A Note from Jo: This post has been repubished from Liz Gloyn’s own blog site, because it is relevant to the struggles I know my clients and Studio members unfortunately go through on a regular basis.
Term has finished, the Christmas tree is up, and I’ve got a week before annual leave kicks in… so obviously now is a great time to head into the emotional badlands!
This post is prompted by my experience over the last four or five months of returning to a project which really came together in 2019 and, to my surprise, doesn’t seem to have appeared very much on the blog at the time or since. I say surprise, because it has become central to – well, quite a lot, actually, which is where this post is going in exploring some of the ways that the pandemic is still extending a long, long shadow.
Let’s begin at the very beginning, for it is a very good place to start. That time is autumn 2019, when I went on a two term sabbatical with impeccable timing. Various things gently exploded before the pandemic made itself properly felt in March 2020, but despite the chaos, I managed to get an article drafted and submitted to a journal. The content of the article and the journal actually aren’t that important for what I want to explore here – suffice to say it’s a prestige journal and I had big ambitions. I was also at the stage (because of the chaos) where I couldn’t work out what else to do with it, and needed readers’ reports to tell me what to do next. So I sent the article off… in, yes, December 2019. I can’t think why it took the journal a while to get me my readers’ reports back… but they arrived, in August 2020 (which, given there was a pandemic, was absolutely fine). The problem was that they turned up just as I was about to launch into the 2020-21 academic year, with its massive pivot to teaching on-line and redoing more or less all your teaching materials, plus school-at-home during lockdowns and – look, I don’t need to justify to anyone why I didn’t jump straight into revisions, you all get it.
The problem, however, continued. Summer 2021 was not the year for doing Heavy Intellectual Lifting, and in any case I had chapters promised to collected volumes which had deadlines and needed doing. Maybe I could have made a start in summer 2022, but then the opportunity to work with Dorling Kindersley on their new Rome volume came along, and that took up all the time and brainspace available. Despite wanting to crack on during the 2022-23 academic year, other deadlines needed attention, and when I looked at the work that needed doing on this bold and ambitious piece, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do it during term time alongside a new major admin role.
So the first time I got back to this article was this summer, when I read a lot, both to do the things that the readers’ reports wanted me to do, and to remind me about what I had wanted to say in the first place. However, a new problem presented itself – namely, that working on the article was no longer just about the article. Working on the article had instead become tightly bound up with all sorts of other emotional baggage accumulated over the initial phases of the pandemic, lockdowns, the return to the classroom, and the intervening years. Some of it relates to family circumstances I won’t detail here, but the overall themes are, I think, general – fear of never being able to do academic work again, of not being good enough, of not being even adequate, of not being able to think, of letting people down, of letting myself down, of everything sliding into the abyss.
Stuck. The article came to stand for the fact that I was stuck. In stasis, held in the middle of a whole boatload of unprocessed emotion which had built up since autumn 2019.
None of this is, of course, in the slightest bit rational. I clearly can still think. I have plans for research beyond this article. I am making progress on revising the article; I will eventually finish it. There is no collected volume deadline being held up by me taking my time to make this the best research it can be.
Research is a problematic aspect of academic culture. It is easy to reach the stage of internalising that our self-worth is equated with our research; it’s one reason why peer review can do so much damage with careless or actively hostile readers in the mix. When you feel as if you are not doing research, that thing which makes you worth something, it poses a challenge to your sense of self. And when that inability to get on with something is tied up with all the left-over processing from a pandemic – well, the language I’ve been using is that it hits the emotional taproot. It goes straight to the bottom of all the most vulnerable bits of self, even if, really, revising an article manuscript isn’t that deep. It is, as I say, no longer about the article manuscript.
This has been a new experience for me, I’ll be honest. I’ve not had a piece of work get this embroiled in the emotional archaeology before. (In fairness, I’ve never lived through a global pandemic before, let alone all the rest.) The general sense of doom didn’t really kick in until the start of the autumn term – or, to be more accurate, at the point when I actually needed to start engaging with the manuscript (pristine since December 2019, let us not forget) rather than reading more and more of the things. I have only realised what’s going on after many conversations with several very patient, kind and wise people, where things have slotted into place. As ever, knowing what is going on helps it all to feel less daunting, but that emotional baggage is still there.
However, there is good news. The fear, the anxiety, is about being stuck. Whatever else is going to happen, this piece is not going to be stuck. In the last six months, I’ve done lots of reading, worked out a revised structure and argument, and created what I am calling a Frankendraft to knit into a new shape. It will be off my desk and back with the (very patient) journal editors, hopefully before the end of the academic year. Perhaps part of processing the emotional bindweed that has crept up around this piece is about working through that intellectual work, paradoxically going to an emotional place that words can’t go by doing the intellectual work of generating the words.
I share this not as a confessional, but because I suspect what I have described is far from unique to me. Perhaps you will read this and go ‘ah, that is what is going on’. Perhaps you were quicker on the uptake than I was (not difficult). Whatever response you may have – if this resonates, you are not alone. May you, too, find ways to begin becoming unstuck.
This post was reublished from Liz Gloyn’s blog. It has been lightly edited.