Finals Land


Good friends and readers,

Hello from finals land.

This is a place slightly different from “finals panic” (which I was experiencing a few weeks ago).  This is a place where everything is mapped out, everything is drafted out, and all I have to do is continue working at a good clip to slide into the finish.

My last final is due May 13th.  And man, I cannot wait to plonk that baby down and close the book on what has been a phenomenal, engrossing, enormous, scary year.

The thing about finals land is that it is extremely draining.  The writing process, for me, is a slow one and one that requires meticulous drafting and re-drafting.  As I have previously mentioned, it takes between 6 and 8 drafts for me to produce something that I feel comfortable turning in.  I like to work on one draft a day but, as I am currently simultaneously grappling with three large papers, that means I’m required to produce approximately 21 drafts to feel good about my product.  I have 13 days to do it.  This means that I’m going to have to average 1.6 drafts a day (provided I take zero days off between now and due dates).  Which, realistically, means that I’m going to have to be churning out two drafts a day to give myself room for a breath sometime this weekend.

What this really and truly means is that my brain feels like a wrung-out sponge.  I feel like I’ve given everything I have to this semester and I simply have nothing left to give.

Unfortunately, I’ve not got the option to stop now.  There’s this last little bit of mountain to climb to get to the top of what’s been an arduous (but entirely rewarding) year.

There’s this saying in clown training; “find the energy”.  There are two zones in clowning; “the red” which is where you are when you are in-nose and thereby in-character, and “the black” which is somewhere below that, not quite fully to the point of true clown yet.  You get tired really quickly in clowning, it takes a lot to keep yourself going.  When you’re training to do it, you are constantly told to “find the energy”.  ImageDo whatever you need to do to keep yourself in the red.  Dance, throw stuff, run around, keep going, dip into the deep part of yourself where you store the bits that you don’t generally access and use those to fuel whatever it is you are doing until it’s done.

And really, these days, that’s all I’ve got.  I’ve got to find the energy to keep going, no matter where that energy comes from (at the moment, it’s coming from some lovely earl gray I’ve been drinking like it’s my job, though I may switch to something a little less caffeinated soon… also, girl scout cookies never hurt…).

In a few short weeks, I will be able to collapse and have a break (and trust me, in the two weeks between finals and my summer German class I intend to take full advantage of break time… if my past experience with graduate school has been at all indicative of my future experience with graduate school, I will be laid out on the couch unable to move for a solid three days before I regain the capacity to speak much less function in the real world).  In a few short weeks, I can pick up a book that I want to read and read it for no other reason than “I want to”.  In a few short weeks, I can hit all those extra random deadlines that have been lurking on the side of my whiteboard all but ignored because I simply did not have the time to devote attention to them.

…at least nature cooperated today.  It was a gray, dreary day here in Boston – the kind of day that really does make me want to curl up on my office futon with a blankie, a French press full of tea, and my writing to red-pen.  So that’s exactly what I did.

And I hit my writing goals.  Here’s hoping that mother nature continues to cooperate and doesn’t insist on too many beautiful days between now and the 13th.

Getting Un-Stuck

As you, dear reader, have seen from my previous posts, it is, as they say, “go time”.

This semester, I have a unique conundrum.

I am a meticulous researcher and a slow writer. This is good for some things, but not for others.

In certain fields, it’s very easy to get bogged down by what everyone else has said before. There is so much writing on Shakespeare already that finding a place for one’s own voice can be extremely difficult. In this regard, the fact that I do spend so much time in the research phase means that it’s even easier for me to fall into the chasm of academic apathy: “Why bother saying anything when everything’s already been said?! Why do I even exist?”. It also means that it’s extremely exciting when I do come upon something within my own mind that has not been said before (“YAY! I’m smarter and more creative than a whole giant field of scholarship!” Disclaimer: not really true, it’s easy to get carried away sometimes).

Sometimes I go into the research process with an idea already formulating. Sometimes I just go into it with a general topic in the hopes that something will spark.

This semester (for one of my papers at least), I’ve been on a long and winding road of type two. I’m working on a project involving eighteenth century depictions of Shakespeare’s ghost onstage and, surprise surprise, there’s a WHOLE LOT out there.

So how do you go from “What have I done?” to “Look what I did!”? Well, let me give you a sneak peak of my process.

I’ve already written about the process which I follow to create a paper. But what if, as happened to me just this week, you hit a snag? What if you have all of your research together, piled neatly into little segments by theme, but no clue as to what it says? What if you are on a deadline and have to turn in an abstract re: what this paper is going to be about before you yourself even know? What if you simply can’t understand how the heck you’re supposed to fit your voice into this mammoth discourse already in progress, but you don’t have time to start over, and the thought of re-hitting the books is simply making you cry?

Don’t despair. Yet. Try a few of these things (they worked for me eventually).

*Take out a piece of paper and physically write down (not type, WRITE) everything

My writing-it-down led to something... as you can tell by my enthusiastic circling. Also: my desk ornaments.

you know about the topic which you have chosen to research. What are the big ideas? How do they relate to each other? Where are the holes in this web? This act in and of itself may spark something. Writing things down and thinking about them in terms of the big picture loosens up the information in your head. It gets your synapses firing in a meta way and forces you to draw connections which you may have already known, but hadn’t quite understood yet. It also demonstrates very graphically where the lapses in information are and those places are places for you to do some work. Fill in those gaps with your own thinking! Write and publish, people, so that students in the future will have to contend with your work as a roadblock.

*Don’t forget step three. The shower is the most important part of my creative process. And really, who couldn’t use more showers in her life?

*Re-read your source material. Now that you’ve done the research around it, turn back to the piece that originally inspired you (be it play or novel). Chances are, you will spot all the things that the other people have spotted, but you may also spot something new, different, and exciting. And really, you started this project because you were inspired by this piece, why shouldn’t it inspire you again?

*Go back to your theory. You haven’t just been reading it for your health. A straightforward, theory-driven reading is often times too simplistic for a graduate-level paper, but integrating theory is another great way to get you thinking about something differently. Applying theory can help you to arrive at some new conclusion, something you hadn’t seen before. Most importantly: theory is the building blocks of an argument. You can bat around theory, there are plenty of spaces for interpretation, and theory is universal and applicable almost anywhere. Get canny with your Kant, formative with your Foucault, dexterous with your Derrida, and brilliant with your Bakhtin!

*If none of these things work, and you still feel buried and struggling, contact your professor. She is a pro. She’s been doing this a lot longer than you have. If you have your research in order, if you are on top of your writing schedule, there is nothing to be ashamed of. Floundering happens to EVERYONE and your professor has also, in her time, floundered. She will have tips and tricks to help you. She will understand the discourses you are dealing with. She will likely also have a few ideas about your project that can help to unstick you. Trust in her experience, trust in your ability to articulate your own work eloquently, and turn to your mentors for support. That’s why they’re there, after all.

And if all else fails, just remember the sage words of the good Doctor (no, not THAT

not THAT Doctor


You won’t lag behind,
because you’ll have the speed.
You’ll pass the whole gang
and you’ll soon take the lead.
Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.
I’m sorry to say so
but, sadly, it’s true
that Bang-ups
and Hang-ups
can happen to you.
You can get all hung up
in a prickle-ly perch.
And your gang will fly on.

You’ll be left in a Lurch.
You’ll come down from the Lurch
with an unpleasant bump.
And the chances are, then,
that you’ll be in a Slump.
And when you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done.

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.
Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.
A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin!
Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?
How much can you lose? How much can you win?

And IF you go in, should you turn left or right…
or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite?
Or go around back and sneak in from behind?
Simple it’s not, I’m afraid you will find,
for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.

You can get so confused
that you’ll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

The Waiting Place…
…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come,
or a plane to go
or the mail to come,
or the rain to go
or the phone to ring,
or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

THIS Doctor

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

  That’s not for you!

Somehow you’ll escape
all that waiting and staying
You’ll find the bright places
where Boom Bands are playing.

So go! Off with you! Find those boom bands and make those papers sing!

…I’m off to take a shower.

Idea Time

We have reached that point in the semester at which one is not only expected, but required, to have original thoughts.

Yes, folks, it’s paper-topic-pitch time.

You see, before you begin work on your final paper, you need to check in with your professor and ensure that you’re on the right track.  You need to ensure that your idea is A) what the professor is expecting from a final paper, B) viable in the confines of your time schedule and resources, C) interesting both to you and said professor, and D) not an egregious example of something totally done before (which you didn’t know about because you’re a lowly grad student, but your professor does because he’s a total rockstar).  To check in with your professor, you need to first formulate an idea, then do some amount of preliminary research to ensure that (should you be given the green light), this is a viable project in terms of the amount of work already done in the field.  In addition, you never want to walk into a professor’s office and sound completely “green”; knowing what you’re talking about (even if you don’t really know what you’re talking bout) is KEY in academia.

For some, this process  occur later in the semester than for others.  I personally like to start

Romantically, I would like to think that he NEVER had this problem. Realistically, he probably had it ALL THE TIME.

as early as I can.  While it is POSSIBLE for me to pump out a research paper in a month, ideally I like six to eight weeks to produce something complete, intelligible, and intelligent.  Especially when I’m working on multiple projects at the same time.

Which means that, now that I’ve done about half a semester’s worth of reading in each class, I now need to have something to say about it… something original, something ready to be backed by research, something that can sustain the breadth and depth of a twenty-ish page research paper.

This comes easier in some classes than others.  Sometimes I’ll have an idea going into a class.  Sometimes something will spark when doing class reading.  And sometimes I’ll be left with pen in hand, a blank screen, clutching my Norton fervently and paging through the reading furiously to try and eke something out.  Usually, I’ll have a fairly solid idea for one class, then something more amorphous for a second, and only the barest hint of concepts for the third.

This semester, for whatever reason, I’m feeling extremely pinched to come up with something worth exploring.

It’s not that my classes aren’t interesting or thought provoking.  It’s not that there hasn’t been enough reading to spur ideas from.  It’s certainly not that my professors are sub-par.  I think my current state is simply an immediate effect of second-semester burnout.  My mind has gone so numb with EVERYTHING I AM CRAMMING INTO IT EVAR! that original thought is almost beyond me at this point.

The worst part is that idea conception is probably one of my favorite bits about academia.  The creative spark is something that, as an artist, I’m always excited about.  There’s nothing quite like that moment when the lightbulb flicks on and a single idea snowballs into something feasible, even more interesting than you had initially thought, and something which you’re excited to share with the world at large (or at least your colleagues… or at the very least your professor).  I’ve been fascinated in recent years by the idea of structured creativity; the sort of artistry that an academic can bring to one’s work.

There’s no doubt that creativity is a must-have for my job.  The ability to think laterally is what makes a good researcher, a good idea-chewer, and a good scholar.  The ability to effectively communicate the culmination of this makes a good writer.  In order to be successful in this field, one needs all of these qualities.

Far too often, creativity is suppressed in the graduate student.  As I addressed in my post earlier this week, we are simply force-fed so much information that digesting all of it into one’s own self is simply impossible.  There is no way that I will walk out of this semester able to truly own the majority of what we’ve been given.  The best I can hope for is a lasting memory (aided by good notes) of the Wise Words of Wisdom my professors have uttered, a sense of the dominant theories we’re dealing with, and a few good papers which I can advance as personal projects.

Of course, that is, if I can come up with some brilliant ideas about what I should write.  Or

one of these! That's what I need!

even a starting place.  I’ll take a starting place at this point.

…maybe I just need a drawing board.  It can’t hurt, right?  I bet I could find room for one in my apartment…

A Special Kind of Hell

I seem to have hit that special place in finals.

Here’s a convoluted mixed metaphor for you:

Kid's got it right....

Writing a paper is like birthing a baby.  At first you start with your research.  That little niggling idea at the back of your head that’s based on something which you think you know but really have only the slightest idea about.  Maybe you’ve babysat it in the past.  Maybe you’ve flirted with it while walking by on the street.  In any case, you know it exists, you know that other people have done something like it, but you’re ready to try it for yourself now.

So you research and you research and you go along at a fair clip and one day, you realize, this has taken over your life.  This is all you do.  The only thing you want to talk about is your paper.  The only thing you can think about is this thing.  And it’s stressful and time-consuming and you can’t imagine that it’ll ever be done, but there’s so much to do, and at the same time that deadline is looming Damocles-like over your head (no matter how far off it may seem).

And then, one day, you sit down at your desk for hours and you create.  You stack up your research, you write, you attempt to gain some semblance of hold over what it is that you’ve found over the past few months/years.  And at the end, exhausted and brain mushy, you collapse in your chair knowing that this is only the beginning.

Now it’s time to hone, refine, attempt to comprehend what you’ve created.  It’s still in its infancy so it takes some time and sensitivity to really understand the personality of what it is that you’ve made.  You need to listen, but at the same time be a bit harsh with it, but not too harsh because then you’ll just convince yourself that you suck at everything.  You need to know when it’s time to write and know when it’s time to quite for the day and understand that some days will be better than others.

You sit at the forge and hone.  You grind off the spiky edges.  You adjust the awkward bits.  You crouch over your work in the most uncomfortable positions at the most uncomfortable of times because it needs to be perfected and challenged.  It needs to have the right amount of pressure put on it, the right amount of heat put under it, and the right amount of nurturing added to it.

And one day you think you’ll never get through it and god why did you even start this

Ah yes, mister Greenblatt. Someday I will have your career. Somehow.

project it’s so inane how could you ever think this was interesting you suck you suck you suck.  And the next day you realize that this isn’t half bad, in fact, it’s quite good.  It could really turn into something.  And the next day you realize maybe it has become something.  Maybe it’s worth something.  Maybe this is the elusive bit of “work” that you’ve been striving after for your whole career.  Maybe this is what makes you the next Stephen Greenblatt.

And, at some point, you need to let go.  You need to say “I’ve done everything I can” and, even though you know your little fledgling paper isn’t perfect, it needs to go out into the world and prosper.  Well… at least you hope it’ll prosper because an entire semester’s or year’s or years’ worth of work is on the line here and if it doesn’t prosper then it’s just a giant waste of time and your time really means something and can’t the professor/the professional world see how important this is to you and to the academy at large?

I’m thick in the drafting process of two papers, the third is still broiling on the back-burner and will need to be drafted in the next week.  As such, I feel like I’m riding a roller coaster of textual uncertainty.  The highs, the lows, the long nights with the firm knowledge that my martini glass is the only thing in the world that understands me.  It really makes me feel alive.  And by “alive” I mean exhausted on every possible level; physically, mentally, and emotionally.  Just a heads up, if the world has something important or potentially spirit-crushing or even slightly unpleasant to tell me, it should wait a few weeks.  Telling me now will only warrant a sure-fire over-reaction resulting in shouting, tears, physical violence, or potentially all of the above.

At the same time, that ever-creeping light at the end of the ever-narrowing tunnel keeps getting closer.  I can almost feel it on my face.  Oh the glorious resplendence of a break!  The conference preparation, the fellowship applications, the book reviews I’ve been putting off writing, the search for CFPs, the revision of publishable material, the preliminary tackling of the comps list, the… oh hell who am I kidding.  Breaks don’t exist.  I’m a grown-up now.  I’m lucky if I get a few moments to glance mournfully at my knitting basket.

I guess my comfort lies in the fact that, despite all of this, I’m still happy with my life choices.  I guess I am doing something right.