Writing Sporks

Despite being a lifelong writer, I have not published often for the same reason that plastic sporks exist: fundamental resistance to difficulty.  A plastic spork says both I do not want to wash silverware and I cannot be bothered to use a separate utensil for solids and liquids.  Publishing involves finishing, correspondence, keeping track of things, and putting yourself out there to be judged.  All things I resist.

A 1908 design patent drawing for a spork, from...

A 1908 design patent drawing for a spork, from U.S. Patent (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until recently I blamed this resistance on laziness, but my laziness got a clinical label in my fortieth year: attention deficit disorder.  What I once thought a character flaw I now believe to be a differently-functioning brain. (Among professionals in the field, calling it a “deficit” is so five years ago.)

No doubt that ADD/ADHD is controversial, as many children were casually medicated, but the more I read the research on the condition, I don’t know how I could have anything else. I had an extensive battery of cognitive tests to tell me I have an affinity for words and all the managerial capability of a depressed orangutang.

When it comes to publishing, all that correspondence involved in the submission process, all that finding markets and writing submission text, and tracking submissions seems like a big waste of time to my ADHD brain, like doing my tax returns (note to self: tax returns are overdue again).

I knew early on that I had a knack for writing.  The first paragraph I ever wrote, on the subject of oxygen, was read to the class by my third grade teacher.  I didn’t work that hard on it.  I just did it in a way that made sense, main point first, boring details in the middle, end with a flourish. The same thing happened often throughout school.  In my freshman year of college, I was woefully misguided in my choice for electrical engineering as a major (and in moving away from home to go to college), but my technical writing teacher announced to the class, “I don’t know how Jonathan made fractal geometry understandable in such a short paper, but you all should read it.”

After engineering and I broke up, I decided to major in creative writing. I received praise for my creative work all through school and even into graduate school, but when I finished my MFA in 1996, the praise did not arrive from the source that mattered most: editors of literary journals.  My plan was simple: teach and start my publishing career.  A few key publications and an award or two and I’d be off to the races to make my mark in literary history.

But the awards did not come.  Nor did the acceptance.  I was ignorant about the amount of rejection it takes to publish, or thought I would move to the front of the line because  I was special.  I had an M.F.A., after all.  I was also ignorant about the effort involved in crafting good submissions.  I assumed my degree and my oft-praised work would stand for itself. Didn’t happen.

So, just like my choice in engineering seemed wrong, after a number of rejections, the career as a poet  seemed foolish too.  I had a moment success with a small backpacking article published in a national magazine, but then it got Michigan-winter cold outside and I got tired of the idea of being a nature writer, so I left that behind and focused on trying to manage my teaching, getting tenure, earning a Ph.D., getting married, starting a family.  I thought I would get that teaching career and my finances under control, put aside neatly organized in a mental box and I could be free to write.  Finances and grading papers turned out to be really hard with undiagnosed ADHD, so I could never get a lid on that box, could never get the momentum going in any writing endeavor, and so gave up and started earning a Ph.D. in “Critical Studies in Teaching English,” whatever that means (short version: everyone is oppressed by the hegemony of capitalism and it’s your job as an English teacher to be angry about it for some reason).

But writing always nagged me.  A key turning point several years ago came after a string of career setbacks.  Tired of grading papers after ten years, and worried about my small salary, I had been working on a second Ph.D. degree in educational leadership, specializing in faculty development (it turned out I was only cynical about capitalism and couldn’t finish the first one).  I had been doing an internship of sorts, getting release time from teaching to work in our faculty development center.  That abruptly ended, with some vague explanation that I was not filling some unsaid expectations.  Around the same time I had a run-in with a surly statistics professor who gave me a bad grade.  He thought I did not take him seriously because I did not do the extra credit, when instead I was madly grading papers to finish my own semester of teaching.

Fine, I said to myself, I’ll go back to being a poet. On a whim, I applied for a writing sabbatical.  It was granted.  I applied for travel money to creative writing conferences.  Approved.  I gave up the second Ph.D. and started writing and submitting again.

Today, though, I am nearly in the same situation.  To say I have a trickle of publications would be to exaggerate.  Unless you count blogs (my promotion committee doesn’t) I have mere drops of published output. The difference is that now I have accumulated a much larger pile of rejections.  It reaches that tipping point sometimes: I’m ready to give up.  What other profession requires enduring so much rejection?  Maybe telemarketing. I did that job once too.

So why keep writing? Ah, the artist’s life!  The bohemian lifestyle!  The freedom of the life of the mind!  Nope. My life is difficult.  I have two sons with autism.  My youngest boy, seven years old, has cancer and is in chemotherapy. I have lots of debt.  All those years of indecisive graduate school were not cheap, and compounding interest makes it worse.  Not exactly a Yaddo residency around here.

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dy...

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan by Elsa Dorfman (1975) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But, maybe excepting the debt, I can deal with all that.  My sons are happy and innocent and young.  I’m married to a wonderful woman.  My son’s cancer is in remission, and the chemotherapy schedule helps keep me focused on things that matter.

However, the inconsistency that ADHD saddles me with is the source of my darker days. Which is why I write.

Even in my furthest orbits away from the idea of a career as a writer, I still write, or at least stay in the writing frame of mind. My greatest thrill is when a project takes off, even though that project is likely to end up shelved, gathering virtual dust on my hard drive.   I’ll read a mediocre novel, and see ways it could be better.  I teach writing and literature, so I’m always connected to the written word.

There are many quirks to the ADHD mind.  One is hyperfocus.  A myth about ADHD is that someone with it cannot focus.  I can focus intensely.  I am a voracious reader.  I read a book a week on average, and I read widely on the internet about whatever topic I am into at the moment (right now: software patent litigation). My mind enjoys being intensely engaged in a rewarding activity.  I just can’t often control what that activity is.  And I can gin up that hyperfocus for a few weeks at a time.  I once wrote a wonderful first draft of a zombie novel during a semester break a dozen years ago.

I’ve learned to trick my mind.  If I have a vague notion about wanting to get some writing done, doing a Google Image search for “writer’s desk” or “writing studio” does wonders. I keep  the Jill Krementz book close at hand. The Yaddo website is pretty.

DSC_9567But the thing I am never good at is tedium: paperwork, paying bills, doing laundry, or submitting work for publication.

Despite all the rejection, despite all the hurdles my mind puts in the way of submitting, despite my inner critic saying you cannot call yourself a writer based on that publication record, and despite the abundance of genetic misfortune in my house, I am still a writer in the sense of “one who writes.”

Putting words together into coherent sentences and paragraphs is akin to meditation. My brain wants to ruminate in several different directions as once, but despite all advances in technology, a person can still only write one word at a time.  When I write I gain nourishment from that focus.  The feeling of the keys moving along under my fingers by itself is enough to lift me out of a funk.  A good writing session is relief from the constant tug of war between should and want and it is fleeting evidence that my mind is capable of channelling chaotic thoughts into linear, executive-functioning form. It is hope that my quirky personality has an ideal home somewhere.

Though it is melodramatic to say so, I write to keep the demons at bay.  There can be no other explanation.  How else could I justify doing something with so few extrinsic rewards?  How else can a person continue in the face of constant messages of sorry, not good enough?  On a day that writing happens, that real, honest work gets done that I feel in my bones, I am more at ease in the world.

The process of publication, though, is more akin to running for public office.  It does not fit my persona. It would be like Socrates running for president; every debate would be a one-sided version of “Questions Only” from Whose Line is it Anyway?  Jim Leherer: “Mr. Socrates, what would be your plan to address the current legal morass concerning immigration law in the United States?”  Socrates: “I’d like to first say that I am honored for being here, Jim, and thanks to NPR for hosting this event.  I’d like to say this, but I can’t because, first of all, what do I mean when I say ‘being here’?”

Death of Socrates, 1875

Death of Socrates, 1875 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently saw a new ADHD specialist to get a second opinion on my medication plan. I talked about the difficulty of submitting and publishing.  He said “there are people in the world who love sales, even cold calling, where you get fifty rejections for every sale, and those people love racking up the rejections because they know that each rejection is one step closer to that next sale.” All right. Good for them.

Professor Expert Syndrome

I’ve become more involved in the workplace the last two months.  As a professor, I decide my degree of service: which committees I get involved in and what work I do toward administrative work.

I had withdrawn a bit the last two years. Prior to my realization and diagnosis of my AD(H)D, I was very involved in teaching-with-technology work, running training sessions, workshops, and serving on committees that help guide the university’s decisions on software and policies, etc.  I got weary of the work, especially because it seemed ever-more demanding of my time with fewer benefits. On a whim in 2008 I applied for a writing sabbatical and got it.  I took it as a sign to focus on my own writing and let the university take care of itself.

I had also reached my limit of back-biting, grousing, and negativity, so I theorized a condition: Professor Expert syndrome.  I have met Professor Experts on my own campus, but also far and wide at the dozens of conferences I’ve travelled to through the years.

Here’s my theory:

After many years of being in a classroom, on committees, and publishing and presenting research, a professor gets used to being the expert. The entire endeavor of teaching and curriculum is structured to defer to the expertise of the professor. While that is as it should be, there is a certain kind of person who after decades of being the expert most of the time starts to believe that he is the expert all of the time. (Professor Expert syndrome correlates strongly with gender.)  Add to that the fact that people gifted in certain areas (intellect) often have deficits in other areas (understanding social cues) and you have conditions for Professor Expert. Here are the symptoms:

  • Willingness to opine at length untempered by actual working knowledge of the subject at hand
  • Interest in talking, but not conversation
  • A great storehouse of opinions on the administration of everything
  • Little actual interest in helping to improve the administration of anything
  • Stunning lack of audience awareness
  • A tendency to conspiracy theories
  • Low tolerance for frustration

If I had to summarize it in a single phrase it would be recreational bitterness mixed with a strong sense of entitlement. (For a description of recreational bitterness, see http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/09/rebecca-solnit-liberals-leftists-explaining-things.)

The behavior that astounds me most is the compartmentalized thinking: professors who fight against discrimination, stereotyping, essentializing, and overgeneralization in the classroom and the social sphere but are perfectly willing to rail against coworkers and administrators using the very same logical errors.  In other words, engaging in the sort of behavior they constantly condemn in their students, administrators, and politicians.

This syndrome becomes especially virulent when trying to implement new technology on campus. What Professor Expert especially does not like is being exposed as inexpert.  Since there is a strong correlation between years on campus and syndrome pathology, Professor Experts tend not to be as facile with technology as younger faculty.  Getting Professor Experts to come to training sessions or workshops is like getting Donald Trump to agree to a hair makeover.   In order to walk into a training session, workshop, or help session, one has to admit deficiency.

I could go on, but you get the idea. This kind of behavior is discouraging for other faculty to endure. If you know that for every new project you work on there will be strong voices carping behind your back with little relationship between depth of criticism and possession of the facts, you are understandably hesitant to move forward. So, the irony is that the kind of problems Professor Expert likes to complain about are actually perpetuated by his own behavior.

I used to think if I could fix the problems highlighted by Professor Expert, then I could cure the syndrome. But that does not take into account the deeper workings of the syndrome.  You see, Professor Expert does not actually want most problems to be fixed.  The existence of unsolvable problems, particularly those which highlight the incompetence others, is what gives Professor Expert his entire raison detre.  Just like all serial complainers, the act of complaining gives Professor Expert a sense of control and ownership in an uncertain world.

 *     *     *

Most anyone would be frustrated by the existence of these people.  But I try to be able to work with anyone. I try to go beyond “these people” kind of thinking.  I try to understand the layers of what seems like unreasonable behavior.  I try to be mindful, and understand my own reactions.  Why does this kind of behavior get to me?

This kind of person does two things that push my buttons: unending complaint and unfair criticism. It bugs me when people complain about things when there are simple solutions to the problems or the complaint is made in such a way that it is impossible to resolve. For instance, some technology complainers don’t want technology problems to happen and simultaneously do not want technology to change; the only actual solution to that pair of desires is an alternate timeline in which a technological problem did not happen in the first place.  It also bugs me when people criticize based on wrong information.

These tender spots in my personality belie a deeper desire: to make people happy.  This impulse is not altruism, however.  It’s people pleasing, which results from insecurity.  The people-pleasing inner narrative runs like this: I worry that people will not like me.  I must do everything I can to make them like me. If people don’t like me, that will be terrible.  The corollary here is that if I do everything reasonably possible to make people like me and they don’t, then life is pointless because life will be terrible no matter what.  And that makes me angry.  I’ve had most of my life a nagging feeling that I’m going to fail.  People who are never happy are signs that no amount of work on my part may ever be enough.

 *     *     *

So the reason I understand Professor Expert syndrome so well is that I was at real risk of becoming one. When I became a teacher at age 25, I had real doubts about my ability.  I responded by demanding respect.  When I became a young professor, I had a strong sense of entitlement. I could carp as loudly as anyone about minor grievances. And when I didn’t have the answer to a question I speculated (read: I bullshat).  When my odd work habits started to overtake me, I shut down.  My AD(H)D meant that I grew steadily worse at meeting deadlines and managing classes.  I grew ever more evasive and withdrawn and defensive. When the stress of life grew to great to manage, I looked around and saw that I was a homeowner and a new parent, a Ph.D. candidate and a professor and a long-distance commuter, and that I had thought that piling all these things on myself was the only way to redeem myself.

My saving grace is that I actually failed.  I did not finish my Ph.D. I found my limit.  It took me a decade to recover, but now I have discovered the right combination of therapies and work habits so that I can feel confident. I don’t entirely blame my disorder.  It certainly made my chances of success lower, but not facing certain problems early enough and not learning from failures were equally to blame.  Having failed and learned and changed makes me confident.

 *     *     *

The one antidote to Professor Expert syndrome is confidence. The syndrome is about arrogance, not confidence. True confidence comes not from avoiding mistakes and worry and criticism, but from managing your responses. Arrogance, in some forms, is a cover for a lack of confidence.

Confidence is the social antidote as well to Professor Experts.  They often turn into bullies. They expect people to placate them, to be sympathetic to their vitriol. But I’ve found directness and honesty penetrates the haze.  If someone writes something unfairly negative online or through other indirect channels, providing evidence and writing in a direct but not mean tone, or even meeting directly with the source has a calming effect.

The greatest gift of Professor Experts is my opportunity to practice mindfulness.  As a point of comparison, I meet with my students all the time individually for conferences. In addition to giving them feedback, I’m able to better understand their points of view, and better able to be honest and direct with them. If a paper turns out badly, we’re able to talk about why and try to figure out what to do to make it better.  It doesn’t always turn out better, but they’re better for the experience. Some of my colleagues said they are too scared to grade student papers in person.  I know that student responses to grades are unrelated to how high they are.  I’ve had students thank me for a D and storm out of my office in disgust with a B+.

With my students, then, I’m not afraid of making mistakes anymore.  It’s a good thing; I make them all the time.  I’m able to own my past, and own my weaknesses.  It’s liberating to say at the beginning of a semester: I have ADHD.  I’m really good at helping you with writing, but I can be forgetful and mix up some details.  If I make a mistake, please tell me because that’s helpful. I’m also able to meet students with complaints on their terms and address complaints easily. My belief is that most professor/student conflicts arise out of misunderstanding.

I’ve begun to apply that to my work outside of the classroom.  I’m working on things now that cause conflict with other professors. When the conflict arises, though, I talk to people directly. It’s simple, really.  One of two things results; the conflict is diffused or the other person withdraws further. I used to be angry about the second response, the person who criticizes me indirectly but is not willing to talk to me directly. I realized that sort of person is not actually interested in conversation anyway, so there is nothing I could do to prevent that behavior, and I don’t need to try.

 *     *     *

I discussed this syndrome at length with a friend at another institution who is experiencing the same sort of behavior and is at a similar stage of his career. He agreed with everything I said and at the end offered this sage question: “We’ve got a good twenty five years left in our careers.  How do we not become them?”

I thought about it, and opined, “Maybe we already have.”

The End of Jobs

Finally, the long awaited (put off) conclusion to my series on work:

Captain Caddie

Gate Jockey

The Papers

The Absent-Minded Professor

All these jobs told me that I was not normal.  A normal person, and normal man, I thought, just does his job, even if he doesn’t like it.  When he doesn’t like it, he works hard to get a job that he does like.

A college professor, a genuine real professional college professor does things on time, answers email, does his grading and feedback in a meaningful and timely way, and does not get hung up on small problems.

A competent man has clear goals and values and picks and chooses his day-to-day actions in line with those goals.

Not so the ADHD man.

Part of this experience of coming to terms with ADHD is finding a way to be in the world. When I asked ADHD coach Kevin Roberts why it is so hard to persist in the world with ADHD, he said:

The non-ADHD world is geared toward the type of brain that 90 percent or so of the population.  They craft a world suited to routine, safety, limiting risk, and predictability.  These are pretty much the exact opposite to what the ADHD brain is suited for.

And that seems true to my experience.  Although I don’t seem to have the disregard for safety that hyperactive people have, I do seem to have trouble fitting in wherever I go.  I feel either not talkative enough, or too talkative.  I hear people talk about their work habits, and I wish I could do that (though I know now, people lie).  I understand the need for certain tasks for being a middle-class American with two kids and a house: paying bills, saving money, having the right insurance, keeping cars and houses maintained, returning phone calls, and, the hardest of all, doing what you don’t want to do in the short term in order to achieve what you want in the long term.

In some ways, my inability to do certain things at certain times seem horribly confusing to me.  Why could I not do some things, which, by comparison to other things I could do, are quite easy tasks.  In some ways, the answer is simple; the things are not fun or interesting, or there’s some ickyness or awkwardness attached to it. I could not collect from that customer on my paper route simply because I had put off doing it for so long that I could not muster the energy to just go face the music.  I cannot pay bills on time because I spent my entire adult life being in debt and feeling guilty about it and I just don’t want to even think about all that mess. This basic resistance to boring or uncomfortable task which everyone has, is particularly difficult for my brain to get around, and requires more mental effort than the average person to both get started on and sustain effort.  I’ve had sessions of grading papers that have had the same amount of tension and anxiety for me as when my wife was giving birth.  It should not be that way, I think it is foolish for it to be that way, but it is that way.

The Absent-Minded Professor

It’s inevitable, this subject, this joke.

One of the questions I address in my FAQ is “How did you ever become a professor with AD(H)D?”

I started teaching in graduate school, as a graduate assistant, at the ripe old age of 23, barely older than my students.  I taught three sections of freshman composition the first year and it was exhausting.  The first time I sat down to grade papers it took me five hours to grade five papers, and not for lack of focus.  You see, a myth about English professors is that we spring from the womb with a fully developed understanding of grammar, right down to the participles and appositions.  Not true.  In fact, I earned a C in my News Editing class as an undergraduate.

My first semester, I would read a paper, and know how I would change it to make it better, but I would be at a loss on how to explain that to a student in a way that wouldn’t be longer than the paper itself. I have a knack for language, but it’s a knack for imitation, not a knack for studying grammar books.  My only real grammar instruction was seventh grade English, taught by Mrs. Grettum, who would would accuse us of stealing her glasses when they were on top of her head.  I’ve taught myself about grammar and style through the years.  I’m still learning.

I also picked up some classes to teach at the community college while still in my master’s program.  That’s when I developed my complex relationship with grading papers, in that I have a complex about grading papers, in that I do not like to grade them.  The greater the number of papers, the harder it got to get started. (It turns out, as I recently discovered, it’s best to grade them together with the students.)  I eventually got hired at my current institution, first as a part-timer (meaning “temporary,” because I actually worked overtime), then as visiting professor (even though I wanted to stay), and finally as tenure track.  I earned tenure in 2005 (not a life-long guarantee of employment; there are plenty of ways to get fired and I’ve worried about them all).  My current rank is Associate Professor, and I can apply for full Professor in a couple years.

I have had a lot of difficulty with my relationship with work, mostly stemming from this automatic resistance to grading papers. It’s pretty common among writing teachers; it’s our burden, and we always lend each other a sympathetic ear, but I made avoiding it into a high art form.

One interesting thing I’ve noted throughout the years is that it is easy to be mediocre, if you’re okay with that (I’m not).  For an average teacher, just getting by, it’s true that students won’t be happy and that person won’t get promotions, but no one is going to fire this person for being mediocre or even mildly incompetent.  If I really wanted to, I could get by on minimum work: using the same syllabi and assignments every term, putting minimal effort into grading, doing as little committee work as possible.  If I did not want to get promoted, I could easily become complacent, somewhat invisible to the administration.

Beyond promotion, though, I have always wanted to do good work.  When I was younger, I wanted to do the best work, but now I will settle for highly competent.  Nearly all of my colleagues have at least some degree of professional interest and most of them have a high degree of interest and competence.  In fact, the cases of incompetence I’ve known about were largely due to secondary issues: senility, mental illness, other illness that reduces a person’s ability to work.

I have never borne my failings very well.  The way AD(H)D plays out in my professional life is clear to see: trouble following through on projects, trouble sustaining interest in projects long-term, trouble with routine work and meeting deadlines.  These habits mean there’s a wide gulf between what I see myself capable of and what I accomplish.  My life requires some degree of regular, consistent effort on my part, and if there’s one thing I’m consistent about it’s inconsistency.

The persona that emerged from these symptoms was someone I did not wish to be.  He did things at the last minute, often arriving at class unprepared and just winging it, or giving out handouts that had last semester’s dates on them, or just letting students go early.  He let papers pile up ungraded for weeks and then graded them in a rush, with limited or sometimes no feedback.  He would promise too many things to too many people, get involved in too many projects, and get things done very late or abandon them until someone else did them.  He became expert at crafting convincing excuses. When life got really overwhelming, he hid out in dark rooms alone for hours at a time.

Back then I could not understand my behavior.  I would have to make excuses because I didn’t know the real reason for my procrastination.  I could not explain it.  I could not imagine telling my students or colleagues the real situation:  I wanted to do the work, I thought about it the whole time, but I just couldn’t do it.

I stayed employed.  I honestly think that part of the reason is that when I came to my current university, the school was in the final throes of a long downtrend due to mismanagement, and there was little accountability for professors.  As long as no one complained too loudly, I was left alone to do my work.  When students did complain, the authorities usually gave me the benefit of the doubt.  Some of my colleagues tell me that I was not all that bad back then anyway, but I have a hard time believing it. I knew I was doing sloppy work.

This semester I tried something new.  Armed with my new ADHD diagnosis, I just put it out there to students.  I told them on the first day that I have ADHD and that it’s not an excuse, but I have some quirks.  I told them that I forget names, so not to be offended, and that I forget to do things that I say I’m going to do, so they should remind me.  I spend lots of time working individually with students, and that sort of narrows the distance between us.  I ask them about their degrees and what they’re doing, and for the most part they are grateful for the time and attention, that I take them seriously.  I find, too, that I do take them seriously when I know something about them.  (Otherwise, their quirks just seem annoying to me.)

They’ve taken it in stride.  They laugh when I stop in the middle of a sentence to say “Look, it’s snowing!”  They do remind me of things I forgot (which are fewer and fewer) and I am thankful for the reminders.  A couple of students have told me they have ADHD as well, and we’ve talked about strategies together.  Contrary to a popular myth, no one has asked to “get away” with not doing work because of ADHD, though.  Through the years, I have probably structured my courses to be ADHD-friendly, because I teach them the way I would like to learn—things that make it good for most students, though: a clear structure and schedule, things presented visually as much as possible, one-on-one meetings, varying class activities that get students involved.

So, the big question.  How did I ever get to be a professor?  No one else would have me.