Diary

Fall 2009 chicken

Taking a leaf from Havi’s Friday Chicken, this post will review the semester just past, but with a few additional headings.

The Hard

  • I never got around to writing all the blog posts documenting my semester, its ups and downs—which is one of the reasons I started the blog, so that it could serve as my diary/journal for this trip. It became one of many obligations I had to ignore as the semester limped along.
  • About 3 or 4 weeks into the semester, I said to people that I wasn’t coping with school—I was trying to get to a point where I could start coping.
  • The work, oy, the work. Mounds of it. Only some it was horrendously difficult, but it was all mostly time-consuming and came pelting on my windshield in clumpy wet blotchy gusts. And because few of the work products resembled each other, there was no way to build up any momentum so that you could leverage a day’s work on 2 projects, for example. Each task was too unique. This meant thin-slicing my attention to where nothing got my full attention (I hated this condition) or waiting till a deadline or question from a stakeholder forced me to pay attention to the thing. I was never able to work ahead to my satisfaction.
  • Statistics. The homework that soaked up hours, the 56-question midterm that I could not complete in 75 minutes, the feeling that I was 4-6 weeks behind in understanding the Niagara of information washing over me, the frequent panics and dark moments when it hit me forcefully that I wasn’t getting it.  Realizing I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. Definitely the worst experiences of my college career.
  • Dialing down my expectations. Part of what made the semester hard was the writing on the inside of my skull that said everything had to be perfect, every page of every assignment had to be read, every commitment had to be honored. Re-negotiating my expectations for what I could realistically (as opposed to idealistically) accomplish was a major hit to the ego.
  • Letting things go—and these were assignments and commitments I was on the hook for producing. It hurt to have to drop or ignore them because I didn’t have time for them.
  • Not letting things go—the snack-information pellets I continued to read, the idea that I needed to give myself frequent breaks—the trying to hold on to the old parts of my life and personality that are holding me back from embracing what I think has to be a new part of my personality.
  • Felt like I was still using too much nervous energy, not enough smarts, to get things done. I felt that I was counting too much on the Thanksgiving break and random days off to work on or finish assignments that could have been completed in a more reasonable, less nerve-wracking fashion.
  • Always predicting disaster and failure erodes my nerve-endings and makes me no fun to hang out with.
  • Found myself leading two groups and feeling very inadequate in the role of leader and project manager. Always the feeling that that I’m not measuring up and that I’m letting people down. This is a feeling that is not going away anytime soon.
  • Guilt, guilt, and more guilt for not reading enough, doing enough, staying up late enough, accomplishing enough, being enough.
  • The hours spent commuting. Some time can be filled with reading on the way to school, but I was too tired at the end of the day to get any good reading done. Still haven’t found a good way to use that down time except to relax and mull, which is probably what I need to do anyway.
  • Felt like a whiner for most of the semester.
  • Seeing my mentor graduate with her dissertation and leave the school; hers is the face I will always see first when I think of this school. Will miss her advice and availability.
  • Flipping between two and three different time management systems through the semester, never quite finding The One.
  • Forecasting mountains of hard work that makes it easy to want to give up. I have the following coming up in the spring: helping with a 3-day event in early January, helping with a student event in mid-January, conducting actual research for my advisors and writing up a draft, writing quarterly reports for our grant, helping plan and run a major week-long event in May—and did I mention I’m taking three courses (including the second statistics course)? And there will be extra impromptu projects that arise—they always do.
  • Comparing myself to others who seem to be doing this gig more effortlessly than me.
  • Trying to find 10 hours/week for my part-time job. Sometimes I couldn’t.
  • Working against my natural rhythms—I really shouldn’t try to do hard-focus work from 2-5pm.
  • Is there a good, easy, simple way to manage multiple projects that doesn’t require spending hours feeding tasks and end dates into an application? This is another case where I’m using too much brute force and brain cells instead of trusted routines and systems. I’m convinced I can manage most of these things with pen and paper or a text file and a calendar, but I haven’t found it yet.
  • Giving up the comfortable, familiar handrails of a job, of a place where I felt competent and accomplished. Struggling still with the idea of whether this academic enterprise is something I really want, or whether it wants me. The idea of a life spent working is not at all attractive to me—unless it’s work I enjoy (and that’s a new thought for me). At this point in the game, I’m still taking orders from people and struggling to meet the expectations of others, so enjoyment is not part of the agenda.
  • Fighting my distractions: YouTube, web smurfing. There’s more joy in my distractions than in the work.
  • Wanting to hide when someone suggested a new project or new task when I didn’t know how I was going to handle my current tasks. Feeling very protective of my time.
  • Discovering I’m not as smart as I thought as I was. But then, one of my goals was to get smarter, to learn to think more critically. As one of my advisors said early on, you’ll stretch and it’ll hurt.

The Good

  • I know a little better now how I want next semester to go, insofar as planning my schedule, managing commitments, dealing with technical courses, etc.
  • It’s probably just as well that I didn’t document on this blog everything that happened to me, as it would have been extremely tedious reading throughout the semester. Also, writing about it probably would have made me feel worse; I’d be spending the time practicing my angst rather than working on my projects.
  • I passed Statistics, but not in the way I would have liked. My homework partner carried the burden of the hours-long homework sets, and my contributions were minimal. But I passed. (“P’s make degrees.”)
  • Help is all around—fellow students, professors, friends, my wife. I just need to let them know what’s going on and ask for help or for some time to vent. I found that when I vented my fears in public, others also confessed their misgivings. So I’m not alone in this.
  • Things usually—well, pretty much always—turned out better than I expected. How about that.
  • Commuting via TTA worked out really well. I filled up my car maybe every other week, and rode the bus when possible. Mondays at home all day. Terribly essential when I needed big gobs of time to read or write or research. Discovering that one of our professors is interested in an esoteric subject that I’ve been interested in for years. I followed up on this with my advisor, who said this could perhaps be worked into a dissertation, but would require some massaging. The sooner I can find and define a dissertation topic, the better life will get.
  • I got through the semester.
  • I can look back and see how much work I produced at school while also mentoring a friend who took over my old job through the busiest time of the company’s fiscal year. One of the reasons for this career change was to improve my productivity, and I’m certainly doing that.
  • Having a part-time job to make up the income deficit, and being able to mostly squeeze it into the tiny gaps of my day.
  • My professor’s knack for assigning intermediate deadlines for term projects that forced me to create smaller products and thus engage with the material on a smaller scale over a longer period of time. When it came time to write the final paper, the ground had been well-broken and was familiar to me. This is a technique I need to remember and employ for myself. Trusting my writing instincts and creative intelligence—I know I don’t have to have it all figured out before I write things down. The very act of writing and sifting the material, and thinking about it as I walk or commute, creates the connections. I don’t have to force anything. It was good to be reminded of this.
  • Settling at last on Google Calendar and a page-per-day planner book with my Autofocus lists in the back.
  • The Pomodoro technique for breaking work into units. I would often start a work session thinking, “I need to get 3 pages written” or “I need to find 10 pieces of literature for the review”; instead, by allotting 25 minutes of focused time to the task—and then using as many of those 25-minute slots as needed or as I had time for—I still felt as if I was progressing. These were often useful at the start of a project, when I really didn’t know which way was up or how to get into the material.
  • Discovering I could produce a lot in a little amount of time. Parkinson’s Law should be remembered; impossible deadlines tend to elicit focused work from me in an annoyingly productive way. Don’t tell me you want it next month, tell me you need it by Friday. But can I do this for myself? To myself?
  • Deciding that going to bed by midnight was non-negotiable. For a while there, 1 a.m. was my limit, until I wised up. I hope to work this down to 11 pm in 2010, and then to simply going to bed when I’m tired. Never skimp on your sleep. Were I to fall ill, my empire would topple.
  • During my last week of paper-writing, I stuck a big post-it to my monitor that said “80%”. A reminder that perfection isn’t needed for some jobs, just a good effort, and sometimes good enough is good enough; even if the paper isn’t as perfect as you’d like, let it go and move to the next one. Don’t go crazy.

The Questions

  • Too much introspection and hand-wringing? Not enough action?
  • What if I went forward in all my pursuits with the expectation that I will succeed and everything will come out all right? How would that feel?
  • Can I schedule my distractions so that I can focus for longer periods of time? Knowing that I’ll have time to read or play, will that keep my attention from wandering?
  • Can I set myself impossible deadlines so I can get routine work done faster?
  • Can I make Cal Newport’s 9-to5 schedule work for me? Maybe on some days, not so much on class days. But in order to stem the flood of work and build in some down-time, the only way to do that, it seems to me, is to establish pretty rigid time boundaries and say, “I’ll commit to doing the work at this time for this duration, and then I stop.” Even so, I’m still at the early point in my career when I’m not as in control of my schedule as I will be in 2 years. Also, I’m way too overcommitted—but no way to get out of them for a while, so must grit my teeth…

Lessons Learned

  • Front-load the semester—do as much work as possible as early in the semester as possible. This is particularly the case for long-term projects. As the semester wears on, there is less and less time to devote to big projects. One of the old project management sayings I remember is, “There’s always more time at the beginning of a project than there is at the end.” Don’t wait; I’m kinder to myself tomorrow when I get something done today.
  • Leverage asynchronous communications. I don’t have to respond to most emails immediately, and I shouldn’t expect other people to do so. I can usually tell when a phone call will work better.
  • I experimented with one composition book per class, but that fell by the wayside for the seminar classes. I now use a single Moleskine large-format cahier to take all class and meeting notes. I date each page. As I process each page into meeting minutes or, in the case of my Statistics class, into a separate notebook where my scribbles are cleaned up, I draw a slash through the page to indicate that it’s “done.” This becomes my everything book and user-capture device. (I don’t always carry my MacBook with me, but I always have this book with me.) I also kept a separate notebook for statistics homework, but I may incorporate it into the flow of my class notes next semester. I think keeping too many things in separate buckets fragments my attention.
  • Learn as I go. This is especially true with statistics, where I trusted that I would have time and intelligence enough to figure it out later. That did not work. Next semester, take frequent office-hours meetings with the professor or TA (if the TA is helpful) starting the first week, start the homework early early early, ask the questions early, and make as much use of YouTube and web stats tutorials as I can. I believe that stats, for me, is a case of both hard-focus and lots of time. Don’t expect I can cram 14 weeks of conceptual material into a weekend. Also—I can understand things if they’re explained clearly enough and if I practice them often enough.
  • Skimming is OK to do and I can still contribute in class.
  • Feeling scared and intimidated is OK and is almost encouraged. These are feelings that have to be negotiated with no matter where you are in life.
  • The Ineradicable Cassidy’s dissertation defense illuminated what had been often said: it’s up to the student. The student drives the process because the advisor is too busy to look after him/her. The student has to dog the advisor, the student has to harangue the committee, the student has to seek help if help is needed. Also, the student has to learn to put the pressure on themselves via deadlines—send in a poster proposal before the results are in, set a date with your advisor for the draft even if you haven’t started it. Without that pressure, none of us would get anything done. And this is in part how an academic must progress in their career. (Whether you want to continually be tricking yourself this way for the next 20-30 years, well, that’s a different discussion and part of my lingering discontent with this academic project. But that might also be a part of my old self resisting the changes to my new life.)
  • When I had to push something out quickly—a lit review, research for a presentation—I was able to clear my calendar and do it. And, weirdly, the sooner I did this work, the more in control I felt of what was happening to me. The feeling of being on top of things is so powerful. There’s no reason to wait to start working on a project; some progress can always be made.

Writing the Lit Review for Research Methods

Research. Olin Warner (completed by Herbert Ad...

I recently finished a pretty big, for me, literature review that totaled about 17 pages, including the title page and two pages of references. Here are some scattered thoughts and lessons learned, at my customarily hideous length:

  • I saw the wisdom of The Scholarly Cassidy’s advice to begin the search haphazardly. I spent much early time floundering but tried various keywords that eventually led me to articles of interest. Have to get used to the feeling of confusion at beginning and make friends with it.
  • As with most of the work at SILS, what I did wasn’t really hard so much as it was time consuming. The keys are starting early (a lesson I’m always re-learning) and letting the work marinate. Because I’m deeply into self-justification, I am obliged to tell you that I started late because I was finishing up a different assignment and dealing with my full-time job, of course, so my research was tucked into the margins of my daily schedule (i.e., at night before bedtime) or relegated to weekends.
  • I remembered advice to break the writing into three fairly equal time-sized chunks: a third searching, a third compiling and sifting, and a third writing. I altered that to make the writing take only one day, but this division let me know when to stop active searching and when to start writing. Although I did occasional follow-up searches, the bulk of my active searching had stopped days before I started writing.
  • I adapted Cal Newton’s Newport’s Excel-based research database. I added a worksheet to track the lists of keywords I searched against. I kept a list of all of my sources in the main tab, with their citation (if it was easy to get), a URL to the abstract or document, the year it was published, its abstract, a theme or category to which the article belonged (such as “Community Attachment” or “Personal Networks”) and a link to a PDF of the full-text article I’d downloaded to my hard drive. I pretty quickly compiled about 125 sources (plus some duplicates). I started scanning for quotations, but discerned that precise quoting wasn’t called for (though page references to specific ideas were). I didn’t need quotes so much as synthesis. That said, I still had way too many quotes – the old reporter habits of tucking the evidence into the story die hard.
  • I used the spreadsheet to scan the abstracts and judge immediately whether an article had relevance to me. (I kept reminding myself this was a short paper, not written to last 20 years.) Instead of deleting those rows, I colored the citation cell red. If I liked the abstract, I assigned a theme or category (and duplicated the row if the article fit into more than one category). This got me familiar with the breadth of my article grabs. Then I sorted on the Year Published column (earliest at the top), and auto-filtered by theme. I could then see this haphazard list snap into place: all the articles for the themes sorted from earliest to most recent, and the progression of thought visible in the abstracts. I’d already decided I only needed about 3-4 themes for this paper, so this process helped me identify weak themes (only one or two articles) and combine similar themes for later processing.
  • When it was clear that I had too many articles for a category (about 25 for the Sense of Community theme, for example), I reduced the number to 3-5, which forced me to generate selection criteria and think about how they would fit into the story I was telling. I then printed out only these articles and read them more closely since they would form the spine of the lit review.
  • I spent most of the days leading up to my writing in working this spreadsheet, finding new sources until I reached saturation (the same titles or authors cropping up), and in thinking about the story – or as some may call it, “building an argument.” Same thing, really. Set up the foundation with the themes you’ll come back to, remind the reader of them as you go into the middle introducing new concepts, and by the end, you twine and braid the concepts, draw analogies, point out disagreement or overlap, and so on. As always, I found that these connections leapt out at me as I was writing or during my editing. They weren’t there to start with.
  • I took a day of vacation to do the actual writing, and the day went smoothly, without much stress. (Had there been an emergency that had taken me away from my home office, though, I would have been doomed.) I suppose, though, that I had a secret weapon, which is that I’ve been writing in one form or another since 1984. Most of the lit review writing advice I researched struck me as assuming you don’t have much writing experience. I, however, know my writing process pretty well. I figured that if I soaked myself in the literature, and could come up with a logical storyline, then the writing would take care of itself. And I’m relieved to say that is, indeed, what happened (to my satisfaction, anyway).
  • One section I left out of the first draft was the conclusion. I felt it was better to wait and do that after I had let the paper cool down and I had put in my edits. Having spent the day intensely with my chosen material, I was able to write a more coherent conclusion that reflected connections that developed during the first-draft writing.
  • Still, I was up till, oh, the wee small hours. After I finished my draft, I took a two-hour break to do a workout, eat, watch a TV show, and practice my banjo. I edited a hardcopy printout, made notes to myself, and then typed in the edits and my conclusion. Ensuring the paper adhered to the APA style guide (and formatting my citations accordingly) actually was more time-consuming or felt like it.
  • The night of the day I finished the assignment, still tired but unable to sleep, I started reading my assignments for the next week. Taking time to pause and rest was probably as much celebration as I could emotionally afford. The best thing to do, I’m learning, is to have another project or task to pour that nervous energy into. (And this has implications for the night of graduation day, whenever that will arrive.)
  • I realized afterward my brain can make the connections between ideas all on its own without me having to force them, and that’s rather a relief to discover. If I’ve stated the problem correctly, I’m interested in the question, and I’m not in a hurry, then all goes well. I don’t have to be an expert, but I can be a sense-maker.
  • Always interesting to reflect that any piece of writing is the tip of an iceberg hiding the hours and pages of thinking and drafts. Would be interesting to study the ratio of material/effort expended for a paper to the final page count, so you could calculate that a page of manuscript will require 12-24 hours of effort, or something like that. I imagine someone’s already done that.

The day I got no research done


  1. I unpack my stuff in the SILS liberry [1] and start researching.
  2. The Maternalistical Cassidy wheels in with Anastasia and asks if I have lunch plans.
  3. I pack up my stuff and we go to lunch (very pleasant).
  4. I unpack my stuff in the SILS liberry and start researching.
  5. People people people walk by and want to chat. Very pleasant but no work is done. [2]
  6. I get an email from Dr. T saying I’ve been accepted into SILS’ doctoral program (!) and I was granted a DigCCurr II Fellowship (!!).
  7. I sit there stunned and forward her mail to various folks, like Liz and Cassidy. I also send her a thank-you mail.
  8. Not really knowing what else to do, and wanting to settle myself down, I go back to my research. About a minute later, Cassidy comes down and hugs my neck and is giddier and more excited about the news than I am. We chat a bit and process the news.
  9. She leaves to go back to her work and I return to my research. It’s a little after 3pm.
  10. Dr. T finds me in the liberry and wants me to walk with her over to Daily Grind so she can get a coffee-booster before her 3:30pm talk.
  11. I pack up my stuff and we walk and talk about the offer.
  12. I finally give up and go home after getting about 20 minutes of research work done. This will be a hard semester.

[1] Many and many a year ago I worked in one of the tech-writing gulags of Northern Telecom. A young Southern lady who managed the Interleaf publishing resources often told us about the templates and files stored in the “liberry.” Sorry, but that pronunciation just stuck in my head and I don’t want it to leave.

[2] Lori says I should get used to this.

Research Journal for my 780 class

Cover of "7 Up"
Cover of 7 Up

Since our 780 Research Methods class doesn’t have a Blackboard site for the class, I’ll post my various links and thoughts to the blog, tagged with “780.”


I wonder if Michael Apted’s wonderful Up series of documentary interviews would be an example of a kinda sorta longitudinal study or panel study? When a new film comes out every 7 years with updates on these people, it’s always fascinating to see where life has – or hasn’t – taken them. Instead of gathering statistics about a large group of people, there’s something very satisfying about getting to know a small group of people very well.


We’ve been talking about experiments, planning a study, theories, types of studies, etc. One of our last readings was about where one gets ideas for theories. This reminded me of Seth Roberts, a Berkeley researcher in psychology, who frequently touts self-experimentation as a way to generate research ideas. This is one of his more famous papers. He maintains an active and entertaining blog.

What I admire about Seth Roberts is his abundant idea-generation and his zeal for measurement and record-keeping. His goal is to experiment on himself first, then if his data indicates that there are possibly interesting results, then he proceeds with more methodical testing and inquiry, possibly leading to more formalized studies (or not).

When I’ve been thinking about possible studies I might like to try, I remember this quote from one of his blog posts:

SR: Tell me something you’ve learned about research design.

BW: When I was a graduate student [at the Stanford Business School], I would jog on the school track. One day on the track I met a professor who had recently gotten tenure. He had only published three articles (maybe he had 700 in the pipeline), so his getting tenure surprised me. I asked him: What’s the secret? What was so great about those three papers? His answer was two words: “Cool data.” Ever since then I’ve tried to collect cool data. Not attitude surveys, which are really common in my area. Cool data is not always the easiest data to collect but it is data that gets buzz, that people talk about.

Thinking about what “cool data” might mean in a digital curation or archival or info-science context can be tough. I think the social networks are certainly perceived as cool and you can do cool stuff with them, certainly, but I’m not that curious about them. I feel like, were I to study one of them, I’d just be chasing a parade that’s got a five-mile headstart. Better to find my own parade. :)

Curiosity is probably what drives me. Certainly, one of the itches that a researcher must scratch is his or her own personal obsession with some nagging question or detail that no one has really addressed or answered to their satisfaction. (The same way most writers have to write their own poems, stories, and plays, because no one else is publishing what they want to read.)

Check out his numerous posts tagged scientific method (though he’s more usually critical of scientists’ behavior than the method itself) and self-experimentation for more.


Another great Seth Roberts post that got my attention was this one on appreciative thinking, especially as it relates to reading journal articles. I see what he describes in the classes I attend, where we read a paper that’s 1 year, 5 years, or 10 years old, and it’s rather thoroughly shredded during the ensuing discussion for any number of reasons (and I’ve been guilty of trashing articles, myself).

Instead of this negative critical thinking, I like his suggested questions to ask instead, especially the simplicity of his fifth question: “What’s interesting or enjoyable about it?” Even if I find the writing of an article stilted or atrocious, I think it should be possible to at least admire a piece’s energy, its intent, its point of view, its ability to stir thoughts in me, etc. Saying something constructive is not about becoming a positive-thinking ninny; it’s about seeing more sides of the issue than only one.

Even for a piece (Mabry’s “Reference Interview as Partnership”) that didn’t really touch me, I appreciated that this was the author’s distillation of a career’s worth of lessons that she wanted to impart. In my summary of the piece, I said I could see it being used to start a conversation about one’s own personal manifesto for serving at a reference desk. We’re not often asked to reflect on our larger purpose or philosophy when it comes to our jobs, or even our career, so I saw the Mabry piece as a terrific starting point for such a conversation.


Speaking of writing up experiments so they’re repeatable – how often does repeating an earlier experiment really happen?

What's ahead for ol' Mikey?

Inspired by Rani’s post about her upcoming work (hope that’s going well for you, Rani), it’s probably a good idea for me to look at the months ahead.

  • The spring semester starts tomorrow. I’m spending today cleaning up my office, recycling pages and pages of article printouts, putting away the CDs we used for the road trip, filing away end of the year stuff, etc. I’m working this project a little at a time.
  • I noodled on the fellowship essay over the Christmas break, trying to find my way into the material.  I want to work on the essay this weekend, also. I was advised to emphasize that I want to teach and also talk about my research areas of interest. The former is easy, the latter is more difficult. Digital curation covers a lot of conceptual and technical ground, and I have a sneaking suspicion it’s a conundrum that will never be solved, only chased. Still, I find actually having to write out and make a case for myself forces me to confront many of these still-nebulous issues. The thinking and writing also provide me with the words, phrases, and thoughts I need when talking to advisors about my plans.
  • I’m taking the Research Methods class; generally, you take this the semester before you work on your master’s paper (which is usually your graduation semester), but I wanted to take it early. I have an idea for a neighborhood survey and wanted to get it started.
  • I’m also taking an independent study to be supervised by my friend Carolyn. We opted to go for the 3-hour option, which means about 9 hrs/week of outside work. We decided to go for a research study; I did some reading, sent her some ideas, and we’ll discuss them next week. The goal is to create a paper, a poster, or a product of some kind that can be published. I’m hoping the Research Methods class and the independent study activities dovetail. I view the independent study as a road-test for my interest in research and in digital curation; if I really have to flog myself to get to the end of the track, then I should reconsider the PhD in this field.
  • UNC is hosting two conferences this spring I want to attend: the iConference and the DigCCurr 2009.  The former is interesting to me as a place to see academics in the wild, so to speak. and how I resonate to their discussions and concerns. Same for the DigCCurr, though I’m more interested there in talking to folks, introducing myself, and getting a general buzz from the attendees on the state of play in the field. Since I’m targeting that field for my doctoral studies, I need to get familiar with it. I registered for the iConf and volunteered for the DigCCurr, but am wondering whether registering for the latter would give me more free time to roam and mingle.
  • I opted not to sign up for the full-level of coaching this year, mainly because I didn’t have the money. I will have enough, though, to sign up for a lower-level membership that still gives me all I need. Since starting my coaching in 2006, I’ve noticed big and small changes in myself that I can’t imagine having made on my own and so I want to continue my association with PJ Eby, especially with the book he’s writing that seems to be drawing together into a single narrative all of the myriad tools he’s refined over the last two years. PJ has the goods.
  • I’m beta-testing Mark Forster’s latest time/task management scheme, dubbed AutoFocus. You can sign up to be a beta-tester here. It’s not an application, more a set of instructions and simple rules to create a structure that balances the rational and intuitive parts of your mind to help you decide which tasks to do next. He recommends implementing it via pen and paper (which I prefer) but many users on the forum are describing electronic ways of implementing it. All that’s needed is a lined notebook or journal. Radically simple and I’m finding it very effective for shaking loose a lot of tasks I’ve procrastinated on. The danger that some of the beta-testers are experiencing is in overthinking the system, adding more rules, creating exceptions, etc. Will be interested to see how it copes when school starts!
  • And I suppose I need to think about the PhD, too, don’t I? Yes, well. I’m hoping the independent study and my general immersion in study and research this semester will illuminate things for me. I’m going to have to make some decisions very soon, perhaps by February, that will affect what happens to me in the fall.  My manager and I expect that by June the wheels will either be in motion for me to leave my job and start my doctoral studies, or I’ll have decided that a PhD (or this PhD) is not for me at this time. After spending the last 2 years getting to this point, I am still unsure of what I really want out of this experience and where I will be when it’s over. I do still struggle between the academic and the practitioner roles; they seem to be at loggerheads, though they shouldn’t be. But there seem to be more days when I want to be the latter than the former.
  • I’m noticing that lately I say “no” to myself a little more easily when it comes to spending discretionary time to read another news feed or do a web walkabout. I’m foreseeing the next 5 months being as intense as I want to make them. So if I can’t wholeheartedly say “yes” to something, I’m inclined to turn it down.
  • Assuming I do leave my job, then our household income takes a mighty hit. So we’re starting to hunker down and get frugal, in preparation for the lean times.

What I'm doing on my Christmas vacation

  • Packed about 15 books (about half of them small cartooning or graphic novel-type books), of which I expect I’ll read 1.5. Right now am knocking back about 40 pgs/day of Lewis Shiner’s Black and White, which makes excellent use of its Durham background and locale.
  • Was up till about 2 am the other night troubleshooting my brother-in-law’s computer setup. I brought my Apple Extreme Router with us, thinking I could set up a wireless network so Liz and I could maintain the filthy computing habits we wallow in at home. Discovered that his modem already had wireless routing built-in, so spent most of my time getting our laptops to recognize the network.
  • Was up till 2 am this morning reviewing 1000+ emails in my “to read later” pile on Gmail. Decided that this cannot go on, as it falls squarely in the not urgent/not important quadrant. So have been unsubscribing from RSS feeds and newsletters as they land in my inbox.
  • Writing in my journal about what I want less/more of next year -- less input, more  output. Less fat, more muscle. Less spending, more saving. That kind of thing. (I’d actually wanted less computering and more reading over my Christmas break, but that’s not happening :D )
  • Playing with Phil’s kitties, Luke (aka Stinky Pete) and Zorro (aka Sweet William). Luke is now splayed across the dining room table, flicking his tail.
  • Decided I’d like to accomplish just 3 things a day, and they’re all the same things: 40 pages in Lew’s book, one blog post/day, some exercise every day. Anything else I accomplish above that very low bar is gravy. (One of those things being messing around with MacVim, for some unknown reason.)
  • Continue with thinking about the independent study, about how I want to organize myself and my time in the spring, and in general unplug myself from the all the web feeds and inputs I bombard myself with. While I enjoy the novelty of this intellectual snack food, I want space in my day to sit and think and mull and process what I’m consuming. Fewer diversions, more time.
  • My coach has asked us at recent seminars what qualities we want in our lives right now. I’m extending that to include what do I want in my life everyday in 2009--a little exercise, a little reading, a little quiet time, good social interactions, a better sleep schedule, etc. Part of what I’m doing now is wondering/imagining/picturing how that would work.

Spring 2009 - Independent Study

I was not terribly interested in the spring courses being offered, and The Ineluctable Cassidy suggested an independent study might be an option.

I poked around and discovered that another friend, Carolyn, could supervise it. Because Carolyn is a doc student of some years standing in the school’s digital curation discipline, knowledgeable, energetic, and incredibly savvy about making the most of opportunities, this is a tremendous way to jump-start an academic career. I hope to learn as much about how she looks at life and work as I do about digital curation.

Anyway, she is an excellent guide to this strange new world of academe and to this field. We decided to work on a research study and she sent me several links to follow up on, read, and think about; suggested I start a research journal; and asked me to suggest some possible areas of interest where we could do some work. The output will be an article, or paper, or poster, or something that can be put on a CV.

This research was, in fact, another drain on my attention as I tried to finish up my fall assignments. I barfed out some ideas an in email to Carolyn but they struck me as too big, too vague--showing, no doubt, my unfamiliarity with the field. No matter. That’s why I’m doing the research.

When January comes, I’ll be taking the Research Methods course and the independent study. We decided the indie study should count for 3 hours credit, which means about 9 hours/wk of work. Because I’m not having to travel to campus for this extra class, I expect that should fit into my schedule OK.

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!!