Friday, April 18, 2008

Sacrificial Living

I've been thinking about the sacrifices we make, large and little, for our scholarly livelihoods. Specifically I'm thinking about what we give up in order to finish our books, take those desirable jobs, finish our theses. I started musing about this when I emailed a friend to ask him how he got his first book out so early in his career. Did he give up two extra hours of sleep per day? Skip lunch like my friend when she was on leave at an archive? His modest response was that he had a lot of free time in the first two years. (So the mystery remains).

But accustomed as I am to a comfortable lifestyle, I can't help wondering if I'd get more writing done, more articles finished and more books read if I gave something up. And I'm not counting my current celibacy- that's a consequence of living where I do.

When I was finishing my dissertation I did sacrifice sleep. And also cleaning the house, eating healthfully and doing any grocery shopping or cooking or exercise whatsoever.

What kinds of sacrifices have you made or are willing to make for your scholarship? Would you give up sleep or lunch or television or a spouse just to finish your book? Have you?

Why am I so drawn to sacrifice anyway? Maybe it's because I like to think that if I give something up in the symbolic economy, I'll somehow be rewarded with something else, i.e. book completion. Maybe giving something up would make me feel more pious and less hedonistic. Or maybe it's the influence of my former dissertation adviser, who advises that writing itself ought to be painfully difficult- if it's not, then you're not getting anywhere.

What should I give up this summer in order to finish my book? (Please don't say blogging . . .)


plam said...

I am currently deferring life maintenance due to deadlines (although I did do my dishes after we submitted the conference paper). However, in general I try to not shortchange myself in terms of sleep, nutrition, or exercise to work more. I don't find it to be very productive in general, particularly when it comes to sleep---I actually have to be smart, I think, to write, so being less smart is not the way to go.

Of course, when there are deadlines, I might exercise a bit less. But I exercise a lot in general. I also might cook a bit less than usual (which isn't much either) when deadlines loom.

This doesn't mean that writing isn't difficult, it just means that sacrificing necessities, in my opinion, leads to negative progress.

Now, back to studying for that professional practice exam tomorrow.

A Wisconsin Yankee in King David's Court said...

Hmm, I’ve been thinking about sacrifice, too, because of a paper I’ve been working on, which has nothing to do with sacrifice but everything to do with scapegoating, which Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss analyze in their brilliant book on sacrifice. (What did they give up, I wonder?)

Your post reminded me of a late night I spent in my office rewriting a lecture on Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I postponed dinner for hours in order to finish the damned thing. When I finally left my office and walked home, I started laughing (perhaps delirious from hunger) at the thought that I had come to embody the very thing I was writing about, asceticism and diligence in one’s calling.

In addition to spending many a late night in my office till long after most of my colleagues had gone home to their families, my list of sacrifices would have to include occasional meals, showering (on days when I have obsessively started working as soon as my feet hit the floor), most of my summers (when I got most of my work done), my dream city for my dream job, and a short-distance relationship for a long-distance one. And lately I’ve sacrificed far too much beach time to finish the revisions to that paper! :-)

Agathon said...

I gave up nothing en route to tenure, and while the road was not smooth, I would encourage you to think twice about sacrificing the things that you enjoy in life for the kinds of rewards that the profession offers. I don't deny that those rewards are substantial, but there is nothing that you can give up for advancement in the profession that the profession can ever give you back, even symbolically. To put it another way: Living well is something that cannot be postponed until you get tenure. If you make an effort now to integrate your reading and writing and teaching into other activities that you enjoy (blogging, decorating, cooking, gardening, &c), you will do a lot to free yourself from the desire for approval, and the belief that one must earn one's pleasures, with which the profession burdens all of us when it insists that we choose between our work and our lives--as if they could ever be distinguished!

Kudos to you for your summer funding!

A.S. said...

I've spent a lot of my life sacrificing... gotta do this for classes... gotta do that for my career... and I've discovered that there will always be something on the list to sacrifice for. Frankly, it's just a facet of the fact that we (hopefully) have interesting lives and jobs and families. While sacrifice can take you pretty far it also can leave you with a lot of regret when it's done without thought and care (or at least it did for me). Sometimes, you feel called to sacrifice a bit here and there because what you want to do is so personally important but if it's what you do all the time... if it's second nature... if your inner life starts becoming crushed by all the should's and have to's and must's it's time to reevaluate what is really important and take a step back. Happiness is important too!

Jonathan said...

Sounds like you're giving up your routine to move to a new spot, which should help with the writing. A different place without all your stuff and habits can be very liberating and help focus the mind on ideas.

The other thing you can give up is a sense of heaviness around the writing. My approach has always been the opposite of your supervisor's. Writing is both freedom and constrained play. It is like making art. Sometimes I struggle to start and to stop but the middle is never a struggle. So instead of bringing a heaviness to it, try joy.

Pamphilia said...

Ooh, yes, I think I remember joy. And it is found in the middle. That's why I'm in this profession, after all. The writing brings joy; it's the revision that's painful.