Ghosts of the Old City: An Evening with Zahra

Working on a long-form essay about leaving academia and flailing along at Camp NaNoWriMo have eaten up my writing time this week. In lieu of a proper post, here’s another excerpt from Ghosts of the Old City

Above Zahra’s head and beyond the carefully crooked alleys of Old Sakurdrilen, the three lights burned. Within the walls, though, the city sang a darker tune as the last wisps of day fled the sky. Oh, the coffee houses and restaurants were safe enough. Little troubled the grounds of the University or the neighboring offices of government and business. But outside, on the streets, Old Sakurdrilen crawled with all that hid from the sun. Prostitutes and pickpockets, fortune tellers and cut-rate alchemists…if you could not find what you wanted—for some price—on the night streets of the old city, it was not worth having.

This is what they don’t understand. Zahra thought. This is why I dare the Owls. And why I’ve no coin to pay them off. At night, she danced over walls, through locked doors. She played tunes with her picks and knives and made and lost fortunes by morning. Zahra prowled Eelsward. There would be time for adventure later. For now, the wine in her stomach desperately wanted company. Rolen would have food. He might even have a story to send the evening forward.

Her brother’s shop was half underground. The upper floor was filled with curios and oddities, sailors’ talismans and relics collected from around the world. The heart of Rolen’s business, though, was in the basement. People left their names upstairs and their coin below, or traded valuable nothings for heavier purses. The basement smelled alternately of hot metal and exotic incense. Rolen kept the lights dim. Even if he hadn’t been her brother, he still would have been Zahra’s favorite shifter.

“Good evening, miss. Rolen’s downstairs.”

Zahra nodded curtly and headed downstairs. She didn’t like her brother’s taste in women, nor that he tended to leave them in charge of the shop whenever he was conducting more serious business below.

“Rolen! What have you got to eat?”

Rolen grunted and set down his tiny pliers. “Hello, sister dear. You got the gig, I take it?”

“Is it that obvious?” Rolen nodded his reply. Zahra relented. “Yes, yes. We got the gig. And he paid half up front. It is a fine night to be alive. But what have you got to eat?”

“Half a roasted chicken, what’s left of this morning’s bread, and some carrots.” But Zahra had already spotted it on the table behind the workbench. She casually vaulted the bench to rip a leg off the chicken. “Help yourself.”

Zahra swallowed and grinned. “Thanks. How’s business?”

“Slow. But that’s not a bad thing, you know. Not all the time. The Watch has been pushy lately. I don’t mind the quiet. It gives me a chance to spread some money around where it won’t bother them.”

“Alyn tried to talk you into investing again?”

“When doesn’t he? But he knows better than to push it. If I wanted that life, I would just take it. I can be happy Alyn is succeeding without wanting to be him. I don’t know if he’s ever understood that.”

“It wasn’t always like that.”

“We’re not ten anymore, Zahra. I don’t need him to be the fastest, strongest, smartest brother ever.”

“You left out ‘most honest.’”

“Pfeh. That, he can keep.” Rolen picked the pliers back up and resumed removing the jewels from a necklace. “I thought you’d be out with Talu and Pavon.”

“Pavon and Talu,” Zahra said, “are busy becoming a couple. They don’t need me along. Besides, can’t you smell the city tonight? They would not come out with me.”

“All I smell is my food that you’re eating. Like I said, it’s been quiet. Even for the Owls, I hear.”

“Don’t tell me about them. They—“

“You can’t just laugh them off, Zahra. They’ll kill you if you push them too far. Don’t think they won’t.”

“I don’t want to join their stupid club.”

Rolen plucked an emerald out of its setting and placed it in small dish. “They don’t care what you want. They care what you do. It might not be so bad. They have a lot of, ah, resources. Kit and tricks you don’t know. Why do you push against it so hard?”

Zahra’s answer was quiet. “They’d make me quit playing. Dad wouldn’t want that. And mom wouldn’t want me to be involved in any of this stuff in the first place.”

“If this Toja gig opens the right doors for you, do you think you’ll stop?”

“A night like this, and you ask me that? You’re such an ass.”

“I mean it! You can’t have a foot in the day and a foot in the night. Not here. You have to fall one way or the other, and nobody’s going to be there to catch you.”

“You work your shop in the day.” Zahra retorted.

Rolen shook his head. “I keep up appearances. It’s not the same thing.”

“Nobody’s caught me yet!”

“You think I didn’t hear what happened? I get Owls down here sometimes.”

Zahra somehow turned biting a carrot into a defiant gesture. “So?”

“So give me some credit. You have to either get out of the old city or pick a side.”

“What I need is a score for tonight.”

Rolen sighed. “We’re not done with this conversation.”

“Well?”

“Milliner at the center of Lec. Gold buckles, gold leaf. Morsi lace.”

“For hats?”

“Who knows what the gentry’s wearing this season? It came up from the harbor this afternoon. Easy stuff to shift, but I can’t give you too much for it unless you take the whole lot.”

“How much?”

“To sell? I’ll make it an orb an ounce. Half-groat a yard for the lace—not much market for that.”

“That’s the best you can do?”

“I hear he bought new locks to go with the shipment. He’s worried about the Owls.”

Zahra pulled a stool to Rolen’s bench. “How new?”

“Parukhi. That’s all I know. My tip didn’t say anything else about the locks, just the valuables.”

“Useless! They could be almost anything.”

Rolen grinned. “The owner got new locks. Because he worries about the Owls. That isn’t enough for you? That is not the action of somebody who means to cheap out.”

“You think they’re good ones?”

“I’m sure they’re good ones.”

Zahra bounced to her feet. “Fine, then. You’re sure?”

“God’s breath, Zahra! Yes. Yes, I’m sure. Go see if you can pick them already.”

Zahra gave her brother a peck on the cheek. “Thanks. For the food, I mean. I’ll see you before sunup.”

Ersatz Redux

This morning I took my first phone call from a parent concerned about grades. Am I a teacher yet?

This is my last week in this month-long assignment teaching speech (excuse me, professional communications) to eighth graders and theater arts to sixth graders. One of the days that first week, I came home and told my partner that I could not imagine myself ever teaching middle school full time. Last Friday, we had a conversation about how middle schoolers are some of the most interesting kids to teach. I’ve played around with lesson plans, adjusted pacing, graded many speeches.

I have also heard more terrible jokes about LeBron James than I ever imagined. I have witnessed the awesomely casual powers of destruction wielded by sixth grade boys. I have banished students from the classroom. Over and over again, I have told students to put their phones away and to stay in their seats. I have spent whole 90 minute classes hopping from metaphorical fire to metaphorical fire, trying to put them out before something on the other side of the room got out of control.

I have learned the students’ names.

I have to resist the urge to write that as “I have learned my students’ names.” After a month, they feel like my students. That first week still felt like a sub job. I was leaning on the lesson plans the permanent teacher had left for me. We were watching movies and finishing up projects that had been assigned before I started. By the second week, and certainly by now, that has changed. I’ve been here long enough to assign projects and see them finished. I’ve learned the ins and outs of the various groups of students. The core progression of assignments isn’t mine, but I have a sense of its ebb and flow. I feel like a teacher, not a substitute for one.

I still go home tired, especially because I end my days with 30-plus sixth graders. My voice gets worn out. I have to remind myself that it’s not my kids at home who’ve been testing my limits for 8 hours. My writing has suffered somewhat because I’ve been working so much. Having a job is work (duh).

That’s what I wanted, though. As nice as it is to have time to write, I pretty keenly feel the obligation to work. Related: I keenly feel the obligation to pay bills. Blogging and working on a novel isn’t going to do that. Waking up at 5:15 or 5:30 a.m. is never going to be fun for me, but the last few weeks I’ve been grumbly mostly because I don’t like being up that early…or haven’t gotten enough sleep…or both. I have not been dreading my job like I have at various points since I started in September.

This might not be the perfect job, but it’s one I can do. Sometimes, that’s enough.

…Of course, next week it’s back to catch-as-catch-can subbing. One choice at a time.

Coming Soon: a long-form essay on leaving academia, frantic attempts to play catch-up for CampNaNoWriMo, and sundry awkward pop culture references.

Love and the Academy

I still don’t remember exactly why I was at the “Grillé” with one of my favorite literature profs. (Yes, it had the accent on the e. Yes, this was a particularly stupid thing to do at a selective SLAC where everybody would know how stupid it was. I still don’t know why they insisted on grill-ay.) It might have been on the visit I took back to my undergrad in the spring of my first year of grad school. It might have been a year earlier about a paper I was working on. The conversation strayed away from the strictly academic and toward what our futures might look like. This was one of my favorite professors—she pushed her students hard and took care with her time, but when you had her attention, you got her full attention and the formidable mind that went with it. What I remember from that spring conversation was this professor mentioning, almost in passing, how nice it was to be having a personal life again, and how one really needs to put all that aside through grad school and the early career grind. She didn’t say “be married to your work,” but she came close enough.

She might have been right. Some of the most successful scholars I know (not all) have pursued their work to the relative exclusion of other parts of their lives. There’s this idea (and occasional expectation) that academics put their work first, second, and third. If you want to get that fellowship…if you want to get published…if you want to get a job. There’s some truth there—filling up the publication section on your CV takes an enormous amount of time and effort, especially on top of a teaching load. That’s easier to manage if you don’t have obligations to other people. It’s also much less hassle to move around the country chasing VAPs or short-term fellowships.

None of that stops people from having outside lives. At an “early career professionals” session at SAM a year ago, there was the expected distress about finding jobs. There was also, though, an incredible variety of concerns herded under the broad banner of “career/life balance.” Adjuncts, VAPs, people new to the tenure track, people still finishing school—so many of us in that room were juggling work and home responsibilities. That’s nothing new to anybody who has a job, but…the mood in the room was a mixture of indignation, desperation, and guilt. We’d been trained for a job that’s supposed to be a life. Life, though, was busy throwing non-job things at us—we had people caring for kids, caring for parents, caring for themselves on minimal or nonexistent insurance, dealing with the “two body problem,” dealing with all the stress those situations provoked. Again, these are problems common to anybody who has a job and connections to other people. It’s just that most other jobs lack the tacit suggestion that you should be married to them.

I was never particularly good at holding life out. I married my partner the summer after she graduated. We had our first child during the first year of my doctoral work. We discovered we were pregnant with our second about two weeks before learning that my funding had been cut. I was lucky that first semester with an infant; it was the lightest load I had all through my PhD. (It helped that my partner worked for a company with a liberal leave policy.) My son was a terrible sleeper for years. I’d regularly spend an hour in the middle of the night walking up and down the apartment trying to get him to go back to sleep. Later, I’d read books on music semiology with him in my arms and fret over when I could go work on my dissertation without putting my partner in the lurch.

It’s not really possible for me to untangle the years I spent working on my PhD from my first years as a parent. Even in grad school, when you’re really supposed to focus on mastery and contributions to the field, I was never able to focus wholly on academics. They were just one more thing competing for my time. I wished, sometimes, that I had more time to spend on my work.

Mostly, though, I appreciated that I got to spend time with my kids. There’s no doubt I could have gotten through my program a year (or even two) faster than I did. My kids, though, never had to be in daycare full time. When we were going through the process of my son’s autism diagnosis and the subsequent slew of therapy sessions (occupational and speech), I was able to make my schedule fit his needs. Grad school might be a 60-hour-per-week job, but at least you get some say in which hours those are. (Although I still hate it that the university libraries weren’t open on weekend mornings.)

More importantly, having a family kept life in perspective. There were things I still took personally, but I was able to blow off many that might otherwise have infuriated me. I always had an out for departmental garbage (even though I also missed events that might have helped me). For all my protestations about grad school being more like an apprenticeship than education, the constant presence of my family helped me to treat it like a job. (Most of the time.) My family has also been incredibly supportive about my decision to go from ac to postac.

It’s possible to love the Academy. It’s possible to have love and the Academy…if you’re lucky and dedicated enough to switch your priorities as necessary (and your companions are patient with those switches). I didn’t love the Academy. I couldn’t marry my job. I picked my partner and my kids. That’s the only part of leaving I’ve ever been 100% confident of.

Mood, Music

I don’t really understand why the question is so common, but writers are repeatedly asked what (if any) music they listen to while writing. It comes up in the #NaNoWriMo Twitter conversations. It comes up in blog posts (like this one yesterday from Austin local and WordPress/NaNo stalwart Jackie Dana), in author interviews, and almost any occasion a writer fields questions.

Generally, I’m in the “sometimes listen to music before writing, but rarely while writing” camp. I spent most of my adult life studying music, and even the wallpaper Baroque and early classical performances that so many people use as writing or study music can distract me. (Or just annoy me. There’s a reason I specialized in 20th-century avant-garde music.) There are exceptions, though. When working on a scene from Ghosts of the Old City that I’ve since discarded, I put on György Ligeti’s Atmospheres. It’s dissonant atonal stuff, heavy on strings and built around texture. It was the right music for the scene in question.

And that’s my cue to pivot. I’ve spent the first part of Camp NaNoWriMo cleaning up my outline. (I’ve historically been a pantser, but the middle chunk of Ghosts was a horrible soup until I set aside the time to give it structure.) I was surprised to find myself mentally scoring the scenes to help pin down their content. My thoughts about the scenes’ moods were more musical than verbal.

I started grad school as a composer. I started as a composer because I dug music. And largely, I dug non-pop music because of film scores. I spent a lot of my undergraduate years composing pieces with explicit or implicit narratives. I also spent a lot of time thinking about music and text and how they worked differently for telling stories.

The upshot of this is that my ideas of textual structure are thoroughly tangled with my ideas of musical structure. When I think about pacing, I imagine a conductor’s gestures. I think about conflict in terms of crescendoes and cadences and shifts in orchestration. Back when I composed long pieces, I’d get one or two pieces of 11″x17″ paper and sketch out the shape of the piece. Sometimes I’d do that with a carefully-measured timeline across the top of the pages, others I’d just be roughing it out—“trumpet solo here,” “percussion cacophony,” “pianissimo strings…”. I’d draw shapes and small pictures on the page. I don’t do that with my stories, but my longhand outlines sometimes get close as visualization exercises.

Music plays out in time. In a live performance, at least, you can’t flip back to check if the theme you’re hearing now is related to the one you heard two minutes in. (You can do it with recordings, but unless you’re a music student, I think it’s pretty rare.) It’s the composer’s and performer’s job to make those connections clear, to hold the listener’s attention. You get one shot at structure, start to finish. You can use inherited forms, many of which are based on returning material and/or harmonic progressions, or you can make your own structure. Either way, the structure is experienced linearly.

Books don’t have that limitation. You can read them by flipping around. You can read the end first. You can go back and remind yourself what happened in the first chapter. Despite that difference in the medium, structure in fiction works an awful lot like musical structure. Even if you break up your plot, reveal it in out of sequence bits and pieces, it has to be compelling as it unfolds for the reader. You have to bring them with you through the story. The crescendoes have to get them excited. If you change keys for the bridge, you’d better have a good reason (and probably ought to consider bringing some of the bridge material back to prove its relevance).

A novel isn’t a symphony. The concepts and themes to balance are different. The techniques are different. For me, though, it seems more and more like the principles are the same. Whether you’re writing a story or a string quartet, you’re giving shape to chaos. You’re making the inchoate intelligible. Words or notes, you’re paving a path for your audience.

Long story short, there’s a lot of music involved with my writing even when my speakers aren’t making a sound.

Winning Bread, Losing Guilt

“What, then, would you say is the source of most of your work?”
“Need of money, dear.”
Dorothy Parker, in interview

I dreamed about zombies last night. It’s one of the few recurring themes in my dreams. I won’t bore you with the details. The zombies were mere environmental hazard; it was the people who were the danger. The atmosphere, though, was somewhere between “resigned” and “despair,” and it didn’t lift when the alarm went off at 5:30 this morning. That’s the bit I want to seize on, because that’s how postac felt last night. It’ll probably be different by tomorrow, mind.

The catalyst for this latest round of crankiness was notice from Texas Health and Human Services that my household has too much income to qualify for insurance assistance for the kids. The federal government had been certain that the state would cover the kids, and shifted them off our Affordable Care Act application because the state would (theoretically) take care of them. According to the Feds, we’re poor enough to need help. According to the state, we’re not. (Of course, according to the state we weren’t poor enough to need help back in September with income near zero because our 12- and 14-year old cars were worth too much money, so, uh, yeah. Bureaucracy.) Resolving this requires a lot of time on hold. I spent an hour and two minutes on hold with the Feds yesterday without talking to a real person and hung up on their terrible music because it was time to eat dinner.

Anyway. The health insurance stuff is annoying. It’s the kind of problem educated people are not “supposed” to have. I do have it better than many; we’re not reliant on food banks. We can pay our rent. We’re not sure where we’ll scrape together several hundred dollars more for health insurance for the kids every month, but that problem, too, will eventually get solved. Eventually.

While getting to eventually, the mini-crisis kicked up the dust of old anxieties. When we have money trouble, it feels like a personal failure. Societal gender norms say the man is “supposed” to be the bread winner. Never mind the real numbers on who earns more money in a household, especially since the bottom fell out of the economy. Growing up, my dad put in 60-80 hour weeks running a restaurant, but my mom’s consultancy and later full-time employment brought in more money. Intellectually, I understand the reality that the intersection of structural inequities in women’s pay, increases in women’s general level of education relative to men, and broad shifts in the labor market tangle things into an enormous mess that eradicates inherited norms. I understand the ways the numbers tell me that my situation isn’t atypical. That doesn’t change the way I feel about it. I feel like I should be bringing in enough money that the state and federal governments shouldn’t be arguing about whether I count as poor.

As a postac, feelings of financial inadequacy resonate with a chorus of guilt-strings. There’s a monetary level to it—my partner paid the lion’s share of our bills when I was in school. That’s how we avoided loans for living expenses. The money’s only one piece of it, though. She wanted to spend time with the kids when they were young. Because she had to work for our bills to get paid, that wasn’t feasible. I took care of the kids. I had my doctorate drag on and on through shifting tides of funding, research, and an interminable span of writing. For the first 10 years of our marriage, we lived where I was in school. Grad school dominated our lives for a decade. Then, after all the time stewing in that dream, I chucked it.

So yeah. That’s all my fault. My “terrible life choices” (as Marge Simpson would put it) ate up not just a decade of my life, but a decade of my partner’s and the majority of what my kids have known so far. When my personal demons are riled up, life seems as bleak as it did in that zombie dream: what terrible thing will I have to do next to survive? How have I doomed us all?

The problem with this guilt is the one central to so much postac misery: the comparisons that gnaw at me are to a hypothetical and improbable ideal. It’s true that I didn’t achieve the goals I had when I started grad school. I didn’t achieve the goals I had when I quit high school, either, but I don’t feel particularly guilty about that. (Granted, those didn’t involve other people.) Life changes. Grad school did not lead me to happiness. There’s no guarantee that not going on to do a doctorate would have led me to happiness either. I really disliked living in northwest Ohio. Maybe I’d be blogging now about how much I hate flat former swamps and not chasing my ambitious mid-20s dreams.

“Forgiving yourself” starts to sound way too hokey self-helpish for cynical ol’ me, but I think it’s a necessary step in the process. This isn’t just a question of narrative wreckage. This is about blaming ourselves, and stopping blaming ourselves. It’s wasted energy. When we get sucked into guilt, we’re letting our past decisions dominate our present and intrude on our future. The tricky bit is in learning from our mistakes without letting them poison our emotional landscape. (The other tricky bit might be coffee, which is often good for lifting one out of morning bleakness.) My own personal demons don’t stay riled up about grad school like they used to. I’m working on keeping my eyes forward.

They’ll never see a right way forward, only better and worse ways. Regardless, I’m pretty sure that “supposed to” is one of the worst benchmarks with which to gauge those paths.

NaNoWriMo, Camp Style

November was National Novel Writing Month. I was a bit skeptical going in, as I wrote before the month began. I also “won” NaNo—I got my 50,000 words despite presenting at a conference and missing the first weekend. I met some fun people in the Austin area. As the month wound to a close, we were abuzz with the desire to start writing groups and workshop the manuscripts we’d piled up (some more neatly than others). It faded relatively quickly amidst the clamor of the holidays and what passes for winter here in Texas.

Earlier this month, the Austin NaNo Facebook group slowly rumbled back to life. Nanowrimo.org also sponsors “Camp NaNoWriMo,” a more open-ended pair of virtual camps in April and June. (This is exactly what I needed back when my Novembers were full of academics, incidentally.) A good chunk of the Austinite NaNo crowd was signing up. Some of us are still working on our NaNo projects: editing, adding the missing bits, or otherwise trying to turn our word piles into entities with literary architecture.

I signed up. I want to finish.

When I committed to the “proper” NaNoWriMo, post-relocation life was still unsettled. It had been about three months since the move. My partner was only just starting a new job. I was still applying for writing jobs willy-nilly and substitute teaching on occasion, but with my partner working, I went back to being the stay-at-home parent. (Substitute teaching did not pay enough to justify paying for daycare for our pre-K daughter.) That’s changed somewhat. My sister-in-law watches the kids after school when I’m working…and I’m working a steady 40 hours each week at my long-term substitute gig for most of April. This weekend I even had to take some time to do grading and a dash of course prep. I will have considerably less energy and rather less time to throw at my novel than I did in November.

That’s really why I’m doing it—because I don’t have the time. I want a draft. Correction: I want a finished manuscript. I can’t have that without a draft. I can’t complete a draft without doing the writing. NaNo’s a good incentive for that: I take lizard-brain pleasure in watching a bar graph (or in this case, a bullseye graphic) improve. I also get something out of the mild competitiveness of the wordcount race. These nudges will, I hope, be enough to help me cram writing back into my day.

Oh, there’s writing in my day. Blog posts. Still a bit of online game writing (though I’ve dialed that back). I’ve been pecking at my novel intermittently. What has been lacking is sustained pressure. I wrote last week that I’m afraid of quitting my novel, that it would be easy to leave it where it’s at. That’s true. The fear of quitting is also a much more familiar one: the fear of failure. I’m okay with being a “failed” academic, mostly because I happily slap those quotes on it. Being a failed novelist wouldn’t come with the scare quotes. I am in this for serious.

 Not everybody who does NaNo is. I think that’s where many of the anti-NaNoWriMo posts miss the point. Many people do this for fun, and only for fun. They do it because they like hanging out with other writers, virtually or physically. They do it because they enjoy the process. If they crash and burn in November, it’s no skin off their nose. If they write 70,000 words that nobody else will ever read, that’s okay with them. We do NaNo because we love to write.

This seems to be even truer of Camp NaNoWriMo. Its format is open-ended, allowing users to set their targets and describe their projects any way they want. In my virtual cabin, I’ve got two people who are enthusiastically writing fanfic (Harry Potter and Dr. Who, if you’re keeping track). Some people are writing histories. Others are writing poetry. Camp NaNo is an excuse to revisit November’s camaraderie for a while, to borrow a bit of its structure and manic energy without being swamped by it. Or it’s a chance to dip a toe in those waters before diving in in the autumn. The key is this: we bring in the goals we want.

To my fellow campers and fellow writers: best of luck achieving them.

Quitting Not Quitting

“Winners never quit and quitters never win.” —Vince Lombardi

This gentleman has little nice to say about quitters.

This gentleman had nothing nice to say about quitters.

A caveat: What follows is a messier intersection of thoughts on writing and thoughts on postac than I usually feature here. Since making a tacit commitment to be more upfront with my thoughts on #postac a few weeks ago, my posts have generally stuck with writing or postac. This one is both. It might be a miraculous chocolate plus peanut butter moment. It might just be as opaque as the title.

Technically, I didn’t quit. Sometimes I remind myself of that as a bit of self-boosterism: I finished my damn doctorate. I earned that title. Sometimes it’s self-castigation: why didn’t I just quit when I finished my coursework and school stopped being fun? I’d be several years farther down the road to whatever “what’s next” I’m currently fumbling toward. But I didn’t quit. I finished.

I’ve been a quitter twice. In high school, I quit the track team for a few weeks my junior year of high school. Abruptly. I was freaking out about my solo for district solo and ensemble and generally being an overstressed, depressed teenager. (I went back before the season was done after profuse apologies to the coaches.) The second time was a similar whirlpool of overcommitment and depression, and came my freshman year of college. After a ridiculously easy fall semester, spring semester turned out to be, well, college. I was still trying to treat it like high school, where I’d done everything. By February, I had simply run out of time and energy. I quit the school weekly and scaled back my participation in several of the organizations I was part of. That time, I didn’t go back. I had been doing too much. Quitting was the right call.

Even a year out from my decision, I’m not sure whether my departure from the Academy counts as quitting. In some ways, it feels like I just never properly started. I spent one year seriously pursuing the job market. When the time came to fish or cut bait with the secondary market in the spring, I cut bait. That doesn’t negate the adjunct jobs I had while ABD, but the decision to leave is still one I’ll only ever be 95% sure about. Maybe the secondary market would have been the kind of stepping stone it’s marketed as…but that’s a skinny maybe.

I’m pretty sure imaginary Vince Lombardi would call it quitting. It was my dream or a close facsimile thereof, and I stopped chasing it. I stopped chasing it because I woke up, but quitting for a good reason is still quitting.

Quitting has been on my mind because I’m a little terrified of doing it again. I have two thirds of a novel written. I’m a few pieces of plot from being able to write the rest of it. This is an easy place to quit, a point where rationalizations come quickly. I hit a similar point with my dissertation. I hit it with just about every academic paper I ever wrote: “I know how it goes. I could finish it if I want to.”

That “if” works better as the German “wenn,” which has a bit of “if” and a bit of “whenever.” I could finish whenever I wanted to, you know, if I wanted to, and if I had the time. It would be automatic. With academic papers, I resented having to actually write out the remaining parts once I had figured out the line of the argument and structure of the paper. With my dissertation, I felt like most of the work had been done and the only reason there was still stuff left to do was that I’d picked a project that was too big. In both cases, the problem is that the exciting bit is done. What’s left is mostly work. I’d have the feeling that I had proven to myself that I could do what I set out to do and the rest was just window dressing. Window dressing is trivial. Something you take care of “whenever.” If you want to. Like washing the last few dishes.

And this “whenever” is where I am at with my novel, only I have not been able to make the time lately. Part of that is the stickiness of the last two plot bits. More relates to a string of work and family obligations. I’m working five days a week. With responsibility for lesson plans and assessments, I use my planning/conference period for…work. There was a wedding. There was the Baha’i month of fasting. The “whenever” has seemed much more like “if.”

Combine that with the pseudo-accomplishment of being “mostly” done, and quitting starts to look easy. A novel isn’t like an academic paper, either. I don’t get to just hand it off and stop thinking about it. It will need the unflinching eye of an editor. It will need revision. It will need, eventually, publishing and promotion. No matter how mostly done I am, that is still work, and work fraught with chances for rejection. I like my draft a lot. There are problems with it, some of which I recognize. There will be others that I don’t and will happily fix. There will be still others, though, that are in the troublesome category of things-I-think-are-cool-and-how-could-you-possibly-call-that-a-problem.

When I hit this point with my dissertation, I had already turned the corner from “make it awesome” to “get the committee to sign.” (That was a kind of quitting in itself, but I haven’t met many PhDs who haven’t made that capitulation at some point late in the dissertating process.) I also had a quirk of scheduling that gave me the two months before my defense “off,” which allowed me to focus on loose ends.

My hope is that I don’t get similar time off this go-round. There’s no substitute teaching work in the summer, but I expect to have at least a medium-term plan in operation by then. I’d rather have income than open-ended time to write. (Never mind that I’d rather have income from writing, and never mind that the summer will involve full time parenting if I’m not working.) What I am working on instead is carving out the time around my other obligations, trying to push Ghosts of the Old City toward completion.

Quitting would be easy. If nothing else, though, graduate school proved that I’m bad at quitting…or maybe just bad at easy.