Differently Motivated: In Defense of the Slacker-Writer


Monica McFawn 2016   Bright Shards of Someplace Else

By Monica McFawn

I wasn’t—and have never been—a particularly good student.  In fact, the best way to describe me as an undergraduate was as a slacker—and an unrepentant one at that.   School, for me, was a dance of strategy and deception.  Do as little work as possible but give the impression of working hard.  If your mind drifts, nod more vigorously to feign engagement. Write showoffy, passionate essays to hide sloppy research and logic.  Laugh at the professor’s jokes to build up goodwill you can later leverage for assignment extensions.  If class is held in the library for a “research day,” dart down the stacks and scurry to the exit when the professor isn’t looking.  Be sure to sign the attendance sheet first, of course.

I enjoyed the drama that my slacking created—the exhilarating all-nighters, the perfectly calibrated performances of my bogus excuses, the passable grade wrenched from the maws of failure.  I like to believe that I may have written one of the first emailed excuses to a professor in a time when it was still a novelty.  I remember it to this day:  Due to a series of complex misfortunes, I cannot attend class…. The pleasure of school was not in learning the material, but learning—outwitting, ideally—the game of school.   I was a bullshitter, a brownnoser, a layabout, a faker—but, in my mind, free.  Every time I skipped class, I felt the thrill of shirking a responsibility, of rejecting others’ expectations in order to follow my own interests.   Slacking seemed like a way to preserve my selfhood, even as I was told my life would be defined by how well I did in school.

I’m a professor now, and now I’m the target of the expertly performed excuses, the fake laughter, the bullshit.  I also see now what I didn’t then—that a college education is a privilege, and my slacking itself was the behavior of someone lucky enough to have a supportive, soundly middle class family.  Still, even with the wisdom of age, I admire the old slacker version of myself.  My eighteen-year-old self may have been ruled by sloth and mischief, but I’ve come to believe that “slacking” can actually be beneficial for writers—especially women—for two main reasons.

  1. Slackers know how to prioritize and protect their boundaries.

A slacker’s day is a series of refusals.  No, I won’t get up before noon.  No, I won’t clean the dishes, make the bed, do the laundry.  No, I won’t study.  No, I won’t go to class.  No, I won’t visit the professor during office hours. And like that great slacker of American Literature, Bartleby, I didn’t even bother with an excuse if I could avoid it.  I preferred not, and that was all the justification I needed.

Nowadays, I realize how important this slacker-skill is, especially for women. Saying no is critical to the creative life.  Saying “no” is a way of protecting one’s boundaries, of leaving time for the art and people we truly care about.   When my book,  Bright Shards of Someplace Else, came out, I overextended myself, taking on every reading, article, or interview request.  I’d forgotten what I learned from the depths of slackerdom: that I needed to protect my time and passions, even if that meant I outwardly appeared less active.   When I skipped class years ago, it wasn’t always about simply revelling in my idleness (though often it was about that).  It was also about freeing up time for what I cared about, which back then was riding my horse, reading, arguing with friends about ideas.  But as I got older and more ambitious, I forgot the simple teachings of the slacker: that saying no is not only okay, but required.

The problem is that women have been culturally conditioned to overachieve and overcommit.  It’s no coincidence that the iconic slackers of film (and TV) are historically men (think Ferris Bueller, The Big Lebowski).   Even though female slackers are finally making an appearance on the screen, research shows that women in real life find it hard to say no to excessive workloads.   Slacking is a form of power.  It’s a way of saying: “My time is worth more than this task or duty.  I’m worth more than this task or duty.” Perhaps that wasn’t exactly my inner monologue when I was lying in bed reading teen novels rather than attending class, but the argument could be made that my slacking had a feminist bent.

  1. Slackers Use Cunning to Pursue Pleasure and Avoid Difficulty

The most frequent advice that writers get is that writing is hard work that demands unwavering discipline and a willingness to embrace difficulty.  Writing is about putting in long hours, powering through discomfort, self-disgust, and boredom.  On  the face of it, the slacker seems to have no hope as a writer.  Writing is about work and difficulty, and slackers avoid those things at all cost.

Lately, however, I’ve started to see that the slacker’s ethos can even be applied to the writing process.  For years, I used to believe that I should simply keep writing when it became difficult.  This was the message I used to send to students, too, but now I find myself saying something more in line with the old slacker me. “If you feel yourself really struggling to write a section, if it’s really boring or difficult, see if there’s a way you can avoid it.  Maybe it isn’t needed.  Maybe if it’s boring to write it will be boring to read.”

There are, I realized, different kinds of difficulty.   There’s the difficulty that comes from trying to represent nuanced emotions, from dramatizing the ethics of a thorny relationship, from breaking up the “frozen sea within us,” as Franz Kafka put it. This is the type of difficulty a writer should lean into.  But then there is the difficulty that comes from having to write a dull, but logistically required passage to move your characters through time and space.  This was the type of writing I encouraged my students to slack on.

Slackers don’t work hard, but they do work smart.  A good slacker is cunning, always looking for steps that could be skipped or streamlined so she can get back to what’s pleasurable or fun.  A slacker’s mindset leads to formal innovation and experimentation as she tries out all avenues to avoid any writing that feels like a slog.  A slacker’s mindset creates a story that is all high points, since all the slacker really wants are the highs. A slacker is playful and rascally, two qualities a writer needs at least as much as a work ethic. And finally, a slacker, like a good writer, finds satisfaction in dodging an expected route.

I wrote this essay to remind myself of the value of slacking, so in the interest of full disclosure I need to report that I have succeeded and failed in this in equal measure.  I said “yes” to writing this essay—a clear breach of the slacker code.  However, I redeemed myself by both pushing back the deadline twice and pulling a near all-nighter.  My plan is to work on being a better slacker—but if I fall down at even that job, I figure I can still count it as a success.

***

Monica McFawn’s story collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, won a Flannery O’Connor Award and was named a Michigan Notable Book, a finalist for the Ohioana Book Award and an NPR “Great Read.” Her stories have appeared in journals such as Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Gettysburg Review and others, and her screenplays and plays have had readings in New York and Chicago. She is also author of “A Catalogue of Rare Movements,” a poetry/art chapbook, and host of the Nathaniel Hawthorne-themed comedy podcast, The Hawthorne Effect.  A recipient of a NEA Fellowship in Literature and a Walter E. Dakin fellowship from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, McFawn is an assistant professor of English at Northern Michigan University, where she teaches fiction and scriptwriting.  She can be found online at www.monicamcfawn.com
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