Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

I admit: sometimes progress is slow not because you don’t have enough time to write but because you don’t have enough confidence to write.

My latest chapter is currently about 8 pages long, and it’s been stuck there for well over a week now. The winter term is over and my students haven’t yet turned in their final projects so I’m trying to take advantage of the blissful gap between the two. I’ve sat down and tried to write, gotten stuck, made outlines and lists of topics to cover, jotted down small ideas to incorporate later, scoured the web for more primary materials, conducted an email exchange with the NYPL, and found a research travel grant to apply for. But I’m still stuck.

My problem, I think, is fear. I’m once again in that dark space where I imagine most writers land at one point or another: writer’s block. I know generally what I want to say, and if pushed I could even articulate what my intervention is. But I just can’t make it happen! Part of the problem is that good old trifecta I wrote about back in November of 2014: the fear of my work being Obvious, Unimportant, Unoriginal. I am referring more to other scholars for this chapter, and one in particular has said some very similar things about the Nicholas Brothers. In fact, the more I re-read her work, the more it begins to feel like all of my major claims are entirely unoriginal! They have begun to sound like only slight rearrangements of what this other scholar has already made quite clear! And when I do find small claims of my own that I can’t find proof of elsewhere, they sound so obvious or unimportant compared to the bigger claims that feel unoriginal! So it is here that I have trapped myself.

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I’m not even a Spongebob fan, but this is definitely me right now.

 

I know in my heart of hearts that even if this chapter does say roughly the same thing this other scholar said, I am probably paying more attention to medium specificity than her because she is a dance scholar and I am theoretically a scholar of “screens”…and I am putting this analysis in conversation with my other case studies, whereas her entire monograph is an academic biography of just the Nicholases…but that feels dissatisfying. One of my mentors described my current state as a case of “the blahs,” and that definitely registers as accurate. She suggested sitting with them and in them in order to work through and past them but oh how unproductive this makes me feel!

Right now, this dissertation seems interminable…and I’m not even half done yet. A year and a half into the process and not even half done?!? Yeeeesh.

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Day 403: Transitioning Back to “Normalcy”

It’s once again been over two months since my last post, for shame. But in the time elapsed, I’ve moved across the country and started teaching again, so there’s that.

Even now, I have little to report on the DOS-D front. I’ve received comments on that first chapter from my chair, and I’ll be receiving a second set from another advisor in two days. (As a decidedly interdisciplinary scholar, I like to get opinions on my work from different disciplinary perspectives before I chop away at it too much.) Then the editing process will begin, but I’ll only put in a round or two of edits before letting it sit for awhile because I really need to be focusing on the next chapter.

The second chapter currently feels like it will be easier, but something tells me this is a false feeling. At least I’ve already done some of the research-viewing and about half of the research-reading. Still, I’m anxious once again to have something to physically show for myself. And…truth be told, I haven’t done an ounce of work on this second chapter since I arrived back in Chicago just over a month ago.

…All of which brings me to the actual “subject” of this post: reacclimating to a regular schedule of teaching and other campus-related responsibilities has been much tougher than I anticipated. It’s not that I haven’t been able to dust off and apply those good old time management skills, it’s just that I’m out of practice on many things, so they require more work. Grading, for example, is much less efficient than it used to be for me. I am more easily tired out than I used to be after teaching a couple classes, attending a lecture, catching up on email, and doing a little reading–it used to be that I’d have enough energy to go out to dinner and/or a show and/or drinks with friends afterwards but now I can barely drag myself home before collapsing into bed or a hot shower.

It may be that this happens to most academics after a fellowship year where the main priority was working on a manuscript–suddenly the responsibilities have multiplied again and we have to remember how to juggle! The other problem, in my case, is trying to put a home together again. There just isn’t time to go shopping for couches and bedframes when I have 30 papers to grade every week! But I’m slowly remembering how to speed up the various processes that used to be second nature, so hopefully I’ll be able to finish nesting and carve out real chunks of time for my next chapter soon!

First Chapter Draft: The Aftermath

I admit I’ve been extremely remiss in posting–my last post was over 2 months ago. But I did submit a full chapter draft to my chair about a month ago…and since then I’ve been living in the aftermath.

The original goal for that chapter submission was June 21, but I submitted it July 6 (Day 305!). Not bad, considering that I spent one of those interim weeks at an intensive dance studies seminar and Independence Day was in there, too. (A note about the Mellon Dance Studies Summer Seminar I attended: it is both terrifying and very productive to give a “research talk” about your dissertation project before a group of experts in a field you’re brand new to. I am happy to report that the seminar gave me a much better sense of what my larger contribution is and why people should–and do!–care about my DOS-D.)

My whole dissertation compressed into a single slide

My whole dissertation compressed into a single slide

With footnotes included, the final chapter draft was indeed 60 pages. But it was still a pretty rough draft–I knew before I even submitted it that I needed to do more archival viewing, and I definitely wish I had more access to some of the paper files that do exist but aren’t publicly available right now. In many ways, the chapter is a product of what was available. If I’m lucky, patience and perseverance will bring me into contact with more materials and this will help me to enhance the basic draft I completed.

Of course, it feels good to have simply produced a “complete” thing. It took me 9 months to gestate that baby, and while it felt like a really long time, I’m told that’s still pretty fast for one’s first chapter. I must admit I got impatient with myself toward the end, because it really did feel interminable to write on the same basic topic for over 50 pages. And of course, this also meant that I started to hate my argument–it felt repetitive and boring by that point, and every example felt the same as the rest, even as it would draw out new concerns and new patterns to be considered in the context of the rest of the evidence. I can already tell I’m not going to be one of those scholars who goes through and does one big edit at the end; every chapter is going to go through a few drafts before it’s ready to be integrated with the rest. There will probably be more drafts of this first chapter since I was still so new to the process when I was writing it, but I just can’t imagine being able to responsibly tie such a large ‘essay’ together without several months’ distance between it and myself, no matter how good I get at the chapter-writing process.

So here I am in the aftermath. What have I been doing with myself? Well, first I gave myself a week off where I didn’t have to think about my DOS-D at all. I watched some movies, did a lot of laundry, painted my nails (in other words, I took some Practical Lost Days and Mental Health Lost Days). Then, as a way to ease myself back into working, I considered the most obvious gaps that came up and decided to collect the data to address them, so I made a few visits to The Paley Center for Media and watched some more programs. I also revamped my personal website to serve as a stronger representation of my academic self. And then I fell ill.

I’m sure a lot of us experienced the post-finals colds and flus that often struck in college or early grad school; when one pushes one’s body to the limit, running on little more than adrenaline for the final push of a marathon, the come-down often involves a weakened and vulnerable immune system. So we get sick. Similarly, many colleagues told me about how sick they got after taking qualifying exams–I did, too–but I hadn’t considered that this would happen after the stress of completing a dissertation chapter, as well. There’s also the problem of age: I’m not a 20-year-old anymore, and my body can’t take being pushed as hard. Quals were really, really too much for me, and I paid for that push with over a month of poor health. I didn’t push myself that hard for the chapter, but still found myself on antibiotics for a week, so my lesson to myself for next time is: I need to ease into those final weeks a little better.

I think I’ve successfully kicked the illness, though, and I’m ready to start reading and archive trips for my next chapter–on The Nicholas Brothers! This means more visits to The Paley Center and reading Marshall & Jean Stearns’ lengthy Jazz Dance, potentially cover-to-cover. I’ve also just submitted a conference paper proposal related to my last chapter: it’s about the relationship between dance movement and film technology in Fred Astaire & Gene Kelly’s musicals. I’ll be exploring their partnerships with Hermes Pan and Stanley Donen, respectively, and conducting a close analysis of both the ways in which dancing for the camera affected their choreography and the ways in which their visions for what I call “impossible” dances required innovation and tricks on the cinematography/production side.

So that’s where I’m at–the tail end of the post-chapter-submission aftermath, getting back on the horse and moving forward. Of course, summer is also coming to a close and I’ll be back to teaching and other institutional responsibilities in about a month so I’ll have those to juggle, too. Hopefully the more structured time will mean more updates here rather than fewer. Until next time, readers!

On Lost Days

I’ve heard a lot about Lost Days (not to be confused with LOST days, which should probably understood as a very specific subset of Lost Days) from colleagues–when you’re dissertating, there are a certain number of days during which you achieve nothing in relation to your dissertation.  We’re talking no reading, no viewing, no archival discovery, not even any direct critical thought about your project.  And the way I see it, there are three kinds of Lost Days:

  1. Days during which you earnestly attempt to work on the diss for most of the day, but you’re in a terrible state of writer’s block, or your archival digging produces nothing of value to your work.  I’m going to call this the False Lost Day, because even in the absence of tangible, material progress, things are going on in the back of your mind during these (painful, frustrating) processes.  I’m sure I’ll experience plenty of these, but I’m not there yet.
  2. Days during which you have life to attend to, and it’s more important than an increment of dissertation work.  This is a Practical Lost Day.  Examples include but are not limited to: birthdays, weddings, moving days, family emergencies, out-of-town visitors, catching up with old friends, long-awaited mini (or if you’re lucky, not so mini) vacations, days where you’ve gotta knock out ALLOFTHE errands, days when you have about 8 loads of laundry that you absolutely MUST get through because the mess is ruining your zen, etc.  In my estimation, most reasonable humans probably experience these somewhere between twice a month and once a week, whether they’re grad students or not.  ‘To lose a day is human,’ or something like that.  I had one yesterday, and it was planned, so I didn’t feel guilty about it.
  3. Days during which, in the parlance of my fellow millenials, you just can’t (even) (right now).  Friends, mentors, and therapists have advocated for these my whole life and it took me awhile to finally understand how they work.  I am speaking, here, of the Mental Health Lost Day.  Maybe it means spending time with family, maybe it means binge-watching movies or television all day, maybe it means cooking or baking all day, maybe it means alphabetizing your book collection and your DVD collection and your comic book collection and your CD collection.  But generally, this is not conventionally understood as an “important” day, unlike the Practical version above, and it often also involves not showering and/or not changing out of your pajamas and/or ordering take-out and/or drinking an entire bottle of something and/or….you get the idea.  I had one of these days today.

But here’s the thing about Lost Days: they’re all necessary, all 3 kinds.  And we shouldn’t feel bad about any of them, unless we get in a pattern where we have more than about 7 of any one kind in a row–then it might be time to re-assess.  It’s honestly taken a very long time for me to fully comprehend this; when I discovered binge-watching television my senior year of college (yeah, I was a late bloomer when it comes to media-obsession), in the middle of spring break when I was struggling with writing two honors theses (yeah, that pattern of behavior is probably what got in the way of media-bingeing for so long), I felt so guilty for Mental Health Lost Days, even Lost half-Days.

Now, however, with the benefit of having finished a season of Battlestar Galactica and nearly a decade of hindsight, to say nothing of 3 grueling years of graduate education, I can say that these days are good for me.

This counts as DOS research, right?

This counts as DOS research, right?

I expend minimal physical and mental energy on these days (as opposed to the first 2 categories of Lost Days, which tend to expend a great deal of mental energy in the first case, and physical energy in the second), which is probably sorely needed.  The dissertation, in particular, is one of the most difficult genres of writing, especially given the pressures the current academic job market (in the humanities, anyway).  Plus, I only just defended my quals & prospectus a few weeks ago, so my body & mind are still reeling from that (and a cross-country move).  So you know what, I harbor no guilt about my use of today.*  I will now embark on Season 2 and microwave some leftovers for dinner.

Tomorrow, I’m taking a field trip to the Getty, where I’m excited to catch the Yvonne Rainer exhibit just before it ends.  Rainer is definitely outside the scope of my DOS-D, given the time period in which her experiments with screens occurred, but I haven’t discounted the 60s-80s as a potential periodization for my second book, especially since most scholarship on Rainer conceptualizes her career as split into the dance period and the film period, which just seems so silly to me….


* I must confess that I did do one very productive thing today, though it relates only indirectly to my DOS-D: I completed and submitted an application for conference travel funding.  I’ll be presenting on diss material at one of the two conferences I’m attending this spring in Montreal.