Referring to this block as “my worst block ever,” I feel I must pause here to emphasize why this block was so bad. All the reasons why I had to move block this pronto were, in fact, all the reasons it became so inert. As I stated in my last post, my life would not move forward until I finished this thesis. I wanted to teach English at a community college, which obviously I wouldn’t be doing until I completed my Master’s which I would never get before I wrote this thesis. Also, every semester that I was working on the thesis I had to pay tuition, which meant there was a meter running on this block.
But, the worst part about this block was I wasn’t writing a word. It’s not like I was writing a little. I hadn’t written a word since I had hit page 8 about a month earlier. In my mind, I was supposed to be writing every day all day, so every day all day (except for the hours I was waiting on the Tony Bennett-era San Franciscans at the San Remo), I felt guilty and like I was bad, bad, bad. I could perhaps wring more pity from you by emphasizing again that there was also the break-up, but I don’t want to risk that you’ll tire of my whining before I’ve gotten to the turning point of this story, so I will leave that for now.
So there I was home from the bookstore with my newly acquired used copy of Working It Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk About Their Lives, wasting more precious writing time leafing through it on the sofa, the clicking of the tuition meter whirring away in the background. But within a few minutes–to my surprise– the cover’s black and white pictures of 70’s feminists began to have a calming effect. The women there reminded me of the women who’d been my undergrad professors, women who’d studied, wrote and muscled their way into old-boy academia. Women who had spine-worn copies of The Second Sex on their crowded bookshelves. They were the women I’d gone to with all my Mommy needs when I arrived in college. They’d let me into their shabby offices and listened to me while I gobbled up their office hours with all sorts of rambling talk. They were women who showed me a glimmer of who I could be in the world.
And, then I flipped to an essay entitled, “Learning to Work.” I startled with recognition as I read the first paragraph: A work problem, it stated, “consists of being unable to work, not because of external pressures such as lack of time, but because of internal problems, which can be exacerbated or disguised by external pressures.” My eyes darted to the photo of the author, Virginia Valian, on the adjacent page. It showed the author absorbed in her work, not bothering to look up at the camera, not caring that a city pulsated behind her through a plate glass window. It was clearly an “after” photo. My eyes slid over to the title again: Learning to Work. Maybe, just maybe, there was a way out.
In the opening pages of the essay, Valian sets the scene: It’s Cambridge, 1970, she’s done all the course work and now she just needs to write this thesis, but she’s doing everything but write. The circumstances of the block are so hauntingly similar that I feel like these pages have tumbled through time and space and a used bookstore on Judah to bring me out of my paralysis. Clearly this woman had made it through. The photo showed calm working. I flipped quickly to the bio in the back: she was now a psychology professor. I felt something flicker through me: hope.
After analyzing her situation (she uses the work of Masters and Johnson as a guiding example), she decides that she needs to break her work time into measurable and doable units. She runs through the possibilities of how long she might be able to sit at her desk at a stretch: “Three hours! The very thought gave me an anxiety attack. How about two hours? Two hours! The very thought…One hour? More reasonable, but still not possible. Half an hour? Getting closer but still too much. Fifteen minutes? Fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes. Now there was a figure I could imagine. A nice solid amount of time, an amount of time I knew I could live through every day.”
Again, I glanced at the photo. This respectable, working woman–a professor–was admitting to the world that she saw fifteen minutes of work as a stretch she could “live through.” Not everyone was working away calmly. There were people–at least one person–like me out there. A person who’d struck a bargain with herself to work for fifteen minutes. Could I work for fifteen minutes?
I thought maybe I could.
To be continued….
Download Valian’s “Learning to Work” essay here: