When a writer is a PhD student, on the job market, or on the tenure track, the question of which writing projects she needs to build into the year often has a rigid answer. Answers might look like: two chapters to finish the degree on time or a book proposal before third-year review.
Or, worse, in response to systems characterized by unclear metrics, the answer might just be as much as humanly possible. I felt this way when going up for tenure. Whatever the bar was, I wanted to try to establish some air between it and me.
After tenure, the pressure to publish comes off, but not always in ways that writers find fruitful. For one thing, tenure often comes with increased responsibilities: chairing committees, taking on major departmental service, more graduate mentoring. For another, the time at which women achieve tenure often corresponds to increases in care responsibilities, whether for aging parents, partners who develop health conditions, or children. In my own case, I followed the relatively common pattern of having babies after tenure, which means that my time is less my own than ever before.
When I was on the job market and then pre-tenure, I developed good writing habits as a way to ease anxiety about job security. Many of these habits remain in place, but the old pattern of proposing a conference paper, using the paper to incubate an article, and then turning the articles into chapters and then a book has grown a little stale. Whether it’s burnout, a pandemic that’s got me feeling isolated from my scholarly community, or middle age, there’s a growing sense of “what is it all for?”
Talking with friends and colleagues, I don’t get the sense that I’m alone on this one. Without external, if scary, motivations to write and publish, the mid-career writer may find the need to tap into new sources of inspiration, perhaps now more than ever.
By inspiration, I don’t mean the heavens opening up and a passion for writing a peer-reviewed journal article striking while you’re out jogging through the neighborhood, causing you to scrawl an outline with a neighborhood child’s chalk that’s carelessly been left out overnight. Although, if that’s you, God Bless and please leave my girls’ chalk when you’re done.
Instead, I’ll offer here a few types of motivation that mid-career academic writers might use when selecting among writing projects for the coming year.
The quick win
It’s been a year. Frankly, it’s been several years. If you’ve been in a slump or feeling like you’ve really lost touch with your writing over the course of the pandemic, you are in good company. In addition to the stress, trauma, and increased workload many have experienced, academic writers have also lost many of the material supports for their writing. Archives were closed, conferences canceled, and so on. If you feel like you just need a little help getting back in the saddle or back on the horse (use your preferred equine metaphor), you might select the project that is closest to being done to focus on. This could look like an old seminar paper that received positive feedback, a revise and resubmit you could bang out, or a conference paper for which it wouldn’t be too difficult to build a frame. Work with a friend or mentor to create a concrete and time-bound plan for finishing and bang that puppy (pony?) out.
The social project
Lots of folks have been feeling isolated by the pandemic and writing can be a lonely task. Moreover, friends who have different family situations have grown distant and sometimes resentful of one another. For a great essay on this, see Anne Helen Peterson’s “How to Show Up for Your Friends without Kids—and How to Show Up for Kids and Their Parents.” If there’s no writing project that has you super jazzed, what about reaching out to an academic friend you’d like to be connecting with on a more regular basis and seeing if there’s something the two of you might collaborate on? Even if you’re not in a position to try this strategy right now, it might be helpful to set up either a regular or Zoom writing date to blend the need for social connection with your writing practice.
The new audience
If you only write for academic audiences, you might find it enlivening to write public-facing pieces about your research area or research-adjacent areas. If you want a low barrier to entry, you could try a blog. If you would like social accountability, you could blog with your students this year. If you need the greater feeling of accomplishment that comes with traditional publication, you might consider brainstorming what’s topical about your research and pitching to news outlets or magazines that publish researched essays. Having to write in a new way and convince editors and lay audiences about what’s cool about your research topic might remind you of its import. What’s the most poignant or funny anecdote from your research of late?
The learning goal
This is where I’ve landed. The next book I’m writing won’t be surprising to people who know me. I’m continuing to do archival research on a figure who has been at the center of my conference presentations and article publishing over the last several years. However, rather than writing another thesis-forward book, I’m working on a biography. This is new ground and it’s a little scary. To tackle the thing, I’m returning to student mode. I’ve assigned myself some model biographies to read and I’ll be auditing a class in my campus’s journalism school this fall. Being a novice and taking my status as a learner seriously is bringing a different kind of pleasure to this next project.
Whichever strategy you try, I hope you’ll find the writing you need for the year.
Katherine Fusco is associate professor of English at the University of Nevada at Reno. She also works as a coach, helping faculty connect to values and meaningful goals at midcareer. You can learn more about her at KatherineFusco.com.