So That Didn’t Work

I’ve said this before, but I don’t set a lot of stock in New Year’s resolutions. So far the only one I’ve ever done that worked was in 2017 when I resolved to listen to at least one song every day without doing anything else at the same time (a practice I would highly recommend for anybody trying to find a quiet moment in the midst of 21st-century chaos or reconnect with art in a meaningful way).

However, this new year happened to coincide with a series of circumstances which have forced me to reconsider the way I operate from day to day. The short version is that the class I was supposed to teach was cancelled due to insufficient enrollment, a glitch in the Matrix which might be attributable to an uninspiring–and apparently immutable–course description, the structure of the undergrad English major, the general devaluation of the humanities in American culture, my own lack of appeal as a person, or some combination of all four. The downside is a significant cut to my insignificant paycheck. (There’s no such thing as job security as a graduate student.) The upside is that this leaves me with a more flexible schedule than I have had in the last six years.

As you may have heard me say elsewhere (by which I mean Twitter), I don’t do well with unstructured time (hence the sharp upswing in my Twitter activity of late). As a result I’ve gotten to be very good at structuring my own time when there isn’t an institutional schedule in place to do it for me. But one of my objectives this year is to become less of a slave to structure. If you’ve been following this blog awhile or already clicked on that link at the top, you know I’ve been down this road before. I tried it last year. It did not work.

However, I am nothing if not stubborn, so here we are again. I’ve accepted that a reasonable work-life balance is an unrealistic goal for me, just because of who I am as a person at this particular point in my life. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make some changes to the way I work. In addition to feeling generally burned out and overwhelmed, a lot of the joy that writing used to bring me has been replaced by fatalistic dread about what it will (or won’t) amount to in the end. Is this really worth my time? Will it be worth a publisher’s money? Will it grab a journal’s interest? Worry about that sort of stuff for long enough, and it’ll make you hate something you used to love.

This is not to say I hate writing. This is to say I hate the anxieties that come with writing for publication. Unfortunately, if you intend to make a career as a writer (which I still do, with characteristic stubbornness, despite trying and failing to grab a new editor’s interest for the last four years) marketability isn’t something you can afford not to worry about. But perhaps you don’t have to worry about it all the time.

My abstract and belated resolution for 2020 is to worry less and write more with no other end goal in mind than the writing itself. I want to write about stuff I want to write about without worrying whether anybody wants to buy it. To be honest, I want to write without even worrying whether anybody wants to read it. Over the last few months, I’ve been taking baby steps in the right direction. I’ve been following whims and interests which are largely unrelated to my usual fields and genres, and some of those things have been hugely rewarding.

For example:

I’m writing reviews and interviews for The Vinyl District, an online music mag with a pretty wide reach where I have pretty free rein. If you’re curious you can find links here (and keep an eye out in the coming weeks; I have a long interview with one of my favorite cover bands and a piece on Brian Wilson in the pipeline).

Years ago, I was doing record recommendations based on followers’ favorite books. Demand got so out of hand I had to stop doing it, but now I’m back at it, in a more manageable way. I’ve told nobody about this until now. For months it was a sorely needed creative outlet with absolutely zero stakes. If you want, you can find that here.

After teaching a science fiction class last semester, I’ve taken a much deeper dive into space exploration. I applied to participate in the upcoming State of NASA event at the Goddard Space Flight Center, and–to my surprise as much as yours–was actually selected. On February 10th I’ll be touring the facilities (as Cake might put it) and sharing some exciting stuff about the Artemis program, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and future missions to Mars. If you want to follow along with that, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram.

These are just a few of the proverbial irons in the fire. I may not be teaching again until September, but I still have conference papers and a dissertation to write and a novel to sell and an admin job with my university’s MedRen society. All of that keeps me pretty busy. But finding time to write just for the sake of art and curiosity and the craft itself has helped me remember why I wanted to do this in the first place. To that end, I’m hoping to also start posting writing more regularly here. (Don’t worry, it won’t be enough to be annoying.) I’m not sure yet what form that writing will take or if it will find a consistent form at all. The point is to follow my own creative whims and write without worry.

For anyone else feeling burned out or bummed out or just demoralized by how little real reward there often is for the many hours we spend working, I hope you can find time in your life to chase a few butterflies. Indulge yourself. Take a risk. Waste some time. Resist the urge to map every hour of your day or your month and let life catch you by surprise. 2020 promises to be a rough year. If we don’t want to go crazy, we might just have make our own rules and make our own fun and find the things that remind us why we’re toughing it out in the first place.

Good luck and godspeed.

M

Time is a Construct, but New Beginnings Are Nice

Like most sane people, I’ve never set much stock in new year’s resolutions. They’re usually overly ambitious, often the remedy for some perceived personal failing, and nearly always forgotten by February. However, there’s something to be said for taking a moment to reflect at the start of a new year and ask yourself what you could be doing differently—whether you’re interested in improving yourself or your quality of life or some combination of the two. I think writers are particularly prone to that impulse, as beings constantly in search of improvement and, more importantly, reasons to keep at it. Writing is hard. Publishing is harder. Trying to juggle either (or both) with another job—as all of us except the very luckiest have to do—can result in feeling a bit like Sisyphus, struggling to push a boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll back down to the bottom again. This is part of the reason most writing resolutions I see make me sigh in a sad, cynical way, shake my head and go back to my coffee. You’re going to write 3,000 words every day this year? Sure, Jan.

However, there’s no ignoring the fact that the way I worked the last six months is completely unsustainable. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it—it was just a uniquely crappy combination of uniquely crappy circumstances which resulted in my working about sixteen hours a day, every day, because that was the only way everything was going to get done. (And still everything didn’t get done. One of my mentors kindly agreed to extend one of my deadlines until February, an unlooked-for stay of execution.) As any of my friends who have patiently endured my endless bitching about the situation would attest, I was miserable. The way I described it to someone was “tiptoeing along the edge of a nervous breakdown.” It is not easy to do good work when you’re living that way.

But enough of the pity party. The point of this post—the first in very long while, and I’m sure it’s no mystery why—is not simply to whine into the ether, but rather to start 2019 on a positive note. Which, frankly, feels like an act of defiance in and of itself, given the way 2018 went. I still don’t really believe in resolutions, but I do believe in setting realistic goals with a gameplan and a timeline to achieve them. So here’s what I’ve got in mind for 2019:

1. Find a better work-life balance.

Writing and academia are both fields where a culture of overwork is normalized and often romanticized. Add to that the fact that I have always been a fiercely ambitious person, and the result is a lot of days where I only stop working long enough to shower and eat and even when I’m doing those things I’m probably brainstorming, trying to think my way out of a plot hole or twist a troublesome thesis statement into better shape. It’s not a healthy way to live and it’s not a healthy way to work. I don’t like that I’ve become the sort of person who gets anxious when they aren’t working towards finishing a specific task—which might seem ironic, given the nature of this list. However, precisely because I’m so task-oriented, I am assigning myself the task of doing something I enjoy every day without worrying about how “productive” it is. I am giving myself permission—and a direct order—to relax.

2. Multi-task less.

Not to brag, but I am awesome at multi-tasking. I can listen to music and read a book and do laundry and eat lunch and play with the dog and keep tabs on two different group chats and three different email accounts all at the same time. It often feels like the only way to get everything done. But dividing my attention between four different things (or five, or six, or whatever) often leaves me feeling like I haven’t really engaged in a meaningful way with any of those things. I’m not too worried about having a meaningful relationship with my laundry, but I would like to spend more time doing only one thing at a time, and devoting all of my attention to that thing—even if it’s one of those non-productive enjoyable things, like reading for pleasure or listening to music. As Ron Swanson might put it, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” That’s my new mantra for 2019.

3. Get more organized.

Anybody who knows me might find this kind of a strange objective, as I’m not really what you’d call disorganized. I usually know exactly what my deadlines are and how much work I have to do each day to meet them. I outline fanatically, I love lists, and I have five different calendars color-coded in such a way to make Leslie Knope swoon. But that’s not really what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about organization in a more abstract sense. I want to get my ideas and priorities better organized. I want to think more about the big picture instead of focusing myopically on the daily minutiae. I want my headspace more comfortable and less cluttered. I don’t really know how to do this. It may be as big as trying to articulate those ideas and priorities or as small as trying to check my obsessive impulses and ask whether I’m missing the forest for the trees. “Detail-oriented,” contrary to what every job interviewer ever seems to think, is not always an indisputably good thing.

4. Follow my own advice.

I’m constantly telling young(er) writers that writing isn’t a race and that they should pump the brakes and slow down and stop panicking about not having a book deal at age 22. And yet, I have wasted a lot of energy worrying that my career isn’t moving fast enough or as fast as I want it to while we chase that notoriously difficult second book deal. I think it comes back to a deep fear that this is as good as it gets—a vague, muffled terror that I peaked at 25 and I’m never getting another book published and I’ll never be able to get a tenure-track job and I’ll probably die alone surrounded by unpublished manuscripts and rejected grant applications because I was so freaked out by the possibility of Failure-with-a-capital-F that I worked like a lunatic and left myself no time for any sort of personal life. (Thanks, capitalism.) That is, frankly, ridiculous and I am calling myself on my bullshit. Why do I think I’m exempt from all the reassuring truisms I tell my friends when they have the same concerns about life? I’m so quick to tell other people they’re smart and capable and full of potential and life doesn’t have any deadlines. I need to work on saying those same things to myself—and believing them.

5. Stay ambitious.

Just because my quality of life needs some serious improvement and I need to ameliorate my workaholism and I want to take some of the unnecessary pressure off myself doesn’t mean that I can’t still hunt down those big game goals. I have a lot of plans for the year ahead. I want to take a pretty epic research trip. I want to get another manuscript to my agent and I want it to be my best work yet. I have a couple of short stories I want to write or finish (and maybe even submit somewhere). I want to write more nonfiction, spend more time cultivating my voice as a person instead of my voice as a narrator of someone else’s story. I want to produce some articles and conference papers and knock my comprehensive exams out of the park. But I want to do all that stuff without punishing myself for falling short of impossible expectations. I want to find a balance between ambition and enjoyment and not beat myself up for wanting that balance. Because what’s the point of all this productivity if you don’t have time to enjoy what you’re producing? I refuse to fall into that quicksand again this year.

I don’t know if this list—odd and intensely personal as it is—will be helpful to anybody else. I don’t even really know if it will be helpful to me. But getting my thoughts about all this (figuratively) down on paper is, I think, a step in the right direction. I’m not going to make any sweeping declarations about what a great year it’s going to be or how it can’t possibly be as bad as last year, because both of those things seem unlikely or outright delusional, just given the way the world is turning. Instead I’ll just say I’m as ready as I’ll ever be for 2019. Bring it on.

I wish you the best balance of ambition and enjoyment in the year to come.

Xx M