Recently I returned to Britain after a seven moth-long fellowship at the Library of Congress. Those of you who read this blog will know that, way back when, in the beginning of my fellowship, when I was bright-eyed and bushy-talied, I swore I would write on this blog more often about my experiences. I fancied myself the next Natalie Cox.
Yet, as ever with these fine ideas I have, late at night over a glass of wine and glowing computer screen, the cold light of day usually puts paid to them. Often, as happened in the Library of Congress, my day-to-day happens got in the way. Weekdays were spent ploughing through the Library’s vast holdings. Weekends spend just as doggedly soaking up as much of Washington as I could.
Often, however, I don’t always have the convenient excuse of being in a new place for a short time. Often, I am sat at home with a bunch of ideas and not much headway with any of them. Often I just can’t find the motivation.
This is where I found myself after returning to Cambridge in June. No doubt my marathon, thirty-two-hour stretch of sleeplessness moving between countries didn’t help matters. Or so I kept telling myself as the first week home bled into the second. I was living in a small, college-owned flat, previously shared though now empty apart from me. The flat was on college grounds, thirty seconds’ walk from the kitchens, the gym, and my supervisor’s rooms. I had a desk in room that was kind of separate from my bedroom. It should have been the ideal ‘writer’s retreat’. Yet, it wasn’t.
That’s not to say I didn’t get anything done. I’ve been very busy in June and July with papers to write and conferences to travel to (and travel to and travel to). But I could have worked much harder. I wasn’t ‘feeling it’. When I first started my PhD I was thrilled to be moving into a flat on the college site, at the centre of town, five minutes’ walk from my department. I had come from the hustle, bustle and stress of a corporate nine-to-five and loved the idea of getting up later, writing in my pyjamas and taking long, afternoon walks by the river.
I see now that I wasn’t embracing college life, per se. I was running away from the rat race. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as an academic interested in questions of geography and travel, I used to imagine my mental map of London as rather restricted, like a computer game map. Some areas, such as my house, friends’ houses, my office, were fully open to me. Other areas were blank spaces, yet, if ever, to be explored. Between these limited points were lines of travel, connections, threads of light.
My impression of Cambridge, as a member of the University, were very different. Suddenly in a relatively small city, whole swathes of the board were an open to book to me. I could go wherever I liked and feel, in some sense, ‘home’. (I’ve written in an earlier post how this freedom afforded to university students is reversed, in a rather unwelcoming way, for non-students.)
Coupled with this sense of geographic freedom, and in the context of my sprawling timetable, freed of managers’ demands and strict working hours, I fostered a sense that I needed to ‘feel like’ working to actually start working. Of course, this meant that once having worked hard to make the career change I wanted to make, having arrived in my new job, I barely worked! Waiting to ‘feel like’ reading, or writing, or grappling with ideas, meant that I was far less productive in a job I supposedly loved than in the previous job I had definitely hated.
Could there be a cure to this malaise? It turns out that the cure had been all in my head, as it were. My time living and working in Washington, DC, put me back into a similar life-structure that I had left behind in London. I lived in a private house in the north of the city; I often commuted by underground (though I did walk, too); I worked in one, set place; and I had circumscribed, though generous, hours. Yet, for all these demands that I had run from before, I was doing a job that I love. Reading, writing and making a lot of progress on my thesis. Those seven months really were very productive.
So, back in Cambridge, in the lazy heat of summer, I have taken these lessons to heart. I moved recently (again!) out of the college flat and into a shared house in the ‘student quarter’ of town. I took advantage of the move to shift my work-related books and papers into my shared office in the department. I have a Cambridge commute every day (15 minutes’ walk) but it does mean that I can’t go home during the day. My Cambridge days now resemble, as closely as possible, my Washington days; with time for gym, work in the office, communal lunches and evening socialising. And do you know what? This structure has seen my productivity soar.
One of my favourite agony aunt columnists (I know, I know) is Emily Yoffe at Slate.com. She often advises her letter writers who are having intimacy issues to schedule sex. It may not seem sexy to do it by calendar, she says, but sex is sexy. Well, what I have learned it that it may not feel ‘academic’ or ‘writerly’ to write by schedule and structure. But writing is ‘writerly’, so it works.