A Long Overdue Update ….

Hello, Blogosphere!

I’d apologize for not writing more and swear I’ll do better going forward, but I think we all know that’s just telling lies to make myself feel better so I shan’t bother with those niceties, but rather, dive head-first into the deep end — So. Many. Updates.

You’ve been treated to a snapshot of the books I’m reading each month since January, so I don’t need to update you on my reading habits. But everything else? Radio silence. Since. January. Ay, yi, yi. What can I say? I’m used to being busy, but last year kicked my ass.

In fact, last year kicked my ass so hard that I actually experienced full-on burnout. Not just fatigue, not just overwork, not just “I’m tired,” not just “maybe I should get my thyroid checked,” but full-on burnout. Like, “barely getting out of bed and getting the bare minimum done” burnout. Like, “incapable of mustering even one iota of actual interest in doing my job, so I’m just doing the bare minimum” burnout. Like, “please just leave me alone and go do something, anything, other than approach me about anything” burnout. Like, “maybe I should actually just quit being a professor and go back to waitressing full-time” burnout.

Yes, it was that bad. So bad that it’s only in the last week or two–a full month and change after the semester and academic year ended–that I’m feeling more or less myself again. And that month was spent mostly in bed recovering.

There’s no single thing, or even single set of things, that spiked this response in me. I think it just all gradually built up–one extra service assignment, one extra teaching assignment, one extra deadline, one extra difficult student, one extra administrative task, one extra extracurricular activity, one extra email to respond to, one extra request to undertake–until it became a landslide without my even noticing or realizing it was happening until it had already happened. (So much for the “year of saying ‘no’.”) Last year was just a particularly stressful one, for a wide varieties of factors (let’s be real, not least of which is our looney-tunes government and the rampant racism and misogyny we’re treated to on the daily which has led to my drinking well more than my fair share of wine this year; but I’ll try to limit myself to just discussing the burnout factors from my job.) And realistically, yes I did bring much of that stress on myself by taking on extra work–writing articles, writing book reviews, giving conference presentations. But also realistically, I’m expected to publish and present my work at conferences, so that extra work is necessary as much as it is things I want to do and therefore, must make time to do. It would be easier to make time to do those things if my time were not eaten away regularly by tasks that really do not matter in the grand scheme of things, but that the bean-counters require us to do. You know the kind of tasks I mean, I am not going to spell them out for you. I mean, for example, accountability is important, but I’m not sure that changing the format of my course syllabi for the fourth time in three years is related to accountability so much as it is a waste of time and energy that could be put toward actually developing course materials and content … but, I digress.

So, burnout was a slow-moving train that left the station, picked up steam, and ran away, with me holding on desperately and hoping there would be a stop at which I might catch my breath. There were no stops. September through May, it was just a juggernaut and I was its rider. But damn it, I stayed on that train. (I don’t want a gold star for it, I just want to let you know, those of you who are newer to this profession, that yes, this is hard and yes, we all feel how hard it is and yes, we all have at least one year where it’s just TOO MUCH. TOO MUCH. And this was that year, for me.)

And yet, in all of that, in the utter, utter, desperate burnout I felt in terms of my job, there were a lot of good moments. For example, the reading I did–that was all for me. A few pages in the morning, a few pages in the evening, a little more on weekends. But look at what I’m reading–contrast it to my reading lists in 2015, 2016. I’ve gotten back to a point where reading for pleasure is pleasurable. I never thought that would happen again, to be honest–when reading carefully and critically, or skimming for the pertinent information needed to prove an idea, is actually your day job, it’s hard to remember to just read for fun, or even how to do that. This year, because burnout made me desperate for an outlet that wasn’t work-related, I started picking up books I just wanted to read. And I forced my brain to just read them. At first, this was incredibly hard work–because once an over-analyzer, always an over-analyzer. But over time, it got much easier.

A lot of the reading I have been doing this year has been tied to the creative writing courses I have been taking. I know, you’re probably thinking: well, good Christ! No wonder you were burned out, if you were both teaching courses and taking courses. At least, that was my husband’s response to it until I explained how things stand (and I think he still secretly suspects that was really the reason…). But I swear to you, that’s not how it works with me. I don’t burnout because of too much work, I burnout because of the wrong kinds of work, or because of work that fails to net the expected outcome, or work that is devalued or undervalued by others. The writing courses I took were, in fact, my lifeline this year, ensuring that for at least a few hours every week I was attending to my inner world, attending to the writer in me who has been firmly squashed down into her corner of my psyche for so long I’d forgotten how much I need her to feel whole and good. The only times I felt truly energized and charged and alive this past year were when I was writing something and realized it had a kernel of something really good in it. So, thank goodness I finally bit the bullet and started taking writing classes. It is something I always wanted to do, but never gave myself permission to do before. I am full-on glad I did, because in the end, it is the reason I was able to pull myself back into the game, finish the academic year with some success, and get back to a place where I felt hopeful and excited about something again.

I’m not even exaggerating. At the darkest point last term, I really couldn’t find anything positive about my work. I just put one foot in front of the other, planted a smile on my face, forced cheer into my tone of voice, posted as much good as I could on social media, and hoped no one could tell how awful it was, the entire time. Just awful. Here’s an effort to explain just how awful: once, when I was working in a restaurant, I served a steak dinner with a side of steamed broccoli. When the customer cut into that broccoli–which looked really green and beautiful on the outside, I swear, it looked so good I was actually thinking about ordering some for myself–to his (and my, and everyone at his table’s) great horror, it was filled with worms. Broccoli filled with worms, y’all. THAT is how I felt all last year. Like I was that beautiful-on-the-outside, wormy-on-the-inside broccoli. Except when I was writing. Then, I was just writing, just trying to make something, so absorbed in my efforts to create that I forgot how tired I was, how frustrated I was, how demoralized I was, how wretched I felt.

I also realized a few things about myself that were not really clear to me before embarking upon these writing courses. First, that the reason I love academic research and writing so much, is probably because it is writing. I am always better when I am working on a research project. It’s why I went back to get the PhD–to be able to write and publish my scholarship. But now I think, too, in some way, that because it requires expertise, my scholarship seemed like a more legitimate form of writing than, say, my poetry and short fiction, my NAaNoWriMo novel drafts. I mean, I do love researching and writing up my research. But do I love it on its own terms, or do I love it because it’s a chance to write? I suspect now, after reflecting upon my creative writing coursework, that the answer is: a little of both. But also, that the answer is probably, truthfully: and a bit more about the writing than the research.

Second, I have not been making the time to write creatively because it matters so much to me. That probably sounds very odd to you. But when you are trained that process needs to lead to product–as in obtaining, and keeping, a position as a professor, requires you to be productive and to be able to document that productivity–anything that doesn’t immediately result in a product that can go on your self-evaluation seems self-indulgent, and possibly even self-sabotaging. Yet, to be a good creative writer (and I would argue, to be a good writer generally, but academia doesn’t allow for it)  you need to give yourself the time and space to write just to write, without necessarily setting a goal for yourself, without necessarily having the expectation it will result in a polished, publishable product. Every novelist I’ve ever talked to (and myself, as a novelist) will tell you, it takes 2-3 practice novels at a minimum before you write one that’s worth sharing. That’s hundreds and hundreds of pages of writing that likely will never see its way into print (or, if it does, only after some major editing and revision and rewriting from ground zero…) And even shorter work–well-written poems, well-written flash pieces, go through multiple developmental stages. And sometimes you have to write ten things experimentally before you get to one that you think could become something if you develop it. You have to just write and see. And that’s just not compatible with an Assistant Professor’s schedule. If I’m doing all of that writing, it better be for an academic publication that goes on my self-evaluation. So I set it aside not because I didn’t want to do it, but because I did want to and didn’t think I could find the time to do it the way I wanted to. Taking these classes has forced me to find time to do it, and frankly–my scholarly work has improved as a result. In this, the writing courses have been a win-win for me–more and better writing, both creatively and critically.

And third–and I think this one should have been glaringly obvious to me and yet somehow, I missed it entirely: critical writing is also creative work. Honestly, it feels like I knew that at some point and just forgot it in the overwhelming numbness of burnout. But it takes just as much imagination and flexibility of mind to shape researched findings into an article or a book chapter, as it does to write in a genre more traditionally understood as creative–poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. The intellectual muscles you’re flexing might be slightly different in nature–after all, you can’t fill your scholarly work with metaphors and abstractions, any more than you can fill your poems with endnotes and citations, or at least not on a regular basis. But good writing is good writing, and writing begets writing, and generative writing is exciting, and for me, it really doesn’t matter what genre I’m working in, I’m still reveling in the creative process when I am producing writing. And I think this is the greatest gift that the creative writing coursework has given me, this insight into the truth that I am a person who engages with and makes sense of the world through writing, and it is important for me to do that.

Yes. Writing is important to me. It matters, even if it doesn’t go anywhere or turn into anything. And it is not self-indulgent for me to take the time to write, because it is a thing that I need in order to be happy, to process what I think and feel, to be well-adjusted.

So, I’m reading and writing much more these days, and it feels really good, y’all!

I’ve learned, this year, that I burned out because I didn’t realize, or respect that, reading and writing are my job, but they are also my most innate natural proclivity. Like so many before me, I fell into a trap, the trap of not extricating myself from work because work was so interrelated to my hobbies. I got to a point where everything was just kind of jumbled together–teaching, and reading, and writing, and my service commitments–and it was all just WORK. And that led, as it inevitably must do, to burnout. Taking these creative writing courses cued me in that I need to actively, and intentionally, create more order and more boundaries in my working life. Teaching is definitely work-work. Grading is DEFINITELY work-work. My service commitments are work-work. But reading and writing are not always work-work; sometimes they are play-work or work-play, sometimes they are even play-play, and although that might seem a fine and infinitesimal distinction, I think it is also an essential one to make, because that is the line that I need to make sure I don’t cross; that is the space I need to hold for myself.



About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
This entry was posted in New Faculty Experiences, Research and Scholarship, work-life balance, writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Long Overdue Update ….

  1. Diane Heath says:

    Hi Melissa
    What an amazingly kind post. When someone as great as you are can tell it like it is in academia – well there’s hope for all of us who struggle. Thank you for blogging.

    • Melissa Ridley Elmes says:

      I genuinely think anyone who isn’t struggling simply doesn’t seem to be struggling; some of us are better at masking it than others. but eventually I think we all have That Point where we just can’t imagine continuing, for some reason or another. Some of us make it through that point somehow, and if we’re lucky we learn something about ourselves doing it; some of us self-medicate,; some of us go into therapy; some of us write it off and turn our attention elsewhere, phoning in the work; and some of us quit or retire. It’s a very personal choice that we have to make for ourselves–but I just wanted to make sure people in the same boat as me knew that they are not alone in their struggle, because sometimes I have felt very, very much alone in mine–like, “everyone else is doing fine, why am I having such a hard time with this? Why am I struggling so much when this is what I asked for?” But once I started talking with people I realized that those folks were also dealing with the same and similar issues as I was, and that yes, I asked for the career but not the extra nonsense that comes with it all too often, unfortunately, and that was enormously helpful.

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