23 September 2011

Writing, pacing, sports metaphors and aging

As usual, posting about progress and goals in ADNWG makes me want to write a very long comment that I wind up bringing back to my own blog. I've got a decent draft of my fellowship proposal, exactly the right length, which probably means my RL writing group will suggest substantial changes that will mean a lot more editing to get it back to length. But at least that much is done.

It got done, as I predicted, mostly in a series of baby steps. Monday: 264 words. Tuesday and Wednesday: tiny bits of tinkering, a new sentence or two, a spot of editing. Thursday: combined the new framework with the old chapter descriptions. Today: wrote the 100-word abstract (98 words: I am awesome at writing to length), and edited the rest of it so it "flowed," in undergraduate parlance, and came to the right length. It's funny how (reluctantly) cutting a phrase that I feel really does a good job of expanding the implications of what I just said actually makes the argument spring up sharp and clear. So I came to terms with what I thought I was losing in nuance.

There's a lot more stuff to do with the proposal, what I think of as technical details: bibliography for the project, CV (do I have a reasonably up-to-date version in normal format, rather than the weird format required for my annual reviews at school?), a form to fill in that basically reproduces a lot of CV info. This seems like good "tired work," things to do on days when I'm low energy, or when I couldn't manage to work when I was really sharp and am trying to do something useful in the evening just so I keep moving forward. Or maybe, to introduce the sports metaphors, this is my yoga work.

In my more energetic moments, I will work on revising my most complete chapter into a good sample chapter. This, then, would be the more vigorous running or cycling.

For a brief period, I was a runner, and I loved it. But then I hurt my ankle, and ever since have been cautious about weight-bearing exercise. Swimming is good. Long walks seem to be okay. Elliptical trainers, stair climbers, and exercise bikes seem to be okay. Jogging . . . iffy. So my marathons, or triathlons, whatever, are virtual, done in the gym. All the same, for a long time I have thought about writing/research in terms of training, keeping in shape with the daily stint, even if it's a 20-minute walk or 2-sentence writing session rather than an hour on the elliptical or 90 minutes of writing.

My body has been recalcitrant for a long time. It's hard to frame this suitably: I've never had anything the least bit life-threatening, nor even anything so immediately unpleasant as migraines, and the only meds I take regularly are for allergies. But on the other hand, I've never been very tough, either. When ADM says, "My digestive system seems more sensitive. I can’t drink as much as I used to be able to—and especially not if I want to avoid a hangover," I think, well, I've never been able to drink enough to have a hangover: I get sick long before drinking hangover-worthy quantities. And my digestive system has been sensitive since I was around 13, and since my mid-30s I've had to be very careful about, oh, let's call them "lifestyle issues." What I mean is, skipping the gym or powering through the day on caffeine are both right out, for me. I have to exercise and do yoga every day, and I have to limit caffeine severely, in order to remain functional. In some ways, I have the body of a person much older than I am; but since I've been dealing with this for over 10 years already, the "normal" aging issues just aren't hitting me that hard. (Knock on wood.)

So this is why I, personally, insist on that little-bit-every-day thing. The body is no better at coping with insane schedules and ridiculous amounts of work than it is with running an actual marathon. The metaphorical sprint wasn't really my thing even as an undergraduate. I've never been any good at pulling all-nighters. Even when I write at the last minute, I've been thinking and outlining for a long time. I can come up with a sprint every now and then if I really, really have to—or maybe I mean I can run if I really, really have to—but the rest of the time I want to be on the elliptical trainer instead of stressing my ankles and knees. The physical consequences of overwork are, indeed, very real.

Certainly I have days that fill up with teaching and meetings. It would be easy not to write on those days. It would be easy not to exercise, too. But I know how awful I'll feel if I don't at least go for a walk and do some stretching, and I know how much harder it will be to start in again on the writing if I take 2-3 days off. And I know it'll be easier to get through the meetings and the classes if I do some "actual real work" in the morning, before all the rest of the world starts demanding things of me.

This may also have something to do with what people think of as "actual real work." I am a conscientious teacher and committee member, but I am not gifted at either teaching or administration. Research is what I love, the reason I'm here and not working as a tax accountant on the west coast. I don't get to do it full time, but if I didn't do it at all I would be very unhappy. I am, at best, at mid-career: maybe a bit later than mid-. If I'm going to do something about what I love, it has to happen now. Today, and every day. A sentence at a time. Love has to manifest as commitment.


undine said...

This was like my week, too--small steps but every day. You said something in a comment somewhere about your early morning routine of writing, and that stuck with me this week.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

It's neat that you already knew what I'm finally figuring out, even though it's for sort of the same reasons. Speaking of which, I need to start running again. Maybe today.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

It might have been at Nicoleandmaggie's: out of bed, go to the loo, go to my desk, brew tea there with a little immersion heater so I don't go downstairs and get distracted and inspire the cats with hope of breakfast. It works. In fact, for me it's a magic bullet. On good days, I get an hour; more often, I get 15-20 minutes of writing. But it adds up.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

My last comment was in response to Undine; apparently ADM was posting at the same time.

Oh, ADM. The figuring-out process was bloody fucking awful. I spent years in a mental fog of sleep deprivation and achy misery, managing to teach but not much more than that (some reviewing; an essay I wrote on my first sabbatical leave), before I figured out what worked. And just when I got healthier, my mother's health went south. So now, finally, I am using what I know about my body to get back to what I care about in the way of work.

But I admit to a degree of satisfaction that as my cohort ages, we're winding up at more or less the same point, so I no longer have to feel so left out of the reindeer drinking games and so on.