Highs and Lows

Monday, August 27, 2012

I love that feeling I get when I send a finished piece of writing off into the ether, those few moments when I am officially, finally done and have a second to breathe before diving into the next project. Today I submitted my revised dissertation Introduction and Chapter 1 to my committee. Although my dissertation director has already read and provided feedback on both, this will be the first time my committee members are seeing anything, so I'm a little nervous. For now, though, I know I can relax, because I'm sure it will take them a little while to get through the 81 pages I sent them today. Tonight I can read guilt-free, and tomorrow I will be focusing on class prep and my first day of teaching African Literature and Culture. Wednesday I will be back to work on Chapter 2.

This past Saturday I taught my first four-hour comp class, and it went surprisingly well. I have a small class of adult students, which I love. I didn't even mind the early wake-up (too much) and 1.25 hour drive each way. The class is in State College, which is a lovely town that reminds me of Auburn. When T.J. and I went last weekend and were driving around, I kept saying, "Atherton reminds me of College Street," and "Valley Vista Drive is just like that stretch of University between Winn Dixies." These descriptions won't make any sense unless you've been to Auburn or State College, but if you have been to one of them, I bet you have a pretty clear idea of what the other one looks like now! It's the only town in PA where I've truly felt comfortable, and it's eerie how easily I can find my way around just based on how similar it is to Auburn. Basically, the campus, downtown strip, Wal-Mart, certain fast food restaurants--they are all in pretty much the same places. The drive to State College is along a beautiful stretch of interstate that runs through the mountains and above valleys, so I don't think I'm going to mind these State College Saturdays too much.

Although things are going fairly well with me right now, my poor husband has been having a really tough time at work the last nine days, which has been rough on both of us. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say this has probably been the worst week of his life, work wise and health wise, and it just seems like everything is hitting all at once. So although things are okay with me, I am extremely worried about him and really wishing we could just get away from this place soon (permanently, not on one of our trips). It looks like the house in Tennessee might have sold (only been on the market 2.5 years!), so that would be a step in the right direction. Fingers crossed for us, please!


The End Is the Beginning Is the End

Thursday, August 23, 2012

That title sounds an awful lot like my last one (which also references a song), but today's title comes from a Smashing Pumpkins song I've been listening to on repeat the last few days. 

It's a song I loved in high school and then somehow forgot about until it started playing on the Nine Inch Nails station on Pandora. Normally Pandora is locked on something pleasantly indie like Arcade Fire or Laura Veirs, so the fact that I've been listening to the NIN station all week (which plays mostly NIN, Marilyn Manson, Rage Against the Machine, Korn, and Tool) is a screaming indicator that I'm stressed and more than a little angsty. In moments of crisis, I regress to my fifteen-year-old self.

The music of my youth. How bizarre is it that Paul Ryan claims Rage as his favorite band? 
Whenever Marilyn comes on Pandora, I imagine myself in some sort of CSI lab montage, solving crimes and kicking ass nerd-style. I'm not sure why this is, but whenever it happens, I Get Sh*@ Done. 
That "crisis," of course, is the end of summer. Where did the month go?! It feels like we just got back from vacation, the second half of summer stretching ahead, and now I'm two days away from starting fall semester. That's right. I start teaching in two days. On a Saturday. This semester I'm only teaching two classes, African Literature and Culture here at SFU (traditional TR class) and English Comp at a satellite campus in State College. The comp class is for adult students in an accelerated business program, and it meets for seven weeks, Saturday mornings from 8-12. While I'm not excited about getting up at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday to drive over an hour to State College (especially during football season--State College is the home of Penn State), I am excited that the class will be over by mid-October.

I've spent my last week of summer listening to loud, angry rock music (the benefit of working from home) and planning for my two courses: writing syllabi, assignment sheets, grading rubrics; setting up my Blackboard sites; selecting and scanning readings; and previewing short films for my lit class. Essentially, I had to build two courses from scratch, and I underestimated how much time it would take. My African lit class is going to be a lot of fun, I think, and everyday will be jam-packed with interesting essays, short stories or novel excerpts, short films, and presentations by students, but it's going to be a lot of work, for the students and me both. I'm ready for the challenge, though, and I hope they will be as well. The comp class should have been a bit easier to plan because I've taught comp many times before (though not in recent years), but teaching in such a strange, abbreviated format forced me to rethink the entire structure of the composition class and how to teach writing. I just finished my syllabus and assignments about an hour ago, and I'm satisfied with them at the moment, but I can see myself changing up the syllabus in the coming weeks as I learn more about what it means to teach once a week for four straight hours.

Needless to say, I've failed at every one of my goals for August. I haven't even completed revisions on Chapter 1 for my committee (due next Monday) because I spent this whole week prepping for the semester and the two weeks before that binge reading. I hadn't finished a book in two months before that because I was so focused on my dissertation, plus I just couldn't get motivated to finish A Game of Thrones and I hate starting new books before I finish the one I'm reading. I know it's like sacrilege or something to say that about George R.R. Martin's series, but while I love the show, I just Can. Not. Finish the first book. Finally, a couple of weeks ago I said screw it, picked another book off my growing TBR pile, and didn't stop reading until eight books later. My husband can attest to this. All too often during those two weeks he would go to sleep, leave for work in the morning, and come home in the evening, and I would be in the exact same spot, happily immersed in another world. I read the entire Mortal Instruments series (five books), Immaculee Ilibagiza's Left to Tell (for work), Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles (loved!), and Karen Russell's Swamplandia! All that fiction was exactly what I needed to deprogram my analytical, dissertation-writing brain and allow me to start thinking creatively again. I didn't get as much writing done on the novel as I would have liked, but I got a lot of plotting done and thought through some serious road blocks in the narrative. The story and characters are much stronger now. The only problem is that September is just a week away, and then I will have to put away my fiction to work on my dissertation.

At times like this I have to remind myself, just one more year. One more year, Novel, and this whole dissertation thing will be behind us, and we can finally, truly be together.


Every new beginning is some other beginning's end

Monday, August 6, 2012

It's that time again! You know, the time when I crawl out of the hole where I've been hiding these past couple of months and overwhelm you with information and pictures in an attempt to catch you up to speed. So let's begin, shall we?

It's been a BIG couple of months here. On June 29th, my full-time job at SFU ended and I officially joined the ranks of the unemployed. Well, at least until the new semester begins on August 25th and then I will be teaching a couple of classes. But still, full-time administrative work ended, and full-time dissertation writing began! (Or it did after a lovely two-week vacation.) Other than the whole no-paycheck thing, I vastly prefer my new situation. My husband comes home and gives me these sad, worried looks because he thinks I'm probably getting bored or depressed or lonely, shut up in the house all day by myself, so I have to keep reminding him, dude, I am living the dream. I think it's hard for non-writers to understand (and even some writers, who prefer to work in coffee shops), but I was built for this.

My blessing and my curse.
A friend posted this on Pinterest, and I thought, yup, I may not be the biggest Franzen groupie, but he gets it.
If I had my druthers, I would never work outside my house again. Sometimes I go days without even leaving the house (which sounds rather pathetic, I admit), but I honestly don't even notice. I'm sure I'd get out a bit more if I lived...well, anywhere else, but since I live in a tiny mountain top "town" (calling it a town is an insult to towns everywhere, but I don't have another word), and about the only excursions within a ten minute distance are to the post office or the university where I worked this past year, I'm pretty content just staying home, working in my kickass office. (One day, when it's clean, I'll post pictures.)

So that's where I've been the last three weeks, working in my office at home. The day after my job ended, T.J. and I headed to D.C. to begin our sixteen-day vacation, which included a day in D.C., nearly a week at Walt Disney World, and eight days in California. We had an amazing time, and after this blog my next few posts will be a series on our trip. (I promise they won't be as long as my Hawai'i posts, though.) When we got back, I began life as a full-time writer, and in 2.5 weeks I wrote forty-five pages on my dissertation. Forty-five pages! For those of you keeping track (i.e. no one), that's more than I wrote the entire previous year combined. So, yeah, the Single System that I've been preaching? WORKS. My critique partner Jamie and I text each other every morning to set an agenda (what we hope to accomplish that day), and then the next day we check in to see how we did and set a new agenda. Every couple of weeks, we exchange our writing and give feedback. On August 1, I had a sixty-page chapter to submit to my director, right on schedule, and we spent Friday emailing back and forth as she was reading it. I have some small revisions to make and some research she wants me to add, but nothing major. I can probably knock everything out in less than two days, and then I get to forward it on to my other committee members at the end of the month! So yeah, progress. The light is now clearly at the end of the tunnel, whereas before I was afraid I was going to be lost in the dark forever.

My next chapter isn't due until Nov. 1, so the pressure is off for a little while. Even though I'm still going to be researching and reading this next month (and revising Chapter 1), I'm not going to start writing Chapter 2 until September because I'm participating in Camp NaNoWriMo this month. For those of you who don't know, the folks behind NaNoWriMo run two similar programs in the summer months, during the months of June and August. As I've mentioned before, I usually attempt NaNoWriMo only to give up after a week or two. November is a hellish month for teachers, AND it only has thirty days (and a major holiday), so it just never works out for me. But the stars aligned this August and I said, if I'm ever going to finish a NaNoWriMo, now is the time! I've got 31 days to work with this time around (1613 words a day instead of 1667--trust me, it makes a difference), school doesn't start until the 25th, and we don't have any trips planned. I'm starting a bit behind because T.J.'s parents were here visiting since Thursday and we went away for the weekend, but I'm confident I can make up that time in the next few weeks.

Because no post of mine would be complete without a ton of travel pics, I'm going to conclude my post today with a few from this weekend, when we hit up the Harrisburg/Hershey/Lancaster area:

We had lunch at Hershey Pantry Saturday, which was muy delicioso.  Everything we tried was nom-worthy. (I had the turkey and cranberry sandwich with Swiss on cinnamon bread. Seriously, every sandwich I eat from now on must be on cinnamon bread.) The main decorations in the little cafe are ceramic coffee tumblers, which you can purchase. This one grabbed my attention because, even though it's about breast cancer, the message resonated all the more in light of recent chicken-related events. (And that's all I'm going to say on that topic.)
After lunch we had a surprise for T.J.'s dad--a visit to the Antique Automobile Club of America Museum, one of the biggest and best collections of antique cars in the country. I'm not a car person, by any means, and even I enjoyed the museum thoroughly. Very cool cars throughout, and I was snapping away at some I thought I might use in historical stories. 
One of the first Corvettes, parked at the drive-in, natch. I can just see James Dean in it now.
'75 Chevy Caprice, which had a starring role in one of my short stories from my undergrad thesis.
Our next stop was Hershey's Chocolate World, where sadly I took few pictures. It was  a nasty, rainy day, so Chocolate World was super crowded with people taking refuge. That may have been partially why we were disappointed in the place; there were just too many people and it was a bit disorganized. We did the "factory" ride, the tasting class (basically just the pre-wrapped Hershey's chocolates anyone can buy at the store), and the make-your-own candy bar station. Here is my white chocolate base being filled with yummy inclusions.
And now proceeding to the chocolate coating station.
Now on to the giant cooler.
At the end, you get to design your own label and the bars are nicely  packaged. I was pretty proud of mine, and the bar inside was surprisingly yummy! I included butterscotch and butter toffee in mine, so I was a bit worried how it would turn out, but I needn't have worried.
Chocolate World and the Make-Your-Own Candy Station weren't quite what we were expecting (everything was assembled on a factory line and behind glass, even though we had to wear hairnets, aprons, and gloves), but I still had fun. Once the rains cleared, we headed to our hotel in downtown Harrisburg for the night and ate at a wonderful little Irish pub, McGrath's, a couple of blocks away. If you're ever in the area, check out the Shepherd's Pie. Definitely the best I've ever eaten!

Obviously not a picture of Shepherd's Pie, but the trees outside our hotel which were FULL of black birds. They were screeching so loudly I was sure I was in a scene from The Birds and was about to be Tippi Hedroned.
The next day, it was back to Hershey to tour Hershey Gardens...

Inside the butterfly house.
The butterfly house wasn't the best I've visited, but it had lots of unusual butterflies I hadn't seen before (like the zebra swallowtail), and the coolest thing was this case of cocoons, where you could actually see butterflies being "born" (breaking out of their cocoons). These are two new butterflies.

Then we drove over to Lancaster to tour the Amish House and Farm and take the bus tour around the Amish countryside...

Back of Amish House, built in the early nineteenth-century (1805, I think)
Amish schoolhouse
One of the many covered bridges in the area. We saw this one on our bus tour, which we all agreed was the highlight of the weekend. We learned so much about the Amish community and culture, and since it was a Sunday, we saw dozens of young Amish couples out in their "courting" buggies, kids on their scooters, Amish teens playing volleyball, and families out visiting. No pictures of any of that though, of course, out of respect for their beliefs.
All in all, it was a great weekend! But it's good to be back and working again today. I'm excited about the progress I've made and about all the projects I have left to complete, so it's a good life right now. :-)


The Single System: Part 2

Friday, June 15, 2012

Dissertation writing has been a struggle this week. Nothing has come easily, not even reading and note-taking, and most days I end up feeling like I've made little progress. My Accountability Chart has helped me from becoming too negative, though, because even when I feel like I haven't made much progress, I can look at my chart and see all the little tasks I've completed that are moving me forward, as well as how much time I've actually been devoting to my work. And I have been putting in the hours, even if I have less to show for it (and very little writing).

Like most writing coaches, Single argues that establishing a set writing routine is one of the most important components of becoming a fluent writer and finishing the dissertation on time. I firmly believe this because when I'm writing every day the writing comes much more easily than when I take a few days off. Besides the fact that I'm sleep deprived and have a hard time writing when I'm tired, the reason I've been struggling this week is because I'm trying to get back into a routine after 2.5 weeks off. Before Tuesday, the last time I'd written was May 23rd, when I submitted my introduction to my director. All that time off may have been good for my relationships and for my tan, but it was horrible for my scholarship. I'm paying the price now.

That's why I'm recommitting to the Single System and my writing routine. It's going to be tough because we are going on vacation the first two weeks of July, and I know better than to believe that I can work on my dissertation at Disney World that first week, but I'm hoping while we are in L.A. the following week (and T.J. is at a conference most days), I can at least put in a couple of hours of writing each morning. I've never been good at keeping up my writing routine while on vacation, but I'm realizing more and more that I'm going to have to learn to do it if I want to stay on track.

Because I'm such a visual person, today I made a calendar for the next year, with all my new dissertation deadlines filled in. I like to see things spatially, to see how one month relates to the next and the next, and my daily planner and monthly wall calendar just weren't cutting it anymore. Thank goodness we had a giant whiteboard just sitting in the basement, begging to be put to good use.

The green highlights are my newly established chapter due dates.
Now thanks to this new calendar, I can see exactly what it will take to be finished with the diss. by next summer so I can graduate in August. And if I need to push graduation back for job-search purposes, I can graduate in Fall 2013. But either way, if I can keep to this schedule I will be DONE in 2013, right on schedule.

The calendar was my idea, not Single's, but as promised I thought I'd share a few more techniques from her book that are working for me.

1) Establishing a Writing Routine. I've just mentioned this one, but Single has some very specific advice about establishing a routine that has been helpful to me. Most of her ideas I've heard before, but I didn't put them into practice until I read her book. As I mentioned in my last post, I used to plan my writing days based on word count or page count. Even though I would typically set the bar low, like "write one page " or "write 500 words" each day, each time I missed my goal I would feel discouraged, and I began falling further and further behind. With Single's help, though, I started planning my writing days based on length of time instead. I'd say, "I'm going to write from 9-11 today." And no matter how poorly the writing was going, I had to stay in that chair and work the whole two hours. Eventually, once my mind finally realized that I wasn't going to surrender and let it watch syndicated sitcoms or play on Pinterest, it would finally give in and words would come. They might trickle in at first, but the more often I adhered to my routine, the more easily they'd come.

What's most important about establishing a writing routine is consistency, something that's difficult for most grad students or people who are working full-time, as I am. It's been easier since the semester ended, and I'm really looking forward to July when (after vacation) I will be a full-time dissertation writer. But even then I know I will have to be vigilant in keeping up my routine, something that's difficult to do on your own. That's why Single recommends finding a writing partner and talking with that person everyday when you are supposed to be writing. She recommends finding someone whose writing issues are different from your own and establishing a similar writing routine, so that you can call each other (or text, email, IM, etc.) everyday at a pre-set time to discuss what you plan on doing that day/what you did do/what your concerns are/where you want to go next. Most of us could use the extra accountability, as well as the chance to just talk about our work, to bounce our ideas off another writer. Thinking aloud can be one of the most important parts of the prewriting process, and I know that I need to get better at working with others through this whole dissertation thing and not always try to go it alone. It's tough now that I'm a thousand miles away from my friends and cohort at Auburn, but Single's method could work anywhere, as long as you have someone with whom to connect.

Other techniques she suggests that are important to a writing routine are 1) writing only during your prescribed time--don't try writing beyond, even if the writing is going really well, because that's a recipe for causing writer's block later on. If you say you're stopping at 11:00, stop at 11:00.; 2) having a designated writing space and keeping it clean--take time after every writing period to clean up the space around you, so that it will be more inviting the next day when you sit down; and 3) begin everyday by re-saving your current project with the day's date--such as Chapter 1_120615. Always put the year first in the date (since most dissertations and books take multiple years to write), so that your files will be in chronological order. This way you will always have all of your old versions in case the file you are currently working on becomes corrupted or in case you accidentally delete something you want back. Single also suggests starting a Deletes folder (Chapter 1_Deletes) that you keep open, and as you delete something from your main document, you move it to your deletes document, just in case you decide later you want something back or in case your committee asks for something you had previously included but then decided you didn't need anymore.

2) Overcoming Writer's Block. According to Bob Boice, there are seven reasons why writer's block develops; Single concentrates on four of them: perfectionism, procrastination, impatience, and depression/dysphoria. As luck(?) would have it, the first three love to take turns interfering with my writing process, and I have an especially complex relationship with the first two.

Perfectionists (like me) like to edit as we write. We get hung up on having a perfect opening paragraph to the point where we can't move beyond that until it's in place. We get stuck when we can't find the exact word we want or the perfect quote, so we may spend half our writing time trying to find one word instead of continuing to write. This is something I've struggled with for years in my writing, and although Single hasn't cured me, she has at least given me the tools to begin. She says you should never write your introductory paragraph first (something I'm still trying to overcome). When you come to a place where you don't have the right quote, word, etc., put blank and keep going. Sometimes I do this, but I used to put a physical blank (_______________). By writing the word blank, later I can do a search for the word and replace it with the appropriate word or phrase. Doing a search ensures that I won't miss any when I'm revising. Single also suggests sharing non-perfect drafts with your writing partner or writing group. Perfectionists need to get used to others seeing our work when it isn't the best that we can make it. We need to get over that fear. We need to get used to having "shitty first drafts," which I've never allowed myself to have. I'm working on that. I will probably always be working on that.

Procrastinators (again, me) suffer from writer's block because we have developed bad habits (among other reasons). Mine began my first year of college, and ever since then I have written every paper the day or night before (some the day of). In grad school, when I usually had two or three 20-25 page seminar papers each semester, I could easily churn out 10-15 pages of decent prose the day of or day before a paper was due. I might have been researching the topic and thinking about it for weeks before, but I never did any writing until just a few days before the deadline. As you can imagine, this method does not work at all when writing a dissertation, which is why a writing routine is so important. The problem for procrastinators is that even when we have a writing routine, it's difficult to get words on the page because we don't feel the urgency that we feel the night before something is due. Our bodies have become used to writing with that adrenaline rush, to the point where we have convinced ourselves that we can write no other way. And that just isn't a sustainable process when writing a dissertation. So one of the methods Single suggests for procrastinators is to journal before starting each writing session. You can journal on the screen or on paper, but just take ten or fifteen minutes (or however much you need) at the beginning of every writing session to start jotting down ideas, questions, or concerns. Write in your own voice, just as if you were talking to someone about your project, and hopefully that will jump start you into the writing process. Journaling directly into your outline can also help.

At the end of every writing session, take a few minutes to type up a few notes about where you want to go from there tomorrow. If the ideas are really flowing, you don't want to lose those ideas, but you also don't want to write beyond your allotted time and risk burnout from overwriting. When you start back up the next day, skip directly to the bottom of the document and only read the last couple of paragraphs and your notes. Don't read more than that or you (especially if you are a perfectionist) will get bogged down in revision before you even have a draft. (I know. That's exactly what I used to do.)

3) Revising. Revision is one of the hardest parts of the writing process for procrastinators because we tend to revise throughout, and it's also difficult for procrastinators because we wait until the last minute and then don't have enough time for true revision. By following a strict writing routine, the goal is to get down a rough draft, no matter how terrible, and then have adequate time for all stages of revising. Single discusses two types of revising: organizational and content.

Organizational revising asks you to examine your outline (more on that in a minute) and look for more logical methods of organizational. First, you make the corrections on the outline itself, moving the parts to where you think they better fit, then, once your outline is the way you want it, you go into the actual document and move your sections to match the new outline. Getting feedback from writing partners on your outline can also be helpful, because they might see a more logical organization from a reader's perspective.

At the content level, revision should be done section by section. Single suggests using sections no larger than five pages and printing them in two-page view, so you can see more of the section all at once. (This really works for visual people like me.) Then work through the section paragraph by paragraph. Make sure the first paragraph of the section previews the rest of the section. Then make sure each paragraph only has one main idea (topic sentence) and supporting ideas. Smooth transitions and make sure you have an adequate review paragraph or review sentences that allow you to switch between ideas or present complex, intertwined ideas. Next, work on revising your own writing idiosyncrasies. If you know there are certain words or phrases you often repeat, do a search for them and try to find new words to replace them. Search your document for any other over-used words or phrases that you might not know about. And don't forget to look for all your blanks. Finally, proofread carefully, making sure that your document is free of typographical errors. When you're finished, reading the entire thing from beginning to end. Turn off your inner critic (so easy to do, haha) and try to read as a reader does, just enjoying the work, not constantly looking for errors.

4) Outlining--short to long. I know I should have put outlining before the other points I listed today, but to me outlining was the most important thing I learned from Single, so I saved the best for last. Honestly, outlines have never worked for me. It's weird, because normally I like lists and organization, but for some reason my right brain has always resisted the kind of regimentation outlines seem to require. I've especially always resisted outlining in my fiction writing (which is going to be the subject for my next blog post), but Single taught me an entirely new way to look at outlining, and now I honestly don't believe that I could finish my dissertation without one.

The first version of the outline, the "one-page outline," begins with your working title and your focus statement, a few sentences describing your dissertation. I've also heard this described as your "elevator pitch"--basically what you'd tell someone who asked what your dissertation is about in the thirty-seconds-or-less it takes to ride a few floors in the elevator. (Longer if you are in a packed car riding from the first to ninth floor of Haley.) After the focus statement, you list your chapters, and under them, a bulleted list of what will be discussed in the individual chapters. Sounds obvious, right? This is your first draft of the outline, and it's a starting place for you and dissertation director to begin talking about the big picture of your dissertation. (Single also suggests including a copy of your outline on top of each chapter you turn into your director. That way your director can easily see how that chapter fits into the plan for the dissertation, without having to ask or referring back to previous chapters.) After you've met with your director, you can begin turning your one-page outline into a long outline.

First, you estimate how many pages each chapter will be and write that out on your outline. Then, you give each chapter its own focus statement and organize the bulleted lists into the order in which the sections should be. Guess what comes next? Focus statements for each section. Under those focus statements, you begin listing all those citeable notes (remember those?) you created when you were researching. You also start adding additional subheadings, and Single suggests writing out your subheadings and topics as sentences instead of phrases. That way you are practicing writing prose and developing your academic voice.

As you develop your chapter sections and subsections, you can also estimate how many pages each one of them will be. Make sure that all your chapters add up to enough to satisfy the minimum requirement of your department. Once you have all of your citeable notes placed (and you might also keep a "miscellaneous" section for notes you think you'll use but you aren't sure where yet), look to see where you have a profession of notes and where you might need to do more research.  More than likely, you will have done more research than you needed to. Start organizing the notes into the order you believe you will use them within the subsections, and also add placeholders where you know certain kinds of information is needed.

When you're done, you will have a solid skeleton of your entire dissertation, beginning to end, a map for you to follow when the writing gets hard or you feel blocked. It's a good idea to keep a copy of the outline with you at all times, and when you have some downtime, scan over the outline to refresh your memory and keep the wheels turning. That way, the next time you sit down to write, you won't have to do as much to remind yourself of where you are and where you are going. Of course, outlines will change, and you should never feel too tied to one. Outlines will (and should) evolve. But when I finished mine, for the first time writing a dissertation felt doable. I could see the dissertation as a series of five and ten page chunks of information, and I could also see how all those chunks worked together to make a whole.

Writing a dissertation is still hard. Some days are easier than others, but each one presents its own challenges, and I'm constantly having to adapt to the new obstacles that are presented. But thanks to Single's book, I now have the determination to push through those rough patches and come out better on the other side. I focus on all I've learned and accomplished, not on how much further I have to go. Now I better understand my own self-sabotaging tendencies and understand that I'm not alone in them, that thousands of other people have had the same struggles and overcome them, and so can I.


The Single System: Part I

Monday, June 11, 2012

This weekend T.J. and I flew to Alabama for my good friend Carrie's wedding, and we just got back at 1:30 this morning. We had a fun but full four days in the South, including spending Thursday with his family in Huntsville, Sunday with his family in Birmingham, and Friday and Saturday in Demopolis/Linden, attending to various bridesmaid duties (luncheon, errands, rehearsal/dinner, hours and hours at the salon, pictures pre- and post-ceremony, ceremony and reception). In all, we spent close to 20 hours in the car and 4 hours in flight over the past four days, twelve-ish hours playing with the four 5-and-under nephews, and approximately sixteen hours in social situations, so needless to say, this introvert is exhausted.

And for once I am very happy to be home in Pennsylvania, with no traveling on the agenda for another three weeks. Instead, I will be working hard on my first dissertation chapter, as well as several other writing projects in the works, including a narrative article, a short story, and some detailed novel outlining. As much as I love to travel, I'm looking forward to getting back to a regular writing routine.

A routine that will begin tomorrow. After my batteries have recharged.

What I wish I were doing today...

What I'm actually doing...

Instead of actually working on my dissertation, today I'm reviewing the first chapters of Demystifying Dissertation Writing, the book I mentioned in my last post that completely revolutionizing my dissertation research and writing process. As promised, I thought I would share some of the tips and strategies I've learned from the book for all those out there who might find themselves in a situation similar to the one I'm in.

Here's the thing: no one really tells you how hard writing a dissertation can be. Okay, one person told me, but she was a fellow grad student, a couple of years ahead of me, and when she told me that writing a dissertation was the hardest thing she'd ever done, I didn't believe her. I was about to begin comps preparation at the time, and I was pretty sure that would be the hardest part of my PhD program. After all, during comps you are at the mercy of your committee, and you spend months reading 100+ texts and then over a period of three days take two three-hour exams and one four-hour exam, each with three or four questions, and are expected to write roughly fifteen pages of reasonably coherent prose expounding on a carefully selected handful of the 100+ texts you spent months reading. (Or at least that's how my program does it.) Then, once you've received word that you've passed all three written exams, you must face your committee for a two-hour oral exam, where they can drill you on any questions they felt you didn't answer completely, any texts they didn't chose to question you about on the written exam, or basically anything else they can think of. Now, my comps experience ended up being tolerable, but I was dreading them, especially the oral portion, in a way I've never dreaded anything in my life. So of course I didn't think dissertation writing would be worse than that.

But it is.

First, I told myself that writing a 200+-page dissertation wasn't really any different from writing eight or nine seminar papers, and since I'd written two or three of those every semester of coursework, and usually in a 2-3 week period at the end of the semester, that didn't sound so bad.

When I realized writing a dissertation is nothing like writing a seminar paper, I convinced myself that if I just wrote a page a day, every day, I would be done in two-thirds of a year or less. Piece of cake. But then a year came and went, and I had nothing written to show for it. I had scraps of paragraphs and chapters written here and there, but nothing concrete, nothing substantial.

My dissertation director encouraged me to write my second chapter first, before I'd even written my introduction, because I'd done the most research on it and had whittled down all the necessary research into an intense 27-page, single-spaced document. I wrote the first ten pages and quit because I was so frustrated by trying to write the middle of the dissertation before I wrote the beginning. That method works for some people, but it didn't work for me. I'm a very linear writer, and I need a beginning before I feel comfortable writing beyond that.

Above all, I struggled to hold myself accountable. During coursework, there had been deadlines, weekly reminders or discussions of seminar paper topics. The professors had often required us to submit annotated bibliographies, topic statements, and even conference-length drafts well in advance of the final due date. They had discussed length, organization, incorporation of theory, and style. But when it came time to write the dissertation, all of that vanished. There was no professor standing over me prompting me along. I'm sure my dissertation director could have given me all of those things, including deadlines, but I didn't think to ask. It seemed expected that at this point I should be able to handle all of those things on my own.

But I couldn't, so I stopped working. Or I would start, grow frustrated, and quit again for weeks or even months at a time. It didn't help that in August I moved to Pennsylvania, a thousand miles from my director and cohort, and have no real academic support system here. My brief, once-a-semester visits rejuvenated me, but only temporarily. I needed a way to hold myself accountable, but that's something I've always struggled with.

Then in April I read on a higher ed blog about this book, Demystifying Dissertation Writing, and it sounded like everything I needed in my life: accountability, structure, and clarity on the dissertation writing process. I ordered the book from Amazon, and two days later when it came in the mail I devoured the first half of it. The book isn't meant to be processed in that way, but once I started reading about the Single System (author Peg Boyle Single's name for the process she devised), I wanted to understand it and start using it immediately. And I did.

The book is organized like the dissertation writing courses Single used to teach at the University of Vermont.  This sort of course, IMO, should be required of all doctoral students. It would best be taken at the very end of coursework, perhaps in the semester one takes one's comps. If I'd taken a course like Single's then, I have no doubt I'd be almost finished with my dissertation, not barely starting it. So it's for that reason that I suggest doctoral students get Single's book before comps, if their university doesn't offer a similar course. The first couple of chapters go over basics like how to choose an advisor (director) and topic (and she offers excellent advice), so that's why I suggest getting the book as early as possible in your graduate career. I'm going to skip those parts since I was already well beyond the point-of-no-return when I got Single's book, and instead I'm going to focus on just a handful of points that completely changed my dissertation writing process.

1) Accountability. I've already mentioned that I struggled here. I'm a terrible procrastinator, which is really just another way of saying I'm terrible at holding myself accountable. In meetings with my director, she was nothing but positive about what little progress I'd made, so that didn't help. What I really needed was for her to hit me up side the head and demand to know what I was waiting around for, or to put the fear of God into me like I know she's perfectly capable of doing. But she didn't, so I grew even more lax. I set deadlines for myself (small ones, like write one page a day or write 500 words a day), and never met them. I mean never met them. Deadlines sort of start losing any meaning when you miss them everyday without consequence.  But then I started using an Accountability Chart similar to the one Single uses on page 48 of her book. I'm not sure if that's what she calls it, but that's what I've labeled it as on my computer. Here's one of my early charts:

You can adapt your Accountability Chart to meet your own needs or goals, but what I'd realized was that if I based my goals on pages written or word count, I wrote nothing. But when I based my chart on time spent working, I felt accomplished and pushed myself to do more. And time spent working can be anything that furthers your project, whether it be research, conversations with your director or another mentor, or anything else that keeps you engaged and focused on your dissertation. The goal is to try to work everyday, even if it's just for twenty minutes, doing something that keeps the dissertation forefront in your mind. That makes it that much easier to dive back in the next time. You'll notice that most days this week I was able to give a fairly substantial portion of time to the dissertation, but most of that time came in half-hour to hour-long chunks, not whole mornings or afternoons free. One day I was only able to squeeze in twenty minutes, and two days (the weekend) I was out of town and did nothing, but even those days I've kept track of what I did do that day so I know why I couldn't put in the time I put in the rest of the week. That's where the accountability comes in: By keeping careful track of what I did each day, I can see exactly where all my time is going. So on Day 5, I only worked twenty minutes on my diss, but I gave a final and graded finals and papers that day, so I don't get too bent out of shape about how little I did on the diss that day.

By the way, this is the chart from the very first week after I started using the book. If I could retroactively draw charts of the weeks and months leading up to this one, they would all be blank, but in the first week of using this book, I put in about 20 hours of serious research time. Just think of what I could have accomplished if I'd been doing that all year!

2) Use a Bibliographic Program. Single recommends EndNote, which apparently a number of universities give their students for free, but since my university is NOT one of those (and the program costs at least $100), I opted to download a free versions. There are many out there (and Wikipedia has an extensive list with pros and cons of each), and I'm using Zotero.

I'll be honest: I didn't know much about bibliographic programs before Single talked up EndNote. I'd had only one professor in four years of graduate coursework even mention EndNote (a recent grad, I might add), and from his description I thought it was just a program from which to create a bibliography. Honestly, I didn't see much point in that. But Zotero (and I assume EndNote and every other bib program) is so much more than that.

Zotero is now the place where I store all of my notes. I'm working with roughly fifty main primary texts, and countless secondary sources, so you can imagine I was constantly wondering where I'd read something and sometimes spending hours hunting down a single quote. In Zotero, I create files for the different women I'm working with, as well as different topics and chapters, and in those collections I keep files of sources, complete with my accompanying notes, important quotes, PDF copies of sources (if I have them), and bibliographic information. You can tag any notes and sources so that they are easily found, and you can run searches. So say I want to find everything I've read on the practice of sati in eighteenth-century India, all I do is search those terms and voila! Zotero pulls of every note and source I've entered that has those terms. I never spend more than five minutes looking for a quote or source anymore. And Zotero is accessible from any computer, so my library travels wherever I do. No more worrying about finding something in my four-drawer lateral filing cabinet--everything is online and in one easily searchable place.

Here's a screenshot of what my Zotero library currently looks like:

You can also open your notes (right sidebar) in a separate, smaller window, and sometimes I will have as many as six of them open side by side so I can see how they all work together. It truly is a great resource and has saved me countless hours. There's lots more you can do with it, too, but I've stuck to the basics so far.

3) Create citeable notes. Single spends a lot of time discussing how to be an interactive reader and note-taker to get the most out of your research time, but I don't want to give everything in her book away, so I'm going to focus on the most useful thing I learned from her: citeable notes.

After I've taken notes on a book or article, I go back and make at least one citeable note for it. This note summarizes the most important detail I want to recall later when I actually use that source, and each work may warrant multiple notes. For example, here are the citeable notes I made for Nandini Bhattacharya's Reading the Splendid Body: Gender and Consumerism in Eighteenth-Century British Writing on India:

Bhattacharya (1998): An examination of how subaltern women’s sexuality is represented in colonial texts
Bhattacharya (1998): Reasons why British interest in India waned in late eighteenth century and beyond
Bhattacharya (1998): Reasons why British women distanced themselves from Indian women instead of seeing them as kindred

Do any of these notes include the thesis or main idea of the entire work? Probably not. That's not what's most important. What's important is knowing how I might use this text in my dissertation. So I've included the author and publication date (just in case I have multiple texts from the same author), and a brief description of an aspect of the text I think might be useful to me later on.

I keep my citeable notes in Zotero, too, so as soon as I finish typing up my regular notes, I write my citeable ones in that file. When I know in which chapter a note is going, I move that note to the appropriate section on my long outline (more on that in "The Single System: Part II") and highlight it so I know it's accounted for.  In this way, I might cite the same text in every chapter, but each time I'm referring to a different note and therefore a different part of the text or point the author made. For example, my second Bhattacharya note refers me to information useful to my first chapter, an historical overview of reception of Anglo-Indian writing in Britain, whereas the first and third notes would fit in different sections of my fifth chapter, which examines common themes in women's travel writing on India.


These are just a few of the helpful tips and strategies I've learned from this book that I highly recommend. Within a month after I started reading it, I had a solid eighteen-page introduction already approved by my director, no revisions necessary. Buying that book was probably the best $13 I've ever spent, and I think any dissertation writer could find some value in it. I know some of my friends and readers are writing creative rather than academic dissertations, but I think even they could find use for the Accountability Chart and Zotero. When I gave a talk for the Ligonier Valley Writers last month, I pushed both of these ideas for creative writers, because I think creative writers could find a lot of use for the notes and files in Zotero. It stores screenshots and weblinks, too, so it's a great place to keep all that novel research and have it always accessible. I'm considering downloading Scrivener, so I might do a post in the near future comparing it to Zotero as a place for creative writers to store research and writing. I could even envision using Zotero as a place for brainstorming and writing rough drafts because it frees me from the desire to perfect things that I feel when I'm writing in Word. So look for those posts later this month! Until then, happy writing!


Where I've Been

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Two months and one day. That's how long it's been since my last blog. I have been remiss, people of the internet, but not without reason, I promise. It has been a busy couple of months here at the Wreck, and I felt I owed it to you (and to myself, so I can remember later what it was that kept me from you all) to share a pictorial account of my last few months. There were trips! Job changes! Writing of the academic kind! Loads of lovely books! And way too many hours spent playing games on my iPhone and Kindle Fire.

Exhibit A: I've reached Level 368 in Jetpack Joyride. This, I believe, is an extreme sign of Insidious Things going on in my brain.
Exhibit B: My Level 50 bakery in Bakery Story, which now must go with me everywhere lest my red velvet cakes and blueberry buckles spoil due to the kind of neglect this blog routinely faces.
Exhibit C: My pride and joy, my prosperous Level 37 city in City Story. I spend hours each week rearranging neighborhoods and building immaculate green spaces. I should have been a city planner. If only road construction were as easy as it is here.
(BTW: Pictorial accounts? WAY more time consuming than regular old written ones.)

I kind of fell behind on my reading in April because of the Book-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless that I just could not finish. I mean, I finished it, but it took three or four weeks, and finally I just sat down and finished off the last 25% of it just so I could move on to the books I really wanted to read. Because you guys. So many great YA titles came out the past few months. And some not-so-great ones, but I'm not going to talk about those. I just want to share the ones I loved.

First up, Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard.
This was probably my new favorite YA book this year, so far. It's about backpacking in Central America, serendipitous encounters, coming-of-age and learning to stand on your own two feet. It is true travel fiction, and thus, a story after my own heart. Plus, the writing is lovely, the characters are interesting and different, and the protagonist is an artist who sketches many of the places and people she meets (all included!), which is a total bonus. I'll admit that I wasn't a big fan of Hubbard's first novel, Like Mandarin (although many people luuuuuved that book; it just wasn't my cup of tea), but this one knocked my socks off. I read it one evening when my husband was out of town, and literally I read from the time I walked in the door after work until I finished it. I could barely drag myself off the couch to get dinner. It was that good.

Second on my list is Jessi Kirby's In Honor, also a sophomore effort and an excellent one. In this case, though, I loved Kirby's first novel, Moonglass (and only heard about Wanderlove from Kirby's blog, where she sang its praises). This is a novel about sibling relationships, fulfilling promises, and an epic road trip, so again, my kind of story. Kirby is also an excellent writer, and she paints scenes that stay with me for years. Or at least one year, since I can still vividly recall whole sections of Moonglass, and In Honor had me wanting to scuba cenotes at night and visit a vortex in Sedona. Also included: perhaps the best drunk chapter I've ever read. Seriously. If I ever have to write a first-person account from a drunk teenager's perspective, this will be my model.

Other books I really enjoyed included The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Divergent and Insurgent by Veronica Roth, and The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin. I'm not going to talk about those because the first three especially have dominated the bestseller lists these past few months, so there are plenty of other reviews out there.

I have also started reading the A Song of Ice and Fire series (a.k.a. the Game of Thrones books, which is SUCH a better title). T and I just started watching this spring and flew through the entire first season in a weekend and then have watched religiously every Sunday since. I was going to wait and read the books after the whole television series was done so as not to spoil things, but things started happening this season that drove me crazy and I JUST HAD TO KNOW what was going on. So, I'm reading the books. I just can't wait a whole year to find out what's going on with these characters.

On the academic front, I read lots of articles and books about women and travel, women and India, Indian history, etc. (which you will never see listed on GoodReads, because that is my sacred space for fun reading only); I drove my library crazy with ILL requests; and I bought and read the most amazing writing book of all time, Demystifying Dissertation Writing, that revolutionized my research and writing process. That book should be required reading for anyone embarking on the insane mission of writing a dissertation. I only wish I'd read it two years ago. Thanks to the book, though, I established a regular writing/research routine; an accountability chart (something I have desperately needed); learned how to take better, more usable notes; and FINALLY wrote my introduction and an extensive outline of the whole dissertation.

Last week while in Alabama I met with my dissertation director and she had nothing but good things to say about the introduction (no revisions even requested!), so now I finally feel like I have some forward momentum on this whole dissertation thing, which I'd neglected for nearly a year. We also established some concrete deadlines, which I desperately need, so my first chapter is due August 1. That's almost two months from now, so it might sound like I'll have plenty of time, but we will be on vacation for half of July (and I long ago gave up trying to write on vacation), so it's going to be a tough few weeks getting it all done. I'm just excited to finally be working on it again, though. 

Speaking of Alabama, that was our most recent trip. We flew down for my sister's graduation and then spent Memorial Day weekend in Orange Beach, eating yummy food, lounging on the beach under an umbrella, and spending way too much money at the outlets.

View from my balcony for four days, people! SO hard to come back to PA after that.
Then we drove up to Auburn so I could meet with PB and see friends. It was a truly wonderful week, and it was so great to see my whole family and my best Auburn friends again. Going home always reminds me of what I'm missing here--namely, a community.

Since we have almost zero social life up here, T and I have tried to fill the last few months with Small Trips. Going home was a Big Trip because it required flying and a week off from work, but Small Trips usually only last a long weekend. Our recent trips have been to the Canadian-side of Niagara Falls...

Required accoutrements of 4.5-hour car travel
The fraction of Horseshoe Falls (Canadian Niagara Falls) I could capture with my camera. Darn you, Instagram!
T.J. embracing his inner-child at Dave and Buster's (I'd crashed out already because I SUCK at racing games.)
All the delicious goodies we brought back from Canada, including multiple bottles of my new favorite wine--vidal icewine. Most of them were purchased here:
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
McFarland House, built in 1800

The lake (Ontario)
Vineyards on our winery tour
Home of my favorite of the wines I tried. Icewine slushies, FTW!
Although we spent most of our time touring wineries, spending way too money on yummy goodies, and wandering the quaint streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake, we also spent a fair amount of time at the Falls, although it was still too early in the season for any of the main water attractions to be open.

Easter weekend (when we had Friday and Monday off from work) we headed down to Washington, D.C., where we visited the National Zoo and saw pandas (both red and black/white)...

I love red pandas, but I'm still not quite sure what they are. Part bear? Part fox? Part raccoon? With those adorable faces, are they related to Boo somehow?
This panda was WAY too hungry to give us the time of day.

and big cats....

Eventually we grew tired of fighting crowds of families and small children and headed downtown for dinner, a brief White House stop...

...and a disastrous evening bus tour...

Seeing the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial lit up at night was NOT the disastrous part; however, breaking down for half an hour, extending the bus tour 1.5 hours, and freezing our butts off on the top of the bus were. 
The next day was MUCH better. We decided to go down to Union Station and meander in the direction of the Capitol, Folger Shakespeare Library, and Smithsonian museums. So we walked...

and walked...

Supreme Court
Library of Congress
 and walked....


Along the way, we stopped to see the "Shakespeare's Sisters" exhibit of early women's writing at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where I got to see eighteenth-century editions and manuscripts by some of my faves like Marguerite de Navarre, Louise Labe, Aphra Behn, Katherine Philips, Susannah Centlivre, and Anne Finch. The security guard also encouraged us to sneak up to the balcony of the theater to watch a rehearsal of The Taming of the Shrew, which was really neat.

Afterward we wandered around the Capitol grounds for a while and then walked over to the U.S. Botanic Garden (a.k.a. Orchid Heaven), where I bounced around like a kid hyped up on cotton candy. I went a little Instagram crazy here, so please bear with me...

Next we went over to the Air & Space Museum for a chaotic, kid-crazy lunch, and then sought solace in the Hirshhorn Museum. Sometimes I'm happy that the general populace prefers engines and space travel to modern art.

Picasso's Woman with Baby Carriage (1950)
T.J. making his way through the spaghetti fields!

One of the Rodin sculptures in the Sculpture Garden.
Since T.J. had never been to D.C. before, we walked around the Mall for a while, watching the picnicking families, kite flyers, and games of Frisbee.
I promise I was happier than I look.
When we'd had our fill of the dusty, windy Mall, we decided to drop by the American History Museum. When I was in D.C. in 2007 the museum was closed for renovation and there was a small exhibit of the best artifacts stationed at the Air & Space Museum, and I have to say I got a lot more out of that experience than I got out of the real museum. For one thing, the museum was super crowded, and it seemed that every exhibit we tried to see either had an enormous line (First Ladies) or was closed for renovation (Pop Culture--including Dorothy's ruby slippers!). We did get to see a few awesome displays:

Wizard of Oz script
Scarecrow's hat and boots
Terribly dark picture of the gunboat Philadelphia
The best thing we saw, though, was the Star-Spangled Banner, which was surprisingly moving (in part because of the lighting and way it's displayed), despite the small children we kept pushing in front of me and stepping on my toes. You're not allowed to take pictures of it, so you'll just have to see it for yourself (or click this link). Pictures don't do its size justice anyway.

We had a great weekend, but mostly what I learned on this trip to D.C. was not to try it during a holiday weekend again (especially one during many spring breaks!) AND that there are some fantastic travel apps for iPhone that might make it unnecessary to ever pick up a map in a visitor's center again. The Smithsonian app, National Mall app (with GPS!), and iTrans DC (Metro) app were particularly helpful on this trip.

Our final Small Trip was an overnight trip to Pittsburgh, where we saw our first opera...

Downtown Pittsburgh. It sort of looks like a movie set in this pic, though.

Intermission curtain
The stunning Benedum Center, perhaps the most beautiful theater I've ever seen
...(and learned we are not opera people), had a couple of exquisite meals (Elements for dinner and Six Penn Kitchen for brunch), and toured the fantastic Mattress Factory, a museum solely dedicated to art installations. Although I'm not a huge fan of a lot of modern/contemporary art, I love installations because they are immersive, complete mind, body, sensory experiences. At the Mattress Factory, we sat in complete darkness (until I cheated and lit up the "room" with my iPhone flashlight), walked through deconstructed rooms, and wrote wishes on balloons.

Sarah Oppenheimer, 610- 3356 (2008)
Than Htay Maung, My Offering (2011)
A corner of Greer Lankton's artfully creepy It's all about ME, Not You (1996)
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Dots Mirrored Room (1996)
T.J. and me caught in the mirrored, black-lit ceiling of Yayoi Kusama's Repetitive Vision (1996)
Ling He's Wish exchange dandelion (2012)
Pablo Garcia, Windows (2012)
Nina Marie Barbuto, Glory Holes (2012)
Gill Wildman, House Says (2012)
But my absolute favorite installation, the piece that I sat through twice, thanks to my long-suffering husband who said, after we had left the main building and toured the smaller Gestures: Intimate Friction gallery around the corner, that we should go back to the main building and take the elevator to the fourth floor just so I could see it again, was Pablo Valbuena's Para-Site [mattress factory] (2011). Words cannot describe how thankful I am that I got to see this installation and how sad I am that it is no longer at the Mattress Factory. I'd never heard of this artist before, but I will definitely be on the lookout for his work in the future. To get a tiny taste of the installation I'm talking about, click here. This is just a few minutes of the entire sequence, but trust me when I say that the entire display was mesmerizing, a transcendent experience that revealed the power of light and silence on our senses. I love optical illusions, and this one had my mind spinning the entire time. Even more amazing, the changes in lighting were palpable; I could feel what was happening to the point where I almost lost my balance just standing there watching it. I left in awe of Pablo Valbuena.

In the past two months, I have seen so much, I have experienced so much. In the course of one week, winter melted into spring...

View out my office window, Monday, April 23
View out of office window, Friday, April 27
...and I had officially survived my first winter in Pennsylvania. With the end of winter came the end of the semester, the last few weeks of me working full-time, and endless possibilities for my first "free" summer in quite awhile. I don't want to waste this opportunity, though, so I've made a lengthy to-do list for this summer, including blogging more often. Tomorrow we leave for Alabama AGAIN (this time to see my husband's family and to attend my friend Carrie's wedding, where I will be bridesmaiding it up in watermelon pink), but NEXT WEEK I promise to come back and share some of the life-changing dissertation writing strategies I have learned in the last couple of months. Until then, happy writing and happy travels, wherever they may take you.


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