When It Comes to Waiting, I Really Could Care Less

Full vitae waiting to get published

When you read career-advice columns, it’s reasonable to believe that the writers are speaking from experience — that they have struggled with the problem they’re describing, overcome it, and can offer helpful advice.

This is not one of those columns. This is the other kind — the type where we write about things that are really hard for us. We may be able to offer a few strategies to make the particular problem less onerous. But the fact is, we haven’t resolved it, either — and we are suffering as much or more from it as you are.

As a former book editor and now a published author myself, there are plenty of writing challenges I know how to handle. When it comes to getting my butt in the chair and doing the work, I’ve got productivity down (it helps to have an abysmal social life). Figuring out how to organize a big project? Well, I’ve got a track record of managing to do that. I’m all over tricks to make my prose tighter — and always looking for more. Awareness of the inadequacies of graduate training, the reasons academics turn to jargon, and the best way to write a book proposal? Check, check, check. I’ve said my part.

But I’ve never quite learned how to cope with one of the most stressful aspects of writing and publishing: the long wait to hear back from editors, publishers, committees, foundations, or agencies.

A friend of mine once submitted his manuscript to a university press and then waited two years to get a final answer. My friend didn’t seem too bent out of shape about the whole ordeal (eventually the book was published). I’m pretty sure the waiting stressed me out more than it did him.

When I imagine myself in his position — well, I can’t. First, I tell myself I would have handled things differently. I wouldn’t have waited silently for months; I would have taken action. I would have emailed the editor, or pulled the manuscript and submitted it elsewhere, or left the country for a tiny village in the Himalayas with no internet or phone service.

My identity, my need for definitive answers, and my impatience make that time period between when I submit something and when I hear back an exercise in torture. For me, as for Tom Petty, the waiting is the hardest part.

Of course, that’s the case for many other academics, too. And this is where I offer up all the usual coping strategies as you anxiously await word on whether a project will live or die:

Work on other projects. When you care a whole lot about something you’ve been writing — for months, years, even decades — it’s hard to move on to anything else. But if motivating yourself to start something new is too difficult, maybe this is a good time to dust off an old project. Starting in the middle of something can be easier than facing a blank page.

Focus on other parts of your job, like teaching. Perhaps the purgatory of waiting to hear about a research project can be a good time to rethink a syllabus, come up with a new course, or read a bunch of books on pedagogy. The longer you teach, the easier it is to rely on old standbys when it comes to assignments. With brain bandwidth freed up from having the big project off your desk and out of your hands, you can luxuriate in thinking about better ways to serve students.

Throw yourself into committee work. Perhaps the reason the same people always volunteer for service activities is that they’re trying to avoid their own research and scholarship. You can feel useful and less guilty about not doing all parts of your job. At least that’s what I’ve told myself, and it’s how I rationalize my allergy to committees.

Write recommendation letters for students. I mean the ones who haven’t yet asked but whom you suspect might want one. We generally know which students are going to hit us up, so it rarely comes as a surprise when they do. A pre-emptive strike can make it less stressful when they wait to ask until a few days before their deadline. You’ll have a draft already in hand.

Check in with colleagues who may need a supportive ear. Most academics, I think, want to be good citizens and even mentors. But again, as we get busier with our stuff, we can forget to reach out to colleagues — especially those who are slogging along behind us on the career track. A real benefit is the way they can help us in the process. They can put us in touch with how things in our university and in the world have changed since we came up through the ranks.

That’s all well and good. But if you want the truth, there is nothing that makes waiting easier for me. Nothing. I become an obsessed basket case, a wallowing creature who can go a week without washing her hair or changing her clothes.

If you want a list of things I really think will make it easier to wait out hearing from an agent, a publisher, a granting agency, a tenure committee, a Tinder date, here’s what I’ve got.

  • Drink heavily. Even if you’re not a good drinker. Especially if you’re not a good drinker. If it’s legal in your state, stock up on weed and munchies. Make sure you get a strain that doesn’t increase paranoia. But if you can’t indulge in those substances …
  • Overeat. Especially sugary things, which give you that intense rush and then, when your blood-glucose level plummets, make you worry about the fate of humanity (or the humanities). Enjoy the feeling of despair. But if you can’t gorge yourself …
  • Fast. Savor the pangs of hunger, the feeling of lethargy, and the headaches that come with inanition. Actually feel weak when you remind yourself how vulnerable you are. But if you can’t stop eating …
  • Run. Run so many miles your dog hides under the bed when you put on your running shoes. Run until you’ve given yourself shin splints, pulled hamstrings, and have lost all your toenails. Run so hard it hurts and you forget about everything else except wanting to stop. But if you can’t start running …
  • Go to the library. Stock up on page-turner mysteries and spend every nonworking moment under a blanket, reading. Feel superior to those authors who are cranking out trash. Resent them for making so much money. Think about writing one of those novels yourself. Start on one. Give up when you realize it’s harder than it looks. While you’re at it …
  • Trash-talk everyone. Say horrible things about the powerful entities — the dean, the editor, the foundation, the institution, the agency — that can crush your dreams. Google everything bad anyone has ever said about them to steel yourself for rejection. Then …
  • Treat yourself to a spa day. Get massaged and oiled, scrubbed and fluffed. Spend the whole time you’re being massaged, oiled, scrubbed, and fluffed worrying about how much money you’re wasting. But don’t just keep all your worries to yourself …
  • Complain. Tell your friends about your anxiety, your fear of failure, your impending move to a tiny village in the Himalayas with no internet service. Then, when your friends stop returning texts and phone calls, complain to your dog. Stop when she starts walking out of the room every time you open your mouth. You need someone on your side. Or you could always …
  • Plan another career. I can imagine driving a truck (just think about how many audiobooks you could listen to). Or becoming a cosmetician. Or spending every bit of disposable income on lottery tickets and pouring libations to the gods and hoping to win enough not to ever have to work again. Finally …
  • Care less. If you figure out how to do this, please let me know.

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