“Write Like a Motherfucker”

I’ve been post-academic now for just about exactly three years. Three years since I left my tenured position at University of Illinois to move back to Eugene, Oregon with no job and no idea what I’d do next.

This summer I finally started to journey out to places in Eugene where I know I’m likely to run into former UO faculty colleagues, instead of skulking around hoping to avoid them.

So far they seem pretty happy to see me, even when they hear that I’ve officially left the fold and am even, gasp!, running a business. (They remind me why I liked being at the UO in the first place.)

But, notably, there is one thing they keep saying. They keep saying: “Wow, Karen. You look so much….. happier.”

One remarked to my partner Kellee (also formerly of the UO), “It’s been fun getting to know Karen. I never talked to her when she was here before because she seemed so angry.”

I was reminded of this after reading Rebecca Schuman’s latest post, Please Stop Saying “Not Everyone is Suited for Academia”. She relates her experience after leaving academia (in a blaze of gory with the publication of her Slate piece Thesis Hatement) [btw, yes that is a typo but Rebecca tweeted to say she loves it and it’s so apropos to what happened that I decided to leave it in]:

Most days I am happier than I have been in many years about this. My long-term partner…has remarked that since my postdoc ended and I moved back to St. Louis, that I’ve aged in reverse. It’s true—there are some ‘Ohio wrinkles’ I don’t see anymore, accompanied by a life in my eyes and a general dearth of the abject terror that lurked below each day in Columbus, like so many pollution-filled mussels on the bed of the Olentangy River.”

Schuman also talks about the transformation in her writing:

If I was a disciplined and productive academic writer, cranking out journal articles and then finally my monograph—finished and submitted to the press this past May—then now I am a motherfucking locomotive. I have so much to write that I simply can’t get it all down.”

It was just the same for me, after I finally (and this took a year) figured out what it was I needed to say, and created the Professor Is In blog, and started writing. It was like unleashing a torrent. I could not stop.

The funny thing is, I’m not actually angry. Or, not angry the way I used to be. I am, like my former colleagues say, actually pretty happy.

Why was I so miserable back then? Well, aside from the awful marriage, there was the fact that I was 100% in thrall to the academic cult. I was living entirely within a system based without exception on the principle of external validation. You are good only if others in authority authorize that you are good. Your comps, your diss, your job docs, your job talk, your book, your article, your grant proposal, your tenure case…. all live or die based on the judgment and approval of people “above” you. And the properly socialized academic makes that approval the core of their identity.

No wonder the young of the profession are so servile. And so angry.

Schuman’s piece brought to mind a particularly memorable response by one of my favorite writers, Cheryl Strayed, on her Dear Sugar advice column. She was answering a young woman, a frustrated writer, who wrote in asking for help overcoming her depression, her defeatism, her inability to get words on paper. The young woman wasn’t an academic, but most of us can probably identify:

“I want to jump out the window for what I’ve boiled down to is one reason: I can’t write a book. But it’s not that I want to die so much as have an entirely different life. I start to think that I should choose another profession—as Lorrie Moore suggests, “movie star/astronaut, a movie star missionary, a movie star/kindergarten teacher.” I want to throw off everything I’ve accumulated and begin as someone new, someone better.”

Strayed tells her many things, many wise and wonderful things in a long and deep response. But there was one thing that was the wisest of all. In response to the young would-be writer’s lament that “I write like a girl. I write about my lady life experiences, and that usually comes out as unfiltered emotion, unrequited love, and eventual discussion of my vagina as metaphor”, Strayed writes:

Nobody is going to give you permission to write about your vagina, hon. Nobody is going to give you a thing. You have to give it yourself. You have to tell us what you have to say.”

Strayed ends her advice: “So write…Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”

Write like a motherfucker. Or, in other words, declare independence from dependence on external validation.

Stay in academia if you want. Or leave it. As you know, I have no axe to grind on that front. But say no to the less-than status, the linking of your identity to others’ judgment, the servile dependence on others’ stamp of approval.

Yes, it’s true, if you stay in academia you need to suffer all those reviews and evaluations to get the diss passed, get the grant, get the job. That’s for your work.

But for your life, in academia or out, remember that your self and your voice and your truth come from within.

I got an email from a reader yesterday that described her journey post-Ph.D. (Ivy League humanities):

I was in a terrible state after the defense and deposit. People often talk about writing a dissertation in terms of birth metaphors–the genesis of an idea, the gestation process, the diss as baby, etc. Well, I truly felt as though I had given birth to a stillborn. I knew that I would never turn the diss into a book because I knew that I had no interest in an academic career, no desire to go on the job market, no interest in moving to a remote location, kissing more professor ass, continuing my serf-like status, etc etc. But knowing this with certainty didn’t help or make me feel good in any way, because a) I didn’t know what I would do instead and b) I felt like a total failure and loser.”

This is what the indoctrination process of the Ph.D. does to us all—it makes every last one of us addicts for external validation, convinced that success on the authorized tenure track trajectory is the sole and only legitimate marker of success, and indeed happiness.

But it’s the opposite. Accepting the rule of external validation and the incredibly rigid markers of academic success makes only for chronic anxiety, insecurity, dependency, and depression.

My reader goes on,

As I moved into the summer and fall of my post-grad school life (unemployed and miserable), I read your blog fervently and felt it was the only form of true advice I had as I tried to figure out what to do next. But it wasn’t the advice on how to secure the TT job or succeed as an academic that I really gravitated to–it was the information on how to de-program myself and recover my own sense of value as a person and professional.”

And she did it. She declared independence, got clear on her goals, and found herself an amazing full-time position teaching outside the academy.

This is what I say: Write not like an academic. Not like a post-academic. Write like a motherfucker. And by write I mean live.

 


Comments

“Write Like a Motherfucker” — 21 Comments

  1. Very very nice and inspiring article! gives me hope as I am finishing my Eng. PhD soon and thinking of a career shift. I think I may use your valuable services and consultancy.

  2. As a professor who has been tenured for two years I retain enough memories of both that process and grad school in general to identify with the views expressed here. My personal low points were when my (Poison) Ivy League grad institution cut off my teaching shortly after our older child was born, and when I was hauled over the coals by my Committee A for a lack of articles after I had spent the previous summer in an ICU with our second, critically-ill child. Fortunately, in the latter case, the system was flexible and humane enough to grant me an extra year on the tenure track to get my book published. Do these experiences mean that a) I am very aware of my the financial pressures on my grad students and b) that I will extend even greater leeway to my colleagues on the tenure track? You bet. The way to end the cycle of cruelty that mars the profession is for individuals who have a modicum of power in the system to exercise said power humanely. Above all, those of with tenure need to see adjuncts as colleagues in need of solidarity, not underlings, and campaign for them to receive a living wage. Only by working with our adjunct colleagues can we begin to solve the mounting problems afflicting higher education.

  3. Thanks for an inspiring post. I found the book “Disciplined Minds” very helpful during graduate school. Many of us get into academia to “change the world”, but this programmed slavery to external validation can definitely stymie any radical or semi-radical ideas when you are seeking graduation, employment, grants etc. This book really lays it all out and helped me be more aware of some of the professionalization programming that I was being subjected to and more mindful of my responses to it. http://disciplinedminds.tripod.com/

  4. i’m reminded of rainer maria rilke’s reply to his interlocutor in ‘letters to a young poet’ – ‘briefe an einen jungen dichter’. the young poet is conflicted about his choice of vocation, because his work is consistently rejected. rilke writes (my translation):

    you ask if your poetry is good. you ask me. you have asked others before. you send your verses to journals. you compare them with other poems, and you are angered when editors reject your work […] i ask you to give this up. you are looking outward, and this for all intents and purposes you should not do. go inward. investigate the basis for what writing means to you. test whether at the bottom of your heart there is an outstretched root which confesses that it would die if you were to renounce writing. [ask then,] ‘must i write?’ search for that deep answer within yourself [and, if the answer is,] ‘i must,’ then build your life according to that necessity.

    as a newly minted phd, and one whose committee was very supportive, i have since, however, experienced lots of stress and dissatisfaction with my working conditions in higher ed: 70-hour weeks during the academic year, a pathetic salary, and a vindictive dean (have been fired once already but my peers have been wonderful advocates for me lobbying for my retention – the only thing at the moment keeping me in my current role). but as a FT clinical appointment with a phd earning $44K this coming year (net earnings < $35K), the stress, the limitations on my time, the politics, and the anxiety that comes with being an at-will hire as i continue to try to remain competitive for a TT job in my field (and even if i get lucky to land a TT appointment, it'll still be more of the same in the near-term), has left me with serious doubts about sticking with it.

    i ask for nothing more than an honorable wage commensurate with my skill, training, experience, and expertise in exchange for a fair chance to make my self indispensable. nothing more, nothing less.

  5. Pingback: Write Like a Motherfucker | The Professor Is In | Research Material

  6. such great advice. I earned my phd in lit. 9 yrs ago & quit the job search (and adjunct work) 7 yrs. ago. I find it so surprising that contact with (the wrong) academics can sometimes still reignite the old anxieties and inadequacies. I wish someone had pointed out how we had been trained to need external validation. Awareness is half the battle, right? You are doing a good thing for current students!

  7. Digital ankle-biting and advocacy as post-academic / retirement hobbies are quite satisfying and can do good (also satisfying). Use not worrying/caring about external validation and being beyond the reach of professional retaliation to work for change (and mock them too)

  8. I loved this post. The advice is spot-on. I’m a tenured academic but I’m also not very good at being servile. In retrospect, the thing that got me through the PhD and tenure was always writing about what *I* wanted to write about, not what was popular, marketable, etc. I was fortunate to have a wonderful PhD adviser who encouraged me to do this, then and now. I still do it. I try to have the attitude that if I write about what interests me most, my writing will be better and I’ll be more productive. Then I work really hard to demonstrate to everyone why my work matters. So far, so good. But I can’t emphasize enough that the thing that gets everyone through tough days–academic or not, tenured or not–is enjoying the research and writing. Life post-tenure is not glorious, not these days. What keeps me going, what gets me out of bed in the morning, is the passion I have for the things I write about. Thank you again for this insightful post, full of great advice for all writers.

  9. Thank you. I’ve considered going on to the PhD, but I find that I’m less inclined to do so as every day passes, and you put the words to my feelings. I’ve had the times in my life where everything I did was based on seeking that external validation. One day I realized what a waste of my life it was. I love to write, but the publication process is a major pain in the ass, so I’ll find other ways to write like a motherfucker.
    Great blog. 🙂

  10. This made me think of the advice I gave one of my doctoral students the other day. She was offered a visiting position that could turn into a permanent TT job. My advice was to play the role of the ambitious, single-minded academic. I told her to ask people there about what the tenure expectations were, crafting her diss publication according to those expecations, and basically present herself as someone who will always put work ahead of her family. When you leave campus, I told her, live your life and be yourself. But while you are there, be a scholar and downplay your motherhood. Essentially, my advice was to write what they want you to write. I told her that I hated giving that advice, but that I thought it was the surest way for her to succeed. Is it possible to live such a bifurcated life? At my job (an R1 with pretty high tenure expectations but not top 25 high), I’ve found a clutch of friends that I share my life with, with whom I talk about my passions and listen to theirs. With the others, I talk about grant deadlines. And that is how I survive. So was I wrong to give my student this advice? In my defense, I also encouraged her to look outside of academia to find work, that she was in no way a failure if she found employment that lit her fire outside of a university.

    • As a grad student this is how I’ve begun to live my life, and I am so much happier this way than I ever was trying to find myself in the academy or trying to love things I disliked.

  11. I loved this post (and this website). But I wish you could elaborate on some things. I am constantly thinking of leaving academia for some of the reasons you state and more, but I always go back to thinking that other industries (and ours has become an industry, let’s not forget) are not going to be much better, if not worse. You say that academia needs external evaluation and that we become addicted to this. But isn’t this the case for most jobs? Unless, of course, we work for ourselves somehow, and are able to make a good income that way. I get the sense that any other job I take I will have to please my superiors. I ask myself if academia is really that different as I think of making the move. I’m 3 years out of PhD with three post-docs, now into my fourth year with no paid job, just an affiliation to a university. It might be time to make the switch, but do I really want to face the politics of other organizations, only now with less flexibility? I certainly can’t afford to be an independent writer, and even that would require passing the external reviews of publishers if I ever hoped to publish. For me, I continue to search for academic jobs despite not caring to be in academia because I can’t think of better options out there. I wonder how to think about this differently.

  12. But please remember, there are some of us who *enjoy* academic writing. My writing has evolved over the past 40 years from close readings of poetry to cultural history; I have always written what I feel like writing, avoiding academic fashion and jargon, offering eccentric, original readings of texts and events. I’m a slow writer, sometimes taking ten years to complete a book; I don’t push myself to the point of pain or boredom. I’ve had tenure for a long time, so if I didn’t like writing, I could stop. But research, scholarship, and writing are a pleasure for me; I’ve never written ‘like a motherfucker’; why bore the pants off yourself for low pay? what’s the point? There’s no reason to be in this profession if you don’t like it; it’s not as if most academics get rich or celebrated. Scholarship is for those who enjoy it; if you’re in agony as you write, no doubt your readers will be in agony too. (NB I am using my name in private life, not the name I publish under.)

  13. Nice post. Do people really swallow this external validation thing, though? I do not remember having it taught in graduate school — I thought passing your exams just meant you passed your exams, not that you passed as a person — and I don’t remember having colleagues who appeared to feel that way. I know there are people like this, or have discovered them, and this post explains them to me better, and I have had people try to convinced me to think in this way. But it is not clear to me how this attitude would help anyone get their job done … what use it would be … what am I missing? Why is it so important to academics to be structured this way, and to convince others to be structured this way? How does it benefit them?

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