When I am teaching, the main occupational hazard is Cement Neck, resulting from what I can only guess is a tendency to lecture with my shoulders up around my ears. Remedy: ice pack, hot water bottle, massage therapist.
When I am marking at the end of a semester, the main occupational hazards are Repetitive Brain Injury and the desire (to quote my sister) to gouge out my eyes with a grapefruit spoon. Remedy: coffee.
When I am writing, the occupational hazards are numerous and ever-changing. Below are two of the most common.
Occupational Hazard # 1: I Can’t Sit Down and Start
If I could sit down, I could start, but I am paralyzed by a powerful aversion to the chair, the desk, the laptop. And if I overcome the aversion to the chair, it is replaced by a powerful aversion to what I’ve been writing. I don’t even want to look at it.
Me to self: Arrgh! My eyes! The goggles do nothing!
Remedy: Pomodoro Technique. Under this method, named by inventor Francesco Cirillo after his tomato-shaped kitchen timer, you work in 25-minute spells, with 5 minute breaks in between.
Self to me: Come on. Just sit down. It’s only 25 minutes. Anyone can sit for 25 minutes.
It’s a trick, but I always fall for it.
Occupational Hazard # 2: The Sudden Sinking Feeling
This hazard is the sudden sinking feeling that _________ -- fill in the blank with whatever.
- the sudden sinking feeling that I can’t really write
- the sudden sinking feeling that I forgot to pay the hydro bill and am about to be cut off
- the sudden sinking feeling that the twitch in my leg is a blood clot
- the sudden sinking feeling that I have gained eight pounds in three days and must go to the gym, immediately
Anything will do.
Yesterday, for example, I had the sudden sinking feeling that the novel I’ve been working on, about a woman who runs a speakeasy during Prohibition, is not actually the novel I should be writing.
Me to self: Oh my god. I’m writing the wrong novel.
A better novel occurred to me, about a woman who has to remake her life after her poisonous mother dies. It had all the marks of a superior novel: would not require tedious historical research, felt more uplifting, had clearer, more compelling character arc, etc.
Remedy: Close old novel file. Open blank document. Save as: New Novel.
Ah, the allure of the unwritten novel: it’s all in your head, radiating promise and perfection, ignorance and bliss. You don’t yet know what you don’t know. But the moment you lay down a few sentences, you start to see empty spaces to be mapped, arcs and tangents to be connected, brick walls to be collided with. Repeatedly. It’s going to be just as much work as the old novel, only you aren’t even close to being ready to write this one.
Self to me: Oh my god. Now you're really writing the wrong novel.
Remedy: Get up, go to kitchen. Open fridge, close fridge. Sit back down. Close New Novel file. Open old novel file. Set timer. Start.
Occupational Hazard # 1: I Can’t Sit Down and Start.
Remedy # 1: Sit Down and Start.
Occupational Hazard # 2: That Sudden Sinking Feeling
Remedy # 2: Ignore Sudden Sinking Feeling. Sit Back Down. Start.