Saturday, January 03, 2009

the break that is--the mental edition

For me (and, I suppose, many academics), vacations are a double-edged sword. It might be sold to us as a time of rest and celebration, but really, it's the time when we learn whether we should be laughing or crying.

On the plus side, the break is a chance to get away from the often crippling teaching load and do some of the scholarly work which played such a huge role in drawing us into the life to begin with. I, for instance, entered this academic vida loca because I loved reading. Furthermore, I love writing about what I have read.

I gotta be more specific here. While the actual drafting process usually makes me want to drive spikes through my eyeballs, jump in a swimming pool of loose gravel, and then pour lime juice and salt over the resulting wounds (with some tequila thrown in for good measure--it adds to the pain and also makes a tasty margarita), I love having written, I love planning out my papers, I love finishing a nice draft, I love establishing an analytical order for everything. In the final account, I love the writing process and am truly a better person for it.

This break, I had (as I always tend to have) grand plans. I was going to finish the Great Book Revision, the one that's been driving me into the light pole for ages. I was going to knock out the theory revamp/refiguring is, after all, the most brutal part of the project. It is where all the "aha"s take place, and it largely spells out everything else I've been hinting at throughout the other chapters. After this chapter is done, I really can fly through the rest. There is plenty of language polish afterwards, but that's an easy task for me. There's an introduction to write, but I've been writing that one in my head for years. There's a conclusion, but that's gonna be a mash-up of several existing pieces. In all, this all hinges on the theory chapter.

It figures, of course, that I haven't actually been able to write word one on the thing all break. I think I have the organization figured out, but I won't really know until I can do some sustained blasts o' writing. And I haven't been able to do said blasts because of...well, family commitments, shopping, celebrations, day trips, and all that...the standard mundane holiday tasks which seem to just suck up every spare moment.

Now that it's after New Years, I thought at first that this would be a prime writing time for me. However, I also haven't done nearly enough of my class prep for Spring, and my utterly fabulous teaching load for the upcoming semester is me basically starting from scratch for four different preps. So, instead of my pre-semester binge writing next week, I will instead be slamming together assignment sheets and setting up my Blackboard online course shell...which is both as fun and as vital as it sounds. It's definitely a sarcastic "weee" moment, but it's one which I cannot not do.

On top of that, most other thinking things are stuck in what seems a perpetual holding pattern. There's the CSI: paper which is, at least in the noggin, completely done but waiting for me to finish the damn book. There is now the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles paper festering in the Buffy-esque "I've got a theory!" mode of existence. There is the House, M.D. paper which is still caught in journal reader limbo (6+ months and counting), and there is the New Orleans paper, which is also in reader limbo but has been accepted for a conference....the day before the discounted "early bird registration" ran out. Sigh.

So, in terms of my writing, where does this winter break put me? There's a scene in that magnum opus Big Trouble in Little China where the good guys are captured and blindfolded. Jack Burton tries to covertly ask his friend Wang Chi where they are, but one of the evil Furies (Rain, I believe) instead responds with a forceful and dismissive "you are nowhere." Yep, that's me.

Then there's that other side of the winter break sword. For those of us on the job market, the winter break is the breaking point of the first big wave of jobs. The deadlines have since passed, and most institutions are notifying applicants and setting up interviews. This is particularly true if one applies for jobs in the English field (as do I), because much of this interviewing takes place at the MLA, the big mac-daddy of all English conferences.

Well, me and the MLA, we have this arrangement. Every year, a few months before the conference, I look to see where it is and start contemplating if I should attend, in the lucky event that someone wishes to interview me. I fret about this for a while, send out some more applications, and fret again. When December rolls around, I pay special attention to my cell phone and e-mail, in case anyone tries to contact me to schedule a last minute interview. When the conference date itself arrives, I get mean, bitter, and lash out at whomever is nearby. After the conference has ended, I chant some empty mantra about how the job search is not over, that there is still a chance I will find other jobs, get an interview later, then I both hope I haven't alienated any friends and become very thankful that the spousal unit is both forgiving and loving. It's not a great arrangement, but it is, by this point, tradition.

This year, in the final reckoning, I did not make it out to San Francisco for the MLA. There was, apparently, not a whole lot of call for Mike at the conference. Neither did anyone try to make alternate arrangements. This lack of popularity, while certainly not surprising, is at least familiar.

Strangely enough, though, I did not fly into my normal bout of depression. Instead, I've been in a fairly decent mood all break. This I do not understand...and at any rate, my lack of depression is starting to depress me. I'm really hoping I am not becoming resigned to my fate.

At any rate, I know that my success at the job market is by now inextricably tied to my success getting stuff published, and up until this break, I've been doing good on the production front. Over the summer, I did everything I could do. I had a Dec. 2007 publication (it was in their cue for years) that led to an anthology article...that one comes out sometime in 2009. I pumped out 2 book reviews, already published. I sent out two essays that are, in my eyes, the best things I've ever wrote, even though they are still awaiting judgment elsewhere.

But this break has been mostly writing-free, which puzzles me. And it's not like I've been killing too much time in my "I need to have fun" activities. Hell, my guitars are all about in their 6th month of staring at me in neglect. Yes, I have a Wii, but I really have only been using that when all I would've been doing is watching football pregame shows or Food Network programs.

I'm really hoping this is not the resignation phase. I still want this. I can still do the work. I still have ideas that need to be heard, that no one else is saying. I still need the critical engagement. I still have been singing Two Cow Garage's line "I'm not gonna burn out 'cause things didn't turn out like I planned." Honestly, I'm still into the whole scholarship bit.

I just need to produce, and it needs to start happening post haste. Is frustration better or worse than paranoid drive? Than desperation? Than gloom and doom? What negative emotion will yield the most positive results, at least in terms of production?

These are the questions which will drive my new year.

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