Rhythms are the best for working

Rhythms are the best for working.
Break the rhythm and it’s like
starting cold: creak and puff and
grind away, write reams of garbage
until the garbage becomes
a lubricant. Lift that dead
arm you’ve been sleeping on. See
it sway and flop: half corpse you
are. The arm is useless. Paralyzed
for life. Can’t do it. Won’t work.
Imagine yourself dead: this
is it, kid. Body won’t work.
Feel it dissolve into the
sheets. It’s noon. Last time I looked
it was nine. I don’t remember
sleeping. The rhythms of the
world have gone awry. Who can
trust a clock
now?

That’s the first stanza of a poem I wrote, first draft, some time around 1976 or so. More than 36 years later I still have trouble establishing a rhythm for working.

There was a time, back when my daughter was an infant, that I did manage to do that for, oh, about 6 months, starting in September of 1973. She was just a year old. I was suffering from horrible migraine headaches, and decided that they were caused by the fact that I was not writing, since at the time I was full-time mom and had no time for myself. So I found a parent-participation day care center (the only one then that would take a child still in diapers) where I took her every Tuesday and Thursday (with every eighth day my day for required participation). I would load her up into the car and drive from Ontario (Calif.) to Claremont, deposit her there at 8:30, drive back home, sit down at the typewriter (a manual!) and pound away for a few hours, drive back to pick her up at noon, come back home, feed her lunch, put her down for a nap, and then write for another hour or so while she slept.

It worked very well for a while. During that time I wrote the first drafts or portions thereof of nearly everything that ended up in my masters’ thesis (a collection of my own short stories). But then I hit a wall. I would sit at the typewriter and nothing, absolutely nothing, would come. And of course, my daughter decided to change her schedule. No more naps after lunch, mom. Thanks anyway!

There were many other things that interfered, not the least of which was my crumbling marriage, and internal conflicts of which I was only dimly aware … it took me three decades to understand the forces that were driving me then.

I am now 64 years old; 65 next August. An age when most people are getting ready for retirement (although that is taking much longer these days in this economic climate). Because of the various health issues I’ve struggled with, I’ve not really had a career yet. This in spite of all the wonderful gifts I have. I know in good part, aside from my health issues, this is a result of being ADHD, a diagnosis I did not receive until age 45, a few years after I completed my PhD. I read Sari Solden’s Women with Attention Deficit Disorderon the hunch that ADHD could be a major factor in the struggles I have had throughout my life. I read chapter after chapter with tears in my eyes. Tears of recognition and relief. Most important in what I got out of all that was the realization that I was not somehow morally deficient. My inability to establish and maintain order in my life was not a character flaw. I was not a terrible wife and mother.

One of Solden’s key arguments is that women are expected to keep order in the home. They are expected to keep everyone else organized and on track. When they can’t, it’s a reflection on them as women. Women who don’t keep their family lives in order are defective as women. Their entire identities are at stake. If  you have a husband who demands order, and who responds to the lack of it by hitting you below the “emotional belt” with attacks on that very identity, reinforcing your own sense of inadequacy, you spiral downward. Not knowing that it is something you cannot help, that you were born this way and you can’t fix it without help, leaves you feeling worthless.

So reading Solden’s book came as a huge relief to me. At last I had an answer for the long years of feeling I was completely incompetent and a failure at being a woman, and particularly a wife.

I haven’t been a wife for more than three decades now, having divorced my second husband in 1984, turning instead to focus my attentions on becoming a college professor. It took me ten years to finally finish that PhD. Getting the ADHD diagnosis (I insisted that my psychiatrist send me to a specialist for that) helped also in understanding why it took me so long. I remember working three times as hard as my cohorts to get my assignments done. I had to read first, marking the texts, then go back and type verbatim sections from those texts as notes, then review those notes several times before I could get the gist of the material. Not because I was stupid (far from it — once my work was turned in, everyone thought it brilliant), but because I would read for a bit and then my mind would go wild with new ideas applying what I had just learned. Hour upon hour would be spent in these flights of fancy. The dissertation journal I kept at the time is chock full of materials for at least TEN dissertations!

Whenever I would go to talk to my adviser about my dissertation, he would always ask me, “which one”?

My filing cabinets are also full of kazillions of articles, creative non-fiction essays, short stories, poems, novel ideas, novel chapters (different novels), and the like. Not to mention all the ideas I would have for solving social problems, or practical problems with the various institutions I worked for, flitting about from job to job.

I am, indeed, an “idea person.” What I am not good is setting up and maintaining that rhythm for work that is absolutely essential to bring an idea to fruition, suitable for sharing with the world and (one hopes) resulting in financial remuneration.

So, in addition to providing this blog as a means for my clients to connect and to get help sorting through their own blocks with writing, I am hoping this will also help me work through my own.

I am going to try to set up a rhythm for my own writing, and I suggest that others who are struggling like me figure out how to do that as well. You can post a reply here, or those who have “author” status can create their own posts about the blocks you are up against.

My first big block is that I am up against a life that is in complete disarray, mostly due to health issues that keep getting in the way. At this point I can’t even commit myself to a particular time of day at which I would concentrate on my own writing. I need to start by committing myself to 15 minutes a day just planning what to do with the rest of my day, even if it doesn’t include my own writing!

What about YOU?

Silencing the critical voices

All of us at one time or another have had to confront “blank page panic.” There are many reasons for that panic, but the #1 reason is that the voices of all those critics who have torn apart our work are blasting in our ears, making it impossible to hear our own voices.

I have two clients right now whose various advisers and committee people have responded to their submitted chapters with criticism that, however polite, however much phrased in the language of “nice,” has made the authors feel as if their committees believe, deep down, that they are grossly incompetent. Surely they must be thinking, “How in the world did we allow this student into our program? She’s clearly not cut out for it!”

Whether or not the committee members are ACTUALLY thinking that is irrelevant, particularly (but not only) for minority students, because for so much of their lives they have been told that they will never measure up, that they will never be good enough no matter how hard they work, because they were born into the world as second-class human beings.

White (majority) students do also encounter that deep and abiding sense that they are somehow frauds, and when their work is being criticized harshly it must be because their true incompetence has been revealed. Every one of us at one time or another had that nightmare where our degrees get stripped from us, or we are told our admission to graduate school was a mistake.

Women also are particularly susceptible to feeling inadequate or having low self-esteem and minimal self-confidence. We’ve been bombarded with messages from every which direction telling us that we will never be good enough, and especially, we will never be SMART enough to be anything more than second in ability or accomplishments. And these feelings stick with us, often, no matter how many accomplishments we have listed in our CV’s.

Men (or at least, white men) don’t understand this. My graduate/thesis adviser (both the same person) told me several years after I started the doctoral program at Iowa that the department determined that it would give me its award for outstanding doctoral student in research after my first semester there. But they didn’t tell me how highly they regarded my work for fear I would get a “big head.” I did eventually receive the award, but I can guarantee that the danger of getting a “big head” was never there! Throughout the entire program I struggled with self-confidence. I sorely needed reassurances and support.

Minority students, especially female minority students, are hit even harder — a double, even triple whammy of cultural forces telling them that they are no good and never will measure up to the best.

So when you are sitting down and facing that blank page, all those voices of criticism come back to you, telling you that the “fraud” you’ve been perpetrating all this time is now being revealed, so you might as well give up. They become a wild chorus, rising in number and volume, to the point that your OWN voice becomes a whisper, or is silenced altogether.

Here are three strategies to counteract that deafening crescendo:

1. Utilize whatever means you have developed to help you relax. Do deep breathing exercises. Listen to soft music. Take a hot bath if need be (assuming it won’t put you to sleep!).

2. Break your tasks down to manageable chunks. I have a “five minute rule” for most of the tasks that I avoid. That is, I know I can do anything for five minutes. After five minutes I can go do something else. Usually after I get started on something that way, I want to keep going.  But even if I don’t, I will have at least accomplished that five minutes worth of work. And it’s amazing what one can get done in five minutes!

With writing, five minutes won’t get you very far. So instead of five minutes, maybe you can say you will write five paragraphs — some small enough quantity that you no longer feel overwhelmed with all that you must get done. The trick is to psych yourself out by breaking your project down into small, do-able chunks.

3. Substitute MY voice (or the voices of members of a support group) for the voices of your critics. Although I am very demanding in my expectations for quality writing, whatever critique I offer has the sole purpose of helping you to succeed. Your success is my success. I’m not there to weed you out of the game. I’m there to help make sure you win it. You are not alone. I’m on the sidelines, cheering you on.

4. Join a writing support group. As of this date, there are five spaces left in “A Room of Our Own.”  Substitute the supportive voices of your friends for the vicious, harsh voices of your academic critics.

Returning to the scholar

I’ve been going back over letters, journal entries, and emails that I wrote in the early 90s, when I first started teaching full time, my one and only full time, tenure track job, at SUNY Brockport. There is so much hope in them, so many high expectations, so many naive perceptions about my position there. How little I knew about the forces arrayed against me, how my penchant for speaking my mind would come back to haunt me later. And then, of course, there are the early signs of the illness that would ultimately take it all away.

There are also musings about my dissertation, a great deal of which never made it into the actual work, but still have substance and value. Of course I had to take on such a heavy-duty subject: theories of agency, and how they undergird approaches to studying journalism history. One note records my having been told that one of the papers I presented at AEJMC was all the buzz in the history division, and it was being used in graduate courses. The paper was a chapter from my dissertation, which was still in progress at the time.

And yet, I’ve never published that dissertation. Except online on my own, now deleted website. I figured I’d never go back to it. I just couldn’t wrap my brain around all the work that would be required for that. I felt I’d lost the scholar in me and would never be able to get her back.

But working with others on their dissertations has reminded me of how much I loved this work before, and sent me back to reviewing my own. I’ve also been planning to write about some of my experiences in hopes of helping others — material, at least, for blog posts, and that’s what sent me back to the old notes and letters. I wrote some pretty lively and detailed letters back then, so I have an engaging record of that time. And the brain cells are popping again.

I am beginning to see possibilities again. Maybe I can publish that dissertation.

Coping with Criticism

I originally wrote this for my students in my Writing for the Mass Media course when I was teaching online for the University of Maryland University College, and then decided to post it on my former weblog, Random Acts of Love, with some revisions and additions. That blog is no longer available thanks to technological changes involving Apple’s move to iCloud. It is very pertinent to the focus of THIS blog, and so here it is. 

Many years ago when I first started graduate school at the University of Iowa (for my Ph.D. — I already had a master’s) I had to come face-to-face with the reality that no matter how wonderful a writer I had been told that I was, I still had a lot to learn. And I will always have a lot to learn!

In the School of Journalism at Iowa, graduate students were required to participate in a “mock convention” where we presented papers to our faculty and fellow students in a manner similar to what was required at professional academic conventions. We had to present one research paper per year (they had just changed it from once per semester when I started — thank goddess!) that required us to go beyond what we had done in our other courses. When we presented our papers, we had “respondents” — one person from the faculty and one graduate student would publicly critique our paper and presentation.

For my first paper I worked so hard I barely saw the light of day. I took an idea that I had from my historical research methods course and did some fairly extensive research that required me to read hundreds of pages of microfilm from the New York Evening Post (which no longer exists), as I was studying the work of Rheta Childe Dorr, who became the first women’s page editor for that paper in 1904. (Dorr became a “muckraking reporter” who has been pretty much ignored by most of the journalism history textbooks.)

I know I worked twice as hard on my paper as my graduate school cohorts had done on theirs. And my advisor for the paper really loved it. So I thought I would be getting all sorts of accolades when it came time for me to present.

Contrary to my expectation, I was devastated when my faculty critiquer began his response by saying “This is a very ambitious paper. Too ambitious…” and from then on he essentially tore my paper to pieces. I was particularly hurt because my advisor said not one word in my defense.

I walked home from our “convention” in tears. That night there was an “after convention” party (as customary). I did not want to show my face there! But I finally pulled together the courage and went. There was no way I was going to let anyone get in my way. I knew that I had to go, no matter how I felt.

The real problem was that everything the professor had said about my paper was absolutely true. And it didn’t matter how hard I had worked on it, or how much more time I had put into it than my fellow students had put into theirs. It didn’t matter that I had wonderful writing talent. The paper was very flawed. It was, as the professor said, “too ambitious.” I had tried to do too much with one paper.

The issue wasn’t about whether or not I deserved an “A” for the paper — I certainly got that. It was about how much I still had to learn. After all, if I already knew everything I needed to know about doing scholarly research and writing for a scholarly audience, what was the point in going to graduate school? Why waste all that time and money if I already knew everything?

It was a hard and very painful lesson to learn. The lesson was this: sometimes your biggest critic can be your best friend.

Well, I showed my face at that party. And I continued to work very hard. And by my second year of graduate school I was presenting papers at professional conferences around the country. That was the whole idea behind our “mock convention” — that it would prepare Iowa SJMC graduate students to become scholars of the highest order.

In 1987, after three years at Iowa, I won my department’s highest graduate student award — for research. But make no mistake about it, even though my department recognized the quality of my work, each time I did a paper I still had lots to learn. And I came to value the criticism other people would offer. Sometimes I would ignore that criticism, because I determined that it came from misunderstanding what I was trying to do, or because it reflected an agenda of theirs that conflicted with my own. Even so, that criticism served to help me figure out how to do better what I had set out to do.

So remember: Sometimes critics can be your best friends. They call you to do and be more than you have ever been before. But while you are taking the criticism to heart, also remember — assuming that you did put in your best effort — that you did the best you could do at the time. And now, thanks to your critics, you can do better.

Matrix Editorial Services

This month I launched Matrix Editorial Services by posting a notice on the Women’s Studies Listserv — the “grand dame” of academic listservs, in which I have been participating since the early ’90s — that I would be taking on freelance academic editing projects. I was quite surprised with the flood of responses — requests that required me to put several people on the “back burner” while I dealt with two doctoral students who wanted to graduate this summer. One ultimately — and wisely — backed off her timeline when she realized how much work she needed to do after receiving my evaluation. The other client and I have already met her deadline for submission of her defense copy to her committee, and the final touches are in progress with time to spare.

I am delighted to be back in this work again, having left it completely around 15 years ago when my health issues got in the way. The past 20 years — since I was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 1992 (along with several other concomitant and unrelated conditions) — have been seriously challenging for me. The brain fog that accompanies fibro and the medications often prescribed produced cognitive issues that made it difficult me to sustain intellectual activity, or at least to succeed with complex long-term projects. I had almost given up intellectual work altogether. This past year I worked as a nanny! While I have actually enjoyed that work and the two very charming children I supervised, I have missed the scholar in me.

But thanks to work done with the University of Wisconsin’s Integrative Medicine specialist Dr. David Rakel, I have achieved a level of adaptive success that now gives me confidence that I can make commitments to others and follow through with them in a timely manner. And have already done so.

Currently I have several projects booked through July and August, but I will be taking on new clients in September. I also am planning a trip to California to visit my mother, who is 93 and too frail to travel herself, and somewhere in all of that I must schedule knee replacement surgery.

As readers can see from this blog, this is a very different sort of business website. This is my way of connecting personally with my clients and potential clients. Along the way I will be sharing stories of struggle and survival (and knowing when to quit) in the world of academia, and out of it. I will also be sharing my insights into writing and editing in the academic world.