Today, a writer I worked with late last fall posted about (among other things) her experience of me as a reader and coach. It was a very generous review and I felt my usual mix of gratitude and disbelief. Grateful for the kind words and unconvinced that they really describe me.
I am very hard on myself all the time. Some of that is my currently unmanaged and as yet inconclusively named craziness. Some of that is the myth of myself that I’ve built up from the words of less generous souls from my past. The other day, Ashley C. Ford, inspiration-at-large, writer, and current host of 112 BK (among many other things), tweeted a link to a Dear Polly about laziness. The letter writer asks, several times “Why am I so lazy?” And Polly, aka Heather Havrilesky, responds by gently suggesting that “Sloth” isn’t lazy so much as enamored with a vision/version of herself that is, among other things, not into hard work slash able to get by on minimal effort. Says Havrilesky to Sloth, “you’re telling yourself the same limited, unimaginative stories about yourself that your family did.”
I know these feels. In graduate school, I sobbed to my program director about how lazy and stubborn I was–that I was wasting this amazing opportunity (a fully funded graduate program in creative writing and environmental studies) because just now, at the end of my second December there, all I wanted to do was knit sweaters and roast vegetables. I had no work ethic, I told her, and had no idea how I was to form one at the nearly-dead age of 39. She was surprised, and calm when she told me that she strongly disagreed with my assessment of myself and knew several other people (the whole program pretty much) who would agree with her, that I was a very hard worker, as evidenced by all the actual hard work I’d done so far. She said something to the effect of, ‘regular people get two weeks off a year for a really good reason. So, take a couple of weeks off of writing and knit sweaters and roast vegetables.’ She said, let us hold an opinion of you for you, for these two weeks.
I finished my thesis, and all but one essay from it has been published somewhere. Empirically, I understand that I did the work and it was good work. But for the past couple of years I’ve felt like I did that December: stuck, frozen. My proverbial pen hovering over an imagined page. I have ideas, but as soon as I think about writing, I get anxious and then I distract myself to deal with the anxiety. And in fact, for the last six months or so, when I think of doing much of anything other than knitting, the requirements of action become overwhelming. I understand that I’m not lazy, but I’m sure not getting shit done.
This is why I want to work on one small part of myself at a time this year–this month, my teacherliness–and why I want a record of that work. Otherwise, I might not believe that I’m accomplishing anything, that I even can accomplish what needs getting done. I don’t believe (right now), for example, that I will ever write meaningfully again, or teach beyond this spring, even as that notion is deeply distressing to me. The problem, as the Havrilesky column suggests, is that I’m “choosing a lifestyle of avoidance and low expectations” that has way more to do with my fear than my work ethic.
And here’s how that happened: I poured so much of my energy into being a good teacher, and my four years long academic job search brought me only uncertainty and stress (and, to be fair, the occasional gig, and from those, reminders from students and writers that my help made a difference to them). I gave everything to a couple of essays two years ago and was told by editors (that I respect) that my work was not of the quality that I’d imagined, or that my integrity on the page was suspect. I thought, I am too sensitive for writing and I am too anxious for a teaching career. This project is my attempt to take Havrilesky’s advice (which I hadn’t even read yet when I decided to do it, but the tubes of the innerwebs work in mysterious ways).
So look. I know this sounds taxing, but you have to put every single thing that you think you are on the table and reexamine it. That’s what it takes to become an adult and start making active, organic, thoughtful choices about how you want to live. You have to dare to see that these things that you’ve come to view as FUNDAMENTAL TO WHO YOU ARE aren’t actually that profound or deep or rooted in anything that you care about that much. You CAN live in a completely different way, starting tomorrow, if you want to.
Here’s to tomorrow, y’all.