Not Writing ≠ Broken

Not Writing ≠ Broken December 30, 2017

A funny thing happens when you base your self-image on being productive, not just words-on-the-page productive but also publish-it-ASAP productive.

Photo of me by James Moriarty.
Photo of me by James Moriarty.

I’ve made a lot of excuses for not blogging much recently; in Full Life; Empty Words I attributed it to just not having a lot to say about my life right now while getting settled again in Indiana, while in Writing Life vs. Living Life I talked about still writing, but sharing less of it publicly. These things are still true, but I think there’s another dimension: fear of failure, and fear of being broken.

See, at some point in mid 2016 I looked at my CV and was like, wait a minute, do I have anything (academic) in the pipes? As in, do I have journal articles or book chapters in a stage of publication where I know they’re in the works, and will appear in the next year? The answer was no, and it was incredibly discouraging.

In 2017 I added exactly zero scholarly publications to my CV (ok, two book reviews, but those don’t count for much compared to articles or book chapters). That’s… discouraging to say the least.

What this means is that I hadn’t even managed to whip any of my past work into shape to submit for academic publication, nor was I producing new work. Yeah, I needed a lot of energy/focus/discipline to get through a divorce and move across the country to teach at Berkeley but… what if something was wrong with me? What if I’d burned out? Like, for good?

I spent a good chunk of last year unable to work. I’m only just now finding the courage to write about this, because in the bizarre subculture that is academia, admitting to failure is strongly discouraged. Whether I lacked the focus due to my external circumstances being more intense than a person should have to bear for very long, or because of internal things changing inside me, the thought that I’d “lost it” (“it” being the intellectual spark that makes me me) was devastating.

(it didn’t help that I had the accusation of being broken echoing in my head from a recent past Bad Thing, so while I generally try not to use words like that to describe myself or other people, well, it’d already been done to me)

I’m not alone in these fears; in the incredibly powerful and complex essay The State of the Gender Divide, Alana Hope Levinson writes of her own trauma:

And then there was the biggest, most shameful fear of all that I hid from everyone, even myself: What if I’d never be capable of editing or writing anything ever again? What if I was now truly useless in my ability to “make capital,” not just to Josh, but to anyone, ever?

It’s not like I had an unproductive year, either. I mean, shit, I presented at 6 conferences in 2017, and reassembled my pro and student dance troupes in Indiana, and saw numerous creative works published (such as my personal essay on divorce in Split, my essay in Not Seeing God, and various poems).

So of course my ability to conduct academic research, writing, and publication hadn’t actually disappeared. I guess it’d just gone dormant while I sorted the rest of my life out. But I had no way of knowing that at the time. I was terrified that I’d never produce high-quality scholarship again.

Now I have four articles (well, technically two are book chapters, and one of those is coauthored) in various stages of publication. Another conference paper has been requested in expanded form as a book chapter (the Biden research, yeah!!!). There’s still a bit more material from my dissertation I can revise and send off if I want to. From a scholarly perspective, I’m kicking ass on the publication front… though nothing’ll show up til at least mid 2018.

What I’m learning anew is that being a scholar means playing the long game. I knew this to be true in terms of setting expectations for my goals and successes, but now I know it to be true of emotions and cycles of productivity as well. One benefit of going alt-ac (alternative academic, i.e., not a tenure-track professor) is that not all of my eggs are in one basket: I get to have a positive self-image for my identities outside the academy as well as the one that resides within it.

Mostly I’ve learned that not writing (or publishing) doesn’t mean I’m broken, and that it’s vile to weaponize words like that against people, oneself or others. Since I’m not trying to impress a tenure committee, and since academic publishing doesn’t pay authors, I get to decide how much or how little I want to publish right now. And if that decision is swayed a bit more by burn-out or external circumstances than I would like, well, at this point I’ll try to do better about assuming that it automatically reflects on me, rather than just being another facet of my life that shifts with the times.

I suspect that this is the kind of compassion we’d all do well to extend to ourselves, but I’ll save that reflection for another post.

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