On the Academic and the Personal

[A word to the wise: what follows is twice as long as it ought to be, and very rambly. I’m operating on three nights in a row of three hours of sleep, and am correspondingly stupid beyond belief.]

I’ve expended a tremendous amount of energy over the last several months in searching out ways to take this site seriously (yesterday’s entry notwithstanding) as a both a locus for and a form of scholarly thought. And that’s been good. I’m largely proud of this site and the conversations that have taken place here, pleased with the writing I’ve done and even more so with the friends I’ve made.

But there are a couple of problems, and I’m not quite sure how to characterize them. They’re multi-faceted, as problems usually are. Here’s the first one: aside from the writing I’ve done here, and a few other ancillary texts (the response to my press’s outside reader’s reports, for instance), I’ve done no writing whatsoever since the summer ended. And since the summer was almost entirely taken up with research toward the INP, the result is that I’ve done no new scholarly writing in a long, long time.

Of course, I can’t blame this entirely on the blog. There’s been that little tenure review thing, the manuscript review thing, this weekend’s conference. And the teaching thing, and my insane expectations thereof. (Any of my former students reading herein would no doubt be happy to corroborate my claim that I assign what can only be described as ass-loads of reading; my current students would no doubt chime in that this semester I’ve assigned about 30% more reading than usual, and the usual is usually too much already. Call it a math problem: on a three-day-a-week teaching schedule, there are a third more class sessions during the semester than I’m used to; in designing the two new classes I’m teaching right now, I stupidly put as much material into each class session as I usually do on a twice-a-week schedule, with the result that… well, let’s just say that even I can’t keep up with my assignments.)

All that’s beside the point, though, which point is that despite the fact that I know, rationally, that I can’t blame the blog for my failure to get any new writing done in the last few months, I’m nonetheless unsettled about the ontological status of the blog within my writing life, at the moment.

The other issue may be thornier, or may in fact be simpler. I’m not sure which. Maybe it’s simpler, but harder on some level to admit to.

It’s this: really, the thing I want to be writing right now is fiction. A novel. One I’ve wanted to write for years. And I can see ahead of me, in the middle distance, the freedom to do so, arriving shortly, announced by a phone call from the dean. [Insert video of me compulsively knocking on every wooden surface I can find, which, considering I’m writing from an Airbus 319 somewhere over the midwest, is not many.]

There’s a risk involved in this, of course. It’s been years since I’ve written any fiction, and while I’ve gotten to a point of relative confidence with my scholarly writing, knowing that, even if a first draft of an article is terrible, I can just slave away at it and get feedback and slave away some more until it doesn’t suck. But a novel: what if I spend years on it, and no amount of slavage makes it unsucky?

Here’s the other risk — and this is the one that impinges on the blog a bit: the center of the novel is derived (if only loosely) from certain aspects of my (pretty much nonexistent) relationship with my father. And there’s some autobiographical writing I’d like to do here around that actual relationship as a means of sorting through some of the issues therein. And that is a clear change in my “no blogging about the personal life” policy that I’ve had since starting. (A policy apparently so strict that I apparently can’t even bring myself to refer to it as my personal life — a very odd and, I assume, unconscious slip.)

All this by way of announcing, around the back way, and through a dozen caveats and diversions, that I may be adding some new material here shortly, doing some thinking about personal stuff out here in public. And also by way of thinking through my nervousness about it.

This nervousness — really, it feels a bit akin to that dream where you realize you’ve gone to class naked — has a lot to do with the absolute separation I’ve had in place between my academic life and my personal life for close to eleven years now; my partner and I have been in a commuter relationship all that time, and so my personal life has gotten conducted out of sight of my colleagues, for the most part, and my work life has happened in his absence. In 2004, though, both will be in the same place, and so I’m wondering, on many levels, how one does this mixing of the academic and the personal on a regular basis. That kind of mixing — and the kind of exposure I feel like I’m about to venture out into in terms of my writing, both here and elsewhere — feels like a paradigm shift to me, and yet it’s the kind of thing that most academics, and many bloggers, have always dealt with, and enjoyed.

I suppose it’s a question of redrawing boundaries — having the line between my academic and my personal lives geographically determined for me for so long, I’m uncertain about how to draw that line in the absence of natural borders. With the blog, too: the decision not to write about my personal life was never really made consciously, but if I’m going to allow myself to venture now in a memoir-esque direction, how will I know where to stop?

11 thoughts on “On the Academic and the Personal

  1. Where do you stop?

    Remembering the whole boundaries and professorial context hooha a few months ago, it becomes apparent that we have different stopping points – and these are changeable.

    It’s a good question, but it does make me interested in seeing where you’ll go.

  2. I wrote a long comment here, Kathleen, but haven’t posted it because it’s more about me than you. Thank you for this entry, though; I’ll try to come up with another comment that *is* about your own quandaries.

  3. Great post! What’s ironic is that many people in business and industry are facing the opposite quandry: they’re afraid to discuss their professional lives on their blogs for fear of being fired, chastised, etc. This guy is only the latest one to feel the axe. And he thought he was operating within the acceptable boundaries of weblog posting…

  4. Do you realize you may have taken the first step here?

    So much of what you’ve said resonates with me: the fear of “exposure,” the desire to write while fearing one’s absolute failure at it, the knowing when to stop.

    The greatest danger is in not doing what you want to do. I really believe that.

    Good luck.

  5. Would a glass of warm milk help you get some sleep? Assuming you want a bit more sleep.

    You don’t have to blog a respons to the next question but you might want to write it up somewhere handy for you to refer back to. When at Claremont in the current work/profession site of your living, how do you unwind before attending to getting a good night’s sleep? When you are located in that place where the personal sphere of activity is played out, do you have a similar or different routine for unwinding and balancing sleep with waking hours?

    This asking about how do you begin to do a certain activity is a sense a temporalization of Weez’s framing the problematic in terms of knowing when to stop. I have a hunch that while you have been unable to write you have been “composing”. Is there an expectation when the parts of your life will become integrated that the time to be devoted to your personal relationship will cut into your “composition” time? Is this about budgeting? Anticipating a redistribution of travel time?

    Again you don’t have to answer the question. It may not be the one most appropriate to your situation, your academic or personal situation. I have been very careful to observe a wholistic situation — you may indeed be faced with a set of situations. The plural construction would indeed complicate any resolution.

  6. Couldn’t leave that multiplication of a situation into a set of situations suspended like a red herring. Back in the summer KF wrote:

    “The risk, then, resides in sending ideas out into the world before they’re fully formed, in inviting disagreement with whatever half-baked nonsense I produce.”

    And recently referenced it in the entry to which this comment is appended. I find it very interesting that what is left suspended there is the naming of the intelocutor from which the disgargreement will come. Indeed, as revealed in the comments to that entry, the is scenario of later disagreement with what the self had written previously is contemplated.

    Now in reference to the sleep and time budgeting remarks above… can one shorten the intervals in the dialogue with the self? Can one play out the game of disagreement within one positing? The blog form could allow for the experimentation with a different type of voicing in the entry as opposed to the comments? Can the blog form help exteriorize a dialogic mode of writing?

    The answer is patently yes. I think what I have read of KF’s entries so far is that KF is willing to send out the half-baked, the still-in-formation. I suspect that KF is able to respond to the nonsense — her nonsense and my nonsense, too. In my reading, the situation is not so much about boundary crossing but about risking response, risking observable response.

    I have a wonderful tingling sensation that KF is on the verge of permitting a display of a split, multiple and layered subjectivity. A very postmodern Hallowe’en!

  7. I don’t blog, but some of my best friends are bloggers. My 2 cents (reductive and opinionated, so be warned):

    Gaddis’s short-lived blog makes a good example: blogging steals the fire. Unless you’re Choire Sicha or someone like that (i.e., using blogging to vault you into a career), you might be better off using the blog to stay in touch, get a bit of feedback, and test things out but generally being selfish with your creative energies.

    There’s a reason the bulk of the most popular, most entertaining blogs are written by twenty-somethings: they don’t have kids and impending tenure reviews and mortgage applications and bunion surgery. AND they don’t mind spilling their guts about their personal lives, which, I must admit, can be riveting in a reality-series-like way. AND they’re not too worried about getting fired from their entry-level jobs.

    Okay, K, the following doesn’t apply to you, since I’m not worried you’ll start telling us things we didn’t want to know. It’s just a reason to be wary of those people who “enjoy” exposing themselves to their colleagues and strangers just a little too much.

    If you’re still displaying too much personal life in your blog when you’re in your thirties, you probably haven’t matured enough to be very interesting. Or you don’t have much going on in your life–which also contributes to uninteresting writing. Or you haven’t learned that, if you’re going to alienate friends and family and coworkers, for god’s sake don’t do it for free! At least get a book deal out of airing everybody’s embarrassing secrets!

    I don’t mean to chase you off from putting personal stuff here. I guess I’m just saying I’d love to read the novel you describe, and I don’t want a blog to siphon the impetus away. Still like me?

  8. There are at least two issues in your post, KF, that I think are worth responding to. But I don’t have the slightest notion about how to respond to the first — the question about how to think about integrating the “personal” into the blog. You’ve always struck me as so nicely bridging the distance between casual thought/cracking wise and the subject of your teaching and research in this space that if pressed for an example of how the personal and the professional might co-exist in a blog with grace, I might point them here.

    But, as you point out, the “personal” also consists of a whole realm of stuff outside of casual thoughts about books, cracking wise about comment spam, and updating your readers on how close the flames have come (needless to interject I’ve been relieved to check in and discover you safe) — there’s that stuff that does make one feel quite vulnerable to commit to ‘net. A lot of stuff. I rarely blog in detail about my marriage or my family, if only because that involves other people so closely that I always think “I wonder what s/he will think if s/he reads this?” and chicken out. Sometimes I wish I was the kind of writer who could do that — but I don’t think I am. So, yeah, um…that’s hard. And good luck.

    The other issue, about the fiction: while I think M. may be overstating the case in the “steals the fire” argument, I believe there is certainly something to be cautious about. As I’ve been working on fiction in the context of a writing group, I’m painfully aware that sharing the early-stage drafts — good in itself for spurring me on — I invite conversation about what I’m up to, and my own thoughts about it have been somewhat contaminated by the early responses by my readers. I never thought this would feel like a bad thing: I solicited response and input along the way. But there’s been something in me lately that believes that a certain amount of isolation is a part of the fiction enterprise (even though what I’m working on is trivial). I can’t imagine blogging my ideas in progress, not because I fear other people’s negative responses, but because I’m aware that they…this may sound nuts…lose something, become quotidian, begin to lack lustre, once they float around in front of too many eyes.

    Which isn’t to say that will feel this way at all for you. Perhaps another way of thinking about it: I’ve discovered that my “fiction writer” voice is startlingly different than the voice I feel happy in writing on the blog. Putting the two out there together would feel like trying to tell a ghost story in a crowded, bustling pizzeria.

    Again, your milage may differ. As always, I’ll be eager to read whatever you deign to share.

  9. Thank you all for the comments, and the additional questions, and the concern, and the advice. I’ve been pondering all this for the last few days, and trying to process a response. You raise many of the issues that have kept me from venturing down the primrose path of personal-blogging thus far: there’s something a bit self-absorbed and self-indulgent about the entire enterprise that is absolutely entwined with a youth that I’m rather happy, most of the time, to have left behind. (Seriously, if I’d have had a blog at 20 — oh, and lord knows, if the technology had existed, I would have — how mortifying would be the lingering traces of that? I can’t even go back and re-read my old journals from ten/fifteen years ago; I’m embarrassed for myself, and I was my only audience.) (Which is to highlight, in a certain sense, at least, that this is not just a blog-related issue; I loathe the memoir as a print-form, mostly because I find 80 percent of them self-absorbed and self-indulgent and entirely TMI.)

    So there’s never been, at least not since entering the decade I’m now a little over halfway through, much danger of my suddenly airing all the dirty laundry of my life all over the place — but even the slightest suggestion that I might be doing so has kept me from the personal here. The other issue that Mariah and BT both raise is, I think, more of a danger, and one that I’m seriously pondering: the “steals the fire” problem. Gibson did point out (and you didn’t mean Gibson, did you, Mariah? Gaddis really had a blog? If so, how disappointed am I to have missed it) that blogging requires a kind of daily attention and a kind of writerly brain-space that can easily crowd out the other kinds of writing that one ought to be doing — easily because those other kinds of writing require slow, sustained attention over long periods of time, without the instantaneous gratification of blog-publishing. No conversations with the audience. No links from other writers. Years of labor between the inception of an idea and its seeing the light of day. It’s easier and more satisfying, on some level, just to blog — and yet there’s something about the permanence of the book that the blog can never approximate, and one likes to think that some ideas are too big for this format.

    But yes. So. I worry that blogging will keep me from other writing. I worry that blogging about the other writing will (as BT suggests) provide for potentially stultifying feedback. On the other hand, I want very much to explore the kinds of possibilities that rhubarb (on her own blog) and Cindy and Francois suggest: a multi-layered subjectivity that is always caught in the act of encountering its own incompleteness. There will be experiments, soon. You’ll probably recognize them when you see them.

    Oh, and Francois: thanks for being concerned about my sleep. Alas, the lack thereof mostly had to do with travel — early flights, time zone changes — and the conference, but after a few days’ rest, I’m feeling a bit more myself. Whoever that is…

  10. Oops–Gibson indeed. Sigh.

    Gibson, Gaddis, Gñdel, Godot, Goebbels, George Gobel–who can keep them all straight?

    Bring on the experiments and especially the novel.

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