Feel Good

5 Writing Habits I Can’t Wait to Get Rid Of

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At the end and beginning of every semester, I like to think about what I could have done better in terms of my writing habits, studying schedule, and just LIVING as a graduate student in general. When I finished my first semester in my PhD program last December, I took note of my writing habits and decided that the following need to be jettisoned ASAP.

  1. Hunching and/or tense shoulders: I noticed this when I started going to Barre classes that my shoulders are almost always raised or hunched over something. (No wonder backaches have been more bothersome last year.) In an effort to correct my posture and ease some of the strain, I bought myself a book stand so I can avoid the temptation to hunch over my books. Who knew grad school was so physically taxing? Bad posture isn’t sexy. On anyone.
  2. Writing alone: I started writing papers with a grad school buddy late last semester and I realize how refreshing it is to turn to someone and ask, “Hey, does this make sense?” and get immediate feedback. Writing can be solitary and there are times when you have to be alone with your writing (to do all the thinking, the self-doubting, weeping, screaming, etc.), but it shouldn’t always be so isolating. I’m hoping to do this more often.
  3. Comparing my progress to others: This one is less about writing habits but more of the mental and psychological space I inhabit when I’m writing. I’ve learned that I tend to stew on ideas for a while and that, comparatively, I’m not a fast writer (about 2-3 pages an hour, if I’m lucky). The one pitfall of writing with a buddy is that the “check-ins” you do with each other can be discouraging, especially if you feel like you’re stuck. The good thing is that, if your writing buddy is compassionate, he or she will give you some encouragement to keep going and work through the impasse.
  4. Rewarding myself with social media every 25 minutes: This one is difficult. I have Strict Workflow installed on my browser to block websites for 25 minutes at a time while I write. It’s supposed to encourage me to work steadily and focus on my writing for short bursts of time, followed by a 5-minute break. It has been quite successful, but I find that my “reward” isn’t to get up or stretch, it’s usually to see what’s the latest on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter. This speaks more to my own social media habits than my writing, but the intersection of both, I realize, is quite unexplored and can be improved.
  5. Grunting: This feels like a new discovery, but I probably have been doing this for some time. I found that I grunt whenever I hit a wall–writer’s block or just out of steam–and it rarely leads me to a productive place. I tend to grunt when I write sentences I don’t quite find right, but for the sake of moving forward, I keep (after highlighting, underlining, and changing font colors so I don’t forget to return to them). Grunting has to go, especially because I like writing in public places like the Student Success Center on campus where the free coffee attracts many students and staff. The sooner I get rid of it, the sooner I look less like a grunting weirdo writer and more like a hardworking weirdo writer. Plus, I believe that if I think positively and spin my negative responses (like grunting) to my frustrations, I will actually be able to move past them and try to be productive.

On Grad School

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When I started my master’s program in fall 2011, I wanted to work hard and write well. I devoted my first year to doing just that. I read as much as I can, thought well and hard about my critical essays, and gave my brain the workout of its life (while trying to juggle 2 part-time jobs). And it nearly drove me insane.

By the end of my first year, I was beset with doubts, fatigue, and reader remorse (the feeling you get when you know you would love what you are reading had circumstances been different). In retrospect, it’s easy to find the culprit for this: I was out of balance. I was working hard and nothing else. I was on a harsh graduate school motto of “All work and no play makes Francesca a successful graduate student.” Clearly, “success” meant being nearly driven to pull my hair out. I felt like I was drowning in reading. I was working hard, but not smart. (This made it hard to even recall what I did last summer and if I did, in fact, enjoy it. I probably did not enjoy it as much as I could have.)

After two semesters of insomnia-inducing terror of failure (I wanted to see if it was just the adjustment to grad school or not), I’ve decided to start over—in both my philosophy and outlook—to achieve (better) balance. It’s not perfect, but I’m making progress.

For my second year of graduate school (it’s taking me three to finish–that’s a related entry on time-management and going at your own pace), I wanted to bridge the gap between “joy” and “work.”* I think this is pretty self-explanatory, but difficult to apply. It is in this liminal space that I try to do my work. This means working effectively (read: no distractions) to make sure that I read, synthesize, and critically think about my work. It doesn’t always happen all at once—it’s a recursive process (much like writing) that takes revisiting, rereading, and rethinking.

This also means that I stop to enjoy what I’m doing. If you’re anything like me (most Capricorns and results-oriented folks), I see things in terms of process, puzzles, and goals to reach. There’s not much space or time for enjoyment—and if there is enjoyment, it’s somewhere along the way, a minute (if not fleeting) moment.

And so I added another reminder (thanks to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who said the best things about most things):

I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’

I try to remind myself my reason for going back to school and for choosing a school that is rigorous and challenging: I love literature and I love to learn it. Sometimes it takes time to reflect to realize this. Other times, it takes a simple change of scene from studying in a library to an outdoor patio. Sometimes it comes from talking to friends or just sitting around with a book on literary censorship in Caroline England and finding yourself enthralled. (That one is harder for some people.)

But it does happen and I try to take notice. And I’m sure that these methods and routines will change along the way. I am, after all, going for a PhD in a few years and will definitely need to rethink some of these habits and outlook. For now, I want to live in that “middle-space” and hopefully, this will give me a more meaningful, instructive (academically and otherwise), and enjoyable journey through academia. The bridge between “work” and “joy” is one worth building. For my sanity’s sake.**

 

*I remembered this idea from an interview of Stephen Colbert in Rolling Stone. I’m sure other “literary” people have said similarly illuminating and wise advice, but hey, it’s Colbert that did it for me. I know. The man is a genius.

**I switched one part-time job for a less hectic one. It made a world of difference.