Theodora Goss

Trying to Recover

I’m still trying to recover from this academic year.

It’s been the hardest academic year I’ve had since the one in which I finished my doctoral dissertation (when I went to see a therapist every Thursday, like clockwork). The strange thing is, I’m not sure why it’s been so hard — this time, there’s no particular reason, no single thing that has made the year difficult. It’s just been the workload. Somehow, I’ve felt like a machine, producing producing producing, always for other people. Producing lesson plans, assignment sheets, comments on finished work. Even the work I love to do, whether writing a paper about fairy-tale heroines or a book on girl monsters, has often felt like a chore, something I needed to complete. There has been very little joy this year.

I should not complain, because I’m incredibly lucky. I have a job I mostly love and that gives me a lot of freedom. I have a lovely apartment in a city I like living in. I’m healthy, and when I’m not, I have healthcare. I have a book coming out, which is of course a dream come true. I have a smart, creative, wonderful daughter. I’m deeply, truly grateful for all those things.

At the same time, there is an underlying problem. I can see it when I look at my files: this year, I’ve written one very short story and eight poems. Granted, I’ve been writing the sequel to my first book, and at the moment that’s 200K words long. When I sent it to my editor, months late and much longer than it was supposed to be, my only comment was, “Is this actually two books?” But this is a year in which I’ve written very little for the sheer joy of it, simply because I wanted to. (I love that second book, but I’m not naturally a writer who goes to that length — my comfort zone for a novel is 80K to 120K words.) And perhaps most importantly, I’ve been consistently, persistently tired. I never get enough sleep — that’s partly a function of having so much to do that I keep pushing myself, staying up late and getting up early, and partly being so anxious about all the deadlines and obligations that I don’t sleep well.

Not getting enough sleep is the worst. It’s the thing that throws everything else off. Last night I didn’t mean to stay up until 4 a.m. finishing some work, and yet there I was, yet again. I was awake by 8:30 this morning. I don’t care what CEO boasts about getting four hours of sleep a night — it’s not enough, not for me, not anyone, and yet all year I’ve been getting by on four to six hours a night. No wonder I feel sick . . .

So I need to recover. The question is, how? Get more sleep, obviously, but that’s also a symptom of deeper problems. Eat well, exercise. I’m actively working on those. Above my desk, tacked to my corkboard, I have inspirational quotations, because that’s who I am, inspirational-quotation-girl. Well, some of them are admonitory, there to remind me of things I tend to forget. Among them is a picture I drew of a pyramid with three levels. The bottom level is sleep, the next one up is diet and exercise in equal measure, and the top of the pyramid, the peaky hat, is joy. You need the things in the bottom two layers, but you need joy as well: it filters down from that top layer and affects whether you can keep up with the things we assume are more basic. I, too, tend to assume that joy is a sort of extra, something you can get once you fulfill the duties (sleep, diet, exercise). But that’s wrong. if you attend to the joy, it makes everything else easier.

(The pendant to the side was given to me by a graduate student of mine whose book is coming out this year. I’m so proud of her!)

So, where to find joy? Or how to create it? I think different people find or create joy differently. For me, it comes easily as long as I have time to do things that are of no use at all. That have no monetary value, that are not attempts to learn anything, gain anything, accomplish anything of value. That are just messing around. Writing this blog post gives me joy. (Blog posts have been pretty sparse lately, as you may have noticed.) Walking around in a garden or park gives me joy. Reading purely for pleasure. Watching movies in which people in a small English village murder each other. (That sounds gruesome, but a good murder mystery makes me intensely happy.) Learning about things when I don’t have to (like poisons or bird species). Anything that does not involve duty or obligation or deadlines. In other words, I’m one of the people for whom joy is easy — I just need to get out of my own way.

So recovery is going to take more than getting a bit of sleep. It’s going to take me thinking about what sort of work I take on. I do need to take on a lot of work: I have a job, and a job on top of that, and then there’s the writing. None of that works without my doing a lot. But somehow, I have to carve out spaces for myself. I have to not get overwhelmed with the amount I need to do. I have to fit in time for goofing off, because that goofing is actually healthy. It’s joyful.

I’m going to be working on it. Meanwhile, I have things to do, but sometime today I’m going to start reading that book on poisons . . .

(This is me, looking tired, as I have all semester. But it’s summer, and there are roses . . .)