– Edna St. Vincent Millay
– Edna St. Vincent Millay
This is what trying to be productive in the summer can sometimes feel (see photo above). Sure, the semester is over and you’ve got a few books to read until school resumes in the fall, but that’s for later, right? Why work when there’s sunshine and beaches and picnics and trips and friends? If you’re anything like me, however, the guilt will sink in days (if not weeks!) after you’ve absconded with your sunscreen and summer playlists. The dread settles in and you are now officially behind with your work. What to do? From my experience, I found that planning, discipline, and, believe it or not, lots of breaks will help you stay sane and productive throughout the blissful summer days.
*Photo of a greeting card I received from my best friend when I graduated from college.
The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million—a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbors are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine. And so on, and so on; …
Henry James from “The Preface to the New York Edition” of The Portrait of a Lady (1908).
I was reading casually through Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (New York: Delacorte Press, 2012) edited by Dan Wakefield to take a break from some assigned reading and I found myself looking for Kurt Vonnegut’s letters to his daughter Nanny. His letters to her are funny, snarky at times, but always heartfelt. His letters carry this sense of conversation—like the recipient had just left speaking with him and he’s written a note to continue it with his own stories and thoughts. I think the best letters tend to have this quality. Here’s one from November 14, 1977.
November 14, 1977
[New York City]
TO NANNY VONNEGUT
Dearest of all possible Nans—
Two superb presents and a funny-sad letter from you—on my fifty-fifth birthday. Much obliged. A couple of other family birthdays this month: Allie’s is on the 18th, Father’s on the 23rd. I miss them. Father was a failed artist, but not an envious one. The beautiful work you and Edie are doing now would have given him exactly as much joy as doing it himself. Anybody’s doing good things in the arts made him bubble and croon.
I was looking through the published Letters of Anne Sexton, a Boston poet, a friend of mine who knocked herself off a couple of years ago. In one of the letters she tells of a palindrome she saw written on the side of a barn in Ireland. A palindrome, as you probably know, is a sentence that reads the same backwards as forwards—like “Madam, I’m Adam,” and “Able was I ere I saw Elba.” Here’s the one Anne saw, and it’s the best one I ever heard: “Rats live on no evil star.”
From Dan Wakefield, ed., Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (New York: Delacorte Press, 2012), p. 256. Copyright 2012 by The Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Trust
When I started my master’s program in fall 2011, I wanted to work hard and write well. I devoted my first year to doing just that. I read as much as I can, thought well and hard about my critical essays, and gave my brain the workout of its life (while trying to juggle 2 part-time jobs). And it nearly drove me insane.
By the end of my first year, I was beset with doubts, fatigue, and reader remorse (the feeling you get when you know you would love what you are reading had circumstances been different). In retrospect, it’s easy to find the culprit for this: I was out of balance. I was working hard and nothing else. I was on a harsh graduate school motto of “All work and no play makes Francesca a successful graduate student.” Clearly, “success” meant being nearly driven to pull my hair out. I felt like I was drowning in reading. I was working hard, but not smart. (This made it hard to even recall what I did last summer and if I did, in fact, enjoy it. I probably did not enjoy it as much as I could have.)
After two semesters of insomnia-inducing terror of failure (I wanted to see if it was just the adjustment to grad school or not), I’ve decided to start over—in both my philosophy and outlook—to achieve (better) balance. It’s not perfect, but I’m making progress.
For my second year of graduate school (it’s taking me three to finish–that’s a related entry on time-management and going at your own pace), I wanted to bridge the gap between “joy” and “work.”* I think this is pretty self-explanatory, but difficult to apply. It is in this liminal space that I try to do my work. This means working effectively (read: no distractions) to make sure that I read, synthesize, and critically think about my work. It doesn’t always happen all at once—it’s a recursive process (much like writing) that takes revisiting, rereading, and rethinking.
This also means that I stop to enjoy what I’m doing. If you’re anything like me (most Capricorns and results-oriented folks), I see things in terms of process, puzzles, and goals to reach. There’s not much space or time for enjoyment—and if there is enjoyment, it’s somewhere along the way, a minute (if not fleeting) moment.
And so I added another reminder (thanks to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who said the best things about most things):
I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’
I try to remind myself my reason for going back to school and for choosing a school that is rigorous and challenging: I love literature and I love to learn it. Sometimes it takes time to reflect to realize this. Other times, it takes a simple change of scene from studying in a library to an outdoor patio. Sometimes it comes from talking to friends or just sitting around with a book on literary censorship in Caroline England and finding yourself enthralled. (That one is harder for some people.)
But it does happen and I try to take notice. And I’m sure that these methods and routines will change along the way. I am, after all, going for a PhD in a few years and will definitely need to rethink some of these habits and outlook. For now, I want to live in that “middle-space” and hopefully, this will give me a more meaningful, instructive (academically and otherwise), and enjoyable journey through academia. The bridge between “work” and “joy” is one worth building. For my sanity’s sake.**
*I remembered this idea from an interview of Stephen Colbert in Rolling Stone. I’m sure other “literary” people have said similarly illuminating and wise advice, but hey, it’s Colbert that did it for me. I know. The man is a genius.
**I switched one part-time job for a less hectic one. It made a world of difference.
January has always been my favorite month. Sure, it’s the New Year (and—yes—my birthday is this month too), but for me it has always been the month that best combines renewal and reflection. We’re slowly waking up from our winter slumber, refreshed (hopefully) to face the rest of the world once again.
Clearing some space for fresh, new ideas to occupy. I hope good writing will also follow. In the meantime, here are January-related things I like.
January Hymn – The Decemberists