Five Year Plan

I once went for a period of several years, unable to work my ATM card because I’d forgotten the password, and unable to find the energy to contact the company and get a replacement. I just kept stealing cash from my husband’s wallet then saying, “Uh, honey, looks like you need to go to the bank.” So when people accuse me of being organized or having my act together, I laugh and laugh.

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What Poe thinks of paperwork

But I do get some things done. I spend time with my kids and my friends every once in a while. Decent meals occur in my kitchen. I write a lot. I publish some of it.

I notice my last couple of posts have reflected the Annual Academic’s Augustpocalypse Angst. One recurrent task is writing reports–for me, this year, a report on my summer work, another on my leave year generally, and then something called a “Five Year Plan.”

It’s a highly speculative exercise, to map out the next five years, especially given how hard it can be to just pick a pair of trousers in the morning. But mine isn’t the only university that asks its faculty members, periodically, to look backwards, then forwards. We’re all supposed to hate it, this chore of generating memos and other documents that are, in turn, a chore for their recipients to read. If they read them at all. Some administrators are conscientious and responsive, and others are basically yawning faceless whirlpools with sheafs of papers rattling around in the abysses of their hearts.

poe1Don’t tell anyone, but I kind of like these reports. You know the satisfaction of writing a list and then crossing off items one by one? It’s like that. Out of the chaos of my life, I generate a roster of items I actually accomplished, and then I get to feel smug for a few minutes, until I remember all the forthcoming deadlines I cannot possibly ever meet.

The Five Year Plan, moreover, strikes me as genuinely useful, although perhaps it would be more so if you didn’t have to frame it with a degree of braggadocio (how lucky you are to employ me!–don’t forget at raise time), and if the personal stuff could be woven in with the professional, as it is in real life.

I just submitted mine and it begins: “This is my fourth Five Year Plan. I accomplished all the goals I outlined in 2011 except winning an NEA grant (which remains on my bucket list).” The books I was working on then, and most of the essays, and some of the poems are now in the world; more books are fully drafted and looking for homes. I developed some courses that were only inkling ideas, too. I didn’t achieve everything I wanted to, either artistically or in world renown, but it’s still cool to note that hey, former Lesley, you did a good job following through.

Of course, my father also died, my house flooded and had to be substantially renovated, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and my mother became seriously ill. One child finished high school and was ripped from my grieving breast to attend university; the other grew some ten inches and started high school. Our cat Flashlight died; our lives are now ruled by Poe. Chris and I have had lots of ups and downs in health and in mood, but Chris landed a tenure-track job and is hugely happier than five years ago. All of these events affected my “productivity.” Surprisingly, some of them made me write more, because I direly needed to create some good shape out of sadness or mayhem.

Five years from now, if all goes well, Chris and I will be empty nesters, with one child in college and the other out doing something interesting with her BA. That’s got to be a HUGE change. I expect more health crises for us and for our parents, because we’re just at that age, even if catastrophic climate change and other factors don’t promote the spread of Zika and who knows what else. I look at the personal area of the map and think, “there be monsters.” Every project I plot could be taken from me without notice.

Still, it doesn’t feel silly to me to lay out my aims as a writer or as a teacher, because I’ve done it before and the process probably helped me prioritize goals and accomplish things. Five years from now I hope I’ve published the three book-length mss I’ve worked on this year: a poetry collection, a hybrid of memoir and criticism, and a novel. I’ll probably try to publish them prestigiously and end up with small-but-respectable presses, although strokes of luck can happen. I also hope to write good new work I can’t imagine now. I’d like to keep becoming a better, more expert, more versatile teacher. I hope it’s fun.

This is how I closed this Five Year Plan, encapsulating all those ambitions:poe3.jpg

“My aspiration, in short, is to look for overlap between the work I love to do—which is always changing—and the work the world seems to want and need from me. Finding audiences in a crowded literary marketplace is tough and I can’t control whether I score any particular opportunity. In the meantime, however, I’ll do the very best work I can, both on the page and in the classroom. I’m also keeping an eye on people who do land the golden rings, and mimicking their strategies as best I can, short of moving to Brooklyn.”

 

Waving and also drowning

When, while bobbing in the ocean, you spot a larger-than-usual wave steaming your way, what do you do?

A. Jump into it with joy, trying to hit the breaker where it crashes, for the wildest ride possible. (This is my husband and son.)

B. Shout “no!” in a stern voice, demanding the ocean behave itself. It does not. Before long, you decamp to the sand, electing to pursue a challenge of your own choosing, namely to read as many Russian novels as possible while summer lasts. (This is my daughter.)

C. Express alarm in a comical way that entertains your son, concealing some actual nervousness about getting out of your depth because you’re a pretty lousy swimmer, and then enjoy the tumult until things get fierce, when you actually do panic and nobody takes you seriously because you seemed perfectly fine until a second ago, like a character in a Stevie Smith poem. (Guess who.)

This was one of several potential metaphors I contemplated at the beach ten days ago. It could refer to all kinds of challenges, but what’s on my mind right now is work. I’m doing that late-August surfing, when you madly try to finish summer projects as you simultaneously madly try to get ready for classes starting. Big wave coming.

While I still had decent footing a week ago, moreover, my ability to get things done was sharply diminished last week. Four of my adult molars have been missing from birth–it’s a genetic thing–so baby teeth hung around in their places. One of the latter, bravely standing ground for forty-plus years, finally gave up in December. I went in for a bone graft and dental implant last week and the surgery was more complicated than usual, so my pain levels have been high and I’m sporting a mother of a bruise. I have several friends with serious illnesses, and this is comparatively NOT a big deal, but it’s a reminder of how hard chronic pain can be to live with and work around. It also reminds me I am NOT in control of my “productivity.” This time I can’t just scramble up to the beach and rest on a towel; I have to face the force of water until it’s done with me.

Weights I’m carrying, besides worry about work ahead and physical stress from the various ways a middle-aged body can thwart a person: there were a couple of post-publication prizes I thought Radioland might be a finalist for, and I just heard from the last of them. No luck.

Sources of buoyancy: a wonderful and eminent poet wrote me a fan letter out of the blue. Two friends who are ALSO wonderful poets have given me the gift of critical-but-usefully-specific feedback on unpublished mss, liberally salted with praise. I’m genuinely excited about my fall courses (although maybe not the grading). And I’ve been doing some sustaining reading, too. I just finished Viet Than Nguyen’s The Sympathizer as well as an advanced review copy of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Field Guide to the End of the World (I’m preparing to teach it this fall in my composition course, which has a speculative fiction theme). Both are powerful and I’m feeling blown away, with more great books and mss piled up waiting. That’s a burden that helps me float, if you’ll tolerate the hyperextension of my marine metaphor.

Okay, the secret is, I’m not as seaworthy as people seem to think, but I do have help, thank the gods. And what threatens to overwhelm me also sparkles.

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Woman escapes monster

insatiableOh, the existential horror of a North American professor in August…Teaching at a liberal arts college full of talented students is an excellent gig, but during teaching terms, the job eats me alive. This is going to be an especially intense fall for coursework, plus I’m running a search. In a few weeks, in short, I will be all tied up and dangling upside down in the den of the monster Work.

Every year, the prospect frightens my saner summer self. I have a history of asking for books about meditation for my September birthday–until Chris laughed at the request, commenting he’d already bought me a shelf-full and I’ve never cracked any of them. Whoops. I actually have done marginally better this year with meditation, yoga, etc., but mainly because conditions were dire and I really had to work at not going under. Being on sabbatical is awesome, but anxious person that I am, I felt internal pressure to come to closure on long-standing projects–and then I was floored by the emotional stress of sending my first child off to college, my mother’s lymphoma, and a host of health problems. Lots of pain this year. Having a middle-aged body seems to require striving harder and harder to maintain a deteriorating status quo.

Relative to others, I remain very lucky. My mom is recovering well, my daughter had a brilliant first year, and I have the resources to handle most of the hitches the universe throws at me. A rusting roof that needs to be fixed and sealed? Cracked car windshield requiring replacement? Dental work? Do less pleasurable ways to spend pots of money even exist? But it’s okay. It’s getting done. And I’m likely to survive the fall, too, with only minor breakdowns.

Some strategies, since asking for self-help books should clearly be off the table.

  1. Do the work that stresses me out most, no excuses. I’ve spent the summer so far writing and revising (work I like) but, most importantly, making sure that all the best writing I did this year is under consideration somewhere. I dislike submissions intensely–it’s hard to figure out where work should go, but also emotionally hard to ask respected editors, “hey, do you like this thing that’s, you know, the very best I’m capable of, and intensely personal in ways that may not be obvious, as well as my cosmic reason for existing, kind of?” Ugh.
  2. When I’ve done at least one hard thing per day, use the rest of the time available to get a jump on work that’s easier, but would stress me out at a busier moment. I’ve been writing micro-reviews for the Kenyon Review Online so I have a backlog. Fall syllabi are well-developed and winter ones are roughed out. I’ve drafted the summer/ sabbatical reports due in the fall, made to-do lists, done advance planning for events I’m in charge of, etc. I cleaned out my office, even, and did a lot of chores at home.
  3. Pay attention. When I have pain, for example, instead of trying to live around it and maintain writing’s dream, I’m attempting to notice it, think about causes/ patterns, see if it can be remediated. Podiatrist tomorrow, sigh. The same goes for anger and worry. I’m noticing that FB has been making me unhappy lately, so I need to spend less time there. Many people in my life need attention, too. Lots of friends are having rough years. And while teenage kids don’t require a parent’s bodily presence as much, they need intelligent awareness more than ever.crow
  4. Bask in the good stuff. I had a couple of poetry acceptances this summer I’m really pleased about (Blackbird and Thrush). I’m including pictures here from two magazines that just arrived. The triolet is one of two just published by Kestrel and “Crow on the House,” inspired by Plath’s “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” is from the latest Fjords. Clearly it’s the summer of birds, so remind me, please, of other avian-themed journals. I’ll fly to submit. 

And next week I’ll bask big-time. The four of us are heading down to a beach rental in North Carolina. I plan to do zero work and as much pleasure-reading in the hammock, or on the sand, as possible, and play board games, and explore an unfamiliar island with the ever-hungry and curious Gaveeler crew. The monster Work, as far as I am concerned, will just have to snuffle in frustration at my glib auto-reply.