On Wednesday, I spent 36 hours completely computer-free. I had wasted the entire weekend obsessing over the possibility of a freelance writing career. My thought process went something like this:
I could definitely do this, holy shit, $150 for 750 words? I can write that in my sleep. Really, freelancing is exactly like school, its just homework and you have to figure out what the teacher wants and I can totally do that, I’m a professional student. I could write about disc golf, I could write stories about bugs for children; I could write about being a student-athlete; how about the science of tickling. I can interview everyone I know and use facebook to annoy my former students. I can definitely write erotic stories that don’t prioritize nudity for this lingerie catalog; I could probably throw together something about CSAs or some shit for this agriculture press, and is it unethical to write for the Boy Scouts? I’m going to spend my entire spring break downloading articles from the University library so I can have the latest research on hand and then translate it for the everyday mom, who wants a sassy friend to talk to her about life without judging her, according to these submission guidelines…
This is your brain on graduate school: you get excited about using a week off from teaching to do research, alone, indoors. Clearly, being a student for a quarter of a century has worn deep ruts into the pathways of my brain, and it’s quite a struggle to pop my wheelbarrow out of those trenches (as I have mentioned). I keep trying to find something to do that feels like it matters, and my brain is resistant to valuing the work I do as a mother as enough to count as that “something” (more on this later).
I read an article by Anne Lamott about “how to find out who you really are.” She offers this advice:
We begin to find and become ourselves when we notice how we are already found, already truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be. The only problem is that there is also so much other stuff, typically fixations with how people perceive us, how to get more of the things that we think will make us happy, and with keeping our weight down. So the real issue is how do we gently stop being who we aren’t? … I began consciously to break the rules I learned in childhood: I wasted more time, as a radical act. I stared off into space more, into the middle distance, like a cat. This is when I have my best ideas, my deepest insights… Every single day I try to figure out something I no longer agree to do.
I like this idea of “radical time wasting” but I don’t think it will work for me. Thing is, I’m already quite lazy. I’m already proficient at dicking around. This might surprise a lot of people who know me as one of those overachieving How Does She Do It? kind of ladies; but seriously, ask my husband or my BFF from 6th grade, whose nickname for me was “Lazy Bum” because I would rather sit inside reading stacks of Seventeen back issues than go for a bike ride.
I’ll tell you how I do it: I don’t do my homework. I’m smart, but I’m not a hard worker. I can talk the talk, but I do not walk the walk. I’ve been a hardcore dilettante, flitting from field to field and subspecialty to subspecialty without ever really digging in. I Google it; I master it; I write a seminar paper about it and then immediately get bored. I am a high-functioning academic: I hide my problem under a veneer of extreme efficiency and a steady stream of bullshit in my classes. Let me tell you about the privileged subjectivities and hidden curricula of the first-year writing classroom; let me demonstrate the ways in which the home pregnancy test interpellated women into technicians of the maternal self by bringing the laboratory into the private home.
Compound my inability to nail down a specific field of inquiry with a complete lack focus and a serious case of baby fever, and you have a student cruising for dismissal as early as my second year in graduate school. Reading through my journal, nearly every entry is a variation on the theme of I should be writing a 15 page paper and reading this giant text on post-nationalism, but instead I’m watching Veronica Mars and eating taco dip! And then the next, OMG I have so much work to do, I don’t even know what I did all day yesterday… oh that’s right, I spent the entire afternoon arguing with people about circumcision at Baby Center!!
My grad school time wasting became a cycle of self-indulgence and repentance: I can justify going down any rabbit hole, especially if it means signing up for a bunch of new mailing lists and reading pages and pages of Wikipedia entries. Bonus points if there’s a facebook group for it. BS carried me through coursework but it’s not enough to sustain me through comps and a dissertation, projects I am not remotely interested in pursuing, I’ve discovered.
So, it seems unlikely that radical time wasting might help me discover my true self, having BTDT. Instead, I will try Lamott’s broader argument, which is to go against whatever your pattern is; whatever you’ve been taught is necessary or right. To get the wheelbarrow out of the rut, don’t feverishly roll it back and forth and expect change (this is, disputably, the definition of insanity): “You take the action and insight follows: you don’t think your way into becoming yourself.” Instead of radical time wasting, I think I need Radical Thing-Doing.
Inspiration: Pippi Longstocking, Thing-finder
So, I’m instituting an Opposite Day rule. I’m doing the opposite. Whatever my habitual action is, I will do the opposite. (I’m differentiating “habitual action” from “instinct” here, although they feel very similar. It feels instinctive to try and fill the void; it feels like a primal and gut-level response. But I really think it’s just my wheelbarrow worrying those selfsame grooves, and that means it’s an action borne from fear, anxiety, uncertainty rather than insight, desire, or conviction. Beneath those habitual actions is my actual instinct, the voice that has been quietly cheerleading this whole quitting thing, encourages me to shut the laptop and pick up a book, and orders me to pick the girls up early from daycare instead of making yet another To Do list.)
Habitual Action: Spend all day trolling job sites, draft letters of application, update resume.
Opposite Day reaction: Delete files; fold laundry.
Habitual Action: Make a huge to-do list of a million things I will accomplish this week!
Opposite Day reaction: Do the dishes. They always need to be done. It’s not a fucking mystery.
Habitual Action: Write outlines for entire novels.
Opposite Day reaction: Write a blog entry; post it.
The more I try to mentally roadrun my way through this process, the crankier I am. I’ve been a total bitch to my kids for no reason, with the thought “Leave me alone, I’m working!” running through my mind, when in fact I am not doing a damn thing other than perpetually loading my inbox. On my day off from the computer, I found that the less planning I did, and the more action I took (towards accomplishments like Get all the gross leaves out of the peony bed because I think they need light to live), the clearer my mind felt.
I am actively questioning the role of online life in my ways of thinking and my deprogramming from academia. I want blogging to be a purposeful part of my rediscovery/self-invention process because I know I want to, somehow/someway, be a writer, and this blog has brought that to the forefront of my mind. But, I see how this is playing with fire a bit, and I need to cultivate some new ways of being online that mean more meaningful writing (drafting, blogging, thoughtful response to others) and less mindless reading (facebook, facebook, facebook). How do you handle this balance in your life?
By the way, thank you for all the comments, follows, shares, and positive feedback. It’s been so gratifying to be read and appreciated by people all over the world. — Lauren & Jen