or else / just because

The last time I posted, summer hadn’t even happened yet.  And now it is so over.  I lost track of time a little bit.  And I ran out of my words.

The past five months or so have been unusually deadline-intensive (and we aren’t done yet): a logorrheic scramble that included the submission of the full draft manuscript for my second book project.

Most people who write insist that it’s a naturally cyclical process, that periods of being stuck will be followed by stretches of productivity … that give way, eventually, onto new deserts of wordlessness, which in turn lead to insights that beget the next profusion, and so on.  And that’s pretty much been my experience, though I don’t yet have the confidence to sit through the dry spells with poise, equanimity, and faithful anticipation of the return of my words.  Mostly I pass those seasons in torrents of profanity, interspersed with sniveling.

Professionally, I was super relieved when my creative mind finally got unstuck after months of feeling disordered and cottony.  This dislodging happened with just barely enough time left for me to meet my various and sundry writing commitments with the delivery of products that were reasonably complete and not too embarrassing.

But the urgency of these commitments artificially accelerated my progress back to writing.  This was not a steady and natural movement back into the circuit that links my ideas to hands to words on a page.  It was necessary and desperate.  The resultant work was decent, maybe even better than that in places.  But it did not, does not, feel quite like it is mine.  It feels familiar, but vaguely, as if composed on my behalf by someone who knows me very well.

Writing from the vantage of or else begets a particular kind of alienation.  I tend to idealize writing as the luxury part of my job, the part of my work that bears the least resemblance to general understanding of what “work” entails.  Especially now that I’m tenured, writing is the work that I “get” to do, at least theoretically.  But it doesn’t feel that way.

It’s hardly a revelation that work is supposed to indistinguishable from pleasure under late capitalism, and that this is a problem.   This affective blurring at the intersection of desire and necessity is part of what makes neoliberalism tolerable, and it’s particularly (though not uniquely) acute for academics.

But the work/pleasure nexus has been iterating itself differently in my writing practice lately.  Finding myself somewhat disconnected from the content, yoked to deadlines and editorial predilections rather the exploration and refinement of ideas, writing feels less like intellectual pleasure and less like creative work and more like mechanical habit.

Yeah, it was kind of like this.

After I submitted my manuscript draft I exhaled.  And then thought about how I was now freer … to do more work.  And not really any work in particular, no long-neglected pet project or some experimental new venture.  Just: work.

This kind of productivity is not the opposite of writer’s block, except in the most functional terms.  It’s a different kind of incapacity, to think for the sake of thinking, to write just because instead of or else.  Hence the long stretch of quiet in this space, and elsewhere in my life.

I have a few more commitments to satisfy, a few more writerly have-tos in the coming weeks.  And, now that I think about it, a handful after that.

Despite this, I want to reclaim just because writing.  At the same time, I want to insist on the difference between work and not-work.  This distinction is important, I think, for personal, mental hygiene reasons, but also political ones.  It’s a privilege, surely, to be able to enjoy one’s work.  But work itself is not the privilege.  And there is a cost to misrecognizing it as a pleasure.

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