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Dissertation Check-In #3: Organizing, Scheduling and Tools of the Trade

It’s been a while since I did a post on my writing process– from organizing my writing, to scheduling time to write/setting goals and my favorite tools of the trade. So here’s what I’ve been doing and using to get to Ph.Done:

Organizing

Because I do a lot of different types of writing and because my brain needs to separate each style, I have a different journal for each type that I do. I have a dotted neapolitan bullet journal for my calendars and personal journaling; a lined leather journal with a quote from Toni Morrison on the cover for my long form fiction notes; a lined cahier for short pieces including my freelance and blog posts; and a classic large black hardback dotted journal with my initials on it for my dissertation thoughts. (I have linked to all below.)

The dissertation journal

I can not recommend having a dissertation journal enough. I use mine to take notes on readings, free write and do idea work before going into my Scrivener project to add pages, keep track of suggested edits from my advisor and draft periodic writing timelines as well as weekly and monthly writing goals. (I also sometimes use mine as a sketchbook….) Sometimes having a place to work through your thoughts before committing them to your dissertation file is super helpful.

The actual writing

My writing process is aided in large part by the software that I use for my dissertation. You don’t need fancy software at all– a word document or google doc will do– but I got Scrivener last year because I often write large projects, nonfiction, research, and fiction, and felt I could benefit from some specialized software. What Scrivener is most useful for in my opinion is the ability to jump from section to section with ease and move those sections around. You can write in chunks, which are then moveable on the left hand side of the screen. You can also outline as index cards on a cork board, which then expand out into a page that you can write in. You can set yourself daily word count goals and whole project goals, which the software keeps track of for you.

Scrivener is a one time cost of $38 and I have written three fiction manuscripts, a journal article and half a dissertation in it since I got it so I can say with confidence that it transformed my writing experience. I use it for almost anything longer than about 10 pages. If you’re a visual person, all of the functions of the software may help you to your writing goal(s). (I have linked to Scrivener below.)

 

Scheduling

I constantly and consistently adjust my writing goals, which then impacts my writing schedule for the week and/or month. The most important tidbit I can pass on for dissertation writing is to be firm about your goals but flexible about how you get there. Adjust, and do it often.

When I first sat down to break apart my dissertation into manageable chunks, I gave myself an ambitious deadline for a first draft and a realistic deadline for a first draft. From there, I calculated how many words/pages I would need to produce per month to reach that goal. Then each month I broke down how many words/pages I would need to produce per week to get to the monthly goal. I then broke it down to a daily average, which for me worked out to about 250 words per week day, or about an hour of writing per week day. I wrote down all of those goals and numbers in my dissertation journal to keep myself accountable.

Now, do I consistently write 250 words in my dissertation Scrivener project a day? Absolutely not. Some days, often several in a row, I write nothing at all, preferring to read and take notes over synthesizing into dissertation pages. But I might write 1,000 one day during the week, and 250 another day, getting me to my weekly goal. Some weeks I do write 250 words every day, but those weeks are few and far between. I try to schedule and goal set so that I can be flexible about how I’m getting my work done without being rigid. It helps me strike a nice balance between allowing myself to write when the mood strikes and holding myself accountable to write a set amount per day or week.

On a day to day, given the fact that we are living through unprecedented times in which every morning seems to bring a new disaster, I can’t count on being focused or disciplined enough to write every morning of the work week from 9 AM to 10 AM. Under other circumstances, I might block out an hour every morning to write, but in the spirit of waking up every morning and paying attention to myself so that I may tend to what I need to be okay in this moment, I prefer to take stock of myself and see what I feel is reasonable, every single day.

Bonus: Extend Yourself Grace

And because I do this stock taking exercise every day, there are some weeks where I can’t work at all, which necessitates review and adjusting my schedule so that I can stay on track but give myself grace for the next week. Extending myself lots of grace is the only thing that I can do to pull myself through.

 

Tools of the Trade

Here are links to some of the tools that I have mentioned above and some others that I have found particularly useful in my dissertation writing adventure.

 

Journals

Archer & Olive A5 Neapolitan Dotted Journal

lined Moleskine cahier

Large hard cover dotted Moleskine journal

Jenni Bick Toni Morrison Black Voices Journal

Pens

Yellow Lamy Fountain Pen

Pilot V5 Retractable Deco Collection

Cloth + Paper Penspiration Subscription Box Pens

Writing Software

Scrivener

Citation Manager

Zotero

Learning Limitations

June was a personal trial for me. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the resulting protests and national uprising alone were enough to resurrect my panic attacks. The feelings were at least twofold– rage at these lives cut short and relentless fear for the lives of protestors, given the unbelievable reality that we are still living through an unprecedented global pandemic.

I spent the first few weeks of June trying to unravel the knot of difficult feelings that had taken up residence in my stomach, trying to breathe through waves of panic, trying to do anything other than spend most of the day crying.

Because while the world burns, Academia and publishing continues to ask of me, asking for my time and labor and thoughts. In June alone, I edited a book chapter, wrote a book review, wrote most of a journal article, edited my graphic novel manuscript and drafted a freelance reported piece. Many of these pieces popped up near the end of May/beginning of June– I only had a reasonable window of time to complete two of them…if we weren’t living through a pandemic and an uprising.

And while I got everything done in a reasonable time frame, as the month comes to a close, I’ve had some time to reflect on my own limitations.

I have to deal with the fact that though I am someone who likes to keep unreasonably busy– a result of both anxious energy and occasionally hypomania– there still has to be a limit to even my madness. I often come across a quote that says, “You can do everything; just not all at once.” Reflecting on that quote has meant really sitting with my ideas and asking questions of them and of myself: Do you need my immediate attention? Should I let you marinate a while longer? What’s the worst that would happen if I didn’t do this thing right now? How can I slow down? What can I let go of to help me balance this new thing?

 

The last question, What can I let go of to help me balance this new thing?, is very important. If you don’t make a conscious decision, then your work will make it for you. In order to get these side projects done, I had to put aside my dissertation for the month, a decision both my advisor and I thought practical. Practical or not, I was still frustrated that I couldn’t do all the things. I became increasingly agitated when my body wouldn’t cooperate when I asked it to keep pushing and working and going, producing in spite of the all consuming rage I was working against.

 

Finally, I had to stop.

I had to ask myself: Why is it so important that I do everything, right now?

 

And though I frequently talk about this impulse to push and go that is driven by a need for control, I’m always still surprised when that’s the answer that comes to mind.

I need to feel like something is in my control. The thing I’ve always been able to control is my productivity. When circumstances made it so that I was unable to even control my own output, I spiraled out of control.

After some emergency sessions with my psychiatrist, a consultation with a new therapist, an appointment with a somatic practitioner, new medication, more mindfulness apps and a frequently broken social media break, I started to feel more like myself. I was sleeping again. Food didn’t taste like sawdust in my mouth. The pressure that was threatening to burst out of my body had subsided.

I broke down my work into manageable chunks, giving myself plenty of reasonable daily and weekly goals, worked only a few hours a day, and spent a lot of time tending to myself. These days I have found a lot of joy in making art and accompanying my mom outside as she waters her plants in the morning while I enjoy my coffee. I watch Jeopardy! every evening and read for pleasure for about twenty minutes every morning and night.

I’ll be turning in the last of my June projects this afternoon and the marathon writing month will be over. But I have learned a valuable lesson: Know. Your. Limits.

 

The difficult part is that you don’t always know what your own limits are until they’re tested. And I went into June believing that juggling three too many projects was my personal brand. While that may be true, it’s true under very different circumstances.

Moving forward, I think my rule of thumb will be:

  • Only work on a MAX of 3 different writing projects at a time
    • One of them must be the dissertation
  • Stagger deadlines if possible and if you cannot say no to a new project
  • Work according to what your body is telling you it can handle, not what your mind believes your body can handle.

Valuable though the lessons learnt this month may be, I sure am glad it’s over now.

Sirens and Superwomen: Finding My Way Back to the Power in My Words

I finished reading A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow last night. I put off reading it for a little while because I knew whatever was inside, was going to change my life– or at least the layout of my syllabus.

In the midst of a pandemic and a national uprising sparked by the recent murders of Black folks (in particular, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and Nina Pop), I learned I was finally going to be teaching my own self-designed course. It was hard to be joyful; how, I wondered, was I supposed to teach a class on Black girls, new media and magic, when it feels like our worlds are nothing but fear and rage right now. How can I ask them to suspend disbelief– to meet me in imagined worlds– when our world exists the way it does?

Perhaps A Song Below Water didn’t give me answers, but it certainly cleared my head.

Morrow’s debut YA novel takes place in Portland, Oregon. Contemporary Portland, Oregon– not some faraway land you have to dream up the details of. The only difference is that the myths and folktales are true: Sirens walk among us (Seriously. They walk. They aren’t mermaids here.) Except one itty, bitty detail: only Black women are Sirens.

A Song Below Water follows the intertwined stories of two sister-friends, Effie and Tavia, as Tavia learns to embrace the power of her voice as a Siren and Effie comes into herself. (Vague, I know, but any more than that would be major spoilers.)

What readers think is a delightful tale of mermaids and underwater adventures and escapades is actually an insightful social commentary and poignant look at what it’s like to be a Black girl in America. Morrow’s book argues that the threat folks ascertain in Black girls and women can be found in our voices; it argues that our magic is real and it is matrilineal; and it argues that your Black girlfriends? They can always see you, and love you, for who you are. Readers are dropped into the lives of Black girls– microaggressions, love, protests, joy, and all. Morrow smartly weaves this narrative of our realities: being stopped by cops, snide remarks about our hair, the discomfort of being the Only Black Girl in Class with the joy of falling in love for the first time, falling asleep next to your best friend, reveling in the fact that you love yourself. Family love and difficulties hold space with fear of the unknown and connections with the ancestors.

Effie and Tavia’s world is absolutely lush and you want to dive headlong into it.

I picked it up to read a few days after it arrived. I had just woken up from a dream about my late grandmother. Not two pages in, and Tavia’s talking about the connection she has with her late grandmother. Weird, I thought, but not totally bizarre. A few more pages in and Tavia is describing the murder of a Black woman by the police that is sparking a lot of conversation around the nation. It was definitely bordering on prescient. But what truly sealed the deal for me was Tavia’s continued internal battle against her own nature based on external pressures– which is to say, the desire and need to use her voice.

For the first time since starting Black Girl Does Grad School in August 2016, I went an entire month without posting. It wasn’t intentional. Things just went from bad to worse with every passing day, and I felt paralyzed. There was not a thing I could say that would make it any better. So I took comfort in making art– where words failed me, I had images. I read the words of those who have come before me, thinking about the racist institutions they have named and rejected and which we still continue to use despite knowing they are built to work against us.

I thought about how I felt I had nothing to add to the conversation that hasn’t already been said.

I thought about how this was not the right time to write.

I thought about how my body physically resisted any attempt to write.

Even if I wanted to, my body was saying “No.”

And probably for the first time in my 26 year old life (the same age, I remember, Breonna Taylor was when she was murdered in her sleep), I listened to my body and I took time to grieve. Mourn. Reflect.

The expectation is that you come out of these moments of deep introspection with answers. I have none. I only know I am indebted to those who have given me the strength to go on. Those folks range from my parents to Bethany C. Morrow.

A Song Below Water gave me hope not only for a future of freedom; but a present informed by our ability to embrace our own power. Morrow showed me the way back to my voice– my words. My power. My freedom.

It was a lesson I was glad to learn; and one I can’t wait to share.