Hello. This is a post about the late medieval play called Mankind. I appeared in HIDden Theatre‘s productions of it in November 2015 and April 2016 and had absolutely every intention of writing blogposts about the play at both those times. Honest. I just never quite got around to it.
Today, the sixth of September, is apparently Fight Procrastination Day, so what better day to finally produce the promised post? Mankind is a fifteenth-century English morality play about humanity’s struggle to stay on the straight and narrow, avoiding damnation and working with God’s help towards salvation, with bum jokes. The eponymous hero is an ordinary medieval farmer (with surprisingly good knowledge of Latin), who is advised by the preacher Mercy to do his work well, keep the Lord’s day, and avoid false friends who might lead him into sin. Unfortunately, he is also advised by three ‘Vices’ (only two in our production), who disrupt his work and take him off to the pub for drinks, women, and perhaps the odd murder.
How does Mankind sink to this? In an early scene of the play, the Vices New-Guise, Nowadays and Nought (with their sinister leader, Mischief) have little success in tearing him away from his farmwork, getting nothing but a whack in the balls with a spade for their efforts. But Mischief has a better idea than that. Having collected money from the audience in exchange for the sight of a man with a fantastically oversized head, they reveal instead the demon Titivillus, whose powers of distraction are far beyond what the Vices can manage. He hides a stiff board beneath Mankind’s field, making it impossible to dig and working him up into frustration. So he gives up and has a go at sowing corn instead – only to find his bag of seed mysteriously missing.
In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti now I wyll begyn.
Thys londe is so harde yt makyth wnlusty and yrke.
I xall sow my corn at wynter and lett God werke …
Alasse, my corn ys lost! here ys a foull werke!
I se well by tyllyng lytyll xall I wyn.
Here I gyff wppe my spade for now and for ever.
Mankind, ed. Greg Walker, ll. 545-50.
(In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now I will begin.
This land is so hard it makes me fed up and annoyed.
I will sow my corn in winter and let God do the work.
[Titivillus steals the seeds.]
Alas, my corn is lost! Something’s gone wrong here!
I see that I will achieve little by digging.
Here I will give up my spade now and forever.)
Don’t we all have days like that sometimes?
So Mankind gives up on work, and chooses prayer instead, only to be distracted by Titivillus’ whispering in his ear that he really needs to pee. By the time he’s finished, it’s too late to go to evensong, and he’s fed up of digging, so he lies down and sleeps off his annoyance, giving Titivillus the chance to plant a dream in his mind that his spiritual father, Mercy, is a hypocrite and a thief, about to be hanged for his crimes. Disillusioned with work and prayer alike, there is nothing stopping Mankind from joining in with the Vices’ debauchery. At the alehouse, Mischief brings Mankind to a mock trial, sentencing him to a career of lechery, devotional neglect, and knifepoint robberies, with the inept Nought acting as court scribe.
But Mercy is very much alive and searching for Mankind, who is now so ashamed that he searches for any way out possible, even suicide. But Mercy’s forgiveness endures: he pardons Mankind, strengthens him against temptation, and sends him off to live a clean life again.
So what does this have to do with procrastination and academic writing? Recently, I’ve been thinking a bit about how I work, and how that has changed with my academic position. It’s a lot like being Mankind. Some days, you are energetically digging on your land, whacking the Vices with your spade; other days, everything seems to go wrong – the ground is too hard, your seed bag is missing, and somehow everything just seems to be going nowhere. My experience might chime with your own, or maybe not. I certainly have no intention of writing a “how-to” guide to research. If there were a one-size-fits-all secret to making academic work easy, then we would all be supplied with it on page one of the department handbook on the very first day, and everything would be easy.
Everyone’s working style is different, and it will differ according to how much time you have available for academic work, any family responsibilities you might have, and other aspects of your personal situation. During my PhD, I was a full-time, funded student settled in a large, gregarious and supportive academic community at the University of York’s Centre for Medieval Studies. Now I have a full-time non-academic job and so my papers, blogposts and publications need to be written in my spare time. But I still have the support of academic friends and the continued membership of a university department; and now, an academic community on Twitter, all of which make a huge difference to me. I now research and write in shorter bursts, and inevitably make slower progress than I used to. So I can’t expect swift and dramatic progress from myself, and know that I must allow myself long periods of time in which to get anything done.
During the PhD, I came to realise that part of the job is figuring out what the job is; not knowing the way ahead is part of the process. Now, doing research in my spare time, I like to tell myself that I have the whole process sussed, finally. I never expect to achieve much in a single day, but I accept the slowness of my progress, don’t panic, and enjoy my work. But every now and then I still have a bit of a wobble – recently, for instance, I’ve started to fret about a relatively distant but rather important deadline.
And I still procrastinate. Why? As I say, I enjoy my work just as much as I ever did. So why put it off? It’s not that I have lost interest in it, or am worried about doing it – that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m afraid of starting work. I once read somewhere that ‘the hardest move in yoga is the move onto your mat’. I have just googled that in order to find a source, or possibly a nice ‘inspirational quote’ image to repost, but instead I just found pictures of people contorted into positions that I will never be able to replicate. Nevertheless, I understand the point, and it completely reflects my experience of academic writing. Now, there are no panaceas for this or any other conundrum in the world; but, speaking purely for myself, there is one thing that I have found that really helps:
OPEN THE DOCUMENT
Silly as it sounds, I feel like half the battle is won when I actually open up the OneNote file in which I keep all of my notes (for a blogpost, or a book chapter, or a conference paper), and the Microsoft Word file that I have been working in. Then I start reading what I have already written and just start picking at it. Writing another bulletpoint, writing just one extra sentence. After enough of that, I somehow manager to segue into getting some high-quality writing done.
Another thing that I have found useful is keeping a work diary. During my MA, I realised that I had no idea what I had spent my week doing; so when I returned for my PhD, I decided to create a Word document with a short bulletpoint list of what I had done each day. I have these lists, continuously from October 2007 (except for two months in the autumn of 2011, which were lost during a hard drive replacement), and it is something of a boost to be able to look back on the past few weeks and be able to see just how much I have actually managed to get done.
Although there’s no sense in attributing a moral or spiritual dimension to my academic work, when you write about monks, everything begins to look like monasticism. You feel like you are in your little cell, on your own, struggling with your writing just as monks struggled in their prayers. If I need to push myself on, I remember what the sixth-century monastic writer Cassiodorus used to say about writing holy manuscripts: ‘Every word written is a wound on Satan’s body.’
But what is my Satan? Medieval monks had to struggle with superbia, arrogant pride, the worst of the chief sins. Maybe this is just me, but I suspect that my own procrastinations are really a sort of superbia: knowing that the stuff I type completely fails to capture the obviously totally perfect ideas in my head. My solution is to swallow my pride and just write down any old rubbish as long as it’s something. Just writing a few little words is a huge victory, and it makes me feel good. And that releases me from any worry that I won’t get much done, which means I write even more.
I would love to be able to say that procrastination and worry are gone for good, but I can’t. Instead, I seem to deal with it by writing down whatever pops into my head, no matter how pathetic, and adding marginal comments telling myself to sort it out later. Just getting going helps me to gather momentum. Above all, I try to make the time just to be with my text or my manuscript, to spend time with it, and to be open to whatever comes up. Ultimately, whatever ‘it’ is always seems to come back if I just turn up for work every day and keep trying.
Somewhere, in the back of my mind, in all this, is a snippet of Old English poetry: maybe this isn’t the one I’m thinking of, but it might just be:
Often the solitary wanderer experiences the Creator’s mercy for himself, even though upon the waterway he must anxiously stir the ice-cold sea for himself, with his hands, travel the paths of exile.
The Wanderer, ll. 1-5a. The Online Corpus of Old English Poetry
For Cassiodorus: Michelle P. Brown, The Lindisfarne Gospels and the early medieval world (London: British Library, 2011)
Greg Walker, ed., Medieval Drama: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).