Sunday, October 23, 2016

Writing as pure pleasure

One of the things that blogging provides me is reassurance that I can still craft a decent bit of prose, take pleasure in my writing, and see something through from start to finish.

I start to doubt this with my academic writing from time to time, especially when, as now, it's been a long time since I finished up a polished piece of writing: it's been two years since I last submitted a final draft of an article and longer since I sat down and wrote a new essay from start to reviewer-ready finish.

I've done plenty of writing since then, of course; in addition to bits and bobs for my edition, I've written two entirely new book chapters and some unrelated conference papers. But although all are coherent and satisfactory for what they are, they still reflect preliminary work. I can't say I'm proud of them. Their ideas are bolted together in ways that are basically functional and maybe technically up to code--but I wouldn't want a building inspector looking too closely at any of it.

As a result, I've been starting to worry that I've lost whatever style or elegance my writing used to have. Maybe, I fear, I've gotten better at the idea part of this game at the expense of the craft.

Hopefully this fear will be resolved once I finish the essay that has taken over my life these past two months (and which is due by the end of the semester!). But my writing personality being what it is and academia being what it is--a place of infinite deferral and where all projects seem endless--I don't expect any sense of relief to last long. Even if I'm tremendously pleased with this essay, there will always be another in which I'm mired for months or years.

A blog post, though, rarely takes me more than a few days. I fret over the sentence rhythms and the paragraphs, spending more time than I often should--but at the same time, I've got a life and other things to do, so the perfect never becomes the enemy of the good. It's writing as almost pure pleasure, and I need that as much now as I ever did.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Asymmetrical relationships

I've always been interested in the emotional attachments we develop in this profession--attachments to people we know, people we don't know, and people we'll never know. For the most part I'm not talking about those we would identify as friends; professional friendships, like all friendships, may have their ups and downs and misunderstandings, but they're basically mutual: both people have roughly the same stakes in and understanding of the relationship.

The kind of attachments I'm interested in are the asymmetrical ones. Whatever your actual relationship to the person in question, the psychic real estate they occupy is disproportionate. Mentors, grad school professors, and dissertation directors are one obvious category, and in years past I've written a lot about those. Colleagues are another. I admit, to my chagrin, that I've been known to conjure up much more elaborate relationships--she hates me! he resents me! what if I accidentally offended her and we can never work together again?--than there is any evidence for in the phenomenal world.

But lately I've been thinking about the relationships we have not with our seniors or peers, but with those who are, in at least a limited or temporary sense, our juniors. I'm thinking about the people I've written fellowship or tenure letters for, or the awesome job candidates we didn't hire, or scholars whose work I've recommended for publication. Occasionally these are indeed friends, but the act of reading and thinking about someone else's work and qualifications is an intense and intimate thing, quite unlike the ordinary business of friendship.

There are people who have never met me whose careers I now follow with attention, as well as people who do know me but who probably have no idea how deeply I've thought about their work or how invested in their success I've become. The degree of my investment varies, ranging from sunny goodwill to a more aggressively sororal or maternal advocacy, but it always strikes me as a little peculiar and a little out of proportion. I don't know these people! But I believe in them.

And of course, feeling this intense attachment to people I don't really know has made me reflect on how others might feel about me. With rare exceptions, I don't know the names of any of the reviewers who have taken the time to give me detailed and encouraging feedback on my work--and though I do know the names of those who have written me job or fellowship or tenure letters, in those cases I don't have access to the letters themselves. So my experience of those relationships involves a certain amount of distance: I may feel grateful and indebted, but either I don't have a specific person to tie those feelings to or I don't have a clear sense of exactly what opinions and evaluations I'm feeling grateful for.

So I've never thought too hard about who might have what investments in me: I've imagined my referees as just doing their jobs in a dispassionate or dutiful way. But lately I've been wondering, and every once in a while my antennae will twitch: maybe someone I've always suspected was a reviewer on that essay of mine makes a point of introducing herself at a conference, or someone whose work I admire but have never met starts following me on Twitter. These might just be people who like other things I've written, or who've noticed that our social circles overlap (or who read my blog). But I wonder, sometimes: do we have another kind of relationship? Do I mean something to him or her that's not apparent?

It's disorienting and a little vertiginous to think about all the unacknowledged and asymmetrical relationships we might be a part of. But there's also something nice about it: I like the idea that one of the sustaining forces of the profession might be an invisible web made up of attachments like my own--investments to the work and careers of others that we don't cop to or talk about, but feel deeply all the same.