I enjoy intense interests.
It’s not gluttony, exactly. I’ve just got a voracious streak. For food, for culture, for ideas, for projects. It’s part of who I am, how I do what I do, what makes my work distinctive. (If only I had a disciplined-moderation streak to balance my voracious streak.) My voraciously-interested tendencies have practiced me in all kinds of habits, the most debilitating of which has been my tendency to leave really good work unfinished. For a good chunk of my life, I have been known to do the OrsonWelles thing, to abandon very worthwhile projects at the 2/3 mark. I know this about myself and, for the last few years especially, I have been consciously developing techniques to discipline my focus. Among those techniques? Finishing and sharing little things (like this post) along the way so that I (and my work) might be nourished by the scrutiny, response and witness of others.
But these last few days I’ve been confronted with a particular facet of my voraciousness that I’ve long recognized but have never truly understood.
Today, I’m calling it my “Come Play” Vampire.
It goes like this.
I’m deep into one project, and I hit that point where I can’t tell whether it’s the tedium or the difficulty or the exhaustion that’s weighing me down most. That’s when I find myself drawn, as if by force, to thinking — seriously and productively — about a different project.
As example: During my dissertation epoch, I indulged what I archly referred to as my “shadow dissertation”: a fully conceptualized and theorized project that I was actively researching whenever I wasn’t working on my dissertation (which was most of the time). This shadow project was fun, (literally) sexy and drew upon a cache of intellectual and methodological passions that my dissertation project simply did not engage. I understood that I was “cheating” on my dissertation with this shadow project, and I took a perverse delight in doing my illicit research and (like any good cheater) I kept it all a deliciously preserved secret.
Something banally similar happened when I started really working on my first novel. Great project, loaded with great characters and a sturdy plot outline. And just when the first-draft grind started to wear me down, what happened? Another awesome scenario, with characters that just broke my heart and made me laugh, started clamoring for — and capturing — my creative energies.
And to be absolutely clear: I barely finished the diss (and even only under penalty of unemployment) but the shadow dissertation never saw anything like the light of day. No articles. No talks. Nothing to show for all that smart, exciting, illicit research. And the novels? Both brilliant concepts with promising prose, but neither are anywhere near the “complete first draft” phase.
I conjure these Ghosts of Unfinished Projects Past as reminders to myself of what happens when I permit the “Come Play” Vampire to really run amok. Energy is expended. Nothing gets seen through to completion. It’s a problem.
But, see, not only have I been visited by the “Come Play” Vampire these last weeks, but I have also entertained “the other project” using minutes promised to my manuscript. But this time? It has felt healthy, not like I was cheating, not at all. I do have a second academic book project. It’s one that I have given talks on and one I very much look forward to working on as my primary focus. Yet, these past weeks, just as I’ve entered the final grueling/terrifying weeks of hard work necessary to deliver my current manuscript, “the other project” has been forcing its way into my brain. Though my primary focus remains on the first book, I haven’t banished “the other project” from either my brain or my days. I’ve even squeezed in some really good work on “the other project” and, though doing so did make me a little anxious, it didn’t feel illicit or gross or like I was cheating.
Rather, and this is the lesson I want to name, I have honestly found that giving just a half-hour here or there to “the other project” actually rejuvenates my enthusiasm for completing my current manuscript. I’ve realized that I don’t have to lock “the other project” out (which doesn’t ever really work anyway) in order to maintain my focus on the first. In some ways, “the other project” seems like Joan, one of my dogs, who’ll scratch and whine and carry-on if I ignore her but who, with just a bit of loving attention, calms right down and settles in next to me as I work. I realize I can briefly tend to the next project, just as I do Joan. A regular feeding, a brisk walk, a minute or two of worshipful petting. Don’t get me wrong, Joan’ll take all the attention I’m willing to give, but she’s shown me again and again that she’s also entirely happy with just a genuine bit.
Based on my experiences this week (and on lessons learned from Joan), I don’t think I need to banish the “Come Play” Vampire exactly. Sure, I do need to maintain my balance and my boundaries. Yes, “the other project” will absorb any and all the attention and energy I choose to give it. But that simply confirms that it’s my responsibility to practice moderation, so that I might do the work I must do.
So, yeah, “Come Play” Vampire. I can give you a sensible/sincere LITTLE bit of care and attention. But that’s it. You just need to be patient. Because, right now, I got some WORK to do…