The spring semester has begun, and I am making an earnest effort to get all my proverbial and professional ducks in a row. Alas, I fear that duck alignment may not be be my strong suit.
The chief challenge, one that trips me up more often than I care to admit, is contingency. When I am at my most effective, I attend to the obligations that fall to me unhesitatingly, almost automatically. This Sunday, for example, I did a great deal of reading, created a Powerpoint presentation, threw in some laundry, oiled the chain on my rowing machine, purchased a few DVDs for use in class, and took care of a bunch of other stuff. That’s by no means a sprawling catalog of major humanoid achievements, but what’s important is that I tackled each job the moment it occurred to me. When you pile up such tacklings over time, stuff gets done.
It’s not an impeccable method (the Powerpoint I assembled, for example, may not be critical, but it struck me as useful, and so it got itself did), but it’s a solid, self-consistent one. One of my ambitions this year is to focus on and deal with all those things that fall to me without worrying too much about the stuff that doesn’t. I mentioned this in passing to a colleague not long ago, and he likened it to my own variation on the Serenity Prayer. To my thinking, however, serenity has nothing to do with it–I don’t care if I work placidly or angrily, so long as the stuff I want to do gets done. Courage, acceptance, and wisdom are fine ambitions; I’ll leave them to better people. My own bar is set much lower.
Contingency, however, is inevitable, assuming I wish to leave the house or read my email. People need stuff, and I’m disposed to provide it if I can. The needs are not as various or as many as they were during my administrative stint, but they still involve extra exertion, a divestment of energy I’d rather devote to the doing of personal/professional stuffs. I am, alas, a pretty intense investor when it comes to my cathexes. (Someday, when you’re all a bit older, I’ll tell you about my unholy fixation on opera cake and how my thwarted desire prompted me to destroy an entire bakery with my mind.) If I’m willing to put myself on the hook for someone or something–taking some initial step and asking them to take the second so that I might take the third–then I’m in it. I’ve gotten somewhat better at resisting the urge to overstir (sending follow-up emails, for example, when that second step is still pending after a few days), but I will keep checking to make sure I’m ready to do my bit the moment my turn arrives. It is, I know, a pointless practice, but I suspect it’s bound up in some essential of my identity. I conceive of myself as a caretaker, as a fairly reliable critter in a fairly unreliable world, and for that reason I probably overinvest in my portion of the proceedings, whatever they might be. Those pieces fall to me, after all.
How does this bear on writing? (I’m glad you asked–this post was going nowhere until you came along.) The same get-stuff-done impulse is, when it comes to writing, a peculiar problem. The diligent, assiduous facet of the Wandlessian self is pretty good at tackling complex obligations, so I can task myself with a sestina or a story with weird engineering and get it done, given world enough and time. That facet, however, does not eclipse all the others, so the generative, creative facet is still bursting into the boardroom of my brain, pitching ideas with an enthusiasm that’s hard to resist. The get-stuff-done impulse is not a great deal of help when multiple, equally-appealing stuffs line up in the cognitive queue. Diligent Bill understands that the Flamingo of Fecundity is is among the lovelier bêtes noires to have in the mental menagerie, but the temptation to tend to her is one he needs to resist.
Ultimately, if I wish to get stuff done, the same principle that informs my housekeeping habits also needs to inform my menagerie management: one cage at a time.