By Joycelyn Moody - JMoody's Musings
At a Dean’s mixer last month, I asked one of my favorite colleagues, Ben*, how he’d spent his summer vacation. He told me he wrote a book. He got up every morning by 6, hit the CrossFit gym by 7, and was in his cubicle in the university library by 8. He wrote until he didn’t feel like it anymore, usually around 5 or 6 pm.
Ben told me the cubicle was stark, ascetic, and I conjured up a monk’s cell. No photos, no mementos, nothing but a bookshelf and a desk lamp. Our library has a Starbucks and a cafeteria where he probably ate lunch. Sometimes he’d go stir crazy, he said, and other times he’d take a nap, but mostly it was just him, his Mac, and some books.
I marveled. I was awestruck. Could any minoritized women pull this off? Could I?
I knew Ben as a hard worker. We’d sat together for Faculty Senate meetings; we’d sat together at a campus writing workshop. Once, at a different mixer, we had each been invited to present on our distinctive research projects. I’ve envied his fantastic discipline, and I believed wholeheartedly that he could write, had written, a book in just under four months.
Me: Had you started at all before May?
Ben: No, nothing in writing. Just mulling over the topic.
Me: Did you literally finish?
Ben: Yeah, well, I’ve sent the manuscript to my editor, and I’ll send off the bibliography when I’ve cleaned it up.
Me: [Without enthusiasm:] Congratulations.
After, I polled a few women of color: was that kind of situation possible for them? Could they write a book in four months? Each one laughed at me for a fool.
More than once, though, I myself have had time “off” to write a book. Every time, I faced the same dilemma I still face: do I continue my practice of giving to others more than I give to myself? Only once, as I’ll recall below, did I choose to ignore the onslaught of academic requests I frequently get as a Black woman called to service, even before tenure. It’s the dilemma many of my coaching clients have expressed.
My Love and I have each other, but neither of us has a wife. Ben does, though. For all I know, she’s a White academic, too, as he is, and maybe they’re equally sharing home care. It’s a safer bet, though, theirs is a traditional relationship with Guess Who doing the lion’s share.
My first and second “off” times formed 15 back-to-back months, and by the end I was supposed to have placed a (tenure) book in publisher’s hands. Turning attention to my millennial son over to his father, I started a summer fellowship over a thousand miles away: other Black lesbian academics were my community for the first time. As my fellowship required, I taught a group of reluctant undergraduates. Again, as stipulated, I wrote and delivered a talk about my book project.
Three months later I moved again—this time to Massachusetts for another fellowship. This one provided 12 more months “off’ (nine longer than Ben had). Once more, the terms of the fellowship required that I teach. I’d prepped to move, now I prepped for class. During my orientation, I was shown my study cubicle, a monk’s cell like Ben’s, plain walls, no windows.
How did I spend my time? The first term I taught a graduate seminar. I finished a few book reviews. Re-started my book chapter. Advised my doctoral students back home, some of them on the job market. I read and returned dissertation chapters. I wrote some overdue reader reports. I mentored my new grad students. I visited long-time friends in the area. I spent Christmas break grading seminar papers and attending the MLA convention. For an edited volume, “off” work, I wrote my own chapter, hell to draft.
I’d sold my car back home, and I biked everywhere until I was snowbound. I joined a heaven of Black queer intellectuals. I mentored the grad students among them. I pined for a lover I’d just left; miraculously, she greets me now with kisses every morning. I wrote and gave an open lecture to the fellowship sponsors, the campus community, and the public. I worked in my apartment. I never went back to that cubicle again.
By the time I left Massachusetts for my home in Seattle, I had come out to my mother as queer, and I had drafted two of the six chapters of the book I was supposed to have finished. And yet I had worked very hard across the 15 months I was “off.” The tenure book would come a few years later.
As I said, though, I did write a book once. Six years later, I was awarded a one-month fellowship. My son now on his own. This time, too, the site was outside Boston. All April, I researched my second book in a nurturing archive. I renewed my Boston friendships. I lived in a scholars’ residence.
In May, I left New England for my parents’ home in Kansas City. On May 1, my mother became my wife. As a University of Kansas PhD, I was privileged with a small corner room in the satellite KU Alumni Library two miles up the road from my folks’. It was just off the librarians’ canteen, and had windows on three sides. I arrived by nine every weekday morning, and I left when the library closed at six. My book project was the teacher’s guide to a 3000-page anthology of Black literature.
I started Weight Watchers in the second week of May, and by September, I’d lost 30 pounds. The rigor and regimen of my research program, and the counting of WW “points,” reinforced each other. I took a long twilight walk after work. No novels: I read grad students’ exams at night. I co-directed two dissertations. I read some tenure dossiers.
Mom did my laundry and bought the essentials. I took a cooler of salads for lunch. My parents marveled at their daughter’s discipline. I emailed my editor. She emailed me more. Once, I participated three hours by phone in a doctoral exam. I wrote more readers’ reports. I drafted a syllabus. I laughed with my son, in love with his two –year-old twin siblings; his father’s by a later marriage.
Somedays, for a change, I walked four blocks uphill to a community college to read in a girlfriend’s campus office; she was away for summer fun. My academic community afar checked in. I lunched with a grad school friend; she still lived in Kansas.
Yes, I was lucky and gifted beyond belief, but do believe me.
All spring and summer, My Sweet Thang saw house after house, buying our first home back home. She paid the earnest money. When we spoke to the lender, I was in Kansas, braced for a tornado.
Back then, paper was king, and just after Labor Day, I came home to nine pounds of paper proofs. My family and I sang to the new baby birthed at last.
Jubilant and skinny, I went home to a house I’d never seen.
How can a woman of color write a book in four months? Single, mothering, partnered, someone to maintain quotidian duties. Tenured or not, she should, as I did not, expect a lag in her professional responsibilities. Even when she wants to, she won’t ignore students. She will still assess the tenure cases of minoritized faculty around the nation. Our author will need a good library a few blocks close, and another regimen, for balance. Exercise and good food. She will need her own room, and someone else’s funds, plus a wealth of health. A wife would be good, but slovenliness is fine. She will need good luck. Perhaps a coach. A community who calls. She will work very hard—on the book and much more. She will love herself more for her efforts.
[*Ben is not my colleagues real name. ]
Until next time,