31 July 2016

What Professors Do: Writing, Embodied

I've been working like crazy to finish edits to my book since my semester ended, sitting at my computer for 12, 14 hours a day, eating meals at my desk, drinking coffee by the quart. I worked steadily from early May, when I finished my semester, through the end of June, when The Offspring finished school; we then took a two-week family vacation, after which I returned to the routine. I've been taking time out to walk, bike, do Capoeira, and go for the occasional run.

My book, on environmental aspects of Anglo-Saxon literature, connects with my commitments to environmental activism and cultural change. It feels to me like the most important thing I've ever written. Usually I find editing a slog, but on this project I'm enjoying crafting the prose, trying to make the project as strong as possible.

I haven't taken enough breaks: the other day I ended up with a spasm in my lower back.

I've put my computer on an old Ikea drawer unit and piled up an empty box and two yoga blocks for my mouse.

I'm on muscle relaxants, which have their side effects. I've been walking more and I've added a lot of yoga into the mix. Even standing at my desk aggravates the tension; I have to stop every few minutes to move around and stretch. My back is too frozen to do Capoeira, which usually loosens it up; even yoga is difficult.

I've been remembering what Jeffrey Cohen wrote, last summer, about his own writing lockdown to write Stone, which he documented on social media:
Reading through these posts now I can see that there will come day when my relentless drive will cause me harm.  
Well, honestly, it did cause me harm: I was something of a wreck by the end of the process, emotionally and physically. I injured my shoulder badly enough that it took several months of physical therapy to restore full function. People think the life of the mind is not dangerous, but it will kill you, if you let it. 
I've had his words at the back of my mind all summer, but I've been ignoring them, hoping I could get away with the schedule I've been keeping. I've been pushing myself hard because we have plans for another family vacation in August, and we don't leave until the book is finished. (Right, plus a few other projects I've been putting off.)

On my desk: a random business card, with "Race to the Face" written on the back for inspiration. Officially known as the Top Notch Triathlon, this is my favorite triathlon ever, and consists of a bike ride from Franconia Village to Echo Lake, a swim across the lake, and a hike/run up to the top of Cannon Mountain, former home to the Old Man of the Mountain. If I got enough work done, I was going to drive to New Hampshire, spend a few days with my parents, and do that triathlon.

I didn't.

Jeffrey writes, too, about anxiety and insomnia; I've been plagued by both this summer as well. During the day, I focus on the book; at night, my mind wanders among the numerous projects I'm ignoring to get this done. Overdue book reviews, overview book chapters, overdue responses to other people's work, overdue book orders for fall classes.

I want to follow Jeffrey's advice to his own earlier self: "chill the hell out." I want to spend more time with spouse, son, parents, dog. I want to hike more, run more, read for pleasure. I want time to cook good meals and enjoy them.

But I've finished the last edit of the book, done on a printout, and I just need to enter those changes into the computer file and send them off. So here I stand, at my desk, beavering away.

The reality: I never finish all the projects I plan over the summer. I'm always already behind at the end of the academic year, not only on research and writing but also on tasks related to teaching and faculty governance, often reviled as "committee work," but potentially very important in terms of shaping one's institution.

Last spring semester, I tried to cut back on take-out food, partly because it's not very healthy, but more importantly because it all comes in single-use plastic containers. I failed miserably, and eventually realized it was because I was too busy to cook meals and pack food for the workday.

I keep telling myself that if I work faster, work harder, get more done, I can take a break. But there's always another project. I have to figure out how to let some of this go. I know that I can say "no" to future projects, but for the moment, I'm stuck on the hamster wheel with no way off.

Jeffrey puts it better than I can, so I'll end with this:
...underneath the processes I describe run currents of apprehensiveness, fear, self-punishing discipline, and relentless drive that I do not think is healthy and is certainly not offered for emulation.