Diary

Status of the Ph.D.


  • I interviewed with two prospective references at SILS, who agreed to write letters of reference (still waiting on the third to write hers and the application is done). They were good, tough interviews that asked the simple questions–Why do you want to do this? Why do you want to do it here? What do you want to do with a Ph.D.?–that are always hard to answer. Fortunately, my work on the entrance essay had primed my head with some thoughts to trot out and show off, so I didn’t fum-fuh my way through the conversations.
  • As I settle into the idea, the big question of course is the economy and the prospect of leaving my job to focus on my studies. On the face of it, it seems pretty foolish to leave a guaranteed job to go to school for an outcome that is not at all certain. But my holistic spiritual side tells me that this fear is one of the guardians of the gates whose job is to scare me off the path. The only way through is to confront the guardian and continue walking.
  • As my friend, The Indecipherable Cassidy, reminds me, don’t say no before the school says no. I still have until late next summer to decide whether or not this is the path for me. In the meantime, keep taking my classes, keep thinking and writing, and let the wheels of the academic bureaucracy grind along.

Update, 11-Jan-2008: All reference letters were submitted. All transcripts have been sent to the gradschool and the SILS office. All over now, but the waiting.

2008 Fall Semester Wrap-up

Follow-up to my fall break posting.

  • I spent the last two days deleting 1000+ emails from my Gmail “read this later” pile, deleted all unneeded emails from my fall classes, and deleted from my hard drive all the working files and drafts I used to create my various homework assignments. I keep only the final versions that I hand in and only the emails that included those files as attachments.
  • The semester, as usual, ended oddly. One feels that there should be more emotional celebration when you turn in that final assignment, but it’s not a race where there’s a clear winner and the outcome is unambiguous. I’m usually just restless and antsy and give me whatever grade you feel like giving me, I’m too tired to care. Fellow students comment on how we don’t quite know what to do with ourselves and all this free time. It’s a feeling I remember from when I used to act in community theater; we’d spend 6 weeks of evenings and weekends rehearsing, and when the performances and parties were over, we were generally glad to be done with this show that we were now thoroughly familiar with (and, consequently, sick of) and ready to move on. We talked about what we’d do with these acres of now-free time. After two weeks, we were back auditioning for the next show.
  • I expect this odd feeling–all revved up and then looking around at an empty landscape wondering where everyone went–will recur when graduation eventually rolls around. :)
  • I am pleased to report that I got high marks for both classes, which means I have a complete set of high marks for all of my classes thus far. La, how jolly.
  • Looking back, I probably could have handled both classes more easily had I not been severely distracted by the whole Ph.D. question. All that questioning, research, writing the essay, and pulling together those threads really distracted me from my everyday assignments.

Late night thoughts on getting a Ph.D.

Anthonio. In sooth I know not why I am so sad, It wearies me: you say it wearies you; But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, What stuffe 'tis made of, whereof it is borne, I am to learne: and such a Want-wit sadnesse makes of me, That I have much ado to know my self.

(Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 1)

OK, OK, it's not that bad. I dramatize. I soliloquize. But that lament pretty much reflects my state of mind for most of August and into September, where I had a storm in my head as I debated why I was in school and what I wanted out of it. It was all I could think of or talk about, and I look back at myself now and wonder at the mental and emotional fits I was giving myself. I'm sure I became a bit of a bore to my friends as this topic drove other more earthly concerns out of the limited crawlspace that is my head.

Ever since I started grad school, I've collected various links in my delicious account tagged gradschool and academic. I've been bemused by the number of writers who describe the PhD experience as depressing, dispiriting, a slog, something to be managed rigorously or die, etc. (Maybe only the folks who really hated the experience blogged about it?) At the very least, it's a serious business. Here are links to what I mean:

Now, to be fair, the advice most of these folks have runs along the same lines and it sounds pretty sensible: Know what you want and why you're there. You're on your own. Be focused. The job market is tough and getting tougher. Manage your adviser. Be prepared to be frustrated.

The first person who suggested the idea to me was a professor from Spring 2007, who ended his email with, "Stop laughing! I'm serious!"

My mentor, The Indefatigable Cassidy, makes it a point to bring it up in conversation at least once a semester and she has promised to step up that cycle as time goes on.

And when I mention the idea to peers at the school or even to civilians, their response is very positive. (See my earlier post on hallway conversations.) My social reality is echoing back to me, with a puzzled expression on its face, "I thought you were already a doc student. It suits you." For whatever reason -- my posture, my insane good looks, my carelessly thrown together wardrobe -- I give off the doctoral vibe like cheap aftershave. So maybe the folks around me know something about me that I don't.

But ever since I've started grad school, my reply has been a firm "No." The PhD involves work and activity far beyond what I thought I wanted to or could do, beyond what I thought I wanted out of a degree, and beyond my chosen performance level. Why make life harder by investing immense hours and energies for what may be only marginal value? Why bang my head against an ivory wall for 5 years and then face the cold cruel world of academic careerdom, where my previous 20+ years of workforce experience would add little to my reputation?

Some of my friends and advisers are saying, "You think too much. Just do it." That's a valid point. But I do feel I have a little more to lose by doing a PhD now than in, say, my 20s or 30s. Apart from the monetary loss, there is less time to make a course correction if I make the wrong bet.

I have many reasons why I should say "Yes."

  • My current career has sputtered to its end. My jobs over the last decade carried me away from the latest technologies and trends, so I'm very much out of step technically and methodologically.
  • My current job, though perfectly OK as a job, and was there for us when I really needed work, has not much more to offer me these days. Advancing in the company means selling out more of myself.
  • I think the risk of staying where I am is greater than the risk of trying something new. This is a prime motivator.
  • The professor I would be working with has basically invited me to join her and her team. This is hugely flattering and validating to me. I would still have to apply and compete for a position, of course, but I'm a known quantity and I'm sure I would make a strong candidate.
  • Honestly, I'm in my natural element in a classroom. Also, I've acquired very good self-management and other skills that enable me to make the most of my talents and skills without also fighting against myself so much.
  • I've always seen myself as a lifelong student. This transition would certainly solidify that image.
  • The friends I'm starting to make and the people I come into contact with are all tremendously supportive of me. So while the PhD is a solo effort, I'm not going into this alone.

Why am I hesitating?

  • Is this the subject area I want to pursue? I'll know more in the spring, when I take an independent study.
  • Can I picture myself doing professorial/research-y things? I'm having trouble with that. I had hoped to have 6-12 months to settle into the idea (I'm a slow learner).
  • It's hard for me to decouple the idea of acquiring the degree from how to pay for it. Yes, there's the fellowship, but I'm not living in an apartment with 3 other roommates. There's our personal infrastructure (car, house) to maintain.
  • My coach had a great question for me when I started this master's project. He asked me what my goal was. "To get my master's degree," I said. "No," he said. "That's what happens on the way to your goal. Who will you be the day after you graduate? What will you be doing? That's your goal." I must admit, I never had a clear picture of what the day after would look like until recently, when I'd decided that, yes, the PhD looks better now than it did before.
  • I'd long decided that I'd graduate in May 2010. The robes, the hat, the family pictures, everything. But. Fellowships for this program have been announced that run from 2009-2011. I've been advised (and it's good advice) to skip the master's, transfer in the hours I've already completed, and I'll be more than halfway done with the course requirements. This means giving up the 2010 plan, which provided us time to get things ready for the day after graduation. The timetable has moved up and my plans have to be shifted, and I'm traditionally ill at ease when things don't go according to plan or I feel that I'm rushed.

One of my advisors (I have an informal board of advisors -- friends who I can talk to about serious decisions and who provide a range of valuable advice on these matters) said to take the opportunity, hide out in academe while the economy sorts itself out, and get started on the next phase of my life.

There is also the feeling that the wave is cresting. I need to ride this wave while it's building and let its energy sweep me along. I need to trust that the resources I need will be there when I need them.

That said -- why do I not feel excited? This scenario is what I was welcoming 18 months from now -- why is it not so welcoming today? Because I feel I'm not ready? Because it seems too big of a step? Because because because...

Thinking too much! The curse of the late-night intellectual...

Update: Hill reminds me of something I should add: I have absolutely no illusions that the academy offers a workplace that's any different from the workplaces I've experienced over the last 25 years. There will be different stressors, friendly and difficult personalities, arbitrary authority to answer to, etc. I've worked as a staff member at both a small and a large college, and when you pass through the veil from student to staff (and faculty are staff, in my opinion), you start seeing a lot of activity that was hidden from view, rather like the way Disneyworld elves surreptitiously clean up after you on Main Street.

As Hill reminds me, the sooner I kill the romantic illusions that academe fosters, the more I'll benefit from what the experience can offer.

Update: "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you have to do it." Also: "Ride the horse in the direction it's going."

Update: (You know, at some point, I should just start a new post...) NCSU (my alma mater -- LWE, 1983) offers some juicy graduate programs through its College of Humanities and Social Sciences , especially this one, which looks quite exciting. This is one I should investigate, simply on its own merits.

No Heroic Efforts

I meant to add this time management rule to my previous Fall Review post. I  can't remember whether it originated with Mark Forster or David Allen, but it goes something like this: At all costs, avoid heroic efforts to get things done. Examples of an heroic effort would be pulling an all-nighter or shoving all other obligations to the side to totally focus on The One Project that needs to be done by tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. As I said in the Fall Review, yes, some projects do need hours of uninterrupted time so you can make progress. But I think the ideal is that you plan that work well ahead of time -- staging its component pieces in the days leading up to it -- so that you can approach the work or project mindfully rather than in a panic. And, so you can leave your desk at a decent hour feeling that you're on top of things and get a good night's sleep.

Forster's "little and often" and "continuous revision" rules can help here if you start early enough and if you're consistent in applying them.

Unfortunately, because I had not used my time wisely on Sunday (I chose to work on a project whose deadline was further out and I underestimated how much time the looming project actually needed), I had to launch an heroic effort on Wednesday to meet a Thursday deadline. This effort took 8 solid hours of time and attention and I was left quite depleted afterwards. And it's the aftereffects, the post-partum hangover, from an heroic effort that must be avoided. It can take a while for your tanks to refill; in the meantime, other projects are backing up.

Fall Review

During 2007’s fall break, I took a breather and penned (odd word for a blog post, but I’ll use it) an update on how the semester was going and the changes I was going through at that time.

A question from Brother Thomas and my friend Rani’s firing up of her own blog about her academic struggles and successes compelled me to do another mini-review of how the semester is going. So, some random thoughts in random order:

  • The semester’s academic work is going just fine, though I do always seem to be about a week behind, with two large projects looming like giant looming things. Despite all the work that’s piling up, I feel mostly on top of it all. I have the 500-Human Information Interaction class (the “intellectual fun” class) and the 523-Introduction to Relational Databases class (the rock-logic technical class that is torquing my intuitive English-major brain). They’re a good balance of subjects for me to have. And both of the teachers are excellent.
  • The index card trick alluded to in this post didn’t survive. It duplicated the hardcopy monthly calendars I keep in my binder; also, it’s too easy to check the class reading schedule on the web. I prefer the calendars since I can see a bigger swath of date-related information at a glance; my planner book tracks my daily to-dos. Small piles of index cards were just one more thing I didn’t want to track.
  • The binder, by the way, is my secret weapon. It holds a master academic calendar, all the syllabi, assignments, class notes, etc. for both classes, with tabs separating things here and there. I take notes on generic grid paper, hole punch it, and add it to the binder later. I should probably re-write the notes to really cement it all in my head, but – no. No, I won’t be doing that.
  • My day job sucked up all life, space, time, and peanut butter pie out of my life during September, which made completing the schoolwork esp. challenging. Fortunately, I faced this predicament last year and prepared better for the crunch this year, so it went as smoothly as it could go. But there was still no peanut butter pie.
  • My time management changed at some point this year; I can’t pinpoint where or when. I’ve rather quietly (to me) adopted the injunction to “start early.” This is the secret weapon of accomplishing grad-school work. I think it happened when I looked at my master calendar and saw that I had multiple major deliverables due at work and in both classes during the same week. But look at all that empty calendar time just sitting there the week before! So I’ve started pushing this stuff out earlier. Even if I can’t get it finished early, I can at least get it started early and so the ideas compost while I do other things. So going back to the task is more a matter of keeping the ball rolling, rather than getting it started.
  • Starting early also helps my projects “to accrue” rather than “to be worked on.” I found myself doing this last spring and am doing it as often as I can this fall. A time management tactic by Mark Forster is this: when faced with projects stretching out for some time ahead of you, start work on the most distant project first. It sounds counter-intuitive, but getting that big project started early gets your subconscious involved in sifting and shaping the material, solving the problem, etc. If I can touch the project regularly over the coming weeks, I find that I add a little more to it each time with very little strain. (This is very much a blend of Forster’s continuous revision and little and often processes.) There are inevitable hours-long work sessions, of course, including the finishing of the piece, but I get more satisfaction out of those sessions knowing that good-sized chunks of the work have already been done.
  • I recall a week when the deadlines were so lock-stepped that I had to finish a task or project before resuming or even starting the next project. Had I gotten sick, or dropped one of those projects, I’d have never caught up and my empire would have collapsed.
  • At times like that, I remember my co-worker Richard’s advice. He’d finished a hard 2 years getting a master’s in bioinformatics, and sometimes took unpaid leave from the day-job to get his schoolwork done. When my manager and I started our master’s programs, he said: “Don’t skimp on your sleep; you can’t afford to get sick and fall behind.” And: “Just accept that no one will get 100% – not school, not family, not home, not work. If you can give them 90%, you’re doing outstanding.”
  • I saw my mentor, The Improbable Cassidy, in the hallway and, teasingly, asked her how many groups and committees she was a member of this semester. She shook her head and said if she stopped to think about it all, she would freeze. We agreed that denial is an often underrated coping mechanism.
  • Cassidy has a new baby, The Wondrous Anastasia, and what with feedings and naps, Cassidy has adopted the “work when you can” method and testifies herself to be more productive even than before. During crunch times, this is a good strategy and, though it’s a filthy habit, it does work. I find myself using it with distressing regularity.
  • Speaking of Cassidy, she persuaded me to join the Carolinas Chapter of the American Society for Information Science & Technology (cc:ASIS&T) as the Program Chair. I felt I owed her some tremendous back-payments on favors she’s done for me the last 2 years, and that’s a large part of why I agreed to do it. Also, I felt it was time to start getting a little more involved in the life of the school and meet more of my peers. (I’ve volunteered on special projects in the past, but have never held a board position before.) Since joining, I’ve sent out typical Mike-Brown over-the-top emails (rather like these hideously long blog posts that are dinosaurs in the Twitter Age) on program and publications ideas, disgorged a flurry of emails to help organize a recent talk, and spent several hours creating an event-planning template to make these things go a little more smoothly in future, I hope. (Slow-learner that I am, I finally twigged that “program chair” = “event planner.”)
  • A luxury once sampled becomes a necessity. For the last two semesters, I’ve parked in a park-and-ride lot and taken the bus. This semester, after sampling the parking deck behind the post office (only for dire emergencies at the beginning), I’m now parking there regularly and willingly paying the $3 for 3 hours. No more waiting for or missing the bus, and I can now linger for after-class conversations or meetings. And if I don’t linger, I get to the office a half-hour earlier, which more than pays for the parking fee.
  • No. Exercise. At. All. Apart from walking across campus or up stairs and, sorry, they don’t really count. A 45-hour-per-week job, with school – plus the homework and the commuting to and from – as basically my second job, crowds out exercise time. I started the Hundred Push Ups program but did not make it past the first week. I’m such a marshmallow.
  • The Beauteous Liz, as per usual, minds the store at home and picks up the slack of household management since my attention is always elsewhere.
  • The Ph.D. Oh Lord. That’s another blog post. Maybe later.
  • In the past, while waiting for the bus, I’d pull out cards and write to friends, since I don’t have time to write long letters anymore. (They’d be happy with long emails, but I think cards and letters arriving in the mailbox are more fun.) This semester, I’ve not had time nor brainspace to write any cards at all. I hope to get back to this soon, before Cara & Andy leave Seattle for NC in November and before Sue & family leave California for Sweden very soon.
  • Last fall, I stopped my banjo lessons because it was one rock too many. I restarted the lessons in May with a new teacher and have continued them through this fall. Music lessons are a metaphor for lots of things related to life and learning and growth, and my teacher is an excellent guide for all of those things. The learning is hand-eye, rhythmic, and uses different parts of my brain than the verbal/technical parts that are way overused. I can feel myself getting better as I practice, and that’s a good feeling. Also, good practice requires total focus, which helps distract me when the black dog of melancholia follows me home.
  • I started this program officially in Spring 2007. Now, I find myself recognizing more folks in the halls, chatting with them, getting their stories. It’s socially comforting to be recognized. It’s happening slowly for me, given my schedule, but it’s happening.
  • Viewing that paragraph on cc:ASIS&T and this exponentially expanding blog post should tell you that I must not be busy enough. It’s all, as Rani sez, “structured procrastination.”

Birthday horoscope for Sept. 24

A horoscope calculated for January 1, 2000 at ...

Here’s the regular daily ‘scope:

People are more impressed by your efficiency than by your eagerness to please. You need to back up your smiles with an authentic performance. Additional diplomacy must be carried in your toolbox.

Here’s usually the most interesting part of the daily ‘scope. Let’s make a date to check it next year, shall we?

If September 24 is your birthday: You currently have a good grip on how to succeed in business without really trying. By the end of October you could be distracted by a romantic hope or tempted to engage in a wild-goose chase. Wait until December or early January to make crucial decisions, changes, or to begin important undertakings.

Liz clipped out last year’s birthday horoscope and placed it under my desk mat. Here’s what it said:

If you were born September 24: Patience is your friend. Bide your time and don’t initiate anything of great importance, such as a mortgage or marriage, before December. You are highly ambitious this year, but must not burn any significant bridges or rush too quickly into new projects. A romantic encounter could have you humming love songs in January and February. Your deep passion for success might be advantageous during April.

Nirvana, or something like it

My friend Rani left me the following intriguing comment:

Mike - would love to know how the life/school/work balance (or juggle rather) is going. Have you been able to obtain equilibrium at all? What about nirvana?

I was going to reply as a blog post that night but spent too much time working on an assignment. (Cue the irony strings.) I wish I had something pithy to impart, as I have no coherent thoughts on this, so I’m afraid I bejabbered a long and rambling discourse to her in an email. But this is what I do, so we must perforce accept what we do not wish to change since it has worked pretty well for us so far.

Anyway, I’ve taken that long and rambling discourse to her and tried to pull out the nuggets to create a letter to myself. If anything, it’s a snapshot of where I am today.

  • I agree with my friends Rani and Cara that balance is a myth. Instead, as Cara said, the best you can do is to achieve integration of all your facets every day, no matter how brief those episodes may be. Work, life, family, self-care, meditation – cram it all into one day. There’s just what needs to be done now, today, but thinking also about what will I be glad I did a month from now, a year from now. Flipping back and forth between the detail and the big picture instead of being stuck in one mode for too long.
  • I work with a personal coach. One of his favorite sayings is “life is every moment.” Meaning, of course, that nirvana is every moment. Right now, as I’m writing this, is IT and it deserves my full attention and as much of me as I can bring to it.No, I don’t hit that moment every time, but I remember another saying (that’s all I do, is remember things, I never think of anything original to say on my own), a Zen one, “Try, try, for a thousand years.” Lately, I’m working on focusing my attention on one thing a time without trying to keep up with all my RSS feeds, email, etc. simultaneously. I find that when I can focus for an hour or so on a single project (work or school), I get more done and derive more satisfaction from it.
  • I feel very fortunate to be doing all this work at this point in my life. I’ve got good time management habits, I understand and am more friendly with my thinking and creative processes so that I’m not fighting them as often, my health is good (I don’t get enough sleep, though), and I’ve been hacking my mind for the last two years with my coach, so that I’m not as plagued by self-doubt or anxiety as I used to be.This month, for example, is a train wreck. It’s the end of the fiscal year for our customer, so I have about 5 documents due, I have to make a presentation at the end of the month on a project I’ve not touched for 2 months, I have major homework assignments (they don’t tend to be hard, but they take a lot of time), monthly reports will take 2-3 days to write, etc.

    Funnily enough, I’m not paralyzed with fear and anxiety. Instead, I’m looking at it all rather coolly (if a little frazzledly) and calculating when I have time to get things done, what’s the highest priority, where can I slack off, when can I sleep late, etc. I turned in an assignment a week early so I could work unfettered on the assignment for my other class, focus on my work projects, and free up an evening so Liz and I could attend a concert (meaning, no homework time that night!).

    That kind of thing. Starting early, giving myself time.

  • My mgr and I have noticed that when we focus on schoolwork, our day job suffers, and vice versa. So it sloshes back and forth between the two.
  • One of my coach’s points is that, when we decide what our territory is, we then have to decide 1) what are the costs and 2) are we willing to pay the price for it. In my case, that has meant lots more communication with Liz so she knows the state of my mind and emotions, ensuring that she understands why I don’t have time to do stuff like go to the movies. Our current rule is that we can have one outing per weekend – it can be out to lunch, or lunch and a movie, or seeing friends for dinner – but the rest of the weekend is for me to do homework and reading.
  • I am keeping up my banjo lessons with my teacher (who doubles as another coach, in a way). I only have time to practice for about 10-15 minutes/day, in the morning, in between getting home from work and starting my evening studies, or in between study sessions, but I think it’s good for me. It gives my brain and hands different work to do and is a good mental break. Also, since I don’t have my fiction writing as an outlet, this keeps me in touch with my creative, performing self.
  • My coach says that it isn’t good to work for hours at a time; it’s analogous to stretching a rubber band at full tension without relaxing it. If you work at full tension for too long, you’ll snap. So you absolutely need to build in relaxation time where you don’t think about work or assignments. For me, last weekend, it meant watching Doctor Who episodes on my MacBook.
  • I also spent this past summer not doing any schoolwork. Instead, I made a conscious decision that Liz and I would spend more time together. So we took a tap dancing class at 9th Street Dance, we started entertaining more on the back porch, we sat on the porch after work or before bedtime and talked about our lives and our plans. We both knew once the fall semester started, that I would not have that kind of loose time anymore. So I tried to compensate for that beforehand. And fortunately, she’s very understanding. She knows that I’m fully stretched working full-time and doing school; and we both know that this is a temporary condition, and not forever. (Well maybe – I’m thinking about getting a PhD.)
  • Every Sunday morning, we go for a 30-min walk in the neighborhood and talk about the week, what’s coming up, etc. (Well, she talks because she’s a lark, and I stare at the ground because I’m an owl, and owls don’t like the morningses.) I also, when I can, read to Liz before she goes to sleep or we sit on the porch and have supper. Time to just sit and mull things over is very important.You know, little everyday things like that do take time away from my studies, but it’s those little everyday things that we tend to remember and cherish the most. Little kindnesses. (Remember that Japanese movie, “Afterlife”?)

    Also, Liz was there before the degree, Liz will be there after the degree. Praise be to the Liz.

  • My systems analysis teacher’s law was, “Never fall in love with anything – system, process, gadget – that cannot say ‘I love you’ in the morning.”
  • So if there’s an answer to Rani’s vague and open-ended question, it’s that I work at it every day and every week. Wednesday, for example, is an early and late day. I try to get to work by 7:30 so I can log my 9hrs by 4:30, so I can get to my class by 5:30, and then get home about 8:45 at night. I see Liz briefly in the morning and briefly again late at night. I call her about 4:30 to see how her day has gone (I try to call her from work once a day).At the office, I endeavor to get ahead on my work projects so that I’m not the bottleneck (my personal metric is that I want to be so organized and efficient at work that I scare people). In class, I just listen to the lecture, take notes, and jabber as I am wont to do. I focus on work, school, and home to varying proportions, as needed.
  • When possible for my manager and me, school comes first. It’s finite, it’s directed short-term assignments, and paying the price now yields a bigger payoff later. But, school doesn’t pay the bills yet. So there are times we have to focus on the day job, take work home, catch up on the weekends, etc.
  • Every day, I try not to think about completing everything all at once, but can I at least feel on top of things for today? (That’s a Mark Forster idea.) I went to bed late Sunday night, but I felt on top of things Monday morning. That feeling never lasts, of course, but sometimes I’m surprised at how little I really need to do to feel on top of things.
  • Talk about equilibrium – see the movie “Man On Wire”. Fabulous!

Hallway conversations

Rachael in the elevator: "So, Mike, are you going to do a doctorate?" Dr. Tibbo as she was leaving her office: "So, Mike, has Carolyn talked to you about joining the doctoral program?"

Back in the Nanowrimo game

Well, sort of. I wrote earlier about retiring from the field when I found the story I was working on uncongenial. But I couldn’t get some of the images out of my mind, and I had certain key moments in the long life of the main character appear in front of me as I went about my other chores.

I had also promised myself the New Yorker DVD set if I successfully completed nanowrimo. While I always intended to buy the set anyway, I can’t forget that carrot I dangled in front of myself. I felt I needed to put in at least a good-faith effort in order to justify buying the DVDs.

So I went back to my file and basically started the story over again for at least the third time. It’s interesting to me how the story started as a sprawling, dozens-of-characters murder mystery, to a more constrained, cozier setting, starting with two characters but in the last few writing sessions, settling on the main character, a 96-year-old woman on her deathbed remembering key events of her life.

I don’t believe I’ll make the 50K word count by Nov. 30, though. I’m at about 23,700 right now and can’t do much more than 2000 words in a sitting. The week I took off left me way behind, and I went to bed early last night. So I’d need to push out about 3000+ words a day to make the goal. Hm. Well, maybe if I intersperse writing sessions with leaf-raking on my days off Friday and Saturday, maybe I’ll get up to the mid-30s by the 28th.

Retiring from the Nanowrimo field

I was looking forward to it this year, but hit the sand early and never recovered. I started out as I had done last year, with an image, a situation, and then started to run with it. But the material didn’t form under my fingers as naturally as last year. I finally switched from a male, first-person narrator to a female, third-person narrator, and that helped a bit. I got several days of writing out of that.

I also adopted the Jeanette Winterson/Diana Gabaldon method of composing scenes out of sequence, thinking that if I could get the juicy scenes out first, then that would give my mind time to generate the connective tissue.

Well, it’s a good idea, and I should try it sometime. But tonight I sat at the keyboard and the ideas just didn’t come. I think the past that one of the main characters, a 96-year-old rural woman, on her deathbed, has lots of sadness and compromise in store for her, and I plain don’t want to go there. I don’t want to put her through it. There’s also the niggling feeling that I’ve read this kind of story before, that I’m just going through the plotting motions, and the sense of discovery I had last year isn’t there.

There have been pleasant surprises along the way, and I’ve rediscovered the truth that 50% of the material I generate will come out of the writing and I don’t need to do much in the way of planning. I did hit on some interesting connections in some of my daily writing, and some haunting (I think) images that I will want to come back to.

But as for making the 50,000-word count by Nov. 30 – nope. I’m bowing out. Nanowrimo should be fun, for me, and I don’t need the extra pressure of generating plot and words for a story that I am resisting. I reserve the right to continue to play with the story through the rest of the month (and beyond), however, and may break through whatever I’m resisting. But not today.

NaNoWriMo: The Adventure Begins

Yes, I’m one of the hairpins doing the NaNoWriMo challenge, though I will only use lowercase letters from here on out because those intercapitalizations drive me nuts.

Last year, I signed up on October 31st, just for a lark. I wasn’t working, nothing was going on, and I thought it would help me pass the time. I emailed my friend Sue in California, also a writer, and said this looked like fun, I may try out. Well, she signed up too. I got the No Plot, No Problem book, read through it, and plucked out a situation I’d written down in my notebook years ago but had never done anything with. I didn’t know where it might go, but thought I’d give it a try.

It had a magical, fantasy type atmosphere, and I read a couple of Lon Milo DuQuette’s books that helped feed my imagination during the process.

I wound up creating enough situations and piling up enough detail that I eventually “won” with about 51,000 words. Sue actually crossed the finish line first and called to tell me. This inspired me to sit down, finish mine, and upload it to the site (which I did before her). We were both abuzz for the rest of the year, comparing notes on the experience, and patting each other (and ourselves) on the back for taking on a crazy project (crazier in her case, as she’s a freelancer and mother of two little girls) and actually succeeding at it.

The lessons I learned and things I noticed:

  • I’d been rather glum and mopey for most of the year, with good reason. I didn’t feel that way during Nanowrimo month. (Sue noticed the same thing.)

  • I started out with only a situation–no plot, no characters, no themes. As I wrote, plots, characters, and themes emerged.

  • When I had a strong situation, the scene almost wrote itself.

  • When I could see the images in my head very strongly, the scene worked out pretty well.

  • When I had nothing, it was work to squeeze out the word quota.

This year, I also pulled a situation out of my notebook, what I had long thought of as a murder-mystery idea, even though I have no idea how to write a mystery story. The situation stands on its own as very melodramatic and maybe ludicrous, but it’s stayed with me for some reason, so I’m using it as my prompt to get the story started.

As it happens, tonight’s writing went OK (but I found myself checking the word count every 5 minutes towards the end–was it this hard last year?). I’m already finding that it’s going to contain lots of personal history and thoughts about my family, and the place of the outsider in the family. I didn’t actually get to the prompt scene. I started the novel after the funeral service; the narrator will be flashbacking to the prompt scene, and I’ll see then how plausible it feels.

But even if it doesn’t, who cares. It’s Nanowrimo month! I have license to be creative! I can splat things down just to see what happens! I don’t have to go back and edit or delete! God Bless Us Every One!!