The Write Stuff

I’m a slow writer and I need many drafts to create something that I feel is worthwhile.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following this blog for some time. I’ve explicated my writing process on several occasions, and over the years while the materials have changed (I RARELY do literal cut and paste jobs anymore), the methods certainly haven’t.

This might come as a surprise to anyone who realizes that I’m a blogger and puts two and two together. Blogging is a sphere which, of necessity, requires you to develop content quickly and efficiently. So how can a blogger be an admittedly “slow writer”?

Now let’s start here: I’m not talking George R.R. Martin slow. In fact, I think that guy ought to be ashamed of himself. My beloved did the math at one point and determined that Martin produces something like 250 viable words a day. WHAT? If I wrote that slowly, they would boot me from my program and make me wear a sign of shame around my neck to tell the world that I was an embarrassment to the ivory tower and writers everywhere. When I say “slow”, I mean more that I need many many drafts to forge and re-forge a piece of academic writing in order to temper it and make it stronger. I’m up to something ridiculous like fifteen drafts of one piece I’m working on right now (don’t worry, I’m about to hit the “send” button on that one, so before you get lecturey about over-drafting just stop and take stock of the fact that I’ve been working on it for a year and a half now because it’s been interspersed with other projects).

Academic writing is completely different from any other style of writing. When I blog, for example, I generally require one hour from inception to publication of a post. This includes

This morning's drafting session

This morning’s drafting session

research. When I write creatively, I produce a preliminary draft of content very quickly and go back over it a few times before I feel like others can lay eyes on it (more like three drafts than ten). I can produce 2,500 words of first draft creative fiction in about an hour. More disposable content, like facebook and twitter updates, are just banged out in about point five seconds.

Each of these styles of writing is important to one’s development as a writer. I believe that writing is an under-appreciated and under-developed aspect of the academic work. While we’re expected to generate writing at pivotal points in our career, there’s very little support (unless you create it yourself) for exercising and bettering your writing. So many academics hold their writing process to close to the chest that it’s often difficult to trouble-shoot your own process. I have taken to asking mentors and peers, at conferences or other socially appropriate forums, what their writing process is like just to get new ideas about things I could do better. I’ve learned a few tricks (some of them more palatable than others; there is no way in any universe that I’ll be waking up at 6AM to fit in three hours of just writing before I go about the rest of my day but I’m glad that it works for some people), and I’ve mostly learned this: everyone’s process is different. Much like a workout regime, some basic rules apply universally: repetition is a must, sustainability is key, and knowing when to push yourself and/or rest will help you be more productive in the long run. Other than that, just do it. Find whatever works for you, and get going. Do it today, do it tomorrow, do it the day after. Keep writing; the only way to fail here is by inaction.

One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that once I get to the drafting stage, I can roll home without much problem. Drafting time is my favorite point in the writing process. This is the point where I get to take my colored pens and hone my work until it’s shiny and better than it was before. There’s something so satisfying about the instant gratification of taking a piece of writing and making it be better. There’s also an immediate visual cue that red-penning a page gives you; “LOOK HOW MUCH I CHANGED! THIS IS HOW MUCH BETTER IT IS NOW!” In a field that functions so basically on intangible items, this kind of tangible and visible change is a welcome breathe of fresh air and something that I, kinesthetic learner that I am, desperately need to feel satisfied.

Also, when I draft, I can take my work for walks. It keeps me focused to have a stack of papers in front of me and no internet to distract. I take my draft, go to a local coffee shop, buy a cuppa, and stay until I’m done. This breaks my work up into logical and manageable chunks and keeps me from mid-day burnout. Sometimes even a little sunshine and fresh air (on my way to/from wherever I’m going for the day, for example) can help to give me a little boost when I need it most.

So keep on keeping on, brave writers! Venture boldly forth and practice, practice, practice.

Teaching: The Hidden Cost

While I hear it a lot less frequently now (mostly due to a work-imposed social exile that keeps me in my cave hunched over my books by candlelight most evenings), I’ve definitely heard it before.  It’s the bane of every teacher ever and something that, try as we might, we simply can’t escape.  “Oh, so, your semester ends soon which means that you’ll just be goofing off for a few months, right?”

This tune is a byproduct of a general lack of comprehension about a teacher’s job.  The idea that we are only working when standing in front of a classroom is completely deceptive.  Let me give you an idea of the hidden fees of teaching…

If I teach a class which meets twice a week for two hours each meeting (not uncommon; right now my class meets twice a week for 2 hours and fifteen minutes each session), I am in the classroom for that time certainly.  But how about the time it takes me to prepare the class?  If the class is a course I’ve taught before, it might take me between ten minutes and a half hour to prep my lesson plan and materials for the day.  Not a big deal.  If the class is a class that I have not taught before, or a session that I’m adding to a previously taught course, I might spend upwards of one to two hours preparing a lecture (depending on how familiar I am with the material, how much visual material I need to prepare, and how many handouts I need).

But wait, there’s more.

my classroom for stage combat this spring; not your typical, but definitely my style

my classroom for stage combat this spring; not your typical, but definitely my style

I also assign written work at least once every other week.  Grading these pieces will take me approximately fifteen minutes per piece of written work (unless it’s a longer paper, in which case we’re looking at at least a half hour per).  Multiply this by eighteen (for the number of students I have in a typical class) and that’s 4.5 hours of grading (at minimum) every other week.

But wait, there’s still more.

I’m required to hold office hours at every institution where I teach.  I tend to do mine by appointment, but generally I’ll have at least one hour per week on average over the course of the semester devoted to my students completely outside of the classroom.

Oh, and the administrative duties I take care of (like my roster, class participation grades, and sundry e-mails).  Depending on how much support my class needs, I can spend several hours a week doing this; let’s say a combined total of two hours on average per week.

Add all this up and you’re looking at thirteen hours a week minimum for one class.  A teaching load for a contracted professor might be 2/3 (two classes one semester, three another), but adjunct life is not so kind.  It’s not unusual for us to take on between four and five classes in a semester if we can get them.  That’s a sixty-five hour week just devoted to getting your classes taught (this does not include commute time, which can be substantial for adjuncts who need to move around in order to acquire the coarse load that makes a sustainable pay-check).

According to the Adjunct Project, an invaluable source of information about these things, the average pay for an adjunct is $2,987 per three-credit course.  Multiply that times the proverbial ten classes that creates the proverbial sixty-five hour week to determine the average salary of such an individual: $29,870 per year… with no health benefits or job security.

Oh, and, this doesn’t take into account the dissertation (which for most people is a second full-time job; that is, if you want to finish it in a socially appropriate time).

I don’t mean to sound like a negative Nancy or come off complaining about my lot; I actually love my various jobs and it’s a joy to work them.  But I want to make extremely clear the kinds of sacrifices that someone in my position (not necessarily me) makes just to teach a good class, live a sustainable lifestyle, and achieve her long/short terms goals.  Let me tell you how many family gatherings I’ve missed just this year because of my job.  If I choose to take a few days off in the middle of the week or (gasp!) over the summer, those are hard-earned days that I fought uphill to get.

So please; before you cast aspersions about “summer holidays”, think twice.  And think twice about the education you/your children have received/are receiving then say a little “thank you” to the adjuncts out there who labored to give it to you/them.  Adjunct kind will thank you for this.

Reduce, Reuse, Revise

I’m deep in the thralls of writing my prospectus, which essentially means dealing with a great deal of feedback on a regular basis.  This feedback is all constructive and extremely useful, and I’m learning a lot about so many different aspects of the academic process.  That said, I’d be lying if I told you that this was anything but overwhelming at times.  Because, let’s face it, if you’re a writer there is nothing more nerve-wracking than getting feedback on your work.

Here’s the big problem: you wouldn’t be showing your work to someone if you thought it was horrible.  Yes, of course you know that there will always be little kinks and things that you need to sort out, and every piece of writing is a work in progress (how often have I had to go re-jigger something I’ve published on this blog because someone caught a spelling or grammar error that I simply didn’t?).  Despite this, you wouldn’t be doing your work if you didn’t think it was important and/or worthwhile, so allowing someone a window into

This is a bookstore; not my apartment; but I kinda wish I lived here.

This is a bookstore; not my apartment; but I kinda wish I lived here.

your world before the work is complete is extremely anxiety provoking.  What might they say?  You know it isn’t done, but how done is “done” and can this be done enough that it makes sense to someone outside of your brain?  Will they judge you as a horrible writer, person, teacher because your draft wasn’t pristine?  IT COULD BE THE END OF THE WORLD AS YOU KNOW IT!

Feedback is an important part of the writing process.  I always tell my students to write with enough time to ask for peer and/or mentor input.  What makes sense inside your head will almost always make sense to you on paper but it’s the other person that this all has to coalesce for.  Having someone else take a look at your work is a vital counter-check to ensuring logic, sensibility, relevance, and efficacy in communicating your thought process.

This is especially true if you’re experimenting with a style of writing that you don’t normally utilize.  The first time you write a cover letter, or CV, or (in my case) a prospectus, you’re bound to do a few things wrong.  After all, if you knew how to do everything, why aren’t you making a million dollars running the world at the top of you own evil empire?  Remembering that feedback is a constructive part of the process can sometimes be difficult; again, if you’re like me, you put your heart into your work.  You sweat, you cry, you bust your proverbial bum to make certain that there’s something special and worthwhile in every piece you turn out.

So cut yourself some slack when you let someone else in.  It’s okay to feel disappointed that you didn’t “DO IT RIGHT” the first time.  Us perfectionists are always going to put pressure on ourselves, but doing so also means that we need to develop a keen ability to let it go (this is still in progress for me, I’m not great at the whole “let it go” part… despite Idina Menzel’s insistence otherwise).  Getting back on the horse, back at your desk, and back in the fray is what’s going to keep you working (and sane) in the long run.

I like to think of the revision process as forging a paper (much like forging a blade).  You put the unmolded lump through fire and hammer it until it looks more like what it’s supposed to.  Then you cool it off in ice.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Each iteration lends strength to the finished product and, with perfunctory repetition, you don’t turn out something with integrity.  Maybe you’ve made an object that looks pretty, but it lacks the strength to do what it was meant to.  Under the pressure of battle, it will fall apart and be useless.  The only thing that will give the finished product the strength it needs is constant and vigilant reshaping.

Besides, the process of ripping something apart can be extremely cathartic once you get through the preliminary tearing.  The longer you sit with those red-penned drafts, the longer you have to get worked up over the feedback.  So face your fears; conquer the red pen; let us go boldly forth today comrades, and revise.  ONWARD!  INTO THE NIGHT!

 

Not-so-Springlike, Not-so-Breaklike

Hello everyone!

I’m back from “Spring Break”.  I put this phrase in quotation marks because it was neither Spring, nor a Break.  I did make a trip up to Quebec with my best beloved just to get away from town for a while.  Think about that: Canada.  In March.  It was very cold.

It was, however, absolutely beautiful.  We got to see the Hôtel de Glace (the only ice hotel built in North America by the way; it’s built and re-built every year in January and only open for a few months.  They build it differently every year so each experience is one-of-a-kind.  Yes you can actually stay the night; no we didn’t; and after being there for a few hours I’m extremely happy with that decision since brrr it was COLD).  The rivers

View from the old city walls

View from the old city walls

were almost completely frozen over, if not solid enough to spot trucks driving over them.  We got to see the ice flows (just beautiful) and the sugar loaf at Montmercy falls.  All in all, being in the old city was like being in Europe; complete with getting to practice my French skills (…there’s nothing like the opportune moment to realize that you don’t remember the word for “check” as in “may we have the check, please?”… it’s “chèque” by the way… ain’t that embarrassing?)  This mini-vacation definitely wasn’t a “spring-like” pursuit; but the added bonus is that it was SO BLOODY COLD that when we returned, even the Massachusetts I-won’t-ever-give-up winter felt warm by comparison.  Temperatures have decided to plummet today and we’re expecting more snow on Wednesday.  Because New England is a vicious, vindictive, vermin.

It also wasn’t much of a break.  Though I did take a long weekend away, when I returned there was a backlog of e-mails, projects, lesson plans, and various things which required my attention.  I spent the tail half of the week scrambling to get back on top of things before classes started again (today).  I also managed to book two more classes to teach this semester on top of my current coarse load (my OSHER class, of course, and I’m also going to be teaching stage combat workshops for the kids over at Charlestown Working Theatre… this is extremely exciting because what could be more fun than spending a few hours every week teaching kids to safely beat each other up?  Oh, by the way, I get paid to do this.  This is my job.  Go ahead and be envious, I’ll understand).

Additionally, I’ve got two more FD gigs lined up (the main stage at Tufts has asked me back for their third and final production this year – OR directed by Sheriden Thomas, and I will also be working with Zeitgeist Stage Company on their up-and-coming show Good Television).

So, really, I’m hitting the ground running here.

As an aside: I recently received an e-mail from a reader asking about the proper pronunciation of the word “dramaturge”.  Here’s the e-mail:

Please help us Dani. Brother and I want to know the correct and widely accepted pronunciation of the word dramaturg? Is it with a soft g as in the French interpretation typically spelled with an e at the end or is it with a hard g as one would assume having come from the Greek root? Thank you for your time and assistance in clearing this up for us. We will submit to your opinion.

Never fear, dear reader; since this is one that I deal with on a daily basis, let’s have a chat about it now.

Since I don't have a picture of me duking it out with someone in a sumo suit, you'll have to settle for a shot of the "Frozen"-themed room at the Ice Hotel

Since I don’t have a picture of me duking it out with someone in a sumo suit, you’ll have to settle for a shot of the “Frozen”-themed room at the Ice Hotel

As you note in your e-mail, “Dramaturge” is from the French work “Dramaturge” and, before that, the Greek word “Dramaturgos” (“Drama” meaning exactly what you would expect it to, and the suffix “-ergos” meaning “worker”).

Also as you seem to be experiencing, there’s actually a great deal of dissention about the pronunciation of this word.  Since it’s from French, you would expect it to be pronounced with the soft “g” (the terminal “e” also indicates this pronunciation), but some scholars prefer to spell it “Dramaturg” and pronounce it in the German way using a hard “g”.  This quirk is in honor of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, author of the Hamburg Dramaturgy (a compilation of essays written by Lessing over the course of his career first as the lead critic of the national theatre in Hamburg then as various other theatre-type-things over the course of the eighteenth century) who is often considered the father of modern dramaturgy.

I, personally, tend to pronounce it the German way (though it depends on what day you catch me and if I’ve been translating Molière recently).  Unfortunately, I have to tell you that both you and your brother are correct; if you walked up to a group of Dramaturges (with a few Dramaturgs mixed in) and each of you took a turn saying it in your own way, you’d both be accepted amongst the group and invited to join the communal festivities beside the fire noting the disparagements between bad Hamlet quartos while being offered egregious amounts of wine to drink.  I should add the caveat that, in the plural, it’s more elegant to use the hard “g” and so that generally is what happens (though, really, when do you run into a group of wild Dramaturgs?  The only time we band together is at conferences, and then usually it’s so we can acquire food without being thrown into nearby dumpsters by the local sports teams who smell our nerdom from a block away and have trouble repressing high school instincts once those pheromones are in the air).

I hope this is helpful even though it’s not conclusive.  If you’d like a better way to settle this between you two, I often find that these sorts of arguments, where neither party is correct nor wrong, are best solved using inflatable sumo suits and copious application of ridiculous sound effects.  After all, it’s very hard to argue victory when you’ve been tackled to the ground and piled on top of.  If you do decide to fight for glory and honor this way, please send a picture.  Nothing would make my day more delightful than a (safe) knockdown, drag-out fight to the finish over quirks of the English (….French…. German… Greek….) language.

Books Don’t Keep you Warm

Here is your obligatory complaining about the weather post: on Tuesday it was warm enough for a run outside.  Today I’m going to have to shovel my driveway before I leave for class.  Because I live in New England.

I’ve spent the week looking yearningly out of windows and hoping that the words “Spring Break” would actually mean something to the weather gods.  Unfortunately for me, the weather gods are tricksy jerks and care not for a university schedule, or even the pleas of a desperate doctoral candidate looking for some small way to salvage what’s left of her sanity.

On that note, I don’t know why I’m continually surprised at the revivifying quality that exercise has on my mind.  No matter how many times I prove it to be true, I am consistently astounded by the fact that if I go for some kind of physical activity right at the point when my eyes get bloobity and I can’t really read/comprehend what’s on the page in front of me, an hour later I’m raring to go again.  This re-realization only compounds my yearning for the warmer weather; convincing myself to go outside for an hour is so much easier when “outside” is a pleasant place to be.  I do break down and move my workouts indoors during inclement weather, but even walking from my door to the gym can sometimes be a fight when it’s bitter and leaky out there.

If anyone knows anyone who has a hookup with someone who can make spring come faster here in Massachusetts, I’d be ever so grateful.  I’m plumb tired of being cold.

Dissertation work is draining, and my book fort doesn’t seem to be moving one way or another.  This is mostly due to the fact that the minute I manage to reduce my “to read”

artistic desk shot.  This doesn't really expound the extent of the book fort, but it does look pretty.

artistic desk shot. This doesn’t really expound the extent of the book fort, but it does look pretty.

pile to workable number, I get another dose of ILL books from the library and stack them on top again.  Despite diligently hacking away at the pile on my desk (which at one point this week was tall enough to literally bury me), I’m still surrounded by things that need to be read.

I suppose I should look at the other end for any indication of real progress: it is true that my “have read” book fort is steadily growing larger.  It has, at this point, expanded to the point of walling me into my desk.  I have to traverse an obstacle course before I can actually sit down these days.  The scary part is that I haven’t even really begun to work on the bulk of the project; I’m still just picking at the edges.  I suppose that means I’ve chosen a topic ripe for exploration, but it does leave me a wee bit nervous about just how many library books I’m going to be held accountable for before this is all over.

And that’s not even to consider the archival work ahead of me.  I’ve identified piles upon piles of things that I’ll have to sort through; but at least those items won’t follow me home.  Well, they will, but in neatly sifted digitized form so that they won’t take up any room on my floor (just on my hard drive).

And on that note, it’s time to re-launch today’s attack upon Research Mountain.  Wish me luck!

 

Apple for the Teacher?

I am absolutely inundated in work.  All of it is good and fun, but oh man it’s a lot.

I started teaching my Shakespeare Appreciation class today for the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute at Tufts.  OSHER is a continuing adult education program and they have an office at Tufts, so we graduate students frequently get pinged to pitch seminars at the program we might be interested in teaching.  Of course I saw this as an opportunity to talk about Will with a roomful of willing victims pupils, so I proposed a class.  It was snapped up immediately with great enthusiasm.  Once accepted, the course hit high

Shot I grabbed from inside the Cutler Majestic recently.... and then instagramed... but the filters make it so pretty!

Shot I grabbed from inside the Cutler Majestic recently…. and then instagramed… but the filters make it so pretty!

registration numbers which is even more exciting.  On the whole, I felt that the program really supported the possibility of a successful workshop.

I’m teaching As you Like it and King Lear over the course of eight weeks (with one odd little hiccup next week; since it’s Spring Break we won’t be holding seminar).  We started by discussing the first two acts of As You today.  I framed this with a discussion of Shakespeare’s early years as well as the pastoral genre and the differences we find between court and country in Shakespeare’s play.  I also showed a clip from the Branagh film.  While I don’t think it’s the best example out there of a well performed As you Like it (the concept is confused at best, and blenderized at worst…) I do think that it provides a great forum for discussion.

My class consists of fifteen students all well into their adult years with a plethora of backgrounds.  This is really exciting because it means that I have the opportunity to chat with all different levels of Shakespearience in one room.  I did a lot of lecture today, which I hope to remedy in the future, but by the time we were into the film they were ready to jump in with their own thoughts.

Teaching this workshop is a lot more relaxing than teaching a standard college course.  First of all, there’s no grading (which, by the way, takes up an enormous time devotion if you’re doing it right).  Secondly, everyone in that room really wants to be there and is dedicated to getting something out of the class.  This is wonderful because it gives me the opportunity to assume that we’re all interested in the topic rather than fulfilling our gen ed requirements.  There’s already the spark of curiosity in this room, which goes a long way towards generating good wholesome dialogue amongst ourselves.  Last, and certainly not least, these are adults.  They are older than I am.  They have vastly more world experience than I do.  They are definitely ready to learn from me, but I am so stoked about the possibilities of what they see in the material.  Their smorgasbord of experience, so different from mine, is really going to highlight this text from an entirely new perspective than the ones I’m used to.

So while my Mondays just got longer, I’m totally mind-numbingly ecstatic about it.  It’s going to be a lot to work through, but I think it will definitely be worthwhile; both for me and for my new students.

Revenge of the Microfiche

Over the course of the past two days, I have spent a grand total of 3.5 hours sitting in the library with a microfiche machine scanning a 1963 dissertation to PDF so that I could take a copy home with me and peruse it at my leisure rather than be bound by the in-library usage of a microfilm reader.

If you’ve never scanned microfilm, you can consider yourself a happier person for it.  It entails sitting at a dimly-lit workstation with machines that haven’t been updated in the last fifteen years (and can’t be since the drivers for the microfiche readers are no longer made

My work area at the library today

My work area at the library today

to accommodate updated windows systems… also a microfiche reader will run you somewhere in the neighborhood of two thousand dollars and that’s the cheap model… for technology that hasn’t been updated since the eighties and actually can’t be updated anymore).  You line up your shot, click at least three times, then wait twenty seconds for the reader to scan the page.  You hope that the page scans with an appropriate brightness setting and, if it does, you move on to the next page.  Advancing the film is an entirely manual process.  There’s no automating it.

The book that I scanned was 250 pages worth of frames.

So you sit, advance, click click click, wait… sit, advance, click click click, wait… You can perhaps hope to do some bits of work in the interim between clicks (if you have work that you don’t need to think about constantly).  I used the opportunity to catch up on my grade-book keeping… for the first hour at least.  Essentially, once you’re done, you now have a pile of reading to do and your eyes are glazed over from a marathon of fluorescence.

I couldn’t help but think that it would be reason enough to become a rock star academic just so I could have someone else be responsible for this kind of menial task for me.  At the same time, there is something romantic about scanning your own microfilm.

Oh, did I mention that the students behind the reference desk often know nothing about the readers and so, if there’s a problem that you can’t fix yourself, you have to wait for someone from IT to show up?  Because those readers are probably older than the student workers.  I was advised by the circ desk worker that I was the first person he had ever encountered who needed to know where the readers lived.  That’ll give you hope for the researchers of tomorrow.

Living life in twenty second intervals is extremely disorienting.  The day slips by and you haven’t even noticed.  It made me wonder what other things would look like if performed in twenty second clips.

Cooking?  Baking?  The greatest works of literature?  Acting?  Dancing?  Twenty seconds is all you get… then you pause to re-align… then you get another twenty seconds.  Anyway, suffice to say that I got very little done today… and yesterday.  It feels, however, like I accomplished a few mammoth tasks.  And I guess that could be accurate(ish).  I did manage to fit some proof-reading, record-keeping, e-mail writing, twitter feeding, contract-writing, and internet-surfing in between those bits of film.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I have a dissertation that’s old as sin to get through (this dude’s, not mine… mine is still in its infancy).  I also have two plays to review in two days (both Shakespeare-related – Bristol Old Vic and Handspring Puppets’ Midsummer Night’s Dream at ArtsEmerson tonight, then Vagabond Theatre Group’s Breaking the Shakespeare Code tomorrow).  If you need me, I’ll be buried under my job for a while.

I Would Prefer To: Scrivener

As any crafter, home improver, or DIYer will tell you, having the right tool for the job makes the job a lot easier.

And, dear internet, I’ve been writing papers with the wrong tools for so long.

Basically I’ve had access to a sledgehammer and a machete when what I needed was a jeweler’s hammer and a surgeon’s scalpel.  Microsoft word is many things and it’s a workhorse of a program.  Basically anything you want to do you can somehow find a way to make it do.  In terms of text manipulation and the actual process of word processing, it’s got many great features (tables of contents, version control, find and replace, text manipulation capabilities, etc.), but for a research paper it’s so not the tool for the job.  At least, not the way I write.

Most writers are lateral thinkers.  You’ve definitely heard me expound upon the beauty of lateral thinking before, so I don’t feel a need to go into it here.  Basically, we (of necessity) hold many different bits of information in our mind at one time in order to forge new thoughts and ideas on the page.  What this means is you’re juggling a lot of things at once: references (both bibliographic and visual), notes, facts, timelines, inspiration, and a host of your own thoughts.  I work with a dual monitor set-up on a Mac, so I can keep a lot of windows open at once, but it’s often inconvenient to have to bounce back and forth between windows when the information I need could be gracefully compiled side-by-side in one place if I had the right interface for it.

Well, it turns out that they make the right interface for it.  It’s called Scrivener and it’s my new best friend.  While it definitely ran me a chunk of change ($45 for software is nothing to sniff at when you’re living on a grad school budget), I consider the investment worthwhile in just the last week of playing with the tool.

My best beloved turned me on to the software and introduced me to the notion.  It’s apparently something that novel-writers swear by (and I can definitely see why).  In fact, Scrivener is so awesome that they even offer a one-month trial version for folks participating in NaNoWriMo every year.  I can’t imagine writing one large project on this and then being without it; I’m absolutely certain that the good folks at Scrivener make a ton of business that way.

I was resistant at first.  It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and the Scrivener help files are long and a bit arduous to get through.  Scrivener will automatically open up to a tutorial upon your first usage after installs, and that tutorial will take you some time to get through.  Consider it an easy-access pass to the yellow brick road; a small time investment will definitely save you in the future.

I think the best feature for me is that I can see, as I go, the accumulation of what I’ve

In center, my research notes.  At right, you can see my comments; each comment is a new source.  I can auto-jump to that source by clicking in to the comment.

In center, my research notes. At right, you can see my comments; each comment is a new source. I can auto-jump to that source by clicking in to the comment.

done.  If I set up my comments correctly, I can see how many sources I’ve already compiled (and in what category so I know where I’m weak without having to dig through all of my notes).  Since I’m currently embroiled in preliminary Prospectus research, this is HUGE to what I’m doing right now.  Additionally, I can file multiple documents in one project; my notes are thus auto-sorted as I research, and I can swap back and forth between them with extreme ease.

Another feature I absolutely love is the ability to embed images in a project.  If I happen upon a broadside or picture in a reference book that I’d like to include in my notes, it’s incredibly easy to do so (I generally snap a shot with my cell phone camera, which auto-syncs to my dropbox, and then I can just drop the image into the scrivener folder and link it within the text).  I don’t have to fiddle with dimensions (as in word), or worry about text wrapping or layering.  The image is just there for me to look at when I need to see it.

Corkboard View of my current prospectus research

Corkboard View of my current prospectus research

One of the selling points for me was “corkboard view”.  Each document has a set of notes you can file alongside it, and when you drop into corkboard view the document is represented by an index card.  You can move the index cards around with drag-and-drop to visually rearrange how your material will be presented.  I can picture how wonderful this is going to be when I start drafting chapters; I can even break those chapters up into sections and drag/drop my material as I write it.  As I’ve said before, I’m a tactile learner which makes the vast amount of reading/writing/research I do extremely difficult; this kind of interface really jives with my learning style and helps to de-conceptualize my writing.

Another great feature is custom meta-data tagging.  Within each document, you can specify meta-data fields that can help with search functionality later.  Scrivener provides a robust search interface (which really means that it will search many different parameters to find the data you’re looking for).  Essentially, the more ways you label your writing, the easier it will be for you to find what you need.  I can also see this coming in handy when generating an index.  You know.  For WAY in the future when that sort of thing is a part of my life.

On the whole, Scrivener has made me excited to write.  This, as you may or may not know, is a HUGE hurdle in actually getting your work done.  Experimenting with the program’s features and finding new ways to make my life easier has made dragging myself to my desk in the morning a task rather than a chore, and if there’s anything that will make life easier it’s inspiring the impetus to work.  When I get going, I’m always fine (my work is fascinating and I love doing it), but climbing to my desk is an uphill battle.  Scrivener has made it that much easier to ascend Everest, and it’s definitely making organization a pleasure.

I would highly recommend giving this program a shot; especially if you’re struggling with keeping your dissertation material in a format that’s not overwhelming.

Blogging; And You

As I’ve kept this blog over the years, I’ve had many different reactions from my peers and mentors about my ability to remain consistent with it.

Some have expressed that it’s an odd experience to read the blog.  I’ve been told that being in the room during an event then later reading my description of the happening is a touch surreal (I can understand how this might be true).

By and large, the most common reaction that I’ve been privy to is an incredulity at my ability to keep writing and my ability to find time to devote to this project.

I will be honest, writing has almost never been a struggle.  I’m a writer.  Writers want to write.  I have, sometimes, found myself awash with a plethora of possibilities for blog content, and sometimes I have been in the blogging doldrums with nothing that I can really relate.  I’ve also been in the situation where I’m dealing with something that I would love to craft a blog post about it, but for political or personal reasons I am not able to at that given moment.  Sometimes, I’m able to shelve these ideas for later use.  More often than not, I have to consent that I will be unable to put my thoughts into writing about an issue at hand in a public forum until I have tenure and, at that point, the issue will (hopefully) be rendered moot.

Throughout my early PhD experience, writing was an important exercise for me.

One of my Dissertation Personalities; American Actor Lester Wallack.  WHAT A MUSTACHE!

One of my Dissertation Personalities; American Actor Lester Wallack. WHAT A MUSTACHE!

During coursework, you can spend a whole semester without writing a single page, then be expected to spit out at least 100 pages of pristine, intelligent, and interesting writing at the semester’s end.  This doesn’t set a very sustainable pace for the tasks ahead.

During my comps prep, writing was important because it kept me on-task, and gave me the practice of spitting out focused content in a small time window.  One of the skills which these exams test, but is extremely difficult to study for, is your ability to craft a cogent piece of writing under extreme stress and pressure.  I’ve known that, for some of my forbearers, this was the most stressful portion of the exam.  Because I’m used to creating such content blasts (thanks to my writing here), it was the least of my concerns.

Now that I’m into dissertation work, writing is more important than ever.  Unfortunately, it’s even harder than it used to be to push myself to do it.

You see, this process is a long and drawn out one.  It’s a process of thinking BIG DEEP THOUGHTS over a substantial period of time.  As such, I’m engaged in work that doesn’t necessarily leave me with cogent bits of information at the end of the day.  Blog posts require something that can be discussed in a certain space.  The things that I’m currently entrenched in are long, drawn-out battles… and not ones that I’m necessarily willing to share.  As much as I would love to live in an open-source world, Intellectual Property is a real and ever-present element of any academic’s work.  Especially an unpublished graduate student.  I really can’t let you in on my research process in detail that’s too great, which is really a pity because (trust me) it’s fascinating.

So as much as I’d love to share my triumphs and tribulations as I go along, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to stick to the abstract for the moment… and for the foreseeable future.

In terms of finding time to blog, I can’t articulate how worthwhile an exercise this is.  I’ve given you some reasons above as to why this might be.  If you’re currently writing a dissertation and NOT actually doing any writing on a weekly basis (it may sound weird to an outsider, but trust me it’s very easy to do), I can’t recommend the experience of blogging highly enough.  It helps to order your thoughts and keep you together.  It allows you to achieve small goals throughout the week, and that will create a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment your work often lacks since your large goals are a long ways off.  Blogging is a great way to give you structure (which, as we all know, is key to any work regime, especially a free-form one like dissertation work).  And, at the risk of sounding like a romantic, it’s sometimes nice to have a physical manifestation of your work and time to look back upon.

Even if you don’t choose to share your thoughts in an open public forum, you should consider a journal, or a private blog, or just somewhere to put a collection of your writing as you go through this process.  It might be worth something to you someday, and the process is definitely worth something to you right now.

Through Good Times and Bad

In case you haven’t been super-stalking my digital life, you may or may not know that I’ve just come off a grand adventure.  Three days; three plays; three reviews.  All have been posted to New England Theatre Geek (since in my copious free time I moonlight as a reviewer there), and you should check them out if you’re at all interested in the American Shakes-scene right now.

What this really means is that I’m exhausted.  I’ve been working so much that I’ve forgotten what “fun” is.  I demonstrated this fact the other day when I sat down to my desk, looked at the pile of books I set aside to read that day for my Prospectus prep, and thought unironically “THIS IS GOING TO BE THE BEST DAY!”  (… it was “THE BEST DAY”

Not my book fort, but some days it feels this way.  This is a used bookstore in Salem, MA.

Not my book fort, but some days it feels this way. This is a used bookstore in Salem, MA.

for maybe two hours before I realized that I had about 1,000 pages of reading to do before sundown, wasn’t getting through it as fast as I wanted to, and OH BY THE WAY also had a veritable pile of other work to do).  The stationary bicycle of PhD work has really got me down this week, and as a result I’m plugging along like the little engine that could (“I THINK I CAN I THINK I CAN”), or if you prefer, Dory the forgetful fish (“JUST KEEP SWIMMING! JUST KEEP SWIMMING!”).  That said, I have a hard time sitting down at my computer for more than twenty minutes without my eyes glazing over.  It’s just the way it is sometimes.

The problem is that it will always be like this on occasion.  There are days, no matter what you’re doing and how much you love doing it, that you simply don’t wanna.  Heck, there might even be whole weeks when you simply don’t wanna.  That doesn’t mean you don’t love your work, it just means that you’re a human being and not a research machine.

Understanding this and getting through it is a process.  Up until now, I’ve prided myself on the point that I can work through just about anything; extreme weather conditions (you laugh, but it’s actually a problem in deep summer when your apartment doesn’t have central air or deep winter when you’re freezing mid-day because you’re trying to keep your heating bills down), extreme emotional conditions (life happens and you still have to work), extreme stress (I swear I will never again be able to hear the words “exams” without a small spine-tingling shudder), extreme pain (I’ve undergone minor surgery and still had to work the same day), and extreme workload.  The fact that these extenuating factors take their toll is not something that I’ve cared to put much thought into, but we need to face reality.

Being a graduate student is hard.  Doing the work for a Ph.D. is REALLY hard.  There’s a

A gem from my stack of dissertation reading.

A gem from my stack of dissertation reading.

reason that not everyone gets one.  What we’re doing is extraordinary.  Period.  If, at any time, you feel tired, overwrought, or wrung out, it’s probably because you’re working your smart little elbow patches off.

This work is exhausting, life-consuming, and never-ending.

It’s also incredibly fulfilling, exciting, and the most enormous privilege.

To pretend otherwise is ridiculous.

There’s good and bad in everything and, when you’re doing something extraordinary, the extremes are pretty extreme.  Admitting this is not admitting defeat.  If you’ve hit a point where you’re just tired don’t let it stop you, but don’t assume that it makes you weak or lesser in some way.  Taking breaks is healthy and finding your break zen is important to productivity (I, for instance, need longer days to work at a slower pace.  I will take an hour and a half mid-day to fit a workout in, but I will work until 9 or 10 at night to get what needs doing done).

Really, though, if you’re going through a rough patch for whatever reason, be gentle with yourself.  It doesn’t make you a bad scholar, it doesn’t make you a bad teacher, and it certainly doesn’t make you a lesser person.  Just take a moment to accept that you’re a human being.  Remember your triumphs, and consider slowing your pace just a tad.  You’ll pick up the slack when you’re back in the saddle.  As long as less work doesn’t become a habit, it all evens out in the end.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to go watch some trashy television and detox from my Academic Life for a while.  If you need me, I’ll be on my couch with my Netflix.