[Note to the reader. TW: mental health and suggestions of self-harm]
Words matter. For my little family of five, words house us, feed us, and entertain us. I get paid to talk and write. During the academic year, I must craft almost four hours of spoken word a week; these words must teach, inspire, and encourage. The spoken words I’ve done before; they are already laid out nicely in lesson plans and slide deck scripts. I know the questions I will ask tomorrow, next week, and in Spring 2022. They are tried and tested and I know they work.
More concerning: on the road to tenure, I am expected to produce, every year, at least 25,000 written words; important words, powerful words, and impactful words. Words that show that I am making significant scholarly contributions to intellectual life in my field. These words should express an idea that no one else has expressed before, or not quite in the way that I am. It’s very hard because 95% of what needs to be said has been said already. And these required words must answer the best and worse question: Who cares? It can’t just be words that I think are interesting. I am not the audience. Someone else, someone else important, has to have a reason to want to read them too.
It’s called “productivity.”
This semester was supposed to be easier. COVID reduced my teaching load; in exchange for that lessening, I’m supposed to be using this time for writing. Time that was given to me for this very reason. I am grateful for it. Not grateful to my employer who is making a business decision knowing it will pay off in the long run, but grateful because I know that I have a situation most others do not have. And during a pandemic, I must not take this security for granted.
My children just started to attend school in-person again this week, which should theoretically open even more time to write. But just because you give the words room to grow doesn’t mean that they will. It’s certainly a precondition and prerequisite; nothing can grow if not given the space and time to bloom. Even so: space and time are rarely sufficient.
Nevertheless, I still have a job, a job where writing and being “productive” is valued above all else. I do not want to squander this time, but my academic writing is … halting, unsure, and undisciplined. I have ideas but they are amorphous, flitting in and out and I’m ungracefully trying to grab them and failing more often than not.
This is not what is supposed to be happening right now.
This is not a unique sentiment for me. I never feel like my life is what is supposed to be happening. I got through law school and my graduate program with accommodations for my mental illness. I was hospitalized during my second year, leaving my husband to parent alone a 3-year-old and 18-month-old who could only see their mama in the hospital. I had my third child after my bipolar diagnosis, against my doctor’s judgment because I had to stop my medications. I had three kids before tenure — before any long-term employment. I went the route that was prayerfully put ahead of me — law school, PhD, clerkships, fellowships — and spent eleven years ruining my credit and having other people buy Christmas gifts and food for my children. Up until the day I got my first paycheck in this job, I was begging, borrowing, and stealing to be “okay.” I look very much put together but I am almost always in some state of distress. In the bad times, this makes me wonder if that is a reality worth living.
COVID placed my life in a quiet place, a dormancy of sorts. I am trying to listen to what is inside and I am resisting pulling the inside out before it’s ready. I’m doing intensive therapy, creating a moment where I can begin healing from 40 years of what I now know was a series of traumatic events. I have the enviable opportunity to have this period to do that hard inner work, and I do not want my gratitude to be in vain. This time is the foundation from where the next 40 years will develop. I’m trying to cultivate a healthy soil where good seeds can root deep enough and the best of things can grow.
But words do still matter and my employer cares little for my “me” time. So I’ve taken to starting a writing project in longhand, moving away from the computer. I bought two nice new notebooks, some legal pads, and gel pens. When I write long-hand, I can let my mind see ideas in multiple dimensions, making connections with arrows, and jotting notes in the margin. My hand is connected to my heart and can be as open as I like. I can erase sentences and phrases without really erasing them, where a note-to-self “stet” brings it back in without much trouble. I can let sentences wrap around to the back of the page and I don’t need to care about my embarrassingly awful spelling deficits being rudely thrown in my face by a red squiggly line.
Maybe I need to take pictures of my notebooks to remind me that “productivity” does not look any one way.
It’s not a bad idea. Right now I’ll focus on talking about my ideas even if they aren’t perfectly on the page. And I will not deny myself what I need: space and time to heal and cultivate peace. I’ve lived without peace for 40 years. I’ve had enough.