Tag Archives: productivity

post-partum

On Monday I finshed a (long-overdue) chapter for an academic handbook on placemaking. I outlined the thing months ago—almost half a year ago, in fact—but then life happened (and then the virus happened), and it got shunted onto the backburner. And so when I came to actually cranking the thing out, a process which I started on Saturday, I pretty much had to reconstruct it wholesale from a list of bullet points and sketched references which it seemed that someone else had written (albeit a someone else who knows a great deal about my field and my work and my theory). The first of three sections was about as much fun as ploughing a concrete field with a rusty Soviet-era tractor, but the other two came more easily. Unusually for me, I only overran my wordcount by about 20%… but given I know that’s just how I work, and given I know that the editors will inevitably want to cut a bunch of stuff, I just filed it on Monday night with the overrun, and with the intention of fixing it when the rewrite request comes in.

Then came a day of what I think of as a form of post-partum depression (with apologies to anyone who can or has actually given birth, for what may be a distasteful metaphor coming from a cis-man). For as long as I’ve been writing, the completion and submission of a work is always followed by a period in which I loathe what I’ve just released into the world, and loathe myself for having created it. I think it was perhaps exacerbated yesterday by the more general circumstances, which are stressful and angsty to say the least, but it’s a familiar thing now—and I guess the familiarity makes it easier to deal with, as does the relative stability of my life compared that from which earlier work emerged. (Submitting my PhD thesis destroyed me for about a fortnight, for instance—as did both sets of corrections. And my story “Los Piratas…”—OMG, don’t even go there. I think it worked out well in the end, but it was a horribly self-destructive act of creation.)

This is mostly a note-to-self: I spent most of yesterday reading work by other people online, people doing what seems to be an amazing job of thinking through the current situation, collating ideas and citations and themes into admirably coherent examinations of the issues… and, perhaps most importantly, producing. Everything I read just made me feel like a monstrous fake, a fraud.

Classic imposter syndrome, amirite? Not to mention an internalisation of the neoliberal logic of valuing oneself through the lens of arbitrary and ulitimately unquantifiable metrics of productivity. I managed to deal with it, in the end, by sitting down and cranking out an outline for the next piece of long-overdue writing that’s in the pipeline… as I just remarked to C, you’ve gotta get back on the horse after it’s thrown you, right? I worry that by doing so I’m effectively doubling down on the neoliberalisation-of-the-self thing… but given the enduring inescapability of that ideological context, I guess there’s not much to be done about it. More immediately, however, it’s good to know that there’s a way of dealing with the self-doubt that still accompanies any significant act of creation on my part—which I knew already, in a way, but which I somehow still forget every time.

The point of the work is the work.

Thousand-yard think

Uncle Warren gets reflective about the reflexivity of the writerly life, or at least his own variant thereof:

… the job gets bigger and more complex and I need more time to, basically, stare into the distance and Figure Shit Out. The figuring out of the shit is a big part of this writer’s work.

Now, I am not a writer in the sense that Warren is a writer. I’m an academic — for the most part, at least, and at least for now. But I’m increasingly convinced that the reason I’m able to be an academic is because it’s a pretty similar gig to being a writer. Or rather, that my particular variant of being an academic is pretty similar to being a writer… and that may be because I half-accidentally set out to create the gig that way, albeit with few expectations of success in doing so. But hey, here I am — and without wishing to do too much of a personal-narrative-carrot-dangle, news received this week suggests that this particular road is gonna keep rolling for another couple of years at least.

(In other words, I landed a post-doc — but the exact shape and circumstance of that will take a while to emerge, so I don’t want to start blathering on about it in public until my PI and I have nailed the thing to the floor somewhat more thoroughly than we have at present.)

Aaaaanyway, point being: I can seriously relate to Warren’s Figuring Shit Out fugue-states, because they’re a big part of how I work — and a part I’ve always been vaguely ashamed of, not least because of the generalised cult of performative productivity that pervades late capitalism, but also due to an adolescence spent working the most menial of blue-collar jobs, in which every minute is monitored by The Man who’s paying to possess them.

It does, of course, look to everyone else like you’re not doing a damn thing. And, often, you don’t have anything to physically present for the hours you’ve burned staring at the wall or whatever.

VERY often, yes. However, the longer I stay upright on this tightrope, the more it becomes apparent that those days in which nothing seems to be produced are actually the foundation of the work that does eventually get produced. (Which is a vindication, I suppose, of a long-ago daydreamy bookworm of a child who was constantly accused of laziness; turns out that kid was just prepping to be a weird sort of science fictional social theorist!)

But still it’s hard to tell myself that a good day of wall-staring is not merely permissible but necessary. I’m supposed to be writing a talk today, having accepted an invitation to appear next week at the next edition of Sheffield’s peripatetic PechaKucha event (on the basis that you’re supposed to take up challenges that shove you way outside your comfort zone*). Which means what I really need to do is sit and think for about half a day, and maybe scribble a page of notes or less in that time.

And I’m struggling to let myself do it. Writing this blog post is a displacement activity, because it feels more productive — as is the load of laundry I’ve already done today. But it’s not more productive at all, because the talk is not writing itself, and it will not write itself until I spend the time needed to plant the seeds from which it will grow.

Find what gives you pleasure. Just do that. Turn everything else off. Live with the stress. Learn to love figuring the shit out.

As stressy and weird and fraught with self-doubt and uncertainty as its associated career dynamics may be, I still can’t quite believe how lucky I am to be doing what I do and being paid for it. Warren’s acceptance and endorsement of Figuring Shit Out is therefore welcome and well-timed, and that’s why I’m making a note of it here for my own benefit (and perhaps for yours).

And with that done, I guess it’s time I got the hell on with doing seemingly nothing.

[ * – For as innately verbose, prolix, tangential and abstract a thinker as myself, the idea of delivering a coherent story with twenty slides and twenty seconds of speech per slide is incredibly daunting. And yes, of course, those self-conceptions are self-limitations — which is why I decided to do this thing anyway. Doesn’t stop me from feeling like I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, though. ]