27 June 2012

"Out of Habit": Necessity, Procrastination, and I Am Still Trying to Figure Out What Order Everything Goes In

I like to think I'm not really a procrastinator. I generally use the definition academically, I suppose, and in that field, the statement is and has been true. I don't think I've ever finished a paper on the day it was due, I've never pulled or had to pull an all-nighter to get an assignment done, and I know that I've never turned in anything for a grade that was a first draft. That's probably good because I teach writing, have always wanted to teach writing, and I'd have to look at myself very sternly if I did. 

Hang on. Let me push up my glasses. They've slipped a bit down my sanctimonious nose.

But something this morning (and a lot of days for a lot of years, if I'm honest) caught me out. I've had this small task to do (literally updating the formula on two places in an Excel spreadsheet and then making sure it copied correctly down twenty columns) for more than a week. I have a meeting later today that requires said spreadsheet to be updated. I've been avoiding it--complete with that sour feeling of knowing I'm avoiding it and knowing that's stupid--for each of those days. So last night, in champion procrastinatory fashion, when I could have done it and didn't, I said that I would do it this morning. 

Problem is, in the morning, I write. And this morning is all wonky because I usually get up very near to five a.m. and try to be actually writing before six, but I slept until a little after seven because I was up much too late. I blame baseball and the fascinating process of watching Bill take his stitches out. So everything's a little broken, as daily habits go, and now there was this Task I didn't want to do hanging over it. 

My whole adult life, I've been fighting with, around, about (and other prepositions) putting my writing first. Thinking the art is worth it--my own, of course, because it's easy to believe that everyone else's is worth it, but not so easy when it's mine--has been a struggle. It's something I keep talking about, keep fighting with: grade the papers, then write, because you have 90 students and that is cumulatively more important. Or the opposite: you will write right now before you are allowed to do anything else, you ridiculous writerly slackass.

Either way, not a really healthy relationship with the idea. And maybe it's because I listened to a lot of Ani DiFranco when I was in my most formative years (and still--I love her), but I've always been coveting that fragment from "Out of Habit": "Art is why I get up in the morning." And it's in a song that's about the idea of habit, and I'm not going to get all analytical about the lyrics, but those things are connected. Art. Habit. Every day. 

I have habits: wake up, cup of tea. It is automatic. It is easy. It is something I wouldn't think of not-doing. I am fairly cross when I don't do it, even though I can function just fine without it. I wake up and am alert and capable (as opposed to my functioning during afternoons, which are awful and fit only for the gym and for naps). I don't need it in any kind of physiological way (unlike the way I need to eat something in the morning to avoid murdering anyone by ten). But aside from the deliciousness and the pleasure of the ritual and the sheer stupid happiness I get from my mug collection, it isn't necessary. Still, I will go out of my way to be certain that I can make that cup of tea happen: I will wash out the teapot the night before. I will be certain that I have Good Tea in the tin. I will even wash all the mugs so I have all possible choices awaiting me in the morning. It's not necessary, but I'm surely doing everything I can to make the tea happen. 

Is my writing necessary?

I'll be honest: nope. I know that because I so often don't do it. Aside from the nagging guilt, which I feel about most everything, I suffer no really ill effects. 

But by God, this summer, I'm doing everything I can to make it happen, even updating that spreadsheet within four minutes of sitting down at my computer (even though there were five hours between me and the meeting), because I said there must be no writing until that (ridiculously easy, quick) task was finished. I just had to put that task in front of something I wanted more. 

In this case, it turned out to be easy to keep it there (probably knowing it would be easy if I just did the damn thing). That is the eventual solution to procrastination: the task has to be entrenched between oneself and something one wants. For most of us, the want is something like a passing grade or a desire to keep a job. The consequence of not-doing it becomes a large enough stick to beat one into action (or a large enough carrot to tempt us into completion for the reward). 

I'm not sure how to use that to overcome the initial issue that got me started on this post, though, that nigh-interminable avoidance of the task. The constant circling of the thing to be done: I know it's there, I know it will not go away, and I know no one else will (or can) do it. Things like phone calls for appointments, returning those e-mails that didn't require an answer the second I opened it but should be addressed--even things I actually like doing, like replying to blog comments. Why the evasive maneuvers? Why the sidelong glance?

But now that I have a big enough carrot, so to speak, something I want to be doing all the time, which is the writing, and that's still gloriously weird to say, maybe the trick is to put everything between me and it. Maybe that will backfire. Maybe it won't. But writing this means that I'm actually going to call the tailor right now, and maybe I'll have to listen to her laugh at my hope that I can get a dress altered in a week, but I will have actually made the call I've been avoiding since May.

12 June 2012

"Never too drunk to use 'whom'": The Art of Fielding, Telling Stories, and That Time I Wrote Joan of Arc Erotica

I frequently flirt with the idea of doing book reviews, but then I have to come to grips with the part where I am generally the Last Person To Read The Book, or so it seems. This is quite often related to a confession I hate making, particularly as a teacher: it's been a long time since I could firmly categorize myself as a real reader. I just don't do it all that often anymore with things that aren't related to work. And even if I'm gobsmacked with new and exciting details every time I re-read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, doing it for class-prep isn't the same as simply sinking into a book, as submerging myself in someone else's words and worlds.

I'm three full years out of grad school, too--I don't think I can claim needing a break anymore, and, honestly, it was only during my MA that I had to read books I wanted to throw. My four years at Binghamton was full of really quality reading, and I enjoyed doing my comps, insofar as I got to read and write about things I loved, pretty well across the board. I don't know what happened. 

It's not like I quit reading or anything--a few times a year, books will take me by storm (cf. GRRM's A Song of Ice and Fire series, summer 2011, when I'm pretty sure I caused my glasses prescription to get more heavy-duty because of a week of terrifying binge-reading). But I forgot about reading on a daily basis, and kept forgetting, what kind of joy there is in a really good book, in a damn fine story

This spring, my friend Laura sent me a copy of The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. I know it sold really well, I know there were both gushy and highly critical reviews, and that's pretty much all I knew about it. I started to read a review, and it tossed up a major plot spoiler in the first two sentences, so I ran away and just sat down with the book. What I truly knew is that I should have done that right from the beginning.

The book and I had our differences at times, but this is not a review so I'm skipping that. There was a lot to love about it, too. What I want to do with it is use a few of Harbach's sentences as a jumping off point. (Some spoilers ahead.)

Harbach writes some real beauties, as far as sentences go, as far as the way the internal processes of the characters work. And even though Henry Scrimshander may be the center of the novel, Mike Schwartz was the heart of it, as I read. Maybe it's because he was the catcher, and I was a catcher, and I am one of those whacky believers in the sanctity of the battery (Roy Halladay and Carlos Ruiz, anyone?). Maybe it's because his chapters are loaded with the kind of interiority that I love (and am perhaps terribly guilty of). This is my favorite Mike Schwartz moment:
He already knew he could coach. All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph. Schwartz knew that people loved to suffer, as long as the suffering made sense. Everybody suffered. The key was to choose the form of your suffering. Most people couldn’t do this alone; they needed a coach. A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you. A bad coach made everyone suffer in the same way, and so was more like a torturer. (Harbach 149)
This is, of course, pedagogical. One size does not fit all. This is also the nature of the very best creative writing exercise I've ever been given, and when I was given it, I thought it was torture. It seemed both cruel and unusual, the task set before me.1

But to understand why it was so, I need to look at myself as that player, as that young writer. Who was I, the first semester of my second year of college? I was much as I still am: too optimistic, prone to too many words. I was also afraid of the page. Don't get me wrong--I'm still pretty terrified of it--but the reasons are different. Now, I'm afraid to suck. That doesn't stop me from writing (and it surely doesn't stop me from sucking at it), but I'm not afraid of anything I write and I'm not afraid to write anything. Back then, I was afraid to write the wrong thing, the unsafe thing, the messy thing, the dirty thing, the ugly thing. And I spent all of my early creative writing courses writing "beautiful" (read: pretty and dull) crap in overblown historical settings. I can say I legitimately love historical fiction, but that writing was also designed to show off how well I paid attention in history courses (it was a liberal arts college--someone would approve of that) and to disguise how fearful I was of letting a story get messy (which is to say interesting) on the page because I had no idea if I could pull it back together if it got out of control.

So that's the start of the narrative. The final assignment in that class, Fiction Workshop I, was a personalized writing assignment. The instructor reviewed everyone's work for the whole semester and then set each of us a challenge related to the work we had done. My second story of the semester was a historical piece about a silversmith's apprentice who followed Joan of Arc. It was saturated with detail, it was reverent, it was grim and grave and contained an epiphany that I loved that probably could have had its own army of horn-blowing zealots it was so obvious. I loved that story. I still kind of do. The apprentice's name was Remi.

My assignment: write a love scene between Joan of Arc and this character. My folder was flipped shut and handed back to me, and there was another student waiting in the hall. I left with my assignment, feeling traumatized. I didn't argue about it. I had an assignment. The assignment must be done. I spent most of a week in what Pat McManus would call the "modified stationary panic." Everything about the assignment caused a separate and discrete part of my brain to fuse. Love scene. Joan of Arc, a saint and a minor. Historical setting wherein the two characters are barely acquainted. The assignment posed every possible problem to my nineteen-year-old brain: logistical, moral, technical.

I don't remember what I wrote, not well. I do remember that I changed the setting--I made it contemporary, which was certainly cheating, but I got through it. I think I even managed an R rating. (I was told love scene; I was pretty certain that fading to black = bullshit in that case, so I wasn't about to half-ass that part.) I was mortified at the prospect of having to show it to anyone--most particularly the instructor whose respect I wanted--but I was more paralyzed by the idea of not handing in anything, of not doing it. The day it was due arrived. I went to the instructor's office, and I stood there with my folder, holding it out.

The instructor glanced at the folder. "You did it?"

I nodded. I had.

"Good." He waved me out with a reminder of the date the final portfolio was due, my folder still in my hand. My suffering, my few pages, and I walked back to the dorm. It took me the length of that summer to figure it out: the story I needed to hear about myself was that I could write anything. It didn't matter if I showed it to anyone. It surely didn't matter if anyone else read it or liked it or hated it or responded to it. The simple fact was that I could do it and the world wouldn't end.

I'm still trying to keep that in mind; it's a really good starting point.

It takes me back to Harbach's book, to Scrimshander trying to figure out what was going wrong with his disintegrating ability to make even the most simple throw from short to first: “The problem, like most problems in life, probably had to do with his footwork” (Harbach 174).

That exercise, that assignment that made me want hide under a rock, was something to help me find the footwork I was going to need later. Everyone's got the step that makes her hesitate, everyone has his paralyzing over-think. Mine was self-consciousness, self-consciousness on the page. (Even now, I'm second-guessing every word I type here because it's so much harder when it's true, but I'm doing it, and even though this post has taken weeks, I'm posting it.) I'm not going to say that that exercise made the problem go away--see the previous sentence--but that exercise does mean I have a place to go back to, a place to put both feet, and it is always there. No matter what the circumstance, no matter what other problems I have with my writing, it's not going to be because I think I shouldn't write something, that I couldn't possibly, that it Isn't Done. And that's not to say that it's all going to be beer and skittles and sex with martyrs, either--it's simply remembering the permission to do what the work needs one to do. Remembering that at the root of everything.

It works in the same way as the grammar of Pella Affenlight, who is "never too drunk to use whom3" (Harbach 296). Hopefully I am never too lost in my own doubt to remember this. I don't expect I'll forget, though. It was the story I needed to be told about myself, and stories are the reason I'm here. Thanks, Chad Harbach, for writing a book that reminded me of that, that reminded me of this moment, that reminded me of many, many good things.4

1This is the point where I knew where this entry was going. I've spent almost two weeks staring at this post-in-progress, willing it to finish or willing myself into enough guts to CTRL+A & delete. Neither happened. What did happen is that I also just sent a pages-long e-mail to the instructor this passage reminded me of. And here we are.

2I still love overblown historical settings, and I probably always will. Every stab at them leads to a little less pretty dullness.

3This is certainly one of the most fantastically quotable lines from the book.

4Maybe someday I'll actually talk about the book as a book about baseball, too, but I think that's probably been done to death already.