Yes, dear reader, I am writing this blog contribution instead of writing a conference paper. But, I am also at that point where I just finished writing another paper, and felt I couldn’t tackle another heavy-duty bout of academic writing without taking a break. The irony is not lost on me. Are all English students and academics destined to take a bus man’s holiday? Do we read as respite from reading, and write to relax from writing? Let’s face it, we all play those rewards games with ourselves: If I write three pages of my dissertation, I can write a few emails. If I finish this theory book, I can read the latest bestseller lying on the swing in my patio. But what happens when we hit a writing wall, when you receive a nasty peer review, or when editors fire back comments that make you question your abilities as a writer? How do we overcome those blows to our self-esteem and look past a failed a project? In other words, how do we keep on writing, researching, and thinking about academic work when we have encountered rejection?
Some well-known fiction writers recommend having several projects on the go to keep the creative juices flowing. Certainly, if one article is turned down, I don’t panic as I have two more ideas I am developing which I can then submit to other journals. If one abstract is not accepted, I can tweak it and submit it to two other conferences. If a chapter is not working, there is always something I can salvage, and use it as a starting point for a revision. If I don’t feel like tackling an academic article, I will write a book review, or a blog posting, or work on formatting a bibliography.
All of the above methods work well for me, but the one thing that seems to work better at times is to do nothing. Nothing related to academic writing, that is. Sometimes when I have a deadline, I eat, live, and breathe the project without being truly productive. I burn out early on, freeze up, and then enter a vicious circle of panicking about not writing because I don’t have the energy to write, and I don’t have the energy to write because I have been thinking too much about writing. This is the point where smocking, embroidery, sewing, and gourmet cooking come in.
I recently spent weekend sewing a First Communion dress for my niece because I had hit a wall on writing a conference paper. When I was stuck for an idea on a chapter, I began embroidering the front piece of blouse. I prepared an elaborate four-course meal the week before a national conference presentation. These projects require following a lot of instructions. With my mind fully engaged and focused on them, there is no room for anxious thoughts about papers that may be due. Moreover, I get a great self-esteem boost from seeing the finished projects. These tangential results of my efforts reinforce the fact that I have not lost certain skills that I can produce some great work, and that I am able to follow a project from start to finish. When it’s time to get back to the academic project, I do so with renewed vigour, and sometimes one or two extra pounds, but overall with a more positive perspective.
So, if you ever come over to my house, and I offer you a triple-layered hazelnut chocolate mousse cake with coffee ganache and raspberry coulis for dessert, it is probably because I am in the middle of a major writing project!
Lourdes Arciniega is a PhD Candidate at the University of Calgary