Writing, writing, bane of my life

I know, me and everyone else, ever. As I was saying earlier, though, I ran into more writer’s block than I was prepared for. Like that post, this one is also a post about teaching.

Useful thing I have discovered: I write better when I’m teaching.

There are a few factors to this:

  • Perversely, I’m more productive when I have more demands on my time. Particularly if the demand, on top of my regular courseload, is a people-oriented job; if it gives me structure to my week and short-term deadlines which might otherwise be lacking.
  • Said people-oriented jobs often keep me feeling good about myself.  They give me plenty of small ways to feel effective and efficient. Retail worked well for this; front office work wasn’t too bad either; and teaching is brilliant.
  • Marking is the best writing training anyone ever invented.

Let’s talk about the last one a bit more.

Lesser Known Editing and Proofreading Marks - a list of silly/snarky proofreading marksFirstly, marking is similar to editing. And editing is excellent writing training. I edited my friends’ essays and had my friends edit mine all the way through undergrad; and I had the boon – or bane – of a merciless copy-editor in my teacher/mentor M. Eventually, I learned to look at things and think what would M. say about this?* I in turn subject my (un)fortunate undergrads to this treatment. And one upside of turning my editor-brain back on is that am critically reviewing my own work as I go. Bonus!

The second thing is that I’ve been sick. And when sick, I seem to end up in a state of semi-functionality where I can take information in, but find it hard to put it back out again in a hierarchical or analytical fashion. Everything I wrote between, oh, January and April and to be completely rewritten because it had no structure at all.

You know who else has trouble putting out information in a hierarchical and analytical fashion? Undergrads. If I benefited from the copy-editing side of marking most from the outstanding students, the decent-but-not-brilliant students gave me something useful, too. In the course of figuring out Simple Steps To Improving Your Structure/Paragraphs/Introductions* * For Second Years, I accidentally taught myself how to fix problems even when my brain is coated in cotton wool.

Practice non-random punctuation and sensible acts of grammarThere was that one spectacular week when I ran a tutorial on “common structural errors and how to fix them”. I used a hypothetical essay question, so as not to pick on anyone in particular; and that  hypothetical question just happened to relate to the chapter I was writing. Not a single mistake covered in that tutorial was absent from my draft at the time! That was depressing.

Looking at my own work in relation to the work that comes across my desk from students has another benefit, too: it’s helps snap me out of perfectionism. I could run myself in circles trying to make something perfect; or I could look at it and think how would I tell the second-years to fix this? If it’s fixed sufficiently that I could show it to a bright student as an example of “writing problem: fixed”, that will do for a first draft! And then we can rinse and repeat this process on subsequent drafts.


* I had the great satisfaction of sharing workspace with two MDST undergrads one afternoon, while one of them edited the other’s essay. I’m not sure there’s any more gratifying words to hear than “would you rather hear this from me, or Amy?”
** I promised someone a workshop on conclusions. However, I’m still not sure I know how to write a conclusion! Problematic.

A post about writing, and being ill, and teaching

Hello, intertubes! I disappeared again. My doctor and I were fucking around with my medication again – which has been to my net benefit, but gave me a month or so of reduced coping capacity. I’m facing the fact that I need an extension on this thesis, which feels silly for what was supposed to  be just a filler degree before moving on to bigger and better things. But fact is, I like it, I want to do it justice, and perhaps the most important things I’m learning out of this degree are not the things I thought they were.

I’ve learned a lot of gender theory. I’ve learned some Latin, and sharpened my Old French, and learned that I love teaching.

I’m learning, again, how to write a long project. But this time, I’m consciously thinking about how to do that work while sick; without screwing over my other responsibilities; while doing what I can to preserve my health. I’m learning not to pin my entire functionality – “I might be sick but goddamn it I will write this thesis and everything else can go jump”, aka, Highly During Honours – on one piece of work. It worked during Honours; it’s not going to work for the rest of my life, and I might as well get out of the habit now.

A few weeks ago ADM talked to the writing group (in which I am just scraping by, checking in most weeks and not engaging much, but it’s helping me structure thing sin my head) about pacing. I quote:

Add those things together, and then the somewhat insane sort of schedule that many of us have, plus the fact that my body has been rebelling against my life in a fairly serious way since the end of July, and you get a very different reading of “pace yourself.” Where some people got sort of Bolshie and focused on the part where they thought they were being told to work according to a certain pattern, I only saw the metaphor of the race, and the physical connection to what it is we are doing. Because for me, pacing myself isn’t just about making sure I get things done on time, or organize my schedule in a way that I don’t have to play catch-up. It’s that if I don’t pace myself, there seem to be very real and very bad physical consequences. And those physical consequences can snowball and then create a vicious cycle of bad, overused metaphors being too ill to work, getting too stressed because I’m not accomplishing anything, and then doing really unhealthy things to my body in order to try to catch up.

To which I only have to say: yes, this. I’m pretty shit at this self-management lark right now, but I know now this is something I really need to learn; I expect to come good, healthwise, sooner or later, but I don’t expect to stay that way forever.

So one thing I’ve had to do recently is talk to my superiors and sort out extensions: because I could tunnel-vision and finish this fast, but that wouldn’t be good for me, the work, or this process of learning how to manage my time and health.

Teaching comes in handy here.  I make a big deal out of telling my students to apply for extensions and assistance when they need them. To talk to me before they absent fail their way out of the course. I make a big deal out of telling them that very few people, faculty or administration, are out to be mean to them, and by and large, if you have reasonable justification and can figure your way through the extension system, you’re going to get some kind of concessions.

I can’t exactly stand up in front of a class and tell it’s silly to be too ashamed to apply for help you actually need if I don’t take my own advice, can I?

Optimal working environments?

I have a feeling my optimal working environment is the one I had during my undergrad – in third and fourth year I rarely did work alone, unless I was up in the weird hours of the night. Instead, I worked either in my room with one or two friends, or in someone else’s room with one or two of us in there. And in fourth year we decamped to the college library, where we either worked in the quiet space at big tables where we could make faces at one another and share coffee, or in the study rooms, where we’d be able to talk occasionally.

And I got lots of work done.

Now I work under library conditions, and I end up talking to the internet a lot. Except today I ended up in an entirely different place, and knocked out about two pages of thesis and some tutorial readings in the company of one of the MDST undergrads, and, later in the afternoon, her regular study-buddy. We had that fantastic study-conversation thing going which sounds like a dialogue until you tune in and realise that one half of it consists of, in this case, mutterings about Norse vocabulary (was it a sent message, or a foot-message? As it turns out, it was a foot-message) and the other bitchings and moanings about Chrétien de Troyes.

I got a remarkable amount of work done. And I was cheerful while doing it! So, I think, was my temporary study-buddy.

This is weird, because I know from experience that I can’t get much work done at home, even when my housemate was here working on her honours thesis from home. I can get teaching prep and marking done (this involves a lot of muttering  and is best not done in silent spaces) at home, and even thesis readings, but not writings. So it can’t just be that I work better in the company of other geeks – my housemate is pretty geektastic, after all. But maybe I should look into finding regular study partners, and also somewhere to work that isn’t a library…

Tell me about your working environments? Are they productive ones? Why?

[Ed: and this evening, O Internets, I got lost in Central Station. I’ve only lived here for seven years!]

Aaargh, writing

I am probably a prime candidate for ADM and Notorious’ Writing Group, but due to absence from the intertubes I didn’t notice it was happening at all. Nevertheless: writing. It sucks.

Does anyone else find that their writing becomes a case study in all the things they’re trying to tell undergraduates NOT to do? At the moment I think my thesis is suffering from structure anxiety – I don’t remember having this much panic about what goes where and how to structure subsections when I wrote my Hons. thesis, but at the moment I keep constantly re-writing.

Talking to undergrads about how to structure things helped, though. Sometimes I’m even able to leave a note for myself, as if I were marking someone else’s work, and move right on.

Mostly, I’m not. Mostly, I think I’m much better at *teaching* writing skills than employing them. That sucks, for someone who’s thought of herself as A Writer her whole life.

Someone please tell me I’m not the only one in this boat?

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I am in slough at the moment. Not any particular slough, just… slough in general. Except with respect to getting sorted the nine hundred and umpty something relatively minor medical and allied health things which I’ve been putting off for… up to four years, in some cases.  By the end of this semester, I will have had blood tests, ultrasounds,  retinal scans, dental check-ups, and, if I get around to the last item on the list, new orthodics! And also whatever unknown tests the new specialist may or may not want to put me through.

In order to achieve all this, I’m being very efficient with making appointments! Unfortunately, everything else in my life seems to require high-octane efficiency powers at the moment. Or sustained attention; or  both. I’m aware that this constitutes, well, life. But I’m still trying to figure out how to be moderately functional in the rest of my life, and proficient in my teaching, and functional at thesis-writing. I can do brilliant short-term tunnel vision, but long-term tunnel vision is… not really sustainable, and also not brilliant for maintaining one’s status as a functioning human being.

Edit - edit - panc - edit - research - WRITEAnd writing is like drawing blood out of a stone. Any form of writing can, I’m finding, end up like this: emails! LJ! Fiction! Poetry! Academia! All the things I like, basically. Sometimes all of them at once. Arranging words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs and and and I just don’t wanna.

I’m working on a set of ways around this. Thus far I have:

– absolved myself from writing coherently until teaching is over. I still have to write, it just doesn’t have to be coherent sentences or paragraphs. Unless someone’s assessing it – my annual review paperwork will, I suppose, have to be coherent. SIGH.

– tinkered with my thesis topic to come up with a way around the repeat “why the hell am I doing this and how can I do it without that ONE CRUCIAL PIECE OF SCHOLARSHIP WHICH I ASSUMED SOMEONE ELSE HAD DONE BUT ACTUALLY THEY HAVEN’T”. This really makes my life worse, since I have to make new plans and justify them in my annual review. But it’s making me feel a lot better about what I’m doing.*

– remembered that WriSoMiFu exists! Write Something You Miserable Fuck is for those who do not have the fortitude for NaNoWriMo. WriSoMiFu is open to any kind of writing: fiction, non-fiction, essays, theses, journals, fanworks, blog posts, poetry, random crap you typed up just to pass your daily writing requirement. The community specialise in pessimism and bitching, but, from what I saw last year, participants actually seem to get things done! Frequently at a rate of far more than the minimum 10 minutes per day. Last year I can’t remember what I wrote: probably a hotchpotch of things, including poetry. This year I’ll limit my WriSo-eligible writing to thesis content, and if nothing else, I have a built-in set of people to complain to every day.

As far as motivation goes, I’m sure sensible people come up with bright, cheery motivational matras to do with how much they love their work. Bright and cheery is overrated. I am reminding myself of something I’ve already learnt the hard way. I might be kind of hating this right now, but I’d rather be hating this than be comfortably doing something else. As encouraging thoughts go, it’s working pretty well.


* Lawrence, on the off-chance you’re still reading the blogosphere while you’re on leave, this should go a long way to solving the “why the hell do we care” problem. 😀

We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog silence to announce…



Guess who still hasn’t got her course acceptance? This is… odd. Can’t see any reason why I wouldn’t be accepted, but still. It’d be nice to have the piece of paper.

Very pertinent advice

Pertinent advice for early-career researchers, delivered on the basis of the circus that was my application-submitting over the last couple of days:

If you have something accepted for publication by a journal – such as a an article or review – make sure to:

1. Remember that you wrote it, and it was accepted

2. Obtain a copy

3. Write it down somewhere, such as in your CV

4. Remember its existence more than 48 hours before the application deadlines for scholarships, postgraduate programs, etc.

Why, yes, I did manage to have a review published in a peer-review journal and completely forget about it, and spend some time wondering if my not having published ANYTHING AT ALL would impede my scholarship chances, and so on. I let my membership lapse with the Australian Early Medieval Association, so I didn’t get a copy of volume 5, and was thus not reminded. When I happened to glance at the book (Kleist’s The Old English Homily) and think “hmm, I reviewed that, didn’t I OH WAIT”, I actually did not know whether it had been published (because I didn’t keep in contact with the reviews editor, due to forgetting it), and nor did I have all the citation details and so on that you need.

The library own a copy of volume 5.  The library have lost their copy of volume 5.

Fortunately, I have a very indulgent best friend, and the Centre for Celtic Studies was having a special lecture today so there were Celticists about. Be it known that Pamela O’Neil, editor of JAEMA, is a wonderful human being, the kind who opens up the envelope with the copy of JAEMA she was about to mail off to someone, and runs off photocopies for said very indulgent best friend. The Centre for Medieval Studies all already know I’m a scatterbrain, and now, let my reputation procede me into the Centre for Celtic Studies. :s

One day, I may establish myself as an organised and calm person. That day is not today.

On the bright side, mwahahahaa, I have a Publication Record. Of exactly one thing, and I don’t know how much reviews count for in the scholarship stakes, but something is better than nothing at all!