Embarrassing confession time: I’ve been having trouble with a non-blog related writing project for the past few weeks. Guys, it is so stupid. I’m trying to finish a damn conference paper. It is, for the most part, almost finished. The first two-thirds of it are pretty much locked. The framework for the argument is laid out. I have quotes selected and notes ready to be revised into real copy waiting in a separate document. Basically, what I’ve been facing for the past several days is the task of laying down about 1000 words of close textual analysis and a brief conclusion. 1000 words. I can write 1000 words in half an hour. I did a 1000 word close analysis almost on a whim last week. I have, in total, written about 20,000 words on this blog just in the past 10 days or so. 1000 words is a wind sprint. Yet every time I sit down to finish this thing, nothing comes out but an incomprehensible stream of inane blather. Technically, those 1000 words are already typed out, but they are bad, bad, bad. Every time I look at that Word document, I want to scream. It makes me wish I actually drafted things long hand on paper so that I could start a trash can fire with all of the draft material I’ve sent into the nether of late, though that would probably also burn my house down.
So, the result is that I’m having nightmares and not sleeping well. This happens every once in a while, and whenever it does, I feel like I spend my days teetering on the edge of a panic attack. I try to distract myself with other reading and house cleaning and crap like that, but then I’ll read something infuriating on the internet or I’ll break a glass or something, and all the tension I’m feeling about not being able to finish that project comes bubbling to the surface but directed at something totally ridiculous. So, in the four days leading up this conference, I am either going to find a way to fix this paper, or I am going to have a meltdown.
I know why this is happening. It happened somewhere around Draft 5 of my dissertation prospectus last year. The shortest explanation is: I desperately need a vacation. In the past six months, I have completed the following:
2 dissertation chapters
1 journal article
4 conference papers
1 fellowship proposal
All told, that comes out to about 75,000 words or over 150 double spaced pages of presentation/submission quality work. And that’s not even counting the reams of early draft material that got excised. About a third of that work was all done just in the month of April, so it’s probably not surprising that I’m tired. I’ve hit the wall with less under my belt than that before, so perhaps this is progress or something.
“Hitting the wall” has special meaning for marathon runners. The average trained runner burns about 100 calories per mile. The average body stores about 2,000 calories of ready-to-burn energy, which means that at about 20 miles (give or take), the marathon runner has reached the bitter end of their body’s reserves, and the body begins to revolt. Never having run more than 10 miles at time (and that was only once), I’m not entirely sure what this feels like, but I think you can approximate it if you’ve ever tried to do an intense workout on a totally empty stomach. I did that last week, and it ended in nausea and cramps and shaky hands and needing to guzzle a Dr. Pepper (sports drinks are gross) as soon as I got home. Long distance runners can try to delay the inevitable by–I kid you not–eating candy or taking hits off of those nasty energy gel packs.
I think this happens with writing or any other kind of creative work as well. Graduate students usually figure this out the first semester they sign up for three courses that all have 20+ page papers as their final project. One of those papers is going to suck, maybe two of them, depending on how hard your semester was. But at least one execrable seminar paper is pretty much guaranteed in that situation, because for some reason, most brains just can’t do much more than that. Undergraduates who wait until the last minute to write all of their papers figure this out too and wind up turning stuff in that’s incomplete or just not turning it in at all. Pacing yourself helps, but I think that no matter what, we eventually reach a point where our energy reserves, creativity-wise, are just sapped. When you reach that point, you’re just done. The magic won’t happen any more.
Of course, my fear is always that it will never come back, that I’m just through. Finished. Washed up. Cut off before my career could even get started. If writing (or drawing, or making music, or whatever creative work you do) is the source of your identity. If you know that your career prospects are in some very real way attached to it. (Yes. SENTENCE FRAGMENTS. DEAL WITH IT.) If you feel that writing is your major contribution to the world, then hitting the wall produces existential terror.
The West Wing, one of my favorite shows, captures this beautifully. Seriously, if you know the feeling I’ve described above, bookmark this clip and watch it whenever you hit that point. It will make you feel just a little bit better. In this scene from “Arctic Radar,” Toby Ziegler is sitting down to write the President’s second inaugural address after a long, harrowing campaign season. Watch how this scene is shot, with the Seal of the President looming ghost-like in the background to remind you just how high the stakes are. The other character here is a speech writer who has been sent by Toby’s deputy to help write the address, and Toby has given him an assignment to figure out if he’s up to the task. I like to think that Aaron Sorkin (or whoever) wrote this scene with the full knowledge of exactly how this feels, where–not for want of effort–“there’s just no blood going to it.”
Unfortunately, I can’t go to Atlantic City right now. I have to finish this paper, the conference being in four days and all. But afterward, I think it will be time to just take a couple of weeks. I can’t afford to go anywhere, but I can go to the book store and pick out something that just looks fun to read, preferably something with sexy people on the cover. I can re-watch the last three seasons of Mad Men. I can bake cookies. I can write long, rambling posts on this blog to remind myself that I still have words, even if I’m not able to hammer out that next dissertation chapter right away. And I can remind myself that it will, eventually, come back. It always has.
Taking a break has always been pretty hard for me. I think it’s just because we live in a culture that devalues rest, that shames us for being unproductive and wasting time. I actually think that rest can be a form of production. Taking a break from creative work is ultimately part of the invention process. It’s the carbo-loading period. It’s that day of rest in your week of athletic training, where you give your muscles time to repair themselves. Recently, Kate Harding confessed on her blog that her writing process includes a “talking about it in bars stage,” and that such a stage really is essential. Sometimes, that space in which you aren’t yet really producing anything is when the ideas really come, when problems with a project that seemed insurmountable suddenly get worked out.
It’s hard to trust in that process, though, because like I said, we live in a culture that tells us we can never stop, even for a second (academic writing advice columnists are pretty bad about this too). It’s easy to believe that if you take a break, you will never actually get back to the project itself, or never return to writing, that you will lie on the sofa for the rest of your life and never touch the keyboard again. Finding the size acceptance movement and intuitive eating, strangely, has helped me get over that feeling a bit. Intuitive eating teaches you that allowing yourself to have one french fry does not mean that you will just go ahead and eat ALL THE FRENCH FRIES IN THE WORLD. Taking a step back from writing for a couple of weeks does not mean that you will waste away, unproductively, for the rest of your life.
But, you know, deadlines exist. Sometimes you have to crank something out even though you know it’s not going to be your best work, so that’s what I’ll be doing for the next few days, though I’ll likely also be venting in this blog about it. I’m not writing an inaugural address. I’ll be lucky if half a dozen people show up to hear this paper. The stakes are really not THAT high.
And vacation starts on Friday.