Saturday, July 05, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 101 (facin'-up edition)

Some days it's hard to face-up to the work you know you need to do. It can be a personnel issue--where you have to promulgate a decision made by superiors, which you know is unfair and to which you're opposed, but which is beyond your control. It can be a subordinates issue--when you have to give a student a piece of news that s/he doesn't want and won't like. It can be a "do what's good for you whether you like it or not" issue--like taxes or grant writing.

But it can also be work that you really want to do, really believe in, have been really excited about, but upon which you've recently gotten burned. This is particularly true if it's your own scholarly or creative work, once it's out there in the world of assessments, editors, and outside readers. No matter how competent--or autonomous--the typical academic may be, in terms of her/his daily duties, responsibilities to students and colleagues, income, lifestyle, and so on: when it's time to send out a recording, a composition, or a draft, there's still a tinge (or more than a tinge) of Ralphie turning in his theme to the teacher, and a similar sense of vulnerability. It's really, truly out of your control, and--especially given the invulnerable anonymity enjoyed by outside readers for academic presses--the righteous potential for getting burned. And if you don't get burned unfairly, even apt and fair critique can leave you feeling a little bruised.

The body's natural inclination, upon such injury, is to leave it alone--to avoid touching the sore spot, because you're convinced that even a slight contact is going to hurt as bad as the initial impact. This is not physiologically accurate, but it's a pretty-much involuntary and visceral animal/body reaction.

The problem is that this does not get you past it. Avoidance is visceral and animal and understandable--and the more we avoid prodding the bruise, the longer it takes us to realize that it doesn't hurt anymore. Perspective--usually provided by chronological distance--helps this realization. The great Tibetan teacher Pema Chodron says we should actually welcome this painful spots we want to avoid--as she puts it, we should "lean into the sharp place", the places that prick at us and tempt us to avoid them. Avoidance is like denial: it's instinctive but counterproductive. It puts us on the level of responding mindlessly and it doesn't help us cope, or learn to cope, with disappointment. Facing these things--understanding that you can make conscious choices about how you process a painful experience, rather than just dumbly avoiding--is a learning process.

So to today's topic: the first day I've had the clear space, and the mental/emotional energy, to face up to the guts of the minstrelsy manuscript. This was the MS that I sent in around Dec 15 07, on the request of the university publisher, for consideration as part of their impress on American music. In the event, the editor took care and consideration in assigning the sample chapters to outside readers, and it took a while to get their responses. Along about May 15, I had a long conversation with the editor, on the basis of the readers' responses: one brief and effusively positive; one very long and, while proving detailed criticism, essentially optimistic; one of medium length and, as far as I can tell, essentially offended at the premises.

It's incredibly difficult (for me, anyway) to avoid getting defensive and then angry when some jamoke seems to have intentionally misread a MS, seemingly specifically in order to dismiss it. But, one thing that maturity teaches you, and which dealing with a bureaucracy drives home, is not to respond half-cocked. What I wanted to do was write a lengthy and nasty rebuttal to Reader #3 and post forthwith. I've learned that this is not only tactically unsound, but also a faulty psychological strategy: you are not going to feel the same way about the disappointment, after 72 hours, as you do five minutes after getting the bad news.

In the event, after receiving the reader responses, I rang the editor, and asked if we could converse about those responses around a week later. That latter was a very positive conversation, during which she said "well, there's really no reason that we would have to even involve Reader #3 in the assessment of the full manuscript." This was some kind of vindication, not least because she went on to reiterate to me how much she wanted the MS for the series. Though I'd spent 72 hours ranting to myself, and wanting to punch walls, it was a very good thing that I had waited--and that I know myself enough to know that I'm going to feel more optimistic after 72 hours than after five minutes. The editor closed the conversation by thanking me for "being so receptive to the Readers' comments." I didn't feel receptive, that's for sure, but it was a good reminder of the fact that, in a professional situation, what matters is what you do--not what you feel. Yes, you want to know if you're pissed-off and resentful about somebody else's professional decision--but you do not want to respond from that place.

The net result is that, after summer's crazy-busy first-half, and striving to keep punching at extensive other writing projects, today was the day I sucked it up and opened the minstrelsy project files.

And you know what? There is a lot of good shit in there--but the work I've been doing on related projects has substantially impacted (I think enriched) my grasp of the MS. Now I want to rewrite the two sample chapters, because things I intuited, or didn't even recognize, are now much more concrete, realistic, defensible, and original. Getting bruised by two detailed sets of responses--one of them accurate and apt--may have sucked at the time, but the distance, perspective, and additional work I can bring to the material 7 months later mean that the final result will be much better. And that my own confidence in that material will be much stronger--now I know (rather than just intuiting) that Reader #3 is way out of line, and that the material holds water: that it is as original and solid and valuable as I formerly inferred.

Patience is a valuable thing.

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