‘When the going gets tough, I go on to something else.’
Ah, how familiar this whole process (culminating in the above) is to me.
I always hold out for it being ‘different this time’ but it never is.
One of my symptoms (or habits, depending on how you think about it) is my cyclical interests. I have several hobbies or interests (again, depending on whether I get paid for them or not).
My hobbies include guitar, woodworking, photography, computers, blogging, yoga, meditation, bicycling, running, hiking. My (professional) interests include teaching with technology, poetry, contemplative pedagogy, faculty development. I would include Buddhism as a hobby too, because I fall in and out of practice.
Within each hobby or interest, I have cyclical motivation. When it comes to creative writing, for example, I move between working on poetry, blogging, creative non-fiction, and a novel. Even within poetry, I vacillate from writing to criticism and book reviewing.
Unfortunately, one of my habits is not finishing what I start. I don’t publish much poetry, for example, because I don’t often enough get my act together and submit my work. Likewise, I renovated the kitchen myself and only have to finish the trim, but I haven’t finished the trim, and I haven’t worked on finishing the trim in about four years, even though most days when I go into the kitchen I think “I need to finish the trim.”
To live in modern society, you have to finish things, unless you have someone to finish them for you. It was a big step for me to admit that I can’t keep up with the mowing and snow shoveling and that we have to hire someone to do it. It was also a big relief.
So, finishing things, following through, is definitely something I need to work on.
However, I wonder if there is a way to live in the world I live in and make this cyclical interest work for me?
In many ways, my job as a professor caters to this cyclical interest. I work at a teaching institution, so publishing is not a required part of my job (but it helps me get promoted). Also, publishing is broadly defined, so I’m free to pursue my interests. If I chose to become a hard-core scholar, publishing only heavy-duty peer-reviewed journal articles and scholarly books, that would be recognized (although some might question how much time I’m investing in teaching).
So, I can do quick little works here and there (I’m doing a presentation at a local conference on Friday for example). I can also change my teaching from semester to semester. I can change readings, assignments, textbooks, etc. If you follow my blog, you know that I’m cyclical. I’ll have a super productive period for a few weeks, and think this is my thing, it will be different this time. And then, my interest takes a new track, and suddenly I’m really into playing the guitar and blogging seems like the old me.
The question is whether to fight it or work with it? Buddhists who practice mindfulness say to accept it. From that perspective, a sudden compelling interest, a minor obsession, is a way of distracting oneself from the present moment. A hobby can be seen as a form of clinging, either to a future image of oneself (as a star blogger, for example) or to objects (such as a guitar or a set of bookshelves that I might build). Both cases are a sort of fantasy, and a fantasy is about the future, not the here and now.
A more mundane interpretation is that I don’t want to do things that aren’t fun, so I absorb myself with things that are fun. One thing that’s fun is this fantasy world where I am a novelist, an accomplished musician, or a star teacher. It a long journey to get to this realization. I spent years in talk therapy trying to figure out why I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, like pay bills and grade papers and answer email, why there is a fundamental resistance in my soul to doing some simple things sometimes. I spent years exploring what these things represent, and how my experiences contributed to this resistance. I never found a truly satisfying answer then. My diagnosis was Generalized Anxiety Disorder. That explained the results of this fundamental problem, but never satisfactorily explained the underlying cause.
The cause is much simpler. I have AD(H)D. One of my symptoms, simply because of my brain wiring, is that I have trouble getting motivated to do things that I don’t want to do, more so than the average person. Sitting down alone and grading papers isn’t fun, so I don’t do it. Anxiety enters the picture. I have to grade papers. It’s my job. The whole thing gets complicated then, by my long history of anxiety over grading papers (I’ve had to grade more than 23,000 in my life). The longer I put off something, the harder it is to get started. And so on.
My short experience with medication, just since last November, underscores this model of my experience. With the right Ritalin level in my system, I can just do things that were terribly difficult before. It has been tricky trying to get it right, and I’m still not there, and it’s not medication alone, but medication in combination with good body habits and working conditions, but when it’s on, the experience shows me what’s possible. For example, going to professional gatherings is much easier now, as is talking to people I don’t know that well.
With every interest, every hobby, something happens to complicate it, and I move on. With the kitchen, for example, I don’t know how some of the trim is going to work, so I put it off. Now the garage is full of stuff, and I can’t get to my table saw and miter saw, so the kitchen project is now a clean-the-garge and work on the kitchen project. More often than not, though, the complicating factor is guilt. I have trouble putting down the new toy to do my work. Last night, for example, I worked on my guitar instead of doing email that I felt I should be doing, so this morning I feel guilty about the time I invested in that hobby. Add up enough of those experiences in a row, and the new toy doesn’t feel fun anymore. In fact I rarely feel when I’m doing something fun, that I should be doing it. I almost always feel as though I should be doing something else, my “real” work. That’s why I like work that involves meetings. After a long meeting, I feel focused, because I was doing what I was supposed to be doing for a good stretch of time.
Anyway, back to the question at hand. How to work with this changing interest?
I think there are a more poets with AD(H)D than any other genre. Poetry lends itself more to short bursts of creative effort. Writing novels, not so much. Each time I work on a new poem, its a new world. I’m reinventing my idea of a poem, and my idea of what one of my poems is. With the novel, you’re stuck with what you’ve already built, unless you’re starting over. There has to be regular work. You have to write through the dreadful periods. With poetry, you can go silent and come back much more easily.
I’ve read a number of books that say one has to either make peace with the impulse toward silence (make it an active silence) or find a way to work through it anyway. Both of those are laudable goals. The third option, berating oneself for once again being a screw up is crazy making.
I don’t know the answer. If I did, I would be more at peace.