Stolen: Wind from My Sails

For about one hour this morning, I was in a state of inspired productivity.  I came up with an intro for a paper that I’ll be presenting in March; I had an idea for a lecture that I’ve been struggling to conceptualize; and I think I figured out how to restructure an article that I’ve been editing.  I was riding high.  And then I looked up the name of this fellow who I had been told might be working on something similar to my dissertation.  Similar?  Try exactly the same.  This guy’s got an article coming out, and he’s been nice enough to post it on-line; reading it, I felt like I was reading my own thoughts.  Shit, he even started his piece with a quotation that I used in my dissertation prospectus.  What the fuck?  I actually sobbed a little.  Crushing.

Fortunately, my adviser’s quite good at talking people down from their ledges.  He reassured me that I have nothing to worry about.  My topic is big enough for the both of us, me and this other guy, and probably more people, too.  He also reminded me that I am an environmental historian, and noted that this other guy is a diplomatic historian, so it’s not exactly the same thing; in fact, these are very different approaches.  And this might help when I go to look for a job, because this other fellow’s book (he’s a professor at Harvard) will be out five-six years before mine, so I’ll have a literature to directly engage.  All it really means is (a) I gotta get my ass moving on this and (b) I need to make sure to clearly define my environmental history approach to the whole thing.

Still, I’m a bit deflated.  It looked like I was going to kick some serious ass today–on a Friday, no less!–but now, not so much.  Instead, it may turn into a day of administrative work and video gaming.

My Writing Process

It seems that the longer I spend writing, the longer my writing process becomes.  I’m now up to no fewer that five steps:

1) The warm-up.  Getting the fingers going and the brain clicking.  Blog posts are good for this, although it means that you, dear reader, have to put up with it.  It’s kind of like the first batch of pancakes–the griddle’s not quite hot and the batter hasn’t fully set, but you’ve got to throw something on there anyway.

2) The page puke.  Get all that crap in my head out on a piece of paper so I can get a sense of what I’m dealing with and what ideas I want to hit.  Others call this a “brainstorm,” but that sounds far too creative.

3) The outline.  My outlines have become monsters.  We’re not talking broad ideas here; my outlines stretch from thesis all the way down to the pieces of evidence I’m going to use.  I have a feeling that this is going to have to change as I work on longer projects–say, a dissertation–but this has served me pretty well so far.  This is really where I’m doing the thinking and creating–building the argument, finding connections, creating segues, etc..  That’s probably why my outlines are so detailed–I want to make sure I don’t forget how it all goes together in the next step.

4) First draft.  A steaming pile of crap.  For a while, I was trying edit-while-writing, but that road leads to one sentence a day for me.  So I just try to push through without worrying about grammar, punctuation, slick sentences, etc..  Just get the logic worked out.  Evidence can also wait–put some brackets where I’ll want it later on.

5) Second draft.  Where the major revisions occur: style, argument, evidence.  This is also the point of no return; once I’ve committed to this level of revision, I’m committed to finishing the project.

6) Final-ish drafts.  Here’s where I put the thing out to my friend-reviewers.  Their comments can take me all the way back to step four.  Rinse and repeat until draft is shiny, soft, and full of volume.

Grumpy Bastard

I’ve been doing my level best* to confine my teaching–including prep work, etc.–to Tuesdays and Thursdays, leaving M/W/F for dissertation.  But I keep falling behind, and this week I had to stay up late on Monday and get up early on Tuesday to grade and prep lectures.  Predictably, classes yesterday went poorly.  Fine; we’re allowed bad days, I say.  I’m more concerned that I was a truly grumpy and unpleasant bastard from Monday night through Tuesday.  The students, fortunately, didn’t bear the brunt of it.  My spouse, unfortunately, did.  Turns out I’ve developed an impossible need for absolute silence when I work, and it becomes even more exacerbated when I’m under the gun.  My spouse having the audacity to breathe or offer me a glass of water–well, that was simply unacceptable, and I delivered a few sharp and extremely ill-advised remarks.  Ugh.  Apologies galore, and my spouse forgave and understood, proving once again that I am the junior partner in the relationship.

Lessons learned?  Get my shit done during the day, especially if it’s due tomorrow.  If I’m going to work in the evening, choose stuff that’s not time-sensitive–reading a book for my dissertation is fine, but grading papers that need to be returned tomorrow is not.  And if that means that I need to do teaching prep during part of a dissertation day, so be it.

* I love that phrase.  It ranks right up there with “I don’t give a flying fuck.”  Which, of course, I shouldn’t say.  Dirty, dirty words.

Don’t Worry, Because The Job Market Always Sucks

The brilliant, insightful, and eminently likable kungfuramone is on the job market, and it’s freaking him out a little bit.  To which I have three thoughts:

1) Don’t Panic, because there’s nothing to be done about the history job market.  It probably sucks.  It’s always sucked.  The only thing you can do is work your ass off–write a good dissertation, do some teaching, maybe get an article published–and cross your fingers.  If you’ve got connections or favors, call them in.  But try not think about the state of the job market; doing so only wastes time that you might spend getting something else done.

2) Then again, if KFR is worried, what hope is there for me?  KFR is fucking brilliant and really nice.  If KFR can’t get a job, that either (a) proves that it’s all just a crap shot or (b) bodes ill for the less skilled, like me.  Which brings me to…

3) Back-up plans.  In this area, I think people who have worked outside the academy have an advantage: we know that regular work isn’t the end of the world.  Serve coffee?  Okay.  Computer support?  I guess so.  Sales?  I’d rather not, but it’s a job.  I’ve done shitty work in the past, and I’ll do it again if I have to.  So will KFR; that kid hasn’t been locked in the tower all his life.  But the Straight-Throughs (k-12 -> undergrad -> grad) seem unable to conceptualize doing regular work.  Maybe that’s why I notice younger grad students clutching their pearls more than older grad students.  Except for occasional lapses like KFR’s.

And mine, right now.

The Gambler, Graduate-Style

Yesterday I spent somewhere in the neighborhood of five hours searching for fellowships and grants for next year.  What a mind-numbing experience.  Also a bit frustrating, because I’m pretty sure that I won’t be getting any of those fellowships.  No Ivy League credentials, no publications, and (gasp!) a lot of time spent teaching instead of researching.  I suppose there’s a chance that I’ll get lucky; it’s pretty much a crap shoot, as far as I can tell, depending more on the mood of the reviewer than the quality of the application.   It’s kind of like playing the lottery, except that I’ll spend hours-upon-hours of writing time instead of dropping a buck and getting a squishee at the Qwik-E-Mart.  Sigh.

Still…wouldn’t it be great if I got one?  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the sentiment that will keep me coming back for more.  I believe it’s also what keeps people at the slot machines.