Writing Update: Academics (Sometimes Admit To) Having Feelings

If I haven’t written about my own personal writing angst in some time, it’s most certainly not because I don’t have any. The great thing about personal angst is that there’s always more to go around.

I’ve spent months in that really black hole of loathing where you hate your writing project and hate yourself for ever starting it in the first place. It seemed like a good idea at the time and now you’re stuck with this thing. Do you commit to it or do you throw it on the scrap heap of broken writing dreams?

I can’t say for sure what has shifted for me in the last month or so, but I think I’ve turned the corner and am now pretty sure that the light I see at the end of the tunnel is not that of an oncoming train. I’m going to finish this thing. I finally decided that this work is worth doing and I’m going for it.

I’ve gone back and forth thinking about whether this particular project matters. The book is about feelings. FEELINGS. FEEEEEEELINGS. UGH. Feelings are not a suitable topic for serious intellectual inquiry. If there’s anything worse to write about in academia-land than feelings, I’m not sure what it might be. (Having and expressing feelings is pretty much on par with that other thing that makes you an academic pariah: being an activist.) Most academics (self included) would prefer not to have any feelings at all, partly because academia is so often a vicious cesspool (you’re supposed to grow a thicker skin and not take incredibly personal things personally instead of expecting people to treat each other with respect and kindness) and partly because academics (self included) like to pretend that feelings have no place in academia. We prefer to intellectualize feelings rather than have them or even worse, feel them. As a graduate school professor of mine used to tell me, “No one cares how you feel. We care what you think.”( If there’s anything that I can do to hasten the demise of this particular brand of thinking, count me in.)

For a long time, I thought that feelings were intellectual processes and that intellectual knowing and emotional knowing were the same thing. Like, you could just tell yourself that you were feeling great or sad and that’s how you knew what you were feeling.

Turns out, intellectual knowing and emotional knowing are entirely separate epistemologies. (Literally will never not pass up an opportunity to use the word epistemology.) They aren’t the same thing at all. You can try to think yourself out of that the huge weight of sadness you’re hauling around with you doesn’t exist or intellectualize about how you don’t actually feel it in your bones but the body knows better. Feelings have physical manifestations if we let ourselves get quiet enough to feel them. It also turns out that if you make a habit of stuffing your feelings down so far you can’t feel them or pretending that they are intellectual thoughts, you never actually process them.

As my graduate school therapist used to tell me: “More thinking. Less feeling.” I hate how incredibly right she was about this point.

Some academics, likely because they have to suppress their actual emotions to survive, attempt to work out their personal insecurities and neuroses by punching down at the people below them. Graduate students tend to get the brunt of this. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: graduate students don’t actually exist for faculty to work out their own internal struggles and psychological issues. Truly, the number of graduate students I’ve met who have told me about being sabotaged by or emotionally devastated by their advisers or committees is astonishing. I’m reminded of the time I confessed to a professor that I was deeply depressed and not really functioning well; this person seized on this moment to have a heart-to-heart chat with me about how poor they thought my scholarship was. (Narrator: it really wasn’t.)

I know so many tormented academics who really would benefit from some therapy. And having some feelings. And talking about having some feelings.

So this is a book that’s supposed to speak to academics about their feelings and give them a way to talk about them. Let’s pause here for a moment to appreciate just how outrageous the premise of my book manuscript really is: academics have feelings and it’s okay to have them and I have some humble suggestions about how to deal with them.

If this thing manages to ever get published, it will be a minor miracle.

I never actually want to hear people say that academics have no people skills or have no idea how to relate to others. My last day job was in crime victim advocacy. I went on crime scenes with law enforcement to talk to people (and sometimes just meet them in that sacred space of trauma) about the terrible thing that had just happened to them or their loved ones. I learned a lot about just feeling. Feeling was mildly terrifying because I thought for a long time that if I let myself open the tightly sealed Pandora’s box of emotion, I’d be swamped and dragged under. Feelings can, at times, approach tsunami proportions and hit with approximately the same force.

I think I would have wanted someone to tell me that it was okay to have feelings as an academic (and human). Thinking back to my graduate school experiences, we all experienced massive emotional upheavals, both from external events and those of our own making. But it never seemed to me like it was okay to have those feelings or heaven forbid, talk about having them.

So the work on the book about feelings continues and about how feelings affect people’s writing processes. I know few academics who struggle with writing because of the mechanics of it. I know many academics who struggle with writing because of the emotional complications of it.

I’m even getting brave and sharing my crappy writing with my writing community for feedback. Sharing writing with anyone creates such great vulnerability and I’m reminded of Professor X who went out of their way to tell me how shitty my writing was. (Narrator: it still really wasn’t.) It’s made me leery of sharing even when I feel pretty confident about my writing (which is seldom) and outright terrified to share it when I’m not feeling confident about it (which is often). I’d like to thank my writing community buddies for being such a tremendous help and support and I keep struggling through this project. You know who you are.

Most importantly, I now have a plan. I looked at the chapters that I had left to write decided that I would give myself a month to write each one. (Because this isn’t heavy duty analytical writing, it actually goes pretty fast when I put my mind to it.) And then I’d move on. April was devoted to the chapter on cultivating joy. It’s not done yet, but I’m moving on to the next chapter in May (the importance of community and connection) without allowing myself to wallow in the imperfect and flaws of the April chapter. My inner perfectionist is screaming loudly: IT’S NOT DONE. Nope. It’s not. But I’m moving forward according to my timeline.

Let’s do this.

Photo credit: Photo by Joseph Gruenthal on Unsplash