Answering Questions

Mar 18, 2021

I cannot put a big enough "WARNING" at the top of this post. If you're looking for Illini basketball content, this is not it. Just move along and don't open this. I've been getting a ton of questions so I'm going to answer them all here. Again, no Illini basketball content found within. Just me talking about me.

Last and final warning - this post is a self-serving yet necessary attempt to answer all questions as once. It has nothing to do with Illini basketball. If you disliked the newsletter yesterday, you're really, really going to hate this one. Just trust me and click away from this page.

I've been down for the count in more ways than one this week. Got my second Covid shot Tuesday and it knocked me down good yesterday. Feeling much better this morning.

I'm also a bit exhausted from the trip to Indy. I've never done that before - four days, 18 hours a day, either covering a game or writing about the Tournament. I thought it would be like Camp Rantoul, but adding the three-games-in-three-days in there made it much more than that. Can't remember being as emotionally exhausted as I was on Monday morning. Adding the fan emotions of those three games to the "work" emotions of four 18 hour days left me well below empty.

As a result of that (and other things), I haven't written a thing this week. Last time I posted something was Sunday. Tyler, thankfully, has picked up the slack, but I'm still getting "this thing on?" questions. They're very fair questions. I'll attempt to answer them now by taking parts of some of your questions and interviewing myself.

Where you been? Seems like this is the biggest single week for your writing life and you're non-existent.

Under the covers, both physically and emotionally. Really wish I had a better answer, and really wish I wasn't so frail, but that's the truth. Totally and completely spent.

I explained to someone the other day that writing is a process for me. If you like the words that come written here, a lot of credit goes to that process. Let me give one final warning to those who get uncomfortable with emotional discussions - you won't be comfortable with this next part.

As I've said before, I often treat writing like a painter would treat a painting studio. Maybe they need a view. Maybe they need a certain type of music. Maybe they meditate for 30 minutes before beginning. Frame of mind is everything.

I have a list of inspirational music/videos/writing that I often use to frame my mind correctly before writing about Kofi or Memorial Stadium wind. Before this post, I watched this video three times. I don't care that's it's centered around Christmas music - it gets my mind right.

(That's from the short-lived NBC series "Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip", if you're wondering. The writing, as you can probably tell from the Bradley Whitford monologue, is Aaron Sorkin.)

If items from my inspiration list don't work, sometimes I just have to wait for the words to come. On Sunday night, I drove back to Champaign immediately after the game. Sat with my wife for a bit on the couch (hadn't seen her for four days). She was in the middle of some Netflix binge, so I sat watching the show with her. Then the words showed up. "Gotta go - it's here" I told her and I hustled back to the home office to start writing Just Us. By now she knows what "it's here" means.

In instances like that, it's almost external. I saw a Ted Talk once (Elizabeth Gilbert I think?) where she told a story of a poet who would sit in a mountain cabin and wait for the words to pass through the windows. Once the words arrived, she would simply try to transcribe them before they went out the opposite window. I'm not saying it's like that for me, but I'm attracted to the concept. Writing as simply transcribing something external once it arrives. Told you some of you would hate reading this part.

Because it's often that for me - and sometimes I wish it wasn't - I can get stuck. I don't like the term "writer's block", but there are times when nothing will inspire, no words arrive to transcribe, and I'm stuck.

Where have I been this week? Stuck.

But, like, why?

Many reasons. The biggest, as you newsletter readers know, is my credential application for the NCAA Tournament getting declined. I felt mountains of inspiration (and transcribed tens of thousands of words) inside Big Ten arenas this winter, and finding out my travels have come to an end is quite overwhelming. I knew it was a slim chance, and I covered more games in person than anyone else in hopes of increasing my chances of a credential even a little bit, but in the end, no go.

That's the kind of thing that can really shut me down. Everyone interprets that as me pouting, mad about not getting in, but it's way beyond that. It's a fear, really. Where will the words come from? I know where my inspiration comes from, and I know my process, and it's really hard to switch to something else all of the sudden.

This week, when I combine A) exhaustion from Indy, B) the press pass rejection letter, and C) the side effects from the second Covid shot, I wasn't just down for the count - I was out cold.

Still am, really. And there are other reasons for that. Ask me about them.

Anything else keeping your blocked this week?

Yes. This is the single hardest week in the last ten years to offer Illini words on the internet for money.

I'll say it like this. I'm a fan just like you. When we win I stay up until 2:30 watching highlights. My appetite is never satisfied.

I'm also a member of the media right now, so I can see behind the curtain. And that's a tricky spot to be. On one side of the curtain I see fans desperate for content like no time in the last 12 years. On the other side I see the sausage being made. The thirst to fill those sausages with as much syrup as possible has my stomach turning. Maybe it's just my mood, maybe it was the Covid shot, but I had to turn off the Trent Frazier Zoom yesterday. The articles were apparently already written - just needed a good quote to squeeze in the last drop of syrup because syrup sausages are flying off the shelves.

That makes me feel like Illini fans are being taken advantage of, and I'm an Illini fan, so ipso facto I'm being taken advantage of. And then I realize that the sign out front says "Robert's Illini sausage factory" and I yelp and shut it all down.

This is why I've considered taking down subscriptions before. Just take the whole structure down for a week so I can breathe. I get to these points where I feel like I need to write without the pressure of "words for sale" in the window so I think about taking the paywall down for a bit. The next three weeks could be the biggest sports weeks of my entire life. Who wants their job intertwined with that?

(Fun note: Just tried to pause this post to join the Bret Bielema Zoom call. Zoom won't work on my laptop - just sits and spins and won't connect. Tried restarting, tried uninstalling and re-installing, nothing. Just says "connecting" and nothing happens. "Hey Robert is it your week?" It is not my week.)

Where was I before that pause? Oh yes - job intertwined with fandom. I think this is why what I do - writing the words "we" and "us" from press row - isn't really a thing anywhere else. Maintaining fandom while selling words to fans is a very tricky thing, let me tell you.

It's starting to feel weird when I read these questions back to you but I guess I'll keep going. "Robert, that sounds like a lot. How are you holding up?"

Not great, Bob.

Here's how I see it. To be able to write the words you enjoy, I have to be this guy. I have to live on the edge of all these emotions. I have to bleed.

That's good for you. Every one of you who has ever reached out with "thanks for writing the way you do", well, the credit goes to my literary hemophilia. Ask my wife, ask my high school friends, ask my mom - I've worn emotion sleeves since gradeschool. A blessing for writing ability, curse for just about everything else.

So during a week like this, well... I think I can best explain it as a movie or TV scene.

Picture the scene you've seen before where all of the demands get louder and louder. The main character is in the center of the screen and you get all these snippets and voices appearing different places on the screen.

"Robert, why aren't you writing?"
"Robert you have not been approved for a credential."
"Robert, I haven't gotten my t-shirt yet?"
{Zoom app spinning wheel of death}
"Robert, people want to hear about Illini basketball, not you."
"Robert you should just go to the game."
"Robert my subscription isn't working."
"Robert why aren't you writing a Tournament preview like you would for football?"
"Earth to Robert is this thing on?"

"ENOUGH" comes the scream from the main character and the voices go silent.

That's where I find myself. That's why I'm struggling to write. Every single one of those is an absolutely legitimate concern. There are people who signed up for Seventeen Club in DECEMBER and they still don't have their shirt. Subscription issues are 100% on me to fix - a decision I brought on myself when we switched from doing subscriptions externally to internally. People are paying for Illini words and I'm writing about myself. Every single subscriber should expect this to be the biggest week of content in IlliniBoard history and it really is awful that I haven't been able to write. I'm not providing what I promised when people sent me their money.

There's a lot of mistakes I've made in this first year of doing this, and many of them have come home to roost this week. As the volume has gotten louder and louder, I'm the guy in the center of the screen covering his ears. And I just, like, need a minute. It's my fault, but I need a minute.

This is the absolute worst time for the screen to go dark, too. I don't feel prepared for this tournament at all. Biggest Illini moment since the Rose Bowl in 2008 and I'm in no way prepared. Worse yet, I see no way I can enjoy any bit of the next three weeks when I'm in this frame of mind. Obligations over here, fan nerves over here, both pulling in different directions. I had it sorted well from press row this year and was on a roll and then this credential denial threw me for a loop.

And now I feel like the artist who makes really great music but needs the yellow M&M's taken out of the bowl before it's placed in the room and must have their water bottles at exactly 51.3 degrees. I want to write some great words these next few weeks, but to do that I need to get my mind in the right spot, and I need some time to figure out how to get my mind there. Oh, and the first game is less than 24 hours away.

So what now?

I don't know. I'm pulling out all the stops. Some prayer. Some listening to music with my eyes closed. Might try some meditation. Perhaps Lou Hernandez could be of some assistance.

I have to get my mind right before tomorrow. The Covid side effects are 97% gone now, so that helps. My brain is much more rested than it was Monday morning. The newsletter allowed me to vent, and this post allowed me to vomit, so maybe this is all part of the recovery process and I'm about to follow the same "from awful to just fine" path that I did with the vaccination shot.

Felt like I owed you an explanation, though, so that's what this was. Every move this week has been pointed towards getting myself right for this Tournament run. 23 hours to go, I'm feeling the pressure, but I'm hopeful that I'll get there.

I might be an emotional wreck, but I'm always hopeful.


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