Monday, May 17, 2010

Stopping and quitting

Turns out I'm very good at stopping things, less so at quitting them.

The distinction is an important one, actually. Take, for example, my academic career. My trajectory past graduate school was a little nontraditional in that after (finally) graduating, my first jobs were not really in my field. I did teach philosophy courses more or less and lucked* my way into two of the best universities in the world, but I was mainly a faculty member in writing programs and not in Philosophy Departments. My plan was to fill out my list of publications and courses taught while earning (very little) money until I hit the academic job market lottery.

My number never came up — at least for a tenure-track job. I did, though, manage to take a small step into university administration (again more or less through luck). I found myself with much more time and less stress than as a "pure academic," or someone whose livelihood depends upon scholarly production and the glacial peer review process.** I could read what I wanted, write for whomever I pleased.

But for some reason, even though I stopped my academic research, I couldn't quite quit it. I'd find myself browsing the on-line article databases, collecting PDFs to read on the train home, starting fresh Word files with titles heavy on clever. Those Word files usually stayed short while the pile of unread articles grew, as did the list of non-academic writing projects that I wanted to pursue.

Okay, sure, it's understandably hard to quit the career I spent over a decade preparing and striving for, particularly since I'm still part of a university, still showing up in classrooms to talk about ideas. At this point, however, I will have no professor position — the job market is too tight and my resume is too anemic. The life of an academic isn't as glorious as it used to be, too, given the terrible pay and ridiculous politics inevitable with groups of people who can't be fired. I have every reason to quit entirely.

Quitting can be glorious. The Boy had been a solid member of his school's chess club, which meant going nearly an hour early to school each Thursday and Friday for lessons and scrimmages. Then there were the three-hour practices one Saturday afternoon a month, and frequent tournaments. He only ended up competing in two of them (he was snowed out once), and the second he won first place in his division. (He even brought the first-place trophy for his first show-and-tell turn.) He liked chess. He wanted to play chess.

And then he didn't. About a month ago or so, The Boy no longer sped out of the house on Thursdays and Fridays, even though his best friend kept at it. Each time we asked him whether he wanted to go to lessons or practice, he answered with a firm "No." That was it; he was done. Space in his head once reserved for chess is now occupied by baseball, and he's the freer for it.

Why is quitting so hard? Perhaps for the same reasons that ending things are hard. As a friend of mine once nicely put it:
For me, however, starting is fairly easy; the drama of writer’s block is largely alien to me. To the extent that starting is mysterious, that’s more-or-less okay, because, even if you can’t dial it up at will, the whole process is one of getting from nothing to something. Starting is a practical problem, easily overcome, if it’s a problem at all. Finishing is a metaphysical problem, full of subtleties and abysses. Finishing involves knowing –knowing!—when something is enough (for what?), when something that hasn’t existed before is finally wholly and completely itself.

Well, that’s enough of that.
He's talking here about academic writing in particular, but the lesson applies wider, I think. Knowing when something is enough is the hard part, and merely stopping without quitting only causes the commitment part to accrue. The commitment outstanding means being haunted by something else I should be doing, regardless of what I'm doing at any particular moment. I've got to figure out how to finally quit some things and free myself for others.

There's more to say about all of this, of course, but I'll stop here.

*Luck had everything to do with it, but I'm pretty sure that I deserved and earned my right to be at those fancy schmancy places.
**I once submitted an article to a journal for publication, and the editor held on to it for a year before finally telling me that he didn't think he'd send it out for review. The article eventually found a home, but since sending work out to multiple journals at the same time is considered poor form, I was put back quite a bit. And everyone in academia has similar stories.


Anonymous said...

As always, very thought-provoking and intriguing topic. Maybe, because I have as well "stopped" in my career but refuse to "quit" is why I find your comments so heartfelt and sincere and important and vital to me right now. Thank you for your unknowingly supportive comments and making us feel like we are human and normal as we struggle to find meaning in our nonsensical behavior and habits and as we struggle awkwardly through life. It is hard to sometimes comprehend why we do things, and why it is so important to keep those dreams we have had and nurtured for so many years alive. Part of me says it is for my kids to teach them never to quit, and the other part of me selfishly likes the struggle, and the final victory at the end is that much sweeter because of it. Thanks again for your amazing articles and insights. As always they are very inspiring and beautifully written.

Nathan said...

Thought provoking indeed. I wonder about myself after reading this. During grad school, I discovered that research isn't really what I thought, but I'm still doing it. Is it because I enjoy it, or because I can't quit? The fact that I don't know the answer worries me. Thanks for the prod.


teahouse said...

You are a beautiful writer, and if you bring just a tiny part of the thoughtfulness and eloquence to your papers as you do to this blog, I am sure it's only a matter of time before someone publishes your work!