Yesterday I had to face an uncomfortable truth: I have writer’s block. This isn’t related to one specific piece of writing, but instead reflects a more general malaise in my academic writing. I had opened a blank Word document to start a book review – a fairly straightforward task – and found my stomach churning with anxiety.
I approached this in two ways that are typical for me: one, a careful, thoughtful breakdown of what might be contributing to this problem and how I might resolve it, and the other a tearful exploration of the emotional territory underlying it. Both approaches were fruitful; academic work is passionate work, and tears as well as laughter are a useful part of a process that should be heartfelt, not dryly “rational” (whatever that means).
I think returning to work after maternity leave has had a deeper legacy than I originally anticipated. I understood that ten months away from work would take a toll, and that my priorities would change; but of course before I became a parent I couldn’t really understand what becoming a mother would mean in both pragmatic and emotional terms. I think I planned pretty well for my return to work, and I was glad to return. I didn’t cry when my daughter went to nursery, and she is clearly thriving there. When work is going well, these choices seem self-evident. Grace gets socialisation and stimulation from a broader group of people than just me – and so do I!
When work isn’t going well, however, it’s easy for guilt to creep in. If I’ve had a day where I’ve barely achieved anything, what’s the point in spending so much money to have other people look after my child, and give me only a couple of hours a day with her – one at the start of the day when I’m not exactly sparkling company, and one at the end when she is cranky and tired? Now I have a child, too, my worries about my career have taken on a more urgent quality. What if I don’t get another academic job in two years? What if that’s because I haven’t made the best use of my research fellowship and – let’s be honest about what that boils down to in jobseeking terms here – publishedpublishedpublished? Ugh, just typing that makes my stomach churn again.
These worries put me under a lot of (self-inflicted) pressure. I’ve noted in the past that I work well under certain types of pressure. Fixed deadlines, my PhD supervisors discovered early on, were much more successful than flexible ones. Being busy rather than having acres of unscheduled time tends to make me use my days better. So my current situation, of having a lot of unstructured time to do research, while sounding dreamy has seemed to leave me paralysed and prone to fretting about far in the future events while failing to actually crack on with more immediate concerns.
So, I am taking action. You’ve probably heard of NaNoWriMo – I’ve decided to take on the academic version of #acawrimo. Mine is a modified version, as I am committing to only 500 words a day (a target that ensures I have to sit and write something every day, but isn’t a target that sets me up for demoralising defeat), and I will not write at weekends because I take work-life balance seriously. I will have set times to answer my work emails and keep Outlook shut the rest of the time. I’ve already turned off notifications on my phone so that I have to open apps to see them – I find it very difficult to not look at a notification when it pops up, even if I know it’s probably just someone liking a photo on facebook. Most importantly, though, I have bought a large weekly planner with tear-off sheets, and am going to give my days far more structure. I have core working hours based around my daughter’s nursery times. I am establishing daily, weekly, monthly goals. These are all pretty obvious things to do, but after several years of working to a termly schedule where I fitted in my research around fixed teaching commitments, and then a year which was mostly reactive in the sense of reacting to my new baby’s needs and organising our day in relation to the reality of new parenthood, structuring my work time to meet definite but self-defined objectives has become a skill I’ve lost. I think I had it during my PhD; time to find it again.
Today I’ve met my 500 word target, which doesn’t include this blog, and I’ve ticked a couple more items off my to-do list. Often I find November a horribly dreary month. This year I’m going to make it work for me.