Category Archives: writing

Week 13, or Finals (Prep) Season

Normally during breaks, I write reflection pieces for BGDGS. This time around, I essentially worked straight through Thanksgiving Break, and while that’s not the healthiest thing I’ve ever done, it did give me some time to reflect on how I prep for final projects and seminar papers.

STEP ONE: Work up some ideas

My first step involves a lot of brain dumping. During November classes, I spend a lot of time turning ideas over in my head, trying to catch on to the ends of ideas brought up in class that peak my interest. As the semester progresses, you can find me jotting ideas for papers down in the margins of my journals or on post it notes.

STEP TWO: Follow an idea down the rabbit hole.

After I’ve collected enough of these half thoughts, I choose the idea that has the most substance to it. This process generally is dictated by how many questions I can ask related to the topic. Once a topic is selected, I do bigger brain dumps.

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Mind map and outline
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Up close mind map
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Outline

Above, you can see examples of two of my brain dumps. In the left most picture, the pink paper on top is a mind map– something I honestly haven’t done since I was in middle school but considering I’m working on a Scalar project for my Media class instead of a linear paper, I decided I needed to work through my ideas in a more associative way. The paper on the right in that picture is a traditional outline for my Reflections of the African Diaspora class. Linear papers get linear planning.

 

Then, you can see a closer view of my mind map and finally on the bottom all I’ve done is consolidate my ideas into a outline, broken into workable chunks.

STEP THREE: Secure, Read, and Annotate Some Books

My heavily annotated World of Wakanda Volume 1

 

Now is also about the time when I start gathering books for my final projects. I spend a lot of time in the Library database, requesting ILLs, pulling books from the library and my own personal stock of monographs and comics. Once the haul is over, I grab a pile of sticky notes, highlighters and pencils, and go to town with annotating those bad boys.

I typically color code everything– in my World of Wakanda volume, green indicates spatial references, orange identity formation, and blue technology. In books that will be used for more than one paper, I assign each class a color.

 

 

 

 

STEP FOUR: Start writing!

A blank scalar page

This blank Scalar page is about as far as I’ve gotten on actually writing anything. I have a blank word document for my Reflections paper, and just a few meager ideas for my Feminism essay. But fortunately, this is a light semester in terms of finals. Both my Reflections and Feminism papers are 15 pages, and my Scalar project should be about 2,500 words, which is about 10-12 pages. Compared to my first semester when I was writing between 60-70 pages total, this is going to be so manageable.

The Scalar project is just going to take time. I need to work on it a little every day to get used to working in the form so I’m not panicking and trying to do everything at last minute. My current plan is to write out all of my sections in a document first, then copy and paste the sections into Scalar, then work from there. I also want to try annotating videos and images in the site itself, so that’s going to take time as well. I’m going to work hard on this one because my friend and I are considering submitting these to a comics conference happening in August, if all goes well.

STEP 5: Think ahead!

As I’ve gotten further along in grad school, I’ve learned to think of final papers, not really as final papers, but as drafts, as playgrounds for ideas you can come back to, expand on, or turn into something different, like a conference paper or a dissertation chapter. Thinking about papers as intellectual exercises rather than scary, huge monstrosities helps take the edge off of finals season and puts you back in control.

I don’t have much written yet, but I do have a lot of prep work done. The more prep you do, the easier finals season becomes. Hopefully next time, I’ll have more to reflect on, but in the meantime, good luck to everyone out there who, like me, is struggling through Finals Season.

Happy Writing!

Week 5, or How to Successfully Defend A Master’s Thesis

Yes, it’s true, I did defend my thesis on Wednesday and I’m still riding on the high of being free from that enormous weight.

As I’ve got this step behind me, I want to reflect a little bit on the process. My program required me to write a portfolio, with the understanding that the essays will build off of those written for seminars over the course of the year. I used an essay that I wrote for my Popular Culture and Power class during my first semester, and the essay I wrote for my Harlem Renaissance class for the other. At the end of the year, my first step was to get organized…

STEP 1: Get organized! Make yourself a schedule!
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At the start of the summer, I was required to create and submit a writing plan to my advisor and the Dean. While this was primarily a formality so that I would be allowed to hold a part time job at Michaels, having this as a set of guidelines was really helpful.

I admittedly did not follow this schedule exactly, but I followed it well enough to get a first draft in on August 1 as planned and a defense by the end of September. Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten was to be firm with your goals, but flexible about how and when you get there.

 

STEP 2: Make sure to do your research!

I already wrote about the joys of archival research, so be sure to check that out, as well as the lovely piece that was written about me from the VCU end.

STEP 3: Just write! 

Write, unfiltered, as much as you can, every day if possible. I also wrote about that struggle over the summer as well in another blog post.

STEP 4: Editing, editing…and more editing.

IMG_4348After I wrote my first draft and submitted it to my advisor the first time, she gave me a nice little letter with general comments, as well as a physical copy of my paper with marginalia. It took me a little while to wade through all of her comments, but after I did, I compiled a list of all the edits as a check list with notes on how to address each point. (For example, she might suggest that I need to add historical evidence, and I would write in which books or articles had the evidence she was looking for. Occasionally, I’d write a sentence or two addressing the issue on the page. Or rewrite an entire section on the back of a page…)

This process was particularly stressful because I waited until school started to really get into this. So I did an insane amount of content edits in about two weeks. For two weeks, I carried my binder of notes and drafts and edits around with me until I felt like crazy Joe Gould, writing and rewriting his oral history. I was agitated and stressed out for two solid weeks, and in the days leading up to my second submission, I had every last one of my family and friends praying for me.

But fortunately, my second submission was defensible! I got my advisor my second draft Monday morning of the 11th and by the 12th, she’d e-mailed me saying my draft was good, that she’d go ahead and e-mail my committee to set up a date at the end of September, that I would have yet another annotated draft in my mailbox and that after finishing those edits, I should e-mail out my portfolio (my third draft) to my committee by the 15th. (Can I just take a second to emphasize what a SUPERHERO my advisor is???)

STEP 5: Schedule and prepare for your defense.

My advisor handled this part, primarily because I think she thought we’d be able to get the ball moving faster if she plead on my behalf. I had to get my defense done by the end of September and while I wanted to be done, the fast turn around had less to do with me and more to do with satisfying administration.

Because of this, I didn’t have any control over when I actually defended. They gave me a date and a time, and that was it. I gave myself a week break from looking at my thesis because honestly, I was burnt out from thinking about it. Then, I started trying to prepare.

My defense, as I understood it, was not a formal thing. It would mostly be a conversation. My advisor suggested however, that I write a short statement to introduce my work. I tried very hard to write it, but it only happened the night before the big day, and in the end of it was just a series of bullet points– cute anecdotes about being a precocious child in love with comics and a hotheaded teenager using comics to prove a point in English class. I talked about how I came to Black Panther comics and Incognegro, what I was trying to accomplish and where I wanted to go with my work.  I practiced it in my car driving from Suffolk to Williamsburg and to my dog, who had no idea what was happening but looked at me encouragingly.

STEP 6: DEFEND!

Even knowing that the defense was informal, that my committee members were awesome, that my advisor would not set me up for failure, I was still nervous going in. I put on my James Baldwin sweatshirt and prayed for the confidence of Angela Davis, the candor of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the presence of mind of Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, DuBois and literally every Black figure I’ve ever been inspired by as I walked up to the building.

We had it in the library in the American Studies building. I chatted with my advisor until everyone appeared, and soon after that, my advisor welcomed everyone and gave me the floor for my introduction. I did it and then the questions started. One of my committee members set me at ease by saying that all of his questions should be framed by the fact that he thought my portfolio was great and it was a really fun read. He got the ball rolling by asking me to talk about the parts that I enjoyed writing and did well in my portfolio and which could have used more work– and as I described how fun it was to go do archival research and learning about the historical presence of Black Panther, I finally understood what everyone was trying to tell me. I was the expert on this. I knew this stuff. This was my wheelhouse and I loved it. It showed in my work. It showed in my face as I lit up talking about my paper. So it went on like that for an hour and a half, fielding questions about intellectual property, time-traveling frogs, and Christopher Priest. They complimented sections of my close readings and pointed out one important section of an image that I completely missed (thankfully it didn’t destroy my argument and I can go back and add it as a footnote.) They gave me suggestions and helped me think through where I could go with my ideas. I took lots of notes, and then at last, it was over.

They asked me to step out of the room for a few minutes and when the door opened again, my advisor came to get me, smiling widely and giving me thumbs up. “They loved it!” she told me, and I walked back into the room to congratulations and hugs. I chatted with them for a little while longer, got myself a celebratory hazelnut latte, and called my parents with the news as I walked to class.

STEP 7: CELEBRATE AND GIVE THANKS!

IMG_4389 I spent the hours after my successful defense buying myself ingredients to make stew, having Red Lobster with my parents and writing a blog post about my gratitude for everyone who helped me get to this point.

The celebration lasted a couple of days. I was taken out for dinner, ice cream and coffee by friends and family. My friend got me a hilariously appropriate congratulatory Superman card, on which she had crossed out the “birthday” with Sharpie and added “defense” instead. I got calls from friends and texts from advisors and mentors and I could not have been happier.

STEP 8: Attend to the final administrative touches.

Now, even though the hard part is over, I still have administrative touches to go through. My committee each gave me drafts with comments and line edits, though one member assured me it would be a day or two of edits at the most. I still have to submit it to an online system for the College, which could result in formatting edits, plus forms of all kinds which will allow it to go on JSTOR and I have to get it bound for the American Studies department once those edits happen.

My advisor suggested I get these done sooner than later, so I’ll probably take this up again over Fall Break. I applied to get my diploma in January, so I do need to make sure all of these logistic matters are in order so nothing stands between me and degree number 2.

It’s been a wild ride but the worst is over thankfully. Now, I can move on to the next step– I’ll admit, I’m already thinking about comps lists.

As my mom would say, “Keep it movin’.”

Week 2, or Quitting

Every so often, I have to convince myself to keep writing. Most of the time, I plod along with my writing, knowing that (a) my writing is terrible and/or (b) no one is reading my work. Occasionally, I have to spend an enormous amount of time convincing myself that my writing is not terrible, and even if no one is reading, at the very least, I can say I’m writing.

Rationally, I know I’m probably doing just fine, but the part of my brain run by my uncontrollable anxiety tells me that I need to just quit while I’m ahead. It tells me that my Masters thesis will be terrible, and that if I can’t get through a Masters, how am I supposed to write a dissertation. It tells me that I’m not good enough to be published, even though I’ve built up a solid digital portfolio over the last few years on a few different websites. It tells me that I need to stop blogging because it’s useless, a time suck and it’s crap anyway.  I become convinced that I don’t deserve to work with undergraduate writers on their publication because I don’t know anything about editing, even though I spent a year of my life as an editorial apprentice. I just know I will never write anything worth while and continuing to try is simply me fooling myself.

I want to quit so often that it’s a miracle I’m even still doing this.

Today, I wanted so badly to throw all of it away. I wanted to delete all of the drafts, destroy my manuscripts, dump every single one of the many journals I’d carefully filled with my thoughts over the course of years. I wanted to quit blogging, resign as grad assistant from the undergraduate black run publication I’m advising, and give up on my dreams of helping jump start a journal for the Lemon Project, of being a contributing writer for The Atlantic, of becoming Editor-In-Chief of my own publication some day. I became so convinced that I had nothing to say, nothing of substance to add to the world that I even contemplated simply never speaking in class ever again.

The irony of it all is that I wanted to write how I felt.

I wanted to write a blog post about my fears of never publishing a novel, a journal article or an op-ed.

Every time I write anything, I open myself up to critique. In addition to the constant stream of negativity I deal with in my own head, other people get to spew their vitriol at me and my thoughts, if they want. (This hasn’t happened yet, but eventually, I will probably write something that will piss off a solid amount of people.) If I can’t even convince myself to keep writing as a nobody grad student with a blog that only reaches a couple dozen people weekly, what do I expect to do if some day I do write something important and everyone around me is telling me to quit writing?

The wonderful thing about this blog is my ability to put a positive spin on everything: I add a touch of hope, a line about resiliency, or at the very least trying again tomorrow. Unfortunately, this week I’m coming to this with an unprecedented amount of cynicism. I’m not sure how long I’m going to be in this funk, but I suppose as long as I’m still writing, even if it’s about how bad my writing is, it’s better than no writing at all.