunity to reassess and reflect, to make different choices if I have to, to grow. I feel like this could make me a better teacher, colleague, supervisor, writer, and also a better mother, and partner to Lovely Husband.

So, if you are also just over it all, and tired to your bones, and lying on the couch in your PJs in a pancake coma telling yourself you don’t have to work today, maybe try a small act of kindness: get dressed, make the bed, tidy up, make a small list and answer some emails. Day done. Tomorrow, taking a few more steps towards the bigger things you need to do will hopefully be easier. And pretty soon, you’ll be back on a path of kindness, and Getting Things Done. I’ll be right there with you.