Rejection, Failure, and Self Reflection

My first panic attack happened during the summer before my second year (not my first, interestingly) of graduate school and adjunct teaching.  I was walking along 5th Avenue in NY and suddenly stopped breathing: there’s no other way of explaining it.  I responded with the usual Prozac and Psychotherapy, stopping the latter soon after realizing that the Psych Ph.D. was no smarter than I was (intelligence being a key factor in how I chose men, no matter what their relationship, at the time), and stopping the drugs as soon as I discovered that alcohol was cheaper, and quicker.

That was many, oh so many, summers ago, but ever since then I’ve gone through the depths of despair, so to speak, every single summer. Sometimes it happens in August, as it did way back when, but more often it happens in July, and now, it seems, it’s front loading to late June.   

I know other academics go through this, too (see PhD Me, for example): we are so focused on others and ideas (our own and others) for 60+ hours a week, 7 days a week, 10 or so months, that it’s not until the academic year ends that we have the time to breathe.  And while we are breathing we see the now pages long, 10 point font, to-do list we’ve been saving for just this summer, (everything from finishing the painting of the damned hallway, finally, to reading the dozens of books and articles we’ve saved for course prepping for fall term, to the reviews we promised to write, to the dinner invitations we still need to return, to writing up our own half-baked ideas we’ve been jotting down or blogging about informally all year), and naturally panic occurs.

It’s not necessarily rational: I do have more time now that I’m not teaching 15 hours a week, holding office hours 5 hours a week, grading and prepping 20-30 hours a week, and doing committee work several hours a week.  I’m teaching online, which requires only 5-10 hours a week, depending on the week.  I know the problem:  all the free time,  too much time to think, to dwell, to obsess. I must spend so much time working or just DOING STUFF during those 10 months of the year that I am successfully postponing any self reflection, any time for just thinking. 

Clearly, not a healthy way to live.

Thus the panic is happening earlier this summer than ever before, but at least this summer, I can attribute it to two specific events (or, more precisely, non-events).

The first: the rejection I received from NPR. Though they wrote to ME, asking ME to submit a revised “Three Books” essay. They have now rejected the revised essay with this pithy note:

“Thanks so much for your submission.  The essay isn’t really working for us, so we’re going to pass.”

To be honest, I really don’t love what I sent them: I struggled with turning something I originally threw together in 200 words into a 500 word essay. (Here I am writing a 1000+ word blog posting for god’s sake—I simply can’t write 500 words!) In the process, the heart and soul was whittled out of the piece.  But, despite actually agreeing with their pithy assessment, rejection is rejection, right?

And today, I’ve decided NOT to continue reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest even though I wasn’t so sure I’d go through with the whole Infinite Summer thing to begin with. I did read the first 63 pages (as per our assigned reading).  However, Dave Eggers’ 2006 foreword was perhaps not the best way to start the book: in it, he practically begs the reader to give the novel a chance. He starts well, noting that most readers of “literary fiction” like to read both easy to read fiction as well as challenging fiction, rather than either-or:

“These readers might actually read both kinds of fiction themselves, sometimes in the same week.”

Yes, that’s certainly true. I’ve just finished Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (definitely in the “easy to read” category—fast read, stock characters, happy ending) while also reading Infinite Jest and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth (the latter two in different subcategories of “challenging fiction”).

But then Eggers compares Infinite Jest to a

 “spaceship with no recognizable components…very shiny, and it has no discernible flaws…It simply is. Page by page, line by line, it is probably the strangest, most distinctive, and most involved work of fiction by an American in the last twenty years. At no time while reading Infinite Jest are you unaware that this is a work of complete obsession, of a stretching of the mind of a young writer to the point of, we assume, near madness.”

At this point, I’m thinking: oh great, one of those cult-followed novels that only those who wear black, black framed glasses, and carry their smugness like Linus’ blanket everywhere they go will appreciate this novel.   Then Eggers says that the expected age of a new reader of this novel that captures “the consciousness of an age” is 25.  Oh, he concedes that some more ancient readers, 30 or even 50 year olds, might be condescendingly reading the book for the first time, but basically, he assumes that like he was the first time he read the book,  the reader is a 25 year old English major, and, I assume, male.

So I go into this book knowing that I am not at all the target audience. Not a good way to begin a novel when I have dozens of other novels,  novels that are practically begging a middle aged woman English professor to read them, waiting for me by my bed. 

So even though the novel is fairly easy to read (despite the endnotes, which do seem to be increasing with each chapter, unfortunately), and with characters who (sorry Eggers) DO resemble other characters in fiction, from Holden Caulfield way back to Tom Sawyer—and all those adolescent boys/men in between—and there does seem to be an actual plot focusing on different addictions, I just don’t want to keep reading. I have too much else to read. 

So, rejection and failure in one day.

But it has led to self-reflection. It’s summer. I do have a long to-do list, but hell will not freeze over if I ignore half of it. And while neither my rejection nor my failure will impact my career or my life in any negative way—no job or income depended on either—they have led me to reflect on what I really want to accomplish this summer.  And I’m happy with that.   I’ll let you know if I figure what that actually IS before August.

6 responses to “Rejection, Failure, and Self Reflection

  1. Dear Annie Em: First of all, I want to thank you for this post. I actually cried while I was reading it because you articulated beautifully something with which I’ve struggled for years. And made some sense of it in a way I had never imagined before. So a million thanks to you. (Most breaks come with some kind of major depression for me…I start out ok but then, as the days progress, feel as though I’m losing my bearings and become progressively more demotivated and unable to do those To Dos that I’ve promised myself will happen! I had never thought of it as letting go of being other- or idea-focused before and that makes so much sense! Then I beat myself for not accomplishing all that I think I should be able to do. Then the panic attacks increase. Swear: I had a panic attack last night so severe that I started to worry that maybe it was something else!)

    Second, NPR sucks. I can’t believe they did that to you and then were so airy about it. I call bullsh*t.

    Third, I have tried to read Infinite Jest several times and have quit each time. It just doesn’t hold my attention enough to make me want to continue to plod through. Same is true for lots of people, and deciding to turn your energies to something else is NOT a failure!

    I hope that this week you will make plans to do something that makes you happy and gives you some peace (a massage? spa day? trip to nearby gardens? picnic? bubble bath? run in new location?). In the meantime, here’s a cybergift basket for you: your favorite wine, some funny new academic novels, a superfluffy blanket for the couch, a vase of wildflowers, and chocolate.

  2. Ink: Are you doing better today? The day after a panic attack needs to be totally YOU focused: I’m assuming the swimming lesson stress with the kids just added to what my mother calls “ogida”?

    I’m guessing that summer is one of those times for people (particularly us “to do” list people perhaps?), like December or the holidays is for others: a time when basically it all hits the fan, or so it seems. I think just writing about it was therapeutic, and yes, you summed it up nicely: the panic attack is the steam letting go, and a sign to step away from the damned to do list….

    I’m taking it as a positive sign that this happened to me relatively early in my summer rather than in August–it gives me time to heal from it.

    Do your “events” tend to happen at a certain time of year, Ink?

    What I want to do right now: Take my cybergift basket and head to my lived in love seat to enjoy! Then, read your incredibly kind and thoughtful posting again and again (in between giggling at my new funny academic novel) to remind me WHY this blogging (both reading blogs and writing) works for me on multiple levels. I get to “meet” women (and some men, but really, mostly women) who share many of the very hilly parts of my own life’s journey, and offer me words of encouragement and hope.

    Thank you thank you.

    Yesterday and today have been rejuvenating days for me: a mix of self indulgences and quality social time with friends and hubby. I’m deeply involved in Jhumpa Lahiri’s new collection, I did get that pedicure with friends yesterday, and we ate well at a bbq afterwards with family.

    And I beat my last time with today’s half marathon, so frankly, I’m feeling superwoman-like, and ready to eat those chocolates and drink that wine you “sent” me! (ok, also a little sore, but hey).

    And later tonight, I’ll finish that bottle of wine with the hubby as we take a walk in the sunset, then amble home to watch one of those Netflix disks awaiting me.

    Cin-cin as they say in Italy: cheers, Ink.

  3. OMG, sorry it took so long to respond…the days are flying by and I’m all over the place, though not blogging as much as I’d like to be. (pout) Anyway, dheers to you, too! You are not superwoman-like, you are an ACTUAL superwoman! 😀

    I’m pretty much always fighting depression but it does seem worse during breaks, especially long ones like summer. During the rush of the school year, I use the overwhelming workload to self-medicate, sort of…I live in happy denial land or something. How about you? So many people I know who write or who work in a literary field suffer from some version of depression…I have always wondered if there’s a connection, somehow. Something to do with the creative/artistic temperment. Or something.

    Btw, you’re so sweet, and I feel the same way about meeting wonderful people like you who have helped me in ways that I never imagined an online blogamigo could! So thank YOU.

    Do enjoy your goodie basket and also your Netflix treasures. Whatcha watchin’ these days? Hubby and I are on disc 3 of Firefly and enjoying it so much. And of course I’m still working my way through Buffy (season 4 is rocking).

    Hugs to you and let’s shred up our to do lists tomorrow and call it a holiday! 🙂

  4. Um, can I pretend that “dheers” is an extra special kind of “cheers” to be used only in conversations with blogamigos who would have been BFFs when they were 13 and who have drinks in parallel universes?

    Instead of a typo?

    Cool. Dheers again! 🙂

  5. Dheers, girlfriend, dheers all the way! (And no, I haven’t opened the Tipsy Olives yet, but I am so mellow from the massage).

    You’ve pinpointed the problem exactly: during the school year, every second of my day is preplanned, for the most part. But now, in July, heck I have 2 months to finish courseplanning, those projects, that damned hallway. So yes, it’s when we are forced to deal with whatever shit we put off all year. And in some ways, I’m happier that it’s happening earlier in the summer: some summers, it takes me till August to face the demons which doesn’t leave enough recovery time before fall.

    Netflix is a wonderful self medication all year round! We finished True Blood season 1 (so so–in fact, I’ve put off Buffy because of it, and I know they are not comparable), and now starting Saving Grace (love that Holly Hunter)and eagerly awaiting Mad Max. But some movies too: this weekend, I hope to finally watch Slumdog Millionaire.

    I’ll check out Firefly: don’t know that one!

    Meet you at the To Do List Shredding cocktail party over at your place;-)

  6. I’m glad the timing is better for you, too. You deserve some peaceful dealing. (((Annie)))

    Yeah, I am not crazy about True Blood, either. It’s too dark, though whenever I see it on tv, I end up watching the whole hour. It’s like I’m mesmerized. But it’s just way gross in parts. Buffy is much funnier and lighter, though, promise!

    You’ll have to let me know what you think of Slumdog…

    I watched a bunch of Saving Graces on tv and thought they were good but only because of the amazing HH. The stories didn’t grab me so I wandered off eventually. But she is fab, fab, fab.

    Am so glad you’re coming the the party. Dheers and happy holiday weekend!

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