I just sent an abject…

I just sent an abject and embarrassing apology to a colleague whom I had agreed to co-author an academic book with -- the book cover project you may remember. I completely fell down on the job -- I stopped dealing with her e-mails four months ago, and got sufficiently stressed out and avoidant about the task that I couldn't even read them or listen to her increasingly worried phone messages. Argh. I had nightmares about it.

I've been trying to figure out why I've handled this so badly (aside from the standard overworked and overtired) and I suspect it has a lot to do with my own insecurities about my academic writing. I'm really not a literary critic, however I would like to think that my Ph.D. had prepared me to be one -- I've never published any real critical work, and everything I try to write in that vein sounds obvious and undergraduate. And my job situation at UIC is complex -- a spousal hire, and the department has made clear that while they're very happy to have me continue as a clinical professor in creative writing, teaching undergrad lit, even, that they wouldn't be interested in me for a tenure-track position unless I also had significant critical work.

UIC is unusual in this regard -- they want their creative writing professors to also be strong lit. scholars, which is unfortunate for me. I am trying to come to terms with it, and everyone in my department has been really nice about it, but honestly, my weird status (I'm the only clinical professor in my department) still bothers me. Not enough to go seek a tenure-track job elsewhere, not yet, because it's really a wonderful environment for me in a lot of other ways. The people are smart and kind and enthusiastic about my writing and supportive. The schedule is good for writing. It's a good place for me. But still.

Every time I sat down to work on this project, I kind of freaked out. I felt totally unprepared to handle it. And so I went and did something else.

I may publish something critical someday, although I sort of doubt it. My time is so impossibly tight these days, and will be for the next four years at least, until both children are in school and more self-sufficient. What I really want to spend what time and energy I have on is the creative writing -- that's what I obsess over, what I dream about. I should have realized long ago that given limited time, I would always end up choosing creative writing over critical, and accepted the consequences of that career-wise. I just wish I hadn't dragged my colleague into my mess.

She's found other folks interested in co-authoring with her, so I'm hopeful that she'll end up writing a brilliant book with them, and that my failing the last four months won't have any long-term consequences for her. But I feel awful that I cost her months of lost time, plus stress and worry.

Ugh. Major grown-up fail.

2 thoughts on “I just sent an abject…”

  1. Many sympathies on the whole thing. I’m glad you’ve reached a resolution.

    I’ve been there, on both sides of this. When someone is failing to respond to my attempts to contact them, I find it frustrating and upsetting—but I also know from my own experience how incredibly hard it can be to dig oneself out of that pit once the vicious cycle starts.

    It sounds like the underlying causes may be different for you than for me. For me, it’s usually rooted in conflict-avoidance—it usually starts with putting off dealing with something I expect to be unpleasant, and then the more I put it off the harder it is to start, and then the other person starts dropping me notes about it and that somehow makes it even harder, because not only do I have to deal with the original probably-upsetting situation, and not only do I have to apologize for the delay, and not only do I have to clean up any resulting mess, but now there’s this whole other email or voicemail that adds another layer to the problem.

    I wish I knew of a good way out of it, from either side. One thing I’ve started doing sometimes when someone isn’t responding to me is to send them email with informative subject lines, and to tell them things like “If it would be easier for you to just go ahead and do this thing than to write back to me about it, that’s fine; I know that having to explain/apologize always makes me put stuff off for longer.” But that’s no use if they’re not reading the emails, and when I’m on the other side of things, the other person usually doesn’t take this kind of approach.

    I have, on occasion, had someone literally hold my hand while I opened and read a likely-to-be-difficult email. That has often helped, even though it’s embarrassing to have to do that.

    And once or twice, for something non-personal, I’ve forwarded a likely-difficult email to someone else relevant, without reading it myself, and had the other person deal with it (and/or tell me what it said).

    I feel like a failure when I use workarounds like that. But they’re usually better, for me, than letting things continue to sit.

    Anyway. I don’t mean to focus on me; really all I’m saying is that you’re not alone, and that I wish I knew of effective ways to avoid falling into this kind of trap, from either side.

    And good for you for having now dealt with it.

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