By Adam Katz
For me, this blog is part of a larger shift in focus from academic writing to personal writing. For a year after grad school, I was trying to force myself to read academic articles, and, ultimately, to write one of my own. And now I’m reading science fiction books instead, and writing one of my own.
Let me back up a step.
I finished my PhD late in 2019. The whole thing was a rush job, because I was afraid I would not be able to graduate if I didn’t do it then. I started the dissertation around 2013 but kept putting it off. First because I was having relationship issues and just couldn’t focus on both. Then because I was starting a new teaching job and just couldn’t focus on both. And so on, until it was almost too late. And then I went full speed, finished it, defended, and was out. So the whole thing took about a decade, and at the end I was still short on time.
Anyway, after the dissertation was done I decided to change gears and work on an article for a while. During the early months of Covid. When everything was hectic and everyone’s survival felt uncertain and I couldn’t even maintain the attention-span necessary to read for pleasure, much less to read the kinds of things I needed to read in order to finish the article—if only writing an article about Doctor Faustus meant reading things as interesting as the Marlowe play. But no, it meant reading long-winded 16th century treatises on witchcraft, essays on the extent to which Marlowe was influenced by the 16th century French Humanist Petrus Ramus, and ancient roman dialogues and treatises about. All of which might once have appealed to, even excited, me. But I just wasn’t able to get it up academically anymore.
So then my friend Andrew was talking about starting a podcast and I thought that was just the sort of project I needed to jumpstart my writing. And it was for a while. The podcast made me reconnect with my academic roots and Andrew and I started hanging out more, including spending hours on Zoom together just to write. Progress started getting itself made somehow. But it was torture. I hate footnoting. I hate making bibliographies. I hate all of it. I had written the argument. It was a decent argument. Wasn’t that enough?
So a couple months ago now, I decided to take a break. There were some creative pieces I had left on the sideboard for a while, and I wanted to get back into them. One of them was a novel I’d written about 200 pages toward; I had put it aside so I could finish my dissertation; then I had put it aside again so I could finish my article. This was a pattern. I decided to break it.
It’s a few months later. I’m up to 330 pages. And I regret nothing. Nobody is paying me to write (which is no different from before). I’m doing it because I love it.
No that’s not quite right. I’m doing it because I want to see how the story I’m writing ends.
No that’s not quite right either. I’m doing it because I think writing has value. Just like practicing piano. Just like painting or riding a bicycle. It’s an activity I find fills my life with meaning. So I keep doing it. It occurs to me: this is not how I felt about academic writing; not for a long time now. You know you’re burnt out if you feel about your academic writing the way Kay felt about haymaking in The Once and Future King:
“The Wart loved hay-making, and was good at it. Kay, who was two years older, generally stood on the edge of the bundle which he was trying to pick up, with the result that he worked twice as hard as the Wart for only half the result. But he hated to be beaten at anything and used to fight away with the wretched hay—which he loathed like poison—until he was quite sick.” (Chapter 1).
I kept saying to myself: write this article and then you’ll be that much closer to getting a job at a university. Write this article and you’ll be that much closer to knowing what to do with your dissertation, which you can turn into a book proposal, which you can turn into a tenure-track position with a robe and golden tassel. But “write this article because…” also means when I’m depressed. When I don’t feel like working. When I can’t bear to see another footnote.
So I’m doing this instead for the foreseeable future. And, periodically, if you like, I’ll let you know how it’s going. For now, it’s going better than before. Which… you know what? I’ll take it.