Writing (Or Not) Without a Deadline

I’ve passed the middle of the month without posting to the blog. Despite my best (or at least very strong) intentions, ’Thinking out loud’ is running the risk of being yet another still-born project. But surely I’ll have at least one entry in the month of May!

One of the collections of Hannah Arendt’s essays is called Thinking without a banister. AS I think about my rather hopeful labeling of this blog as “Thinking out loud,” I’d say that the challenge I face here is that of thinking without a deadline. I found a recent NYTimes essay by Adam Gopnik to be rather helpful here. Gopnik draws a contrast between achievement and accomplishment: “Achievement is the completion of the task imposed from outside — the reward often being a path to the next achievement. Accomplishment is the end point of an engulfing activity we’ve chosen, whose reward is the sudden rush of fulfillment, the sense of happiness that rises uniquely from absorption in a thing outside ourselves.” Of course I knew already that I’ve lived a life driven by achievement, completing “tasks that lead only to other tasks, into something resembling not so much a rat race as a rat Mace….” I had more freedom than many have in my life’s work as an academic, but I still spent each day driven by expectations that I complete a particular task – prepping for a class, grading a set of papers, preparing to lead a workshop – by a certain externally imposed deadline. Retirement promised freedom from most of those deadlines, and while that promise has been redeemed, I find that lacking deadlines leaves me without the sense of a feeling of achievement. And I’m such a perfectionist that I’m unable (or perhaps unwilling) to define what I would accept as a sense of accomplishment as well.

And so I begin blog post after blog post, setting each aside unfinished, falling short of anything I would see as an accomplishment. I had hoped having the blog itself – going through the steps of adopting and adapting free and open source software that allows the advantage of writing in plain text, finding a hosting site that allows me to control the delivery, and starting small with the thought that I would add more complexity as I go – would provide a structure that facilitates my writing, my ’thinking out loud.’ I’ve told myself repeatedly that the writing here doesn’t have to be polished, even going so far as to assure myself that I’m the only one who will ever read it. I’ve also set deadlines for myself. But I’m thinking now that what I’ve attempted is the unhappy process of building a self-imposed internalization of what Gopnik sees as the external push for achievement.

As I thought about this, I realized that the blog has brought the “sudden rush of fulfillment, the sense of happiness that rises uniquely from absorption” in a successful accomplishment. But this sense of accomplishment is in the technical set-up of the blog itself. While I’m not technologically illiterate, my decision to set all of this up without using a program like WordPress pushed me well outside my comfort zone and left me with a sense of excitement when I finally had a functioning web site. And this sense of excitement was renewed this week when I successfully moved the site to a different hosting environment that requires even more self-customization. While this in itself is rather satisfying, I’m hoping that acknowledging this success will somehow free me toward accomplishing something of value in the writing that I publish here – even if that value is apparent only to me.

And so my challenge now is to shift from an achievement to an accomplishment mindset in the writing itself. I’m thinking (out loud) that thinking out loud about this shift – that is, writing about it here in the blog – might be a step in this direction.