‘I am unable to write when I am worried or awaiting solutions, for at such moments I do everything possible to make time pass; and to write is to prolong time, to break it down into particles of seconds while giving to each of them an irreplaceable life’

Clarice Lispector

Never ever reveal to the procrastination gods that your procrastination seems to be on the wane. A couple of months ago, I happened to mention that things hadn’t been so bad lately and of course, almost immediately, plunged into a period of severe procrastination. It is always disheartening when this happens. It’s not as though I actually believe I am ‘cured’ of procrastination in the periods in between, but sometimes it feels like there might be some progress in my habits and I might be developing into a mature writer who just sits down and writes everyday. And then, nothing.

It’s disheartening because its unexpected. If it is true that we are our habits, why don’t good stretches of productivity gradually choke out the tendency to procrastinate like a well-tended flower bed stays weed-free?

Obviously, I don’t have the answer to this, but a little while ago I was reading this exchange about whether or not writing and thinking are inseparable (in terms of work process) and found it illuminating. Basbøll’s point in his original blog post is that writing work, the work of representing, is a particular process and thinking work is another. As he puts it ‘The truth is often that you’re trying to use the part of you that thinks to do your writing for you, which is unwise‘. If you’ve paid attention to your procrastination, you’ll know that some parts of the process are stickier than others, and I wondered if Basbøll’s argument might help me understand the sticky spots in my cycles of procrastination.

Thinking is work we do by ourselves. Obviously thinking relates to things others have said, written and done, but it is fundamentally solitary as an embodied practice. We need time to think our own thoughts, we can only think them ourselves and we are relatively undisturbed to think our own thoughts as long as we are not trying to communicate them to others. Representing those thoughts, then, is a fundamentally different exercise, in the sense that representing has to take others into account. The ‘I’ who thinks has to ‘strip my thought of the form of ‘mine-ness’ so that the other person may recognize it as his own’, as Feuerbach wrote. Actually, it is quite a burdensome activity because the embodied practice of writing is also work we do by ourselves, but it cannot succeed as an act of communication and representation if we do not write for others.

There are lots of things I might say about that, but what I realized quite recently is how much of my scholarly writing feels like it is writing for others in a quite different sense: I need to convince the reader that they should allow me to think quite differently than they think. All good writing is about providing a different point of view, but there are important distinctions between feeling like you all share the same basic ground and are writing out of that space towards new places, or feeling like you need to connect your ground with someone else’s while simultaneously persuading them that (a) your ground is real (though they have never heard of it, seen it, touched it or known it) and (b) it is worth their while to consider building bridges from their ground to yours. In the first case, you have the challenge of persuading. In the second case, you have the challenge of verifying, justifying and persuading. When all of your writing work is like that, it gets tiring really fast.

What I have observed about productive writers is that they are generous people who share their writing and thinking time with others. They also establish communities within which they can usefully and critically elaborate on the ground they are all interested in building, which means that they can concentrate on persuading rather than fighting the verifying and justifying battles all the time (these come up, but strategically when they want to push their argument further out into the world–and there are several of them to do it all together). I envy the people who have found this place in academia, because I haven’t found it yet.

Scholarly writing continues to be a very fraught and lonely occupation for me, not because the thinking is hard but because when I sit down to write I am not sure I can cover the distance between my ground and the place I have to get to. That problem can easily rebound on you as a sense of your fundamental incapacity as a writer (‘if you were a better writer you would find creative ways to cover that ground’), which in turn demotivates you and thus almost inevitably ensures you write very little, and worse, what you do write is not really what you meant to write. (No wonder, then, if minority academics experience higher than usual levels of imposter syndrome.)

What is the conclusion to this? Quite simply, I have to keep trying to write, and trying to believe it is possible I can, and trying to believe it is possible someone reads my blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In case you haven’t already heard about it, there are some industrious procrastinators in Oxford who are organizing a one-day conference on July 2, entitled Procrastination: Cultural Explorations. When the conference program is published, I’ll let you know, not only because I’ll be presenting a paper there, but because if you are in the vicinity this event promises to be informed and informative fun.

Meanwhile, lest you get the wrong impression about me, here is what my days still, often, consist of (courtesy of http://themetapicture.com/productive-day/):

Productivity and the computer

 

 

 

 

 

Since this blog began mostly as a means for me to work with my procrastination, I am glad to say that my posts have become more irregular lately. In fact, I have actually been procrastinating less and so, naturally, I have had less to say about it here. One of the reasons for this was reading, some months ago, Eric Maisel’s book Creativity for Life, in which he distinguishes usefully between procrastinating, as a mundane habit, and blocking as a more complex and singular set of psychological knots that we tie from the threads of our temperament, experiences and coping styles. This is good news for procrastinators, because it means those habits are behaviours that can be re-routed and re-trained. It is bad news for perfectionist-style procrastinators (which I would guess covers many academics who procrastinate) because the perfectionism is not just a habit, it is a form of blocking.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that I have encountered blocks in my creative life before which were never resolved and it is no surprise to find that they have eventually turned up in my academic work.

I used to be a dancer. When I was a girl, my mother used to trek me across London on a Saturday morning to study bharatanatyam. (I have written about bharatanatyam on the blog before.) My parents had tried and failed miserably to turn me into a cute little ballerina, but in a rare instance of childhood disobedience I refused to participate in ballet classes. Classical Indian dance, on the other hand, was something I took to immediately. When we moved to Canada, we did not live anywhere near a bharatanatyam teacher, but we periodically drove four and a half hours to Edmonton so that I could take classes with a woman who taught out of her suburban home. It wasn’t until I was a graduate student in Victoria that I started studying, practising and teaching dance on a regular basis again. There was a point at which I was easily spending as much time on my dancing as I was on my graduate studies. The classical Indian arts scene in Victoria was surprisingly active and because of interest inside and outside the South Asian community, I was able to study for some time with an Indian teacher called Rajamani.

Rajamani had been a student of the great Rukmini Devi and spent much of his career at her school, Kalakshetra. He was already retired when he taught me, but it was a wonderful experience that I never expected to have as a dancer–a straight line from Rukmini Devi to me. Rajamani immersed me in a world of dancing where it went without saying that I was a dancer. When he returned to India we corresponded regularly until his death, partly because it was his plan that I should go to India and complete my studies and perform my arangetram. During this time, I also began to choreograph with a very close friend who is a wonderful Kathak dancer and teacher. We choreographed fusion dances and performed live in Victoria at several events. I lived as a dancer in my own mind, although I found public performances mentally exhausting. People were also kind enough to tell me that my dancing evoked something spiritual for them–traditionally bharatanatyam is a form of worship and is supposed to evoke feelings of religious joy, gratitude and awe.

And then, suddenly, it all stopped. I could not conceive of dancing in public for a living because I was afraid of such exposure. I wanted to be a good dancer and it was deeply gratifying to know that people felt what I did on stage; but I wasn’t always sure that I could cope with people watching me dance. When Rajamani suggested that I could have even a semi-professional life as a dancer, I found the thought terrifying and began to withdraw from the whole scene. I taught more than I danced. I gave up any thought of finishing my arangetram program. The crowning act was a tattoo that I got, when I finished my MA studies, of a bharatanatyam dancer. It was as though I memorialized the whole thing in order never to dance again. I did dance again once, at my sister-in-law’s wedding, at her particular request, but that provoked severe anxiety before and during the wedding.

Nothing stops me from dancing now, or from taking up dancing again. Rukmini Devi herself did not learn until she was in her 30s. That, however, is not really the problem. The problem is that you can’t really be a dancer unless you dance where people can see you. You can dance for your own pleasure, but you can’t be a dancer unless you are willing to let others see what you are doing. I had the same problem as a music student. Though I was nowhere near as competent a cellist as I was a dancer, actual competence isn’t the issue. Now I have the same problem as a writer and an academic, but I never learned to solve when it appeared the first time around. Every time I have had to get on stage, I have found a way not to. And I regret that.

A good friend of mine has been helping me think about my struggle to be seen and remain invisible. The attempt to do both of those things at the same time is one of the particular ways I block. Mostly, I am not actually clear on how it works yet, especially because it is connected in complex ways with the hypervisibility-invisibility of my actual body. What is clearer to me is that all the time I have been working hard to stay invisible, I have also had a desperate fear of actually succeeding in becoming so. In my everyday work life I am a fairly invisible person, but in my imagined life I am still a dancer.

 

If you walk down Paris Street in Sudbury, Canada, you will see this sign:

Helluntaiseurakunta Sudbury 2013

It is a strangely comforting sign for me, not because I am a member of the Helluntaiseurakunta, but because hiding in the tiny pockets between English and French, there is Finnish in the world. (Or what locals, oddly and charmingly, refer to simply as ‘Finn’–the adjective ‘Finnish’ never apparently having arrived in Sudbury.) If you drive down this street towards the South, take a left on Regent and then another left on Caswell you will come to Leinala’s Bakery, where you can buy a freshly made munkki or Karjalan piirakkaor even–which made me quite homesick when I first arrived in Sudbury from Finland– Erittäin Hieno Suomalainen Koivushampoo in the familiar green bottle.

Having left Canada in 1999 as an ‘East Indian’ or Indo-Canadian, I seemed to have returned in 2008 as a Finn.

In the intervening years I did live in Finland with my Finnish-born-and-bred partner, but it was a genuine surprise to me to find not only that I had become Finnish during those years, but that outside Finland people would recognize me as such too. At Leinala’s I have been served quite naturally and unremarkably in Finnish. The ladies there have no problem in including me in their Finnish world. As I have written about on this blog before, I do not take any sense of cultural belonging for granted, and so I have always found it rather touching that this little bakery in Northern Ontario is one of the few places where I feel as though I can belong. Nevertheless, part of me thinks I can never make a claim to be Finnish, and when I lived in Finland, it was certainly clear to me that many of the people around me would never really consider me Finnish either, whether I spoke Finnish fluently or not. Finland is, as a recent article from the Helsingin Sanomat declares, a racist country.

The article is hardly news to any person of colour who has lived in Finland, or indeed their white Finnish friends and family. What I found most interesting about it was that it was published a day before Finnish Independence Day on December 6. If, the editors at Helsingin Sanomat had made the decision to publish this article in the Independence Day edition of the paper, I would have been impressed by their willingness to challenge readers with another side of nationalism and Finnish identity. As it was, the impact of the article was diminished by the juxtaposition with next day’s normal coverage of the public holiday.

Finnish independence, as in many other countries in the world, is a victory against colonialism, and so it is something to be celebrated. In the case of Finland, more than six hundred years of rule and government by the Swedish and the Russians preceded the declaration of independence. Like any anti-colonial struggle, the years before Independence were characterized by an incredible passion, among people we now describe as Finnish, for learning who they were; for identifying and producing  literature, music and art that was Finnish; and for exploring an active and creative sense of what it might mean to be Finnish, when in a very real sense such an identity had never before been allowed or acknowledged.

Is it so incredible to suppose, then, that today there are people, immigrants to Finland, or the descendants of Finnish emigrants to Canada, who are also learning and recreating what it means to be Finnish today? And that, perhaps, the learning, the desire to be Finnish and not their skin colour, white or black, is what matters.

The ladies at Leinala’s are responding to something real, then, when they include me in their Finnish world, because during the last ten years I really have spent a lot of time learning to be Finnish. Some of that learning has been the kinds of things you would expect an immigrant to do, such as learning to read and speak the language (my spoken Finnish is still very shy–I can speak, but I often don’t have the confidence to do so) or learning about Finnish history. Nevertheless, cultural understanding and belonging, is not built entirely on words and concepts, but also consists, in a very visceral way, of sensory and affective experience.

The first time I visited Finland, in 1994, I remember that the smell of tar (by which I mean the wood tar Finns distill from pine) was almost nauseating to me. I could not understand how Finns found it so comforting, even going so far as to use it to flavour candy! I encountered the smell again and again, often in the form of drops that are used to scent the water you pour on the heated rocks of a sauna stove. As the scented water turns into steam, the whole sauna becomes pleasantly infused with the strong, clean smell of the tar. I can remember the woman who did not like the smell of tar–the not-yet-Finnish woman–but I also know that now, the smell is as resonant with feelings of cleanliness, relaxation and comfort for me as it is for my partner.

We can learn to become what we have never yet been–by knowing, experiencing, sensing and loving the world we find ourselves in. It really doesn’t matter whether those are things you’ve always been around or whether they are absolutely new to you. In 1917 the people who were living in Finland had to create ‘Finnish’, just as people who live in Sudbury do so now in order continue to be ‘Finn’ in some way. Among those possibilities, surely there is space for immigrants like me to be allowed to become Finnish too.

‘Doubt and faith in our practice often arise and pass away depending on what we are using as criteria for success’ — Sharon Salzburg

I.

Like some of my students, the reason I became an English major in university was that I love to read. It never occurred to me that literature could become a way of life, not only because I did not know any writers personally, but because I did not know anyone who really seemed to think, as I did, that words mattered so much. Despite that, despite the fact that I spent much of my spare time writing and rewriting short stories and essays, I went to study medicine at university. I knew that I would never stop reading and I hoped I would never stop writing so it didn’t seem necessary to study literature, but it did seem necessary to do something that would serve others. I can’t really describe how I realized that I had to stop trying to become a doctor, but in my third year I became an English major and never looked back.

II.

A few years ago, a friend said to me that it is essentially a very odd thing to live as if the things written in books have anything to do with how we live on a daily basis. It is only the peculiar and closeted atmosphere of graduate humanities training where it appears to matter whether you read Lacan rather than Foucault, or Bourdieu rather than Marx. She meant that people who spend so much of their time thinking cultivate belief in the literally (trans)formative power of books. I agreed with her, without really thinking about it very much, until this week another friend described to me the practice of reading the Bible closely and attentively as a child. That conversation reminded me, that it is not only commonplace to read books as though they connect to our everyday life, it is a practice that sustains faith. In my daily teaching life, when I face students who have not done their reading for class, it feels to me like they have broken faith, not with me but with literature. They want to enjoy books and be free to dismiss those they don’t enjoy; they are not committed to literature as a way of life.

It might seem absurd to bring such an expectation to the classroom. Do microbiology professors expect their students to be committed to biological science as a way of life? Probably not, although they almost certainly expect a certain discipline about attending labs and handing lab reports in on time. Just as we do in literary studies, they have practices in place to train their students to become competent professionals. The difference is that we live in a world where science is already our common way of life. To live as a person who reads books whose logic is figurative rather than literal is already a strange thing; to believe that the Book, or those books, are vital matter to the world we are living in now is even more strange. (In this sense, fundamentalism is indeed, as the Indian critic Ashis Nandy has called it, a pathology of modernity. It is a world where figurative logic is forced to take literal forms in order to survive, and it does so with dreadful consequences for all of us.)

Teaching literature in the contemporary university is very difficult when you are faced with a room of students who are studying literature, but have fewer and fewer ways of thinking themselves as anything other than literalists (or fantasists, since in their desperate attempt to resist being swallowed whole by literal logic some of them abandon thought all together). It becomes even more so when you step outside the classroom and you are faced with administrators and colleagues in other faculties who make similar demands that you turn your work on literature into something useful, relevant and literal in the way they understand those terms.

III.

After I became a phd student, I looked back regularly, wondering if my original desire to be a writer was being obscured by the struggle to write a dissertation about literary theory. Very few people care, even inside the discipline, about the questions of literary theory I spent my days preoccupied with. Nowadays, I struggle to do all kinds of writing, academic and creative, often silenced because of a sense that I can do neither one well anymore–that I am not committed enough to my work, or, in other words, that I am unwilling to work through the moments of doubt. However, it seems to me, that when the teaching is not going well, it is important to keep ahold of a practice of writing, whether scholarly or creative, precisely in order to reaffirm that I am here to make new literary knowledge and thereby ensure literature continues to exist as a form of knowledge in this world. Faith is ultimately a series of small acts of creation, not one of judgment. Whether others are persuaded that what I am doing is relevant, useful or meaningful, is nothing to the continued existence of literature as a way of life, a form of thought.

A little while ago I was reading a book by Jan Chozen Bays in which she describes various techniques for bringing mindfulness to everyday life. One of the techniques that particularly caught my attention was ‘Looking Deeply into Food’, in which you consider the plate of food in front of you and trace the various forms of labour and energy that have gone into making it available to you. You could derive many kinds of lessons from that exercise, from thinking about the politics of food to, as in Bays’ book, contemplating the fundamental interdependence of sentient beings. Although Bays chose to write about food, it struck me that it might be a useful exercise for thinking about any kind of task you have to accomplish where you feel overwhelmed by the notion that you, you as a small, separate individual, are solely responsible for what is in front of you.

Usually, the task in front of me that fits that description is writing, where the success of the task seems to depend on me alone. Good writing teachers will help you understand that writing, though admittedly carried out alone, is immeasurably helped by a social element, by working with writing groups and classes to support you so that you don’t experience your task as an isolated one. Of course support is vital, but I think Bays’ exercise suggests something else that our highly author-centred ideas of writing don’t usually allow us to think about: we never accomplish anything ‘by ourselves’. One reason we are highly anxious about writing is because we have to do it alone, but many of us refuse to give up the struggle entirely because we also want most of the glory for ourselves. At the end of the struggle, however much you acknowledge the contributions and support of others, your name is on the byline or jacket cover.

There are some interesting ways to experiment with this question of ‘being’ the author. Inside academia there are writers like bell hooks, who not only write under a nom de plume but also refuse the capitalization that turns a name into a ‘proper’ name. Outside academia (though not separated from it) there are groups like the Combahee River Collective who refused to separate into individual authors in order to make themselves heard. I think it is quite  significant that women of colour, those who have historically had the least chance of becoming ‘the Author’, have been most willing to rethink the privilege of authorship and practice it differently.

Bays’ exercise prompts me to do some more thinking about the privilege of authorship, as well as the attitude of individualism that encourages us to believe we accomplish alone or that our accomplishment is ours alone. When I write I can do so because of the people who produced and assembled my computer, the paper mill workers who produced the reams of paper that I have read in the form of books and articles, the people who taught me how to read and write, and the students who allow me to teach them and rehearse my thoughts before writing even begins.

Aware of how the tricky mind of a perfectionist or procrastinator works, I can see that this could easily descend into another kind of mea culpa, in which the writer deplores their own attitude of laziness when so many others have made it possible for them to sit down and write. In the same way that I don’t think Bays means us to be overwhelmed by the value of the food we eat, we don’t have to feel indebted to others for our ability to write. Instead, we just need to bring a little mindfulness to our situation so that when we sit down to write, we don’t have to defend ourselves or assert ourselves as separate from others, but just say what we came to say.

Bays concludes the discussion with a quote from the well-known Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh:

A person who practices mindfulness can see things in a tangerine that others are unable to see. An aware person can see the tangerine tree, the tangerine blossoms in the spring, the sunlight and rain which nourished the tangerine. Looking deeply one can see the ten thousand things which have made the tangerine possible … and how all these things interact with each other.

It matters, then, that you and I sit down to write, not because we are ‘Authors’, but because we have something to say and ten thousand things have come together to make it possible for us to say them.

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