Tag Archives: writing

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.

How Writing Fiction Has Helped Me Write My Dissertation

One of my personal trademarks is my love of undertaking lots of projects at once. My mother characterizes me as someone who loves to stay busy; once she said that if you take a normal person’s full workload and add about five things, that’s my sweet spot. There are a number of troubling ideas tied up in this conception of busy-ness: critiques of hustle culture, the unreasonable workload hefted onto the shoulders of junior scholars of color (specifically women of color) and the very real trope of the Black Superwoman come immediately to mind. There are so many factors that leave someone like me vulnerable to overwork and burnout. However, a combination of boundless energy fueled by anxiety and often hypomania, and a desire to keep myself motivated by pursuing a number of side passion projects helps keep me sane while I’m writing my dissertation.

I have a few different hobbies, including yoga and crafting, that offer respite in different ways, but the number one activity that keeps me ready to dissertate is, surprisingly, more writing.

Since passing my comprehensive exams last May, I’ve been focused on my prospectus and dissertation. Since that same date, I have also drafted two novels, several comic book scripts, and over half of a graphic novel project.

Researched dissertation and article writing uses a different set of muscles than fiction writing. For me, it’s the equivalent of reading for research and reading for fun (which is also something I make sure to do while dissertating). Either way, like various forms of exercise, it’s all still good for you. It keeps your mind well oiled and practiced.

Writing fiction is actually a great motivator for me to do my researched work. I often don’t let myself write any pages on my fiction project until I’ve hit a predetermined goal for my writing session (usually something like 250 words or 2 pages). And because I’m eager to write new pages, I’m more likely to get my work writing done before heading over to my other Scrivener projects. It’s a great break for when I want to write but I’m tired of my “scholar voice” and want to explore things in other ways.

It also helps me hone in on what I want to say in my dissertation and how I want to say it. One of the novels that I wrote and have worked on a lot since I first drafted it last year is, in a lot of ways, a fictional adaptation of many of the themes I’m exploring in my dissertation. Trying to convey those themes in a Young Adult novel requires thought exercises that help me be clear and concise about the idea I am trying to communicate in my dissertation. The likelihood that anyone outside of my committee will read my project is slim, but these ideas are still important to me, so I slip them into my novel. Writing on (at least) two different projects helps me think through who my audience is for my work– all the variations of it.

I think this is particularly important to me as a scholar who writes about Black girls (and women). I want to talk to us. I want to use my words to reach somebody. And I know that my scholarship– my manuscripts and peer reviewed articles– may not be the work that gets to who I want to be in conversation with. But it might be my novels. Perhaps a blog post. Maybe the articles I manage to write when I have the time.

Then, practically speaking, writing fiction reminds me that my whole life isn’t my dissertation. It helps me keep things in perspective. My dissertation is not, will not, be my magnum opus. I am much more than these few hundred pages that I will produce as a representation for this sliver of time in my life when I was deeply invested in chasing this one particular set of questions. I will write other things. I will love writing other things. There’s so much more to explore than what will go between the covers of this project.

There are so many reasons why this works for me. I could write about how it’s a salve for my soul. I could write about how fiction saves me. But ultimately, I do this because I can’t not.

When I was a first year in my grad program, Edwidge Danticat came to campus and someone asked her why she wrote. She replied simply, “I can’t not.” Nic Stone recently said something similar on an Instagram Live video.

I write all of these things because I can’t imagine living with all of these stories inside of me, just carrying around from place to place. Wouldn’t they get heavy? No, I have to write mine down to make space for the new ones, and then one day, I will write those, too.

I can’t control how my ideas come out of my head and make their way onto paper. I’m just grateful I have the tools to work with them and help them find the form they need to thrive.

Dissertation Check-In #1

I opened a new scrivener file for my dissertation and started writing on December 28, 2019. In the two months that have elapsed since that day, I have done a lot of reading and a lot of drafting– 50 pages worth actually.

If it seems like I’m writing like a madwoman, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Writing is my primary vehicle for processing the world so I write a lot and often.
  2. I write fast. If I have an idea, I can lay down 1,000 words in under an hour.
  3. I don’t self-edit as I write. I word vomit and edit later.
  4. I am not working this semester. At my school, if you TA or are a teaching fellow, you’re off the semester you are not working.
  5. I have written something that can serve as a basis for each chapter, intro and conclusion, whether it be a conference or seminar paper, or an article draft. (Protip: before I started writing, I gathered all my relevant writing into a document so I would have my ideas all in one place. That document was 150 pages.)

To point number five, I’ve tested out a lot of these ideas, worked them out, but I’m excited to get to spend some time molding them on paper and synthesizing them even further.

Also, in terms of actual writing time, I don’t spend that much time writing. Every week, I give myself a writing goal word count. Typically, the minimum is 1,250 words (or 250 words on average every week day) and the maximum is 2,500 (or 500 words on average every week day). I try to be very flexible with myself, so it doesn’t matter how the words come out. If I write 1,250 words or more one day, I consider my work done for the week unless I have a stroke of inspiration, I rarely write more. Usually, though, I spend about an hour three days out of the week working on my word count goal.

That said, if I’m only writing a few hours a week, what am I doing the rest of the time? Reading. I spend a lot of time reading, rereading, reviewing, and researching. I’m taking notes and sketching and outlining. Admittedly, I do other things, too: I go to meetings for my various jobs around campus and with my advisor, I do conferences, go to lectures. And of course, I spend some time freelance writing, pitching and drafting and editing essays.

But I’ve got a rhythm for the time being: Monday through Friday, I am in Williamsburg, writing in my apartment or at the local coffeehouse. Every day that I write, I also move. So I try to make it to a yoga class (or Body Combat on Wednesdays), every day that I spend sedentary working. On Friday, I stop working, no matter where I am on the spectrum of my word count, and I drive home to Suffolk and spend the weekend with my folks. We do nothing happily and we go to church on Sundays. I sometimes make things, like mini canvases with custom quotes, for people. I take a break. And then on Monday, I drive back to Williamsburg and start my week over again.

All of my pages have gone off to my dissertation advisor and I’ve since gotten edits and comments back. However, sometime last week, I realized I was going really hard on the dissertation, even with all of my scheduling and breaks. So I took last week (which incidentally happened to be my birthday week) off. Tomorrow, Monday March 2, I am going to comb through my advisor’s comments a little more carefully and spend a week or two adjusting and reworking based on her thoughts. I will spend the last two weeks of March hopefully drafting about 20 new pages of work.

My goal, ultimately, is to have a sizeable chunk of this project drafted this year. I expect most of my work will come in the editing process. Writing, simply put, isn’t the hard part for me. Editing to get it where it needs to be is the beast I have to conquer.

In any case, I think I’ve made good progress over the last two months. I have a system that works for me and an advisor who is supportive, present and forthcoming with feedback. I do like being in this space: I love that it’s just me and my writing. It’s what I love, just getting carried away by ideas, and right now I can do that with minimal interruption.

It’s kind of nice.

Will it stay that way? Only time will tell.