Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Yoga of the Second Book

(...or of any new research/writing project, for that matter.)

I just got off the phone with a friend who, like me, just finished her first book and is starting on her second. Unlike me, she's bagged a full-year fellowship to work on it in its early stages. And she just asked me -- me! -- what she ought to know about beginning work on the new project.

A second book, or any new project, is a voyage into the unknown. You just finish one project where you knew everything, and all of a sudden you know nothing again. It's easy to get bogged down in fear and despair of ever again having a book-worthy idea. I spent most of June and July that way. I will probably get stuck there again at some point.

Anyway, while I was talking to my friend, I realized that a lot of the things I've learned about working on a book project beyond your dissertation-based book are things I've figured out in the past month. This is, perhaps not coincidentally, about a month or two since I've started doing yoga more regularly.

And before you panic or prepare for a new-agey sermon: I'm not going to say, "Yoga will help you write your book." Just bear with me a moment, and I'll explain.

Now, I must explain a couple of things about my yoga practice. First of all, it isn't a "practice." Don't imagine me serenely standing on my head. Don't imagine me in a fancy set of coordinated yoga togs, or hitting the studio five times a week or even being able to sit up completely straight with my legs out in front of me. I'm. Not. Athletic. Or flexible. Or dedicated. And I'm very far from serene, most days. I have precisely one pair of yoga pants that I bought at Target a few years back, and wear them with whatever paint-spattered t-shirt is cleanest. I usually do yoga at home with a DVD or a free podcast. I am awkward.

But lately I've been doing more of it, and I think that some of the principles behind the practice** apply very well to tackling the second book. I don't think you have to practice yoga to get these, but it's the metaphor I have, so here goes:

Be present: We usually think of "focus", but it's kind of an active, forceful, scary word. When you're trying to hold a balance pose or write three paragraphs on a particular topic, the demand to !!FOCUS!! can lead to you to doing anything but ("Am I focusing now?... How about now? Yep, focusing... oh, shit! I lost it again!") On the other hand, you do have to get your head and your body in the same place. A few deep breaths, and just doing what you were meant to be doing in that moment. E-mail can wait. Facebook can wait. Making a mental shopping list can wait. This is sacred time. (And this is, by the way, also the hardest principle for me to put into practice, in any area of my life.)

Non-attachment: I can't bend myself double. Nor do I know what my second book is about yet. I don't have a thesis statement or even a central question. I should know from experience by now that, even if I did know these things, the project will take several twists and turns before I'm done. So why let "where I think I should be" paralyze me? I am, right now, doing the best writing and thinking I can with the materials at my disposal.

Stay on your own mat: My inability to drop into a perfect triangle pose when everyone else in the class seems to be having no problem does not mean I'm hopeless. The fact that I don't write as fluidly or as prolifically as Award-Winning Historian doesn't mean I should just give up.

Daily practice: If you do any sort of physical exercise, the benefits tend to accrue with regular practice. If I do yoga once every two weeks or once a month, then I'm probably going to find it stiff and difficult every time. If I do it several times a week or even every day -- even for a little while -- I will gradually see progress. Some days I'm less mentally limber than others. But it's not about a single day.

Grace: Sometimes, in yoga, there comes a moment when you just "get" a pose, and it feels like a new world (or at least a new part of your body) has opened up. Same with thinking about your project. These moments are rare, and you can't make them happen. That moment of inspiration is out of your hands. My job is simply to be there, doing the thing I'm supposed to be doing, so it knows where to find me when it arrives.

That's all I have for the moment. That, and faith that things will happen, and probably not when or how I expect them to.

**These are not official or canonical yoga principles, nor do they have nifty sanskrit names. It's just some stuff that I've heard over and over in classes.


Historiann said...

Love this. Interestingly, I've been doing yoga again for a month or so, after not having done it for about 7 years, and I'm loving it. I'm an addict.

I like the dual meaning of "practice," and I think it applies both to yoga (or any athletic activity) as well as to research and writing (or any serious intellectual activity). That is, "practice" both in the sense of "practice makes perfect," or at least better, as well as practice as a regular habit.

That's how I'm thinking of it, anyway. Yoga is something that I'm getting much more evident results from than in my research, though. So it's been more fun to focus on the yoga, lately.

feMOMhist said...

I'm a pilates peep myself, but I find it interesting that the principles of yoga are those of mindful awareness something I'm hoping to cultivate in both my students and my teaching practice this coming year. Fingers (or legs ;) crossed that it works!

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Thank you for this! I love your metaphor.

undine said...

Great post, Notorious PhD! I especially like how this translates to writing: "My job is to be there" in case inspiration happens. True words!

Mango said...

Verrry nice! Good luck with both!

The Bittersweet Girl said...

As a long-time yogini, of course I love this metaphor. I've written on my blog about how yoga has influenced my teaching -- and I completely get what you are saying about how the lessons of yoga are applicable to any long, hard, demanding, self-denying, ego-impacting task. Such as writing a book.

Of course, I'd rather do yoga any day.

Great post.

maepress said...

Thanks so much - this is a really great post!

Anonymous said...

i am printing this now and tacking it over my computer. thank you.