Details optional

Academic promotion is based on merit relative to opportunity. On the academic promotion application form at my university, there is a section entitled ‘Relevant Personal Circumstances’. There is space to tick a box labelled ‘Consideration needs to be given to personal circumstances/ career interruptions’ and a text box that can be completed with ‘details (optional)’ …

I have an article in the lastest issue of Life Writing entitled Details optional: An account of academic promotion relative to opportunity which writes between the lines of my recent academic promotion application. I describe eight years as a part-time academic, including a life-threatening birth, a child with epilepsy, secondary infertility, an ectopic pregnancy, an implanted neurostimulator, and a miracle baby. Details optional came together from three sources: my lived experience of parenting; theories of writing and creative non-fiction; and my academic promotion application. The special issue editor Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle and the two anonymous reviewers were excellent. It is delicate work to provide critical and constructive feedback on intimate writing.

Parenting

In the aftermath of my daughter’s birth fourteen years ago, I became a completely different person. I was unrecognisable to myself. I had nothing in common with the woman I had been before. Not one thought, not one way of moving through the world, not a remnant of myself remained.

The best advice I have received for parenting teenagers (“I surrender”) came in the form of a song by Deborah Conway, recommended by Andie Fox. Conway writes:

No one dies in our song “Serpent’s Tooth” but all these decades later and now as a parent of three daughters, that magnificent quote “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child” rings bells of recognition and deepest empathy … Becoming a parent was a kind of alchemy for my deepest being, it exposed the tenderest layers of feeling I had no idea I could have, the deep wells of worry and the tidal waves of love that have no equal … And then comes the teenage years. Lear’s daughters are most likely teenagers, it is certainly a portrait of the kind of carnality that chimes with the teenage experience … [T]he hurt is so much more intense when the stranger before you is your own flesh and blood …

In a creative writing assignment last year, we had a prompt similar to Conway’s stranger of your own flesh and blood. From Georges Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations (1895), I chose ‘enmity of kin’ which refers to ‘hatred of one who should be loved’ and the ‘savage hate’ of close family bonds. I was thinking of the mother/daughter relationship and how keenly children identify parental flaws. I wrote this micro-fiction:

When Ellie, the youngest, moved out for the first time, her mother decided to tackle the cupboards. The musty smell was spreading. Garbage bags at the ready, she opened the doors. Clothes, clean and dirty, intermingled with papers, cords, rubbish, discarded toys, broken parts and half-finished projects. She sighed. Holding a broken music stand, she imagined redecorating to create a music room. Never mind she didn’t play an instrument. Here was the patchwork quilt she started when the kids were young. Perhaps a sewing room? The thought was thrilling.

Later that afternoon, her musings turned to anger. A plate of unrecognisable food scraps, a spilt bottle of nail polish. She hadn’t even reached the top shelf. Why call it an empty nest? Years of shit, she muttered as she angry-cleaned. Caught at the edge of a wire basket, she found a note in violent purple pen.

It was titled ‘Things I hate about my mother’:

The way she makes everything worse

Sooooooo many stupid rules

How she says the same things over and over and over and over

Her telephone voice: ‘Helloooooooo’

Always sighing

Never buys icecream

NO INTERESTS apart from cleaning.

Writing

Parts of Details Optional were written for another unit on creative non-fiction, which involved reflecting on the craft of writing, memory work, research and ethics. To write the article, I listened to first year cognitive science lectures and read the set text. I reread my daughter’s medical documents and checked my calendar and sporadic writings over the last fourteen years. I practiced ‘imagistic endurance’ described in Miller and Paola’s (2019) Tell It Slant as ‘re-inhabiting’ and remaining in the moment of a memory. I thought about the ethics of life writing. I read the article to my daughter, who agreed that the writing is not really about her; I talk mostly about myself. Thinking about narrative voice, I chose to write in fragments. I changed tenses. It seemed fitting: I am always interruptible. Much was written at the kitchen table, snatched between quotidian tasks.

I framed the article around Judith Butler’s (2001) essay Giving an Account of Oneself , in which she shows that the question ‘What have I done?’ can only be answered by first asking: ‘Who is this ‘I’ who is under an obligation to give an account of itself and to act in certain ways?’ ’ It is impossible, she argues, to give an account of the self without accounting for the social conditions under which the ‘I’ emerges. This allowed me to think critically about the ‘I’ who writes selectively to meet the standards of academic promotion, the conditions of the university under which that ‘I’ emerges, and the fragmented ‘I’ whose lived experience exceeds the narrative confines of academic biographical texts (even when they invite details of personal circumstances).

Academic promotion

In my academic biography and promotion application, I am measured in words and numbers. I have no corporeality. I summarise myself in dot points. I divide myself into headings.

I have been a teaching-focussed academic since my first (fixed term) appointment in 2010. I worked part-time from 2010 to 2018. In the ‘details optional’ text box, this is the only information I provided. Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle (2020) illustrates a similar contestation in a professorial application, with her life story of pregnancies, illness, and her mother’s death described as “obstacles which have impacted the trajectory of my scholarship”. I am similarly complicit in a process that erases the complexity of the self ‘relative to opportunity’ into two lines specific to academic work

Some of the text of my promotion application is included in the article, including a list of my key strengths: an ability to build and maintain trusted relationships; a willingness to learn and challenge myself and others; an acumen for developing the leadership qualities of others; an ability to manage myself and others effectively during change and uncertainty; and a strength for identifying big picture perspectives and making complex, emotive problems clear and actionable.

I end the article with three paragraphs that acknowledge the many people who supported (and continue to support) my writing, my academic work and my parenting.

Would you like to read the full article? If you don’t have access to an institutional subscription to the journal Life Writing, you will find a free copy here. This is limited to 50 copies; once the link expires you can request an author copy via Researchgate.

Distractions, interruptions

Since I cannot tell the story in a straight line, and I lose my thread, and I start again, and I forget something crucial, and it is hard to think about how to weave it in, and I start thinking, thinking, there must be some conceptual thread that will provide a narrative here, some lost link, some possibility of chronology … (Butler, 2001, 35).

So writes Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself. It is difficult to write—to think—otherwise now. Here in Sydney, Australia, we are having school holidays in lockdown as covid cases creep inexorably upwards. Work is one long Zoom meeting. I find myself in the same patterns as March 2020: retreating, counting, waking, fretting, waiting. Trying to write, I am ‘divided, ungrounded, or incoherent from the start’ (Butler, 2001, 22). I experience myself and time as fragmentary. Distractions abound.

Television. Not something I spend a lot of time with, but the whole family has enjoyed the third season of Lego Masters (I’m team Sarah and Fleur—those zombie cheerleaders, that dream art house). My vote for favourite show of the year, however, is Creamerie from Aotearoa/New Zealand, set in a near future dystopia in which men have been wiped out by a virus. Dark and funny.

Food. We had a ‘healthy’ versus unhealthy brownie taste challenge. I think these black bean brownies are the winners, but they were eaten too quickly to be sure. We will have to try again.

Walks. I am listening to audio books while walking the dog, including 14 hours of The Unwomanly Face of War, Russian oral history of women’s experiences during the second world war. The casuarina forest near our home is my favourite place.

Books. I am reading more 2am books (vacuous and predictable at any other time of day, genre fiction makes night waking enjoyable). At other times, I am enjoying:

Games. My son has invented a giant board game called Misery. You become the piece, rolling a die and landing on paper spread out on the floor. Many of them are labelled ‘Misery’ and you choose a card that describes a miserable thing that will happen to you (such as having to eat porridge without honey). There are some ‘Luck’ cards as well but, as the name of the game suggests, misery abounds. On a more jolly note, we are looking forward to the free online activities the State Library of New South Wales has scheduled for the holidays, including Secret codes, ciphers and more.

I am always interruptible. I thought I had borrowed this phrase from Sarah Knott’s (2019) Mother: An Unconventional History, but rereading the book I cannot locate it. She writes a sensory account of caring for infants in the past that is based on anecdotes, incomplete texts, traces and fragments. The author had her first child while researching and writing the book, and a chapter on the hidden history of mothering in the middle of the night, traced through bedding, night-time arrangements and sleeping patterns, ends with this sentence: ‘8.20. 10. 11.45. 2. 5. 5.40. And then we are up’ (Knott, 2019, 90).

Butler (2001, 34) wonders about the interruptions of texts, and whether we prefer the ‘seamlessness of the story’ and the illusion of a ‘coherent autobiographer’ who reveals the ‘truth of the person’, but concludes: ‘It may be that stories have to be interrupted, and that for interruption to take place, a story has to be underway.’

Always interruptible. I’ve found that reference. It is Lisa Baraitser’s (1989) Maternal Encounters: The ethics of interruption.  She writes in anecdotal fragments, leaving ‘small, unintegrated and perhaps undigestible nuggets of maternal writing within the more formal academic reflections, as well as using them to interrupt myself.’ She wants to interrupt herself, as much as possible, to ‘throw myself off the subject—especially my own tendency to be drawn back towards the relative safety of theory’ (13). Afterbirth, tantrums, tears, not enough hands: all in the text in its raw form, in between reading theory from Luce Irigaray, Emmanuel Levinas, Julia Kristeva, Jessica Benjamin and Judith Butler.

The safety of theory. It’s an interesting idea—retreating to the comfort of other people’s words—and the implied risk of writing the self. “I start thinking, thinking…”

Contaminated time

Following my recent article with co-authors Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks, Deferred time in the neoliberal university: experiences of doctoral candidates and early career academics, I have been noticing discussions of time everywhere (Baader-Meinhof phenomenon at work). Our article appeared in a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education on the timescapes of teaching. Here is what the editors, Penny Jane Burke and Catherine Manathunga had to say:

This special issue was conceived of and developed before the advent of COVID-19.  Yet, in writing our editorial in the middle of this significant rupture in time, we noted how COVID-19 has brought to the fore existing inequities in how time is experienced everyday by people living on the margins …

I am slowly making my way through the articles, reading some with the Idea of the University reading group (what a pleasure it is to read and think together):

In our article, Lilia, Vanessa and I positioned ourselves as researchers by referring to our contaminated time:

We come to this study as early to mid-career academics whose everyday experience of time, like our participants, is interruptible and contaminated by multi-layered tasks and conflicting demands.

Our argument is that emerging academics experience anxiety-inducing deferred time, waiting for academic careers and working conditions that are yet to come.

I have noticed this idea of contaminated and deferred time recurring in writings about the experience of COVID-19.

In a BBC article on the perception of time:

During lockdown, those isolated from friends, family and work have had long days to fill … This blurring of identical days leads us to create fewer new memories, which is crucial to our sense of time perception … [We are] forced into waiting for the future to come towards us.

Similarly, Scientific American describes the numbing sameness of days, noticing the effects of time distortion. Heidi Pitlor’s Days Without Name captures the mundane (“My son had helped organise the spice drawer”), and Trent Dalton’s Tales from the Bunker shares the anxiety:

Can’t sleep … Gonna be a long year for us overthinkers. I’ll take a thought in the early hours of the morning and turn it upside down and inside out until it has existed so long in my head and in my bones that it’s grown strength. Mutated. Negative thinking’s like a virus. Host thoughts find host thoughts. Each thought mutates and multiplies exponentially and inexplicably…

I’m looking forward to Dalton’s new book (Boy Swallows Universe was one of last year’s favourites). Many authors are writing through their experience of COVID-19. Clare Wright, author of The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (another book that made my yearly favourites list, in 2014), writes:

It’s like a living Vesuvius moment: we were all frozen in whatever material and psychological state we happened to be in on the first of July 2020. That stasis gives rise (at least in me) to feelings of both gratitude and longing. Gratitude for all I have. Longing for all I want and will never have. There is no After. Just a great yawning existential Now.

Jesmyn Ward lost her husband and her favourite place in the world, tucked under his arm. She kept writing:

My commitment surprised me. Even in a pandemic, even in grief, I found myself commanded to amplify the voices of the dead that sing to me, from their boat to my boat, on the sea of time. On most days, I wrote one sentence. On some days, I wrote 1,000 words. Many days, it and I seemed useless. All of it, misguided endeavor.

On grief and time, Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without its Flow, written after the sudden death of her adult son, is a powerful work of fragmented non-fiction: “I’ll not be writing about death, but about an altered condition of life … living in suddenly arrested time.”

In The Pandemic is a Portal, Arundhati Roy reveals of the impact of COVID-19 in her “poor-rich country” India. It is a powerful piece for the comparison of America and India, the backdrop of Muslim/Hindi relations, caste system, government denial, violence and limited preparation for lockdown. “A nation of 1.38bn people … locked down with zero preparation and with four hours’ notice.” The deep inequalities that Roy highlights are devastating. It is upsetting to read this several months after it was written, knowing that India now has the fastest growing number of cases worldwide. In April, Roy wrote:

Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists … Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

And, thinking of portals, here is last night’s distraction, upscaled video footage of England in 1901. Described as a “time travel experience”, it is uncanny and mesmerising. Check out Denis Shiryaev’s YouTube channel for footage of New York, Tokyo, Germany, France and more in the early 1900s.

I read some of these pieces for my creative writing studies, looking at non-fiction this semester, and completed my own writing exercise on the senses:

Our emotions were tumultuous. We were overwhelmed, playful, resentful, loving, annoyed and guilty—all before getting dressed. Two adults working and two children schooling from home was a challenge, but we’ve survived worse. My daughter previously missed eight months of school due to illness, so this constrained intimacy was familiar.

Six months in, our emotional response has flattened. There is a sameness to each day, and we crave novelty. We want the anticipation of a holiday, the shock of new sensations. Noticing an ordinary day reminds me that against the scale of collective trauma elsewhere, our banality is fortunate.

I spend the work day on my laptop, jumping between Zoom meetings. My eyes are feeling the strain. While walking the dog, I try to stretch my sight to the tops of trees, into the blue sky.

A woman is selling home-made biscuits door to door. She has lost her job and has children to support. The biscuits taste of cinnamon and desperation.

My seven-year-old sings and chatters constantly. He talks to his Lego. It is charming and annoying.

The children need more hugs. So does the dog. During a Zoom meeting she pushes her too-large body onto my lap. My fingers curl around her spoodle-soft fur.

At the end of the day, I climb into clean sheets. All the goodness and comfort of laundry powder, a hint of eucalyptus and lemon, and the wind. It smells like home, renewed.

For those seeking the distractions of fiction, these are my favourite time distortion books: Conni Willis’s Doomsday Book, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Jo Walton’s My Real Children, Tabitha Bird’s A Lifetime of Impossible Days, and Kate Mascarenhas’s The Psychology of Time Travel. Read all those? Try Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline, Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays, Mark Lawrence’s One Word Kill, Margarita Montimore’s The Rearranged Life of Oona Lockhart, Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes or Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. Next on my to-be-read list comes from here.