Writing High

Jane Haladay reflects on productivity gained when flying -- and the distractions that complicate life on the ground.

March 8, 2013

I may have my California friends and family, as much as my peer review and tenure committee, to thank for my having received tenure this year. Without the full day's plane ride from one coast to the other a few times a year, it's unlikely I ever would have written any scholarship. Since I’ve taught the standard 4/4 teaching load at my institution over the past six years while also struggling to push some publications out into the world, my administrators should know that if they cut my travel funds even more than they already have, they’ll never see me publish. It's something about the altitude, I think. Something about the combination of clouds, the view of the blue and brown and green tile work of agricultural lands from thousands of feet above and, even better, the unfractured open spaces – snaking rivers with their distant sparkles or the shimmer of nighttime cities – that makes me deeply reflective, and somehow very productive.

Granted, my seat in coach is a tad crowded as office space goes. The flimsy 10-by-18 fold-down plastic tray serving as my desk up here isn’t terribly accommodating, and some creative space negotiation is required to keep both my journal and styro cup of weak airline coffee on the surface simultaneously without spilling or elbowing the disaffected youth in the seat beside me, the girl who at the moment is gnawing on ropes of red licorice as she hunches over an enormous tome by Richelle Mead called Last Sacrifice. If this girl is in training to emulate the undead, she’s doing a pretty good job. Still, I’m happy to see that she’s at least reading a real book, with paper pages and everything. I compress myself even more tightly in my seat and wedge my iPod beneath one thigh to keep an additional item off my desk as I continue to write.

In addition to not being the most accommodating office space around, I confess it’s also not the cheapest. For this 7.5-hour flight to California from Raleigh, N.C. via Phoenix, AZ, I’ve shelled out approximately $60 an hour to sit here literally strapped to my seat. It’s definitely cheaper to write at home, where there’s also a lot more room on my desk (even with the clutter that inevitably piles up there), and where I am not cinched into my office chair, which, on terra firma, also rolls and swivels comfortably at my direction, unlike the one I’m in now, which is subjected to periodic atmospheric turbulence beyond my control. Nevertheless, I’ve written more in the past three bumpy hours on Southwest flight 945 than I have in the past three months in my tranquil, spacious home office. In flight, I have also read two articles and a keynote address that I can now see adding to my curriculum next semester for my new course on indigenous narratives. These readings were part of the stack of papers neatly piled on one of the many surfaces also located down there in the home office, stacks that had been gathering dust since August until I yanked them from the pile, shook off the motes, and stuffed them in the folder of work to be done in my workspace aloft.

The reasons I can write and get my work done under these aerial conditions are very simple. It’s not only the atmospheric effect and the panoramic view, which in any case is often obscured by fog, rain, the wing of the plane, or the heads of my office mates, either reading or snoring. No, the real reason I can get my work done up here is obvious: I’m stuck, and I have minimal distractions. This is especially true on Southwest, which remains blissfully free of mini-televisions that can, as we all know, suck even the most dedicated scholars into the stupidest movies, even when you’ve opted out of springing for the headphones, simply because the opiate allure of the colorful little screen with its stimulating array of frisking images inevitably demands your attention. Those images will be seen.

Yet even if my eyes wander on flights with mini-TVs, the fact remains that I am parked in one place for several hours on these cross-country sojourns, and my usual distractions as a writer have been utterly annihilated. Cell phones are off, which means no phone calls, no texts. I have no access to my kitchen, so I can’t wander back and forth from desk to stovetop to make another cup of coffee or tea, or to troll the cupboards again for a reasonable snack (granola bar, yogurt, apple) or an unreasonable one (white cheddar popcorn, Haagen Dazs, more of those scrumptious little chocolates). Up here, the cheerful if rather haggard Southwest flight attendants periodically toss me tiny packages of peanuts or pretzels containing about 14 units each of food product, as if I’m some sort of circus animal, and I accept them a bit too eagerly along with my six-ounce ration of coffee, water, juice, wine, or several of these in rotation. When my office space is a window seat, I try to pace myself on the liquids, since trips to the facilities may require gymnastic maneuvers over the bodies of my inconvenienced and irritated coworkers.

But the primary distraction absent from my celestial office is – on the airlines I use regularly, anyway – e-mail, of course, e-mail. I’m aware that I am not alone in admitting that for me, e-mail will derail a productive writing session much more rapidly than phone calls, snack prep, or deciding I finally need to do laundry and vacuum the living room combined. I don’t have much discipline about stopping myself from checking e-mail every, say, 5 to 15 minutes if I’m writing in my home office, even if I’m not expecting anything or am pretty sure nothing will have popped up there since I checked it five minutes ago.

The sinister thing about e-mail is that things do just pop up, so ... you never know. Better check it again just to make sure, especially when you’re at a point in the writing where the ideas have stopped flowing like they were a few minutes ago, or you’ve finished off the last of those scrumptious little chocolates, or you know you have to get up and review that critical text in the other room because you’ve now gotten to that troublesome spot you knew was coming where you have to provide background on the theoretical framework or historical context of what you’re proposing before you proceed in the piece. And even though you’re pretty sure you should remember this theory without having to look it up again, you have admit that, yes, you have to get up and look it up again.

So it’s at about this point that I think: Wait – I’ll just give e-mail one quick check again. And I do, and sure enough, there’s another e-mail from That Student asking for the third time what I mean in my assignment guidelines by having to find "literary criticism" about a poem in his presentation on Simon Ortiz, because he’s been looking and looking but nothing he’s read has said anything bad about Simon Ortiz’s poetry. How can he use literary criticism if nobody is criticizing American Indian poetry? Plez let him no rite away cuz he’s confuzd & thnx, Mrs. Holliday!

After I waste five minutes answering That Student’s email, and reading one from the administration about some new policy that is actually a recycled old policy that nobody paid any attention to before and won’t now just because it has a new name and acronym, I feel annoyed and believe it might be time for another snack. (Yogurt, but followed by just one more of those scrumptious little chocolates.) O.K., back to the home office, back to the article. Now, where was I?  Oh yes: articulating my theoretical framework. Gee, isn’t it about time for my afternoon walk, or to unload the dishwasher?

You see where this is going. All of this is why I’ve decided I’m grateful not only that I have a full-time, tenure-track faculty position these days, but that my position is 2,000-plus miles from my primary social and familial base. A few times a year, I have needed as much as wanted to climb into my narrow office chair, buckle myself in, flap down my portable plastic desk, reach up for the overhead light, and get some real work done. No chocolates, no e-mail, no incoming phone calls. Just gazing at an occasional crop circle as I coast over Oklahoma, the sacred mountains of the Navajo and Pueblo peoples as I float over New Mexico, or the tops of the beautiful, snow-dusted Sierra Nevadas as I glide above my home place in California.

I gratefully munch my remaining two grams of dry pretzel bits, and the next thing I know I’ve caught up on my reading and have the beginnings of, or finishing touches on, an article. I lean back in my seat and smile as the "fasten seatbelts" sign flashes on, and the voice of the flight attendant, always too loud, blares out that it’s time to return my seat into its full and upright position, and fold my desk into the seat back in front of me. I feel my office begin to descend from its heights as I put away my pen and notebook, or my laptop, and gaze out the window for only a few more minutes. From up here, picturing tenure has always looked clearer.


Jane Haladay is associate professor of American Indian studies at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.


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