Goodbye, Civilization: Off on my writer’s retreat
As I type this, I am on one of the Pacific Coach buses heading to downtown Victoria, fighting nausea and dizziness in an attempt to take advantage of Internet access while I still have it. You see, readers, in keeping with my previous post on the extremities academics go through in order to be productive, I have decided to book myself a ‘writing retreat’ in an isolated ‘spirituality centre’ somewhere on Vancouver Island. There are rules prohibiting meat, alcohol, caffeine, and the Internet. I hope that the forced seclusion will allow me to finally - finally! - finish my last chapter ever for this infernal dissertation. I have visions of myself writing in a room overlooking the beach, as productive as Sylvia Plath in her Cape Cod retreat, writing paragraph after paragraph with nary a worry in the world, happy that I finally have the chance to write.
Of course, I fear the opposite will be true. Rather than Sylvia Plath during her pre-Bell Jar days, what if I’m Sylvia Plath after her and Ted separated, grown desperate because of the isolation? What if the isolation kills me (metaphorically, of course, I won’t end up like Sylvia)? What if the lack of coffee turns me into a raving bitch? What if I wind up writing nothing but drivel?
The truth, I am sure, will most likely be in the middle. I doubt whether I’ll be writing my magnum opus in all its brilliance over the next few days but I also don’t think I won’t be doing anything. Wish me luck!
The elusive goal of having a consistent writing schedule
One skill I wish I have is to be consistent. More specifically, I wish I could have a more consistent writing schedule and thus be consistently productive.
Ideally, I wish I could be one of those people who wakes up promptly at 8 am and, after eating an energy-boosting, nutritious breakfast, promptly sits in front of her computer to write until 5, stopping only to eat and to take bathroom breaks. Also in this ideal world, my papers will be well-organized, my books alphabetized, and my writing space pristine.
In reality, what happens is that my days fluctuate wildly. There are days, like yesterday, when I accomplish a lot. I woke up at 8 am, was in school by 8:30, and spent all of my time writing. I finished an important section for this infernal chapter that I’ve been working on for the past year (!), writing 2,500 words in total and developing an important theoretical framework crucial to my work. In addition to doing all of these things, I also spent an hour at the gym, helped make an amazingly succulent pulled pork taco dinner, helped a colleague brainstorm on this new project that she is developing, and provided suggestions via email for this research project that I am pursuing with a group of other activists and academics. In other words, I was the boss, the queen bee academic, the poster-child for productivity.
Today was a struggle. I woke up at 10 am to the sounds of my building’s apartment manager rapping on my door for our semi-annual unit inspection. (They very quickly left after their inspection when they saw that I was still sleepy). Though I was initially annoyed, I was later relieved that they actually woke me up. After puttering around in my kitchen trying to figure out what to eat, and having an internal debate on whether I should go to bikram yoga or jump straight to writing, I ended up delaying these decisions by surfing on the Internet and being lured into an online discussion on whether Doug Ford will actually have the tenacity to run for mayor in the event brother Rob can’t. After this, I read celebrity gossip (my crack, to be honest), amused by the prospect of a newly pregnant Jessica Simpson possibly reneging on her Weight Watchers deal. And then, upon looking at the time, I decided that going to bikram yoga just wasn’t going to happen today. And here I am, at 2 pm. After marking a few papers, I opened the chapter I was working on yesterday and am now faced with the sinking realization that yesterday’s queen-bee academic is today’s pathetic jester. Every sentence I spit out seems insipid; all ideas seem trite.
This, readers, is how I write. My master’s thesis that got a distinction and that won awards? That was written at the very last minute, mere days before I had to leave for India to begin a new job (my first ever post-graduation). In fact, as I was typing the conclusion of my thesis, I had to beg the FedEx guy to please please please wait for me to finish because if he didn’t, then my thesis won’t arrive in England on time and I wouldn’t be able to get my master’s degree. In fact, the nice people in the mom and pop printing shop where I was working were so sympathetic, as was the FedEx guy, that they all collectively printed and collated each of my chapters while I was typing. With 5 minutes to spare before the FedEx guy had to go, my thesis was printed and sent to England. It was a tense moment, never to be done again.
Or so I thought. Every journal article, every chapter, every conference paper that I’ve ever produced was written when I had the spurt of adrenaline to keep me going and keep me writing. All-nighters are my friend. Fuelled by inspiration (desperation?), that’s when I write best. Though I always made my deadlines, the deflating feeling after, when all the energy has sapped out of me, is the worst.
And so I want to find the happy middle. I reblogged Tim Gunn’s exhortation to “just write” yesterday and I suppose that was what actually made me productive yesterday. My new goal, though, is to be consistently productive, which many tell me is the key to a solid academic/writing career.
Funny Encounters While Stuffing Your Face and Dissertating
Setting: Neighbourhood coffee shop
Cast of Characters: Me, dissertating while eating my third pumpkin scone in a row, patting my tummy contentedly; Sally Senior, chatty, sweet lady sitting next to me.
SS (looks over at me): I know you’re in the early stages but I have to ask. When is she due?
Me (confused for a second, but then assumes she somehow knows I’m dissertating): Oh, you know how these things go. Soon, I hope.
SS (laughs): Has it been difficult?
Me: It’s been more than 6 years.
SS (laughs): It feels like it, eh?
Me (even more confused): No, it really has been. It’s been more than six years.
SS (smiles): You’ll get there.
Me: Thank you!
A few minutes later, SS stands up to leave. She goes to the counter and then stops by my table. She holds out a brownie.
SS: This is for you and the little one (she gestures towards my belly). Have a great day!
Me (thinking): Whaaaaattt?
Moral of the story: if you stuff your face with too many pumpkin scones, nice, well-meaning seniors are apt to think you’re pregnant. I should do this more often!
“I fucking hate vegetables.”
Overheard While Dissertating
In all of my sojourns to various coffee shops around Toronto to dissertate, overhearing conversations between people who are obviously on blind dates is a constant source of curiosity.
Consider the following conversation that I am eavesdropping on:
Boy: So, uh, tell me about yourself? Any likes, dislikes?
Girl: I fucking hate vegetables.
Girl: I seriously, seriously, seriously hate vegetables. I can’t stand them. I think people who like vegetables are pussies.
Boy (laughs): Seriously?
Girl (Without laughing): Yes. Especially sprouts. Who likes sprouts?
Boy: Oh. I mean, yeah, I guess eating vegetables can be an evil necessity…
Girl: Vegetables are disgusting.
Fear and (Self)-Loathing in Academia: Why I Dread the First Day of School
I could not sleep last night in anticipation of the first day of school. However, unlike in years past, when the thought of returning to school filled me with unbridled glee, now I think of the start of school with trepidation. Actually, scratch that: thinking about the start of the school year and all that it entails is enough to make me want to curl up in the fetal position, suck my thumb, and start wailing. I suppose the difference between regular students and those of us who labor in academia is that grad students and profs see the start of the school year as signifying the beginning of work, which means the onslaught of deadlines, teaching responsibilities, and administrative tasks, whereas students see the school year as being full of possibilities. Herewith are the following academic issues that I have to face in the months ahead:
1. Getting my PhD – In the next year, I need to finish my dissertation, revise my dissertation, and defend my dissertation. Although I love my dissertation and see it as either being a co-dependent baby who I love and who needs my full attention or an abusive parasite that I can’t get rid of, the time has come for me to say goodbye. With a few friends, I’ve started a dissertation accountability group, where our goal is to see us through the program. Hopefully, this will help all of us become doctors sooner rather than later. And hey, one of the great things about this group is that I actually get to socialize with smart people who understand what I am going through. Sometimes, after hours and hours and hours of writing, you forget what human contact feels like.
2. Bolstering my CV – Although I am happy with the publications and the grants that I’ve managed to get, the realities of academia necessitates figuring out what your next publications are and where your next research grants will come from. Since this is my first official year ‘on the market’ (as an aside: can we think of a less frightening and less capitalistic term for those who are job hunting in academia?), I have to start finessing my CV to make me competitive for the very few postdocs, lectureships and professorships that are out there. We all know that finding an academic job is harder than getting Paul Ryan to tell the truth, so thoughts of what the ‘future’ holds is stressing me out. And, yes, when I look at the abysmal number of postings out there, I sometimes have a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment and think where I would be had I opted to say yes to law school rather than going to London for my masters.
3. Book Launch – A book I co-edited with a group of people who I now consider good friends and colleagues has now been released through a solid university press. This means, thankfully, that I can eliminate the term ‘forthcoming’ on my CV and actually say that it is out. (This also means that I can harangue my friends to buy it off Amazon!) This also means, though, that the very first book I’ve edited will also be subjected to academic scrutiny. Getting the feedback of our anonymous reviewers was tough enough but having our books actually reviewed by people in our field is daunting. What if nobody likes it? What if all the other chapters except mine are well-received? Worse, what if no one pays the book any attention?
4. Teaching – I am doing an inordinate amount of teaching this term in order to avoid falling into the PhD Trap, which, as I’ve discussed, involve PhD students being unable to finish their dissertation because they need to take the time out to work to pay for tuition and living expenses. Compared to other jobs, teaching at least offers some flexibility and – at least for me – is relatively easy, if only because I am going to be handling courses that I’ve taught previously. That said, I hope that this is a good teaching year, where I get engaged students. At the very least, I really hope I don’t have overly difficult and needy students who don’t care about the material but only want As no matter what it takes, even if it means begging, bullying, or both.
If I get through the next few months without turning into (too much of) a misanthrope, I will consider the year a success. Wish me luck!
“I hope you’re feeding your baby breast milk.”
Overheard while dissertating:
60-something woman: “Hi. How old is your baby?”
Young, exhausted-looking mother bottle feeding her kid: “Oh. Hi. About 6 months?”
60-something woman: “Well, I certainly hope you’re feeding your baby breast milk in that bottle. Do you know that feeding babies formula makes them more prone to sickness? Women who don’t breast feed are irresponsible.”
Young mother: “No, I’m actually feeding her vodka.”
Ha! Mad props to the young mother for shooing intrusive know-it-alls away!
Thoughts on the Academic Impostor Syndrome
Ever since I started the PhD program, I’ve developed what is known as the academic impostor syndrome. Though I know that a lot of academics share this syndrome, sometimes, I can’t help but feel as though my neurosis is magnified the longer I stay in academia.
This happens even when I get good news. For example, a few months ago, I received confirmation that a book chapter I submitted for inclusion in an edited volume being organized by someone important in my field was accepted. The editors – including Dr. Superstar – told us that the anonymous reviewers liked all of the chapters, so no one’s submissions will be excised. He added that individual comments by our anonymous reviewers will soon be emailed to all of us who wrote chapters.
Today, I received word from Dr. Superstar that the anonymous commenters didn’t have any comments for my chapter. Dr. Superstar then gave me a list of general comments on structure and style that he said I could look at if I wanted to. Though I was at first happy because hey, that means less work for me, almost immediately, neurotic thoughts started running through my head. What if there was a mistake? What if the reviewers forgot to tell our editor at the Press that they actually didn’t like my chapter and want it to be excised, which meant that they didn’t even give comments? OR…what if the anonymous reviewers found my chapter so disengaging that they just couldn’t bother to read it? What if there was some sort of quota system in place where the reviewers felt that they had to go easier on me because mine was the sole graduate student chapter to be included in the volume? (Never mind the fact that the identities of the people who submitted chapters, as well as the editors of the volume, are kept secret. We don’t know the anonymous reviewers; they don’t know us. This is how blind review works). What if they needed a certain number of chapters to be included, and mine just barely made the cut? What if…what if…what if…
Such neurosis is also why I have a hard time opening emails from my supervisor, my committee members, and other people delivering substantive feedback on my work. Does this ever happen to anyone? When I hear that “ping” saying that I have a new email and when I see that said email is from one of the aforementioned people, I immediately close my laptop. I don’t open the email. I don’t want to see the contents because I am certain that I will get eviscerated. My heart starts pounding and my hands get clammy. Though the feedback I get is almost always helpful and constructive (of course, like all academics, I’ve received scathing feedback from anonymous reviewers who seem to relish being able to review articles blindly because they can really let their claws come out), the anticipation is what kills me. So why not open the email immediately?, I hear you asking. Well, I guess it’s because you never know what type of feedback you will be getting.
That some of my committee members are night-owls, like me, and have a tendency to send feedback between the hours of midnight and 3 am also means that the dilemma on whether I should read their emails or not gets more complicated. Usually, what happens is that I deliberate for an hour on whether to open their emails. When I finally muster up the courage to see what they have to say, their feedback keeps me up, therefore ensuring that I get no sleep whatsoever. If I don’t open their emails, though, I will still be awake anyway as I anticipate what the emails says. Thus, it is a lose-lose situation.
I suppose this, for me, is the hardest thing about academia. When you’re putting your research and your writing out there, you’re putting out aspects of yourself that are so personal. When you invest so much time and effort studying a subject in your field, whatever feedback you get invariably feels personal. I’m not kidding when I say that my dissertation – and my body of work – is an extension of me. I know a lot of people in my field think the same way.
Sometimes, I wish I opted for a more practical field, like accounting. Unless, of course, accounting also makes people this neurotic. Anyone in accounting want to tell me whether you ever go through the same thought process? Heh.
I am afraid that my dissertation is morphing into baby Voldemort
In a previous post, I compared my dissertation to a baby whose life I needed to tend to before I can move on to the Next Chapter of My Life ™. As I frantically survey the chapters I’ve written for my dissertation, I am beginning to fear that my dissertation is not in a healthy state. No, I don’t mean that my dissertation is at risk of dying. Like a persistent parasite, my dissertation has consumed too much of my soul to perish. On the contrary, what I am actually afraid of is that my dissertation may end up being a bloated monstrosity that brings nothing good to the world. In the eyes of my supervisor and my committee members, my dissertation may very well be the thing that ‘shall not be named.’ In short, I suspect that in its current state, my dissertation is Baby Voldemort:
What gives me some comfort is the fact that I can still rescue my dissertation. Baby Voldemort, after all, was originally Tom Riddle. Though I don’t want to get into the intricacies of the nature versus nurture debate, I harbor hope that with enough love and attention, my dissertation won’t have to tread down the path of uselessness. Maybe, just maybe, I have enough fortitude to will my dissertation into morphing into Baby Harry Potter instead.
As Harry Potter fans know all too well, Harry Potter’s journey from being a sad orphan to the vanquisher of evil shows that love can overcome even the most debilitating circumstances. I suspect that if Tom Riddle received even a modicum of affection while growing up, he would have avoided cavorting with snakes, cutting off his nose, splitting his soul into a gazillion horcruxes, and embarking on a depraved affair with Mistress of Mean Bellatrix LeStrange.
Of course, now that I write this, I fear that turning my dissertation into Baby Harry Potter may mean that I, as my dissertation’s sole parent, may risk being killed in the act of protecting its interests. Eek. I just scared myself. I really shouldn’t think about death while dissertating at 3 am.
Operation Dissertation v. Wedding Planning
Being neither a sister-wife nor a Kardashian, it is with no small amount of trepidation that I view this whole wedding thing. It is difficult for me to reconcile my feminism with weddings for all the obvious reasons, most of which have to do with how to “negotiate my beliefs with a traditionally sexist institution,” as Feministing’s Jessica Valenti aptly puts it in her seminal blog post.
It is also hard for me to purge myself of the sinking feeling that getting married signifies the end of “my” story. I remember thinking, even at the age of 5, that it was a damn shame that Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and all their princess counterparts had their stories effectively end after marriage; though the books and the cartoon movies I watched then were clear that all these princesses lived “happily ever after,” I couldn’t, even at that age, reconcile myself with the fact that marriage meant that their adventures were over. I also remember being a militant and obnoxious baby-feminist clad in my “I love my Vagina” t-shirt during university and talking at 3 am with AKE about the senselessness of wedding traditions; “why bother getting married?,” we huffed in the middle of drinking tepid cups of English breakfast tea and eating chicken souvlaki pitas from the Pita Pit, “why not have renewable marriage contracts where you decide to be together for a set period of time and then renegotiate after?” We then made a pact that the minute one of us got married, we would each make sure to dress in mourning clothes, put coal on our cheeks, and play a dirge during the festivities. (AKE, if you’re reading this, I give you full permission to do this during the wedding. I’ll even supply the coal).
Thus, when MOTL unexpectedly proposed, I said yes because it was MOTL, not because I’ve had visions of myself clad in tulle. The reality that the two of us are getting married to formalize our relationship and to show our commitment to each other doesn’t make it any easier for me to reconcile myself to the idea of weddings and matrimony. Every once in awhile, I run across articles saying that women who are married are considered negatively in the job market, which makes me petrified. I’ve also read several studies over the years that show, among many findings, that women’s quality of life decrease after marriage and the proportion of household tasks that they do gets higher. And of course, there are examples of failed or struggling marriages that abound everywhere, which make me think, well, how do I know that MOTL and I are the exception to the rule?
All these random ‘facts,’ I tell MOTL, in a somewhat accusatory manner. MOTL, to his credit, patiently rebuts my concerns (a running theme in our relationship it seems) and remains staunch in his conviction that the two of us will be okay. And I believe him. Despite the admonitions of well-meaning lawyer friends, who have insisted that the two of us sign pre-nuptial agreements because “most marriages fail” and despite the criticisms of friends like BL, who reacted with detached disapproval when I told her about my decision to get married because of her disdain for the institution, I know that I want to marry MOTL. It carries a lot of symbolic weight and signals our commitment to each other. Although I get and, in many ways, agree with how ‘marriage’ as a concept is outdated and unnecessary in light of the fact that many of the benefits marriage confers are also given to couples in civil partnerships, for me, I would like the opportunity to publicly affirm my commitment.
But just when I am getting my head wrapped around the idea of marriage, then comes wedding planning, which is made triply difficult because I am also currently gestating a dissertation. In fact, truth be told, my dissertation – my baby who I’ve been carrying for 6 whole years – is my priority over anything else. It is difficult to conceive of planning anything else when my entire existence is devoted to making sure my baby/dissertation gets to the stage where I am confident that she will live. The last thing I want is to have a miscarriage when I am so close to the finish line. (Ok, end of analogy). Trying to nurture a fledgling academic career while planning a wedding is difficult, as the movie the 5 Year Engagement, shows precisely; when MOTL and I watched it, there were far too many instances when we would exchange glances inside the dark theater and laugh in commiseration.
Also, can I be honest for a second? The wedding industry sucks. It is a parasitic cesspool of gross misogyny whose sole intent seems to be to bleed as much money out of you. In the few times I’ve gone wedding dress shopping, I have been body-shamed more times that I care to remember; I have been told that my figure was too “boxy,” that I was “fat,” and that I was “too dark to wear white.” Attempts to negotiate with wedding venues have also fallen flat because prices seem to magically increase upon viewing the proposed contracts. Salespeople seem to renege on what was verbally agreed on when visiting venues when it comes to the signing stage. Emails of inquiry with wedding photographers have stunned both us. One email from a photographer/videographer demanding that his team stay at “no less than a 4 star hotel” during the event, in addition to an extra $1,500 on top of the $6000 he normally charges because ours is a destination wedding, made me and MOTL snicker because this man seems to fancy himself the Scorsese of wedding productions. The pictures we’ve seen of standard couple photos are also, well, so eager to promote the couple’s “love” that it just seems distasteful. Why the heck would I want to have a photo-shoot while wearing period outfits/posing with teddy bears/skipping on the sandy surf and have these photos compiled in a leather bound ‘book’ that I can then apparently show my grandchildren; if my grandchildren are anything like me and MOTL (which is to say, judgmental and snide), my grandchildren will likely see this as a ridiculous waste of time and money and wonder why the two of us indulged in such a narcissistic exercise.
What’s worse is reading wedding articles designed to force couples into thinking about how to make their day ‘unique’ and ‘special.’ Though I agree that writing your own vows makes it more personal and more meaningful, I can’t help but jeer when watching videos where the following vows are said with the utmost sincerity:
1. Bride: “Every girl’s dream is to find a prince but today I am a princess who just found her frog. He may not be the best looking guy but he has a good heart.”
2. Bride: “Together, we make a shawarma. You are the white sauce to my meat.”
The plan then is to see whether Operation Dissertation can continue unabated while also organizing the wedding. Thankfully, I have family and friends who seem eager to shoulder a lot of the legwork, which means that snarky, feminist me is excused from being subjected to a lot of these contrivances. Is that a cop-out? Oh most definitely. Once I’ve reconciled myself to the idea that for me and MOTL, weddings are every bit a celebration for our families as they are for us, then I’ve become more than happy to devolve responsibility. That’s the only way I can keep Operation Dissertation going.
The Olympics and Dissertating: Reflections of a Former High School Nerd
One of the effects of the Olympics on my academic work is that it actually compels me to be more productive. In between bouts of watching American swimmer Missy Franklin win gold, Canadian synchronized swimmers Roseline Filion and Meaghan Benfeito win bronze, and Philippine light flyweight Mark Barriga reach the quarter-finals after pummeling his heftier and taller Italian opponent, I frantically dissertate. That each match doesn’t take that long means that I can easily justify to myself taking quick 5 to 10 minute breaks to get caught up in Olympics fever. I can even bypass the ads by catching all of the matches on CTV’s website, which also allows me to skip over the inane commentary offered by the sports anchors.
If I were to be brutally honest, though, what compels me to keep writing during the Olympics is fear. Fear, you say? Yes, fear. You see, readers, while watching these amazing athletes push themselves to excel in their sport is inspirational, it has also awoken the dormant, insecure 13-year old nerd inside me. Those of you who knew me growing up know that I have never been good in sports. Gym class for me was a constant source of stress. Transferring from a posh, Catholic all-girls school where gym consisted of dance (seriously) to a private, international school which prides itself on having an Olympics-sized pool and a well-regarded athletics program compounded my insecurity, for then I was suddenly thrust into gym classes where field hockey, lacrosse, and rugby were common sports. In a plot point that Amy Heckerling could have written, on my very first day of school as a new kid, I had gym class in the first period; what were we doing during gym class, you ask? Oh, you know, we had to be ‘tested’ for our agility, our flexibility, our speed, and our strength. This involved our gym teacher - who was rumored to have been in the American Olympics team as a shot putter in the 1980s – carrying a stop watch and supervising us as we did push ups, sit ups, and chin ups.
The kicker, though, was when we were timed as we ran hurdles. Imagine this scene: gawky, short me at 13 confronting hurdles that reached up to the top of my tummy; a former Olympian as a sports teacher; and, worst of all, an entire audience of new classmates in the stands watching. Can I just add that never before in my life have I ever done anything track and field related? What the hell were hurdles? When our teacher then gave me and the other person I was running hurdles with the go signal, I stared at him blankly. “GO!,” he yelled at me. “GOOOOOO!!!!” I saw my classmate breeze through the hurdles, jumping like – I don’t know – Billy Fucking Elliot over the hurdles. Afraid of my gym teacher and conscious of the curious stares of my classmates in the stands, I then started running and blindly jumped. (Oh, right, at that age, I had these thick glasses and could barely see. I still can’t).
Then I tripped. Yes, I tripped. I was, at that point, 5’2 on a good day. (I’ve grown two inches since, ha!) The hurdles, as I’ve mentioned, were half my height. So I lay there on the grass, mortified. At 30, this would have been embarrassing and bruising to the ego. At 13, this may as well have been the end of the world. It became even more traumatic because what did my gym teacher do when he saw me tripping and lying on the grass? Did he help me up and kindly tell me to forget about it? Nooooooo. He knelt down beside me and said, “I’m still time keeping. Get up! GET UP! GET UP!”
I tell this tale of woe not to garner any sympathy because this tale isn’t unique; all of us have gone through moments in high school that are so traumatic that it continues to scar us as adults. I am giving this anecdote to highlight how watching the Olympics today has again hammered down the point that I will never be agile, or fast, or flexible and that, really, all I’ve ever been ‘good’ at is school. So when I see US gymnast Gabby Douglas kicking ass in her floor routine, the reality that I can never ever be an athlete, much less a star athlete, is grilled into me. My mom’s words of consolation to me as a 13 year old ring in my ears once again: “don’t worry. You may not be good in sports but you get good grades.”
So this is why I am writing madly during the Olympics. I am driven by the same fears because hey, I may never win a gold medal in sports in anything, but at least I can finish a dissertation, right? Even though billions around the world are there to witness athletes win gold and only, like, five people will ever read my dissertation in its entirety, finishing my dissertation to me makes me the equivalent to Michael Phelps. For those naysayers out there who insist that in the battle of brawns versus brains, brawns always win, don’t say anything and let me have my delusions.