On Dedicating Time to Work

Undine put up a post about writing and one of her commenters asked me some questions that I appear to have taken as therapy prompts. I have already written too much about myself than one should on someone else’s blog, especially given the high degree of emotional pain I am describing. So I am taking the discussion over here.

I do not have writing trouble per se, but I do have trouble putting my own needs in any regard first. That shows up most obviously in the guise of writing trouble, but writing trouble is not the root of it. I have been very frustrated over the years, trying to solve something I think of erroneously as writing trouble when in fact that nomenclature clouds the issue a great deal.


I am not sure any cliché reveals more than it conceals but today I will use the phrase “fear of success” in the hope it can be revealing. While my block about academic work in general was created by this really destructive psychotherapy I went to some time ago, my “fear of success” is much older than graduate school.

It is not “fear of success” — it is fear of lethal punishment for doing what is needed to succeed. That is the double bind with which I struggle daily. If I do what I need to do to succeed, my mother will feel unbearable pain and my father will kill me. That is not something I simply imagine — it is how it was. If, in addition to that, I work in fields or on projects not approved of by them, I will be tortured as well before they finally kill me. And anyway, how can I possibly go ahead and cause my mother that much pain in the first place? No, better to become a shop-girl and live as one can.

My intrapsychic feeling is that I had better limit success, wait to show my true colors until after they die, because if I do it now I am not likely to survive. It is better to save the present for tomorrow. If I stay alive and get to a safer place, then I can present my ideas, but survival is the priority now.

Before psychotherapy I could control this. I identified it as a childhood feeling, not applicable now, and pushed it away. In psychotherapy I learned that that was a “strategy of denial” and that instead, I needed to “feel it.” So now I feel it, and it is as painful as I knew it would be. I have my blogs as an attempt to recover my earlier, better ways of living.


I have had a recurring dream for many years. It is set in late 1939 or early around 1940, after the fall of the Spanish Republic and before the German occupation of Denmark.

I, the only one with the right papers
am anachronistically driving a Citroën 2CV full of refugees
Spaniards and Jews
from my home in Perpignan, Languedoc
to Åbenrå, in southern Jutland.

The route inevitably takes us through Germany and it is dangerous. Not because I cannot talk us past the checkpoints — I can — but because we are being pursued by one of the better informed security agencies. We have to take unusual routes, and we have to go fast. The car is weak, and it is raining. I am glad my German is so good and that I have made this drive so many times before. I am glad that we are carrying enough gasoline and water.

But we are being pursued, and the border closes at nightfall. If we do not cross today, we must wait until the morning, and in the intervening hours we could be caught. I keep looking in my mirrors as I press on faster and faster through Holstein and then Schleswig. Across the Elbe, across the Kiel Canal, across the Dannewirke, by rights this is Denmark now, but it is not and our pursuers are closing in.

The border crossing comes into view and we can see that the barrier is coming down. I have French license plates but we are carrying a Danish flag and I have one of my passengers open a window. He holds it out, waving it in the rain. I open my window and hold out my left arm, waving. The border closes but the guard, dressed in the red and white of our flag, waits for us.

We arrive at last and of course the guard only needs to take a cursory glance to see we will not have papers. The car and I have permission to pass through Germany but none of us have Danish visas. I hand the papers I have to the guard and begin speaking in my best Jutlandic. “It is all right,” he cuts me short. I see you are all Danish citizens. Just drive around the gate, please.”


The thrill of this moment in the dream is hard to describe, but it is the same thrill I feel when I print out the final version of a manuscript, or when I read it through once it has come into print. However, the difficulty of trying again is the fear that the security forces will catch us as we drive through Germany. I want to stay home in Perpignan or hide myself behind the walls of Carcassonne.

It is the drive through Germany that frightens me and my fear is not of the work but of the security agents. My father, a professor in a closely related field, used to play Bob Dylan’s song Like A Rolling Stone to remind us how it would go for us if he threw us out or if he were thrown out.

“Now you don’t / talk so loud / Now you don’t / Feel so proud / About having to be / Scrounging your next meal / How does it feel / How does it feel / To be on your own / Like a complete unknown / Like a rolling stone?”

This threatening question, given everything else that was said and a few things that have happened since, is why I still let fear paralyze me. Key is that what I fear is not work but being seen to do it — and, I suppose, having people give me fear driven advice about it when I am rocking steady, but dinner just isn’t quite ready. Be calm it will be all right, I want to tell them, but they do keep on nattering.

But it is this: my father’s inordinate fear that I would not do the right things to survive, and my mother’s inordinate anger that I would; my father’s anger about my mother’s anger. So I have to prove, and prove again, that I can toe the line and do things just right, without taking any risks, and that I can do this in off hours, when my mother is otherwise occupied and cannot see me.


Those are the security forces in me. I run from them every night, carrying ideas and manuscripts in my Citroën 2CV. My detractors do not only say I should not do research — they also say I should not prepare my classes. They want me to write and teach with absolutely no preparation at all, because my preparation time should be dedicated to them.

If I were really a valid person, I would need no time to prepare or reflect. I would be very successful and they could point to me, but I would have a great deal of time each day to speak to them as the weak person who is more acceptable to them than the me they would like others to see.


I know the answer is that I need to get over these people, I am too old to still be having these problems. But as I have said, decades ago I sought help for them. I was told I had gotten over them too well. That was not a very skilled or sophisticated response. It caused the problem to grow deeper roots. That is why I am as I am, still trying to grow.

And lest you say I am making excuses, not taking responsibility, or any of the other punitive phrases I have heard over the years: the only way to take responsibility is to address the issue. So long as I keep saying my problem is time management or other character flaws of mine, I am evading the issue at hand.

The issue at hand is my introjection of these parental fears and threats, and the way that was exacerbated and compounded by psychotherapy. I really do not understand why working to heal from that should be considered self indulgent or slacking.

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5 Responses to On Dedicating Time to Work

  1. Z says:

    Aha – also. My parents’ big criticism of me was that I couldn’t, or wouldn’t take more abuse than I did. For years I tried to learn to take more, but dang – it sure didn’t work.

    Now I think that what I really need to do to get ahead is stand up to people — students, vampire colleagues, and so on.

    According to my parents you have to submit to survive but I am discovering that really and truly, the opposite is true.

  2. Z says:

    And so here’s the thing.

    Originally academia was what was healthy for me. I didn’t have the work and “procrastination” issues others did, either, and I always knew how to work without large blocs of time, which many seem to come to professordom not knowing how to do.

    But then, my first job conflated family and academic abuse, and this was traumatic. And then, Reeducation told me I shouldn’t be an intellectual. And then, academic common “sense” told me to take a book contract I didn’t agree with, and to give up a fellowship I really wanted. So, all of these things, especially taken together, were destructive, spirit breaking.

    I have tried to say I simply haven’t managed time well since then, and that has felt destructive because it is.

  3. Z says:

    And so yes, the whole issue is about guilt, when not fear of extreme violence, and it is all about my parents, who are very involved with academia. But when I list the things I feel guilty about it’s really all about them, not about academia at all.

    The exception: the time I was leaving, and I got guilt tripped back in by colleagues. They thought I wasn’t really leaving, just needed support and love. But I was really leaving, and ended up feeling too guilty — so much support and love, how can I not honor that by staying? (This is twisted, I know, but it was how I felt then.)

    But is that even about academia or business? No: it is about what I was taught about love. If someone loves you, it puts you in their debt. It means you must do exactly as they say, I was taught early on, to work off the debt. This, too, is guilt.

  4. Z says:

    And, hmmm: I was destroyed by the ridiculousness of that therapy; without therapy I could have maintained better mental health and had more fun in life and a better career. Still, the family plays a big role.

    I wonder if from the family what I got was “academic abuse,” like the spiritual abuse chronicled in this book (which I really relate to, although I was not raised in a religion):

  5. Z says:

    I think this idea of “academic abuse” parallel to “spiritual abuse” may work.

    I know my parents’ continuing reaction to my aunt’s having paid for me to go to college is some form of financial abuse or I guess desire to commit financial abuse.

    One of their recent versions on it is, they wanted to be able to manipulate me financially during college and beyond, and then my aunt took that opportunity from them.

    Anyway fighting back all of these demons is my problem. What really helps is to go back to the way I was before psychotherapy: see these things as my problems, not as my true self.

    In psychotherapy, we had to see our problems as our deepest truths and I think this is wrong.

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