I’m bored with my writing and research, and I feel like I shouldn’t be.
After all, I’m meant to treasure the time I can find for research, a professional activity both necessary for my survival in academia and, if I take the words we use to describe it seriously, a rare commodity I must wrest away from other greedy tasks (namely service and teaching). Resources — time and energy — are stretched thin, and so we describe writing in the language of scarcity: I have to find, make, or carve away time, snatching thirty-minute work sessions with my office door closed. When I spend precious writing time scrolling through pictures of the shabby chic California hideaway of Selena Gomez or taking an ad-riddled quiz to determine, through my color and animal preferences, what type of cupcake I am, the internet, which has been the very tool of my undoing, kindly provides me an array of disciplinary memes in the voices of Coach Taylor, Grumpy Cat, Oprah, The Most Interesting Man in the World, Ryan Gosling, Spongebob Squarepants, and Queen Elizabeth. All of them think I should be writing.
Not only writing, but grateful and happy to be writing. While I have dedicated much of the time I have spent researching and writing dismantling Romantic notions of authorship, I cannot shake the idea that I should be writing because I love it, or at least need to do it because there is something brilliant in my brain that must be published to edify the dozens — dozens! — of scholars who might read my work, probably in their own guilt-ridden pilfered moments of research. This notion that I should revel in writing is, I suspect, part of that eyeroll-worthy platitude that if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life, a cliché that reinforces the idea of a “dream job,” a saccharine construction that obscures behind a curtain of rainbow sprinkles and “Hang in There” kitten posters all of the uncertainty, the failures, and especially the labor that makes such work possible. And sometimes that labor is futile and tedious. Often it is tedious.
Let’s go with much of the time. It is tedious much of the time.
Boredom, then, feels like failure. A failure of discipline, a failure to measure up to professional expectations, and especially a failure of intellectual curiosity and imagination. I find myself baffled that I could be bored writing about nineteenth-century children who channel the ghosts of executed political radicals, or that I could find ho-hum cheeky nonsense about gay crustaceans. I mean, I have done truly mind-numbing work before. I had an internship in college in which I was required to double-check the precise wording of workers’ compensation laws for all 50 states on a company’s website. I did this work while enclosed in a closet repurposed as a cubicle. In the evenings I worked at a home goods store where, if business was slow, I was handed a bottle of Windex and tasked with cleaning a wall of wine glasses. And here I am feeling bored while sitting in my comfortable office, fortified by hot coffee and carefully selected fine-nibbed pens, balking at the shouldn’t-be-boring work of writing about a child medium who held five thousand New Englanders in thrall as she stood on a podium, hair uncombed and knees muddy, proclaiming news of the afterlife in an adorable lisp.
See? I can write about it here. But not where I need to.
Everyone talks about writing as difficult. But what most of us picture when we bemoan to one another in the hallway or after a faculty meeting or in the seminar room that “writing is hard” is the labor of putting complex thoughts into sentences, of constructing a nuanced argument that takes into account a lively critical tradition, of meeting a deadline, or finding one damn new thing to say about Great Expectations. But we don’t often admit — or maybe we don’t often consider? — that a big part of the difficulty of research and writing is that it can be MONOTONOUS.
I suspect this is true of many types of writing, but I’m currently engaged in the type of historicist research that feels impossible to complete. I could read nineteenth-century spiritualist periodicals every day for a year and probably still have a hefty reading list ahead of me. And obviously I can’t write about crabs who love crabs in Victorian nonsense poetry unless I have read, annotated, and synthesized everything ever written on sexology and natural history in the 1800s. (I had a similar experience while writing my dissertation when faced with the Mount Everest that is the archive of fin-de-siècle writing on Child Study. A Child Study scholar could not, apparently, say anything in less than 500 pages.) I’m just tired of reading this stuff, and bored with underlining the relevant passages, and resentful of the wearisome work of arranging those notations into — UGH — a paragraph.
I am in the midst of this particular failure and don’t have many ideas for how to emerge out of boredom like the fascinating — and prolific! — phoenix that I am, but here are the things that I am trying:
- Accept that sometimes this work is boring, and that it’s okay. I bet Foucault got bored. And Shakespeare. And Jesus. I bet Miley Cyrus gets bored every day. I should write a blog post about it. (Adds item to to-do list, immediately crosses it out, feels satisfied.)
- Reframe my ability to keep working despite boredom as a Professional Skill and Strength. I genuinely think this is true. If you do not work through the boredom, when the reading seems never-ending and the insights seem few, and instead rush to just write something already, you often end up with something far less interesting.
- Set myself small, achievable goals that require various parts of my brain: conduct a newspaper archive search one day, close-read a passage another day, do some drafty outlining a third day.
- Draw boundaries around what it means to understand my topic. Mastery is a lie.
- Keep my larger research agenda in sight. Think about the larger questions that smaller projects are asking, and consider how different writing tasks, which right now all seem pedestrian in their own special ways, are actually connected in a broader intellectual inquiry that I have, before, found interesting.
- Teach something I’m researching or writing about. See if other people find it interesting. Ask them why.
- Imagine what it would look like to introduce the topic to a nonacademic audience. I mean, I am obviously already doing this, in collaboration with my colleagues Kate Capshaw and Anna Mae Duane, as we brainstorm my upcoming Netflix series on nineteenth-century kids who channel the dead: Small Mediums at Large.
And, honestly, I think I need to be patient with myself. And thank you for being patient with me, dozens of readers, during my five-month blogging hiatus. I promise that I have been failing quietly but persistently, but I think I’m back in the saddle.
I’m too bored with my writing to revise away that cliché.