As in John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over”
Yesterday, I read The Thesis Whisperer‘s latest blog post titled “Surviving the Reading Marathon”; the post covers tips on how to handle academic reading in graduate school. As I read it, I realized that these were tips that would have been incredibly helpful when I was in graduate school, and that I must’ve spent valuable time reading articles and books that, really, weren’t relevant to my research (or if they were, it was only tangentially). A lot of what I learned about academic writing I received from a) my mentor and my advisor, people who took the time to discuss writing with me b) texts I read and enjoyed or hated or filled me with indifference c) talking with other writers d) reading about writing–and this one is fairly new, since Twitter and Facebook put me in touch with a lot of resources that I otherwise had no clue existed. However, whatever wasn’t covered through those channels was a lost cause.
I have (or had) a nice little writing routine up until recently. I would wake up around 5:00 am on a workday, drag myself out of bed, turn on my laptop, and get to work on whatever writing project I had on the docket. Sometimes it was a blog post, sometimes it was editing an article, sometimes it was commenting on a writer’s post, and sometimes it was just me waiting for inspiration to strike as I read my Twitter feed in the wee hours of the morning. It’s a routine I picked up when I was working on the dissertation; I would wake up early to write or read because a) I had to go to work at 8 b) I wanted to write before my daughter woke up. Although I was more of a night owl when I started graduate school, (almost) steady work hours and a toddler have turned me into a morning person.
The flip side? I’m pretty useless when it comes to creativity in the evening. Sure, I’ve written the occasional blog post after my daughter has gone to sleep, struck by an acute desire to say something to the (online) world, or I’ve sat down to edit a piece because I had a deadline coming up–I’m so good with deadlines– but I no longer can sit down and be productive at night, especially with my commute and with an energetic toddler who hasn’t seen me all day.
Mornings are my creative time. However, lately I’ve been having trouble waking up early to write. I’m doing double-duty at home, and so when the alarm goes off at 5:00, sometimes I hit snooze and I just go back to sleep. Sure, I feel like that a lot of mornings, but nowadays I’m really exhausted and I don’t have it in me to fight back the sleep. (I’ve also become very good at falling asleep on the couch, no matter what I’m wearing or what’s going on around me. I try not to sit on the couch until my daughter is asleep or unless it’s a weekend. I’m only half-joking.)
I’m trying to be kind to The Writer Inside Me and recognize that it’s not easy to keep the old modes of production going when the circumstances have changed. I just try again the next day or work on drafts in spurts. Getting a writing buddy to help me make progress on the article I’m supposed to be working on has also helped. She reminds me that the writing process need not be riddled with guilt, and that I should give myself credit for all I have done with everything I have going on.
So instead of rethinking my routine, I’ve been thinking about habits. What are my writing habits? How do they help? Can I add new habits? Should I add new habits? I’d like to know from you, reader: what are your writing habits? what are some things you feel you need to do every time you sit down and write?
It’s been an emotional week. This week was my second-to-last week at work. It was also the week of the 20-day mark: 20 days until we move to Houston. This also means it’s been 70 days since I haven’t been in the same house with my husband, let alone the same state. Distance makes the heart grow fonder? More like “distance makes the mind go a little batty, especially when you haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in days.”
Yup, that’s where I’m at.
It hasn’t been an emotional roller coaster. It has been more like an emotional game show:
“What will happen once our contestant gets to work?”
“How many hours of sleep do you think our contestant can lose and still stay functional, audience?”
“10:00 pm, and the daughter is still up! I’m sorry, ma’am, you bet the daughter would sleep by 10, but she is still up. Sorry. You get some excellent consolation prizes though.”
“When her husband calls her at 11:00 pm, is Liana capable of having a normal conversation? Survey said…”
And so on.
I don’t think this week has been crazier than usual. It’s just that this week I officially got antsy: I wanted to leave, I wanted to stay home, I wanted to be in Houston, I wanted to hug everyone at work, I wanted to buy takeout every day and not cook, I wanted to hide from people. I argued with my husband about him forgetting that I had planned a Goodbye Happy Hour for this weekend. One morning I woke up, feeling sad, something I hadn’t felt in a long time. I’ve had to deal with toddler grumpiness at 1:00 am, which in turn made me a little grumpy. And then yesterday I left my last All-Staff meeting at the main campus, happy and melancholic, all at once.
I tried my best to create some sort of stability in my daughter’s life and in mine. I came up with weekend activities for us to do. I tried to put her to bed at a reasonable time every night. I made breakfast for us on weekends and let her watch tv after dinner. I played my husband’s broadcast in the kitchen while I cleaned up, so that at least his voice was in the house, even if he was in a different time zone. At work I continued to pack my schedule at work, making sure I covered all bases before my departure. I planned lunch with friends. I got my hair cut. I willed myself to continue to wake up at 5:00 am to write, like I used to before my husband left. 90 days seemed like they would come and go in no time.
But this week I realized we were so close to Houston and yet so far away from Moving Day. We’re home but we’re not. Maybe it’s because we’re surrounded by boxes and empty bookcases. Maybe it’s because I haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in over a week. Maybe it’s because I’m a little anxious. Maybe it’s because I miss having my husband around and the phone no longer
seems to bridge substitutes the distance between us. We’re still hundreds of miles away, and we feel it like a cut in the skin.
Today I’m feeling better. The idea of time with friends this weekend has lifted my spirits. And next week will swoosh by before I even have the chance to sit down and think about how many days are left. However, this separation hasn’t been easy. I’m leaving this post here to honor not just the good times but also the tough times. They happen too.
My time as Graduate Writing Specialist is coming to an end in a few weeks, as I have mentioned in my Altac Chronicles. However, I am still committed to helping out the graduate students at my school. Even though the next two weeks are mostly dedicated to writing reports and leaving instructions to whoever replaces me, I still get requests for help.
This is also the time of the year where I get lots of requests from graduate students for me to read dissertations or theses. Don’t get me wrong, I would do it if I could. But I am not a personal Writing Consultant; I am a Programming Associate, and I have a lot of other responsibilities that I have to balance on a daily basis. I simply do not have the time to read a whole dissertation chapter, let alone a dissertation. But it breaks my heart to tell students I can’t help them; often times these are students who have been writing from afar, or who have only recently discovered the Writing Center, or who think that I, the Graduate Writing Specialist, am the person they were looking for all along: someone who can sit down and comb through every page and give them feedback.
At moments like that, when a student is weeks (or days!) away from their dissertation defense or from a major deadline, I send them our writing center’s list of Professional Editors, knowing full well that some of them cannot afford to hire an editor full time. Because they can’t afford an editor and because our services are free (and rightfully so) they wonder who in our office can read their whole dissertation chapter. But we work by appointments, and a consultant cannot read a chapter in one sitting–it’s something that none of us at the Writing Center can accomplish in one hour.
For this reason, last Thursday I inquired on Twitter and on my personal Facebook page about where graduate students and ex-graduate students found writing support. Advisors can’t do it all, even if they tell themselves they can (or they should), even if students don’t know any other option other than their advisor. So where do students go?
- Many go about it alone. One even jokingly asked what this thing called “writing support” was. Funny and sad at the same time.
- Others had a friend or peer who would do them the favor of reading their work. Some would exchange documents with a peer and pay them back by giving them feedback. This is a common system, but not sustainable when, say, one of the writers has a deadline coming up and they don’t have the time to offer feedback to their writer.
- Ask for help online. The ones who suggested this were folks who I know are active on Twitter.
- Advisors. These are the de facto sources of writing feedback, but are they necessarily a form of writing support? I’m not being facetious, but genuinely curious.
- Writing groups. These are harder to come by because it’s more about fit than department, but in my experience they are very helpful!
- Mentors. Another group who works from the goodness of their heart and who oftentimes offer support even if it is not in their job description.
My takeaway from this brief, informal survey of colleagues, friends, and family was that there are many sources of writing support, but that there are still many who don’t know where to go to to find someone who will read long documents. I even heard from two people who mentioned that the writing centers they’ve interacted with have not been helpful. If the writing center is the place to have conversations about writing and writers cannot count on us, how can we better serve the graduate student population?
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