I am very fortunate during these lousy times. I get the need that many have to point out that the fires, the homicides, the demands for structural change, the pandemic are all the wheat we’ve sown with terrible systems, but that doesn’t make them less punishing to people. After the shooting at Virginia Tech, I didn’t write a word for nearly a year. Nothing I said or did or thought seemed to matter much in a world where a troubled young man could kill 31 people relatively close to me in one morning.
This happened to me when I was an assistant professor, alone, in a department of people who really couldn’t understand what it was like to have it happen, and I went through my days fearing that I was going to lose my job (ie get turned down for tenure) because I was hollow. Again, most senior faculty were not very helpful. One said “The cows would have to milked even if you are hurting, so does writing.” Naturally, but minding cows and creative work are in general different things, as cows know what they want doing and communicate to you that it needs doing. Writing does not.
I thus do have some empathy for the junior faculty out now trying like hell to teach online and write and cope with caregiving at home. I didn’t have children, so I can only imagine the extra work and worry there.
This time out, with the pandemic, I haven’t written much at all this year. I’ve been off a bit with publishing anyway, investing heavily in multiple book projects, and thus had to turn a “I didn’t publish anything” faculty report this year, which hurrrrrrrrrrrrt. Now, in reality, I am doing all sorts of things. I’ve got a large group of PhD students who need attending. I have been learning–or I thought I was–how to manage my time given the new realities of my health. Even though I try and try to internalize the idea that I am not my work or my writing…that message doesn’t move from my head really into my heart the way it would if I truly believed it.
That said, my new, 8-to-5, five days a week schedule has been difficult to maintain with a new course prep and everything else going on this semester, and my writing, which wasn’t going fast anyway, suffered even more.
So last night I just felt–for the first time in months, absolutely pregnant with ideas for writing about a book chapter I have been dreading a bit, as it’s due in January. Instead of going to bed at a normal time, I stayed up to write. I’ve done this a million times, I said to myself. I’ve written 10,000-word reports in a day, good reports, in spurts of manic creativity. Note these were never deadline-driven bits of inspiration. Going right up to the deadline forces me to work but I’ve never considered that work to be any good in particular.
Instead, I am talking about being the creative zone, when the ideas and words are coming easily, and fast. When that magic carpet ride shows up, I’ve always hopped on it and ridden until the magic ran out.
Last night, I did that, and wound up with what I think are 2500 pretty damn good words and solid analysis. I stayed up most of the night, from 3 until 10 am, high on creation and surging with the stress of ideas I felt needed to express. I slept for an hour this morning before dogs and street noise demanded I get up.
And now I am sick. Really sick. I’m not sure how sick, but it feels bad, and I have a three-hour seminar with PhD students this afternoon–one that leaves me drained under the best of circs. I was so weak I could barely hold a piece of toast this morning. I have been here, sorta, before: creating in bursts like this has left me emptied and (often) dehydrated as my focus prevents me from drinking water. (Lisa never forgets to eat. I’m not THAT crazy you know.)
Today, however, is somebody 50 years old with a serious chronic illness, and my ’emptiness’ today feels less like a little hangover and more the fatigue that I imagine one feels when one has fought for one’s life. That stress is not good. It likely never was good, but I had the reserves of youth to manage it before.
I don’t know what to do with this, other than to see it as potential evidence in the “retire to a small town and open a cafe to serve people pancakes and pie” idea. (Before you object, remember, I’m not getting much writing done anymore anyway, and you’ve never had my pie or pancakes, which are good if extant evidence serves.) If I can’t work normal hours, and rest, and this is how my creativity works…I can’t do this anymore.
The other idea is “jot down notes in a notebook and GO THE EFF TO BED YOU IDIOT and write when you are rested,” but that has never worked either. I roll around, stressed with the ideas, not sleeping, composing in my mind, my whirling brain on fire, annoyed if anybody talks to me or if I have to tear myself away. Maybe that happens even if I do go try to ride off into the sunset and pancake land.
I don’t know what to do, but I do know that my feelings of frustration about not writing much with the pandemic made me more susceptible to ignoring the “let’s keep the old girl running” time management plan I crafted precisely to keep myself from getting in a hole like this one. The last time I did it, I could barely function teh rest of the semester.
Don’t get old, don’t get sick. There’s wisdom you can’t get everywhere.