Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Oh no, not a writing appointment! Anything but that!

Nearly every writing expert maintains that I should schedule my daily writing session, and protect it like an important appointment. (Because it is…right?) By “schedule my writing session,” they mean that I should commit in writing to a specific time and place. Then I must show up at the appointed time and place, ready to write.

This is how appointments work. I understand the concept, and I have no problem making appointments with my doctor, my hair stylist, or my car mechanic. (Well, sometimes I have problems getting around to making the appointments when I should. But once I make the appointment, I keep it, and I do not resent these professionals for requiring an appointment.)

For some reason, writing appointments evoke a completely different reaction. They make me shudder and want to hide. My resistance is irrational, but real.

I have been writing consistently for about three years now. In fact, tonight’s writing session has extended my writing streak to 382 consecutive days. Hmmm….I just looked at my log and, wow, this ties my previous record for consecutive writing days, reached on January 22, 2013. Cool! I definitely need to remember to write tomorrow. Last time I reached 382 days, I forgot to write the next day, and was devastated to see my writing streak end. Almost none of those writing sessions were scheduled in advance for a specific time.

I have generally convinced myself that as long as I was writing daily, it didn’t matter that I failed to schedule the time. My writing streak and my finished dissertation are proof that my system is working. But is it working? Maybe I have been deluding myself. Yes, I am writing, but my failure to plan may be destroying my writing efficiency. (Well, you can’t destroy something that never existed. More accurately, my failure to make writing appointments may prevent me from ever becoming an efficient writer.)

How about a trial period? I should schedule my appointments for a week, and see if it helps. I took a deep breath and pondered my week. What time would work best? I would have to make this tough decision seven times, once for each day. I wavered and gave up. It was just too much.

Would planning one day at a time work? Maybe that would be less intimidating than planning writing appointments for a whole week. I tried it. I sat there with my pen and my calendar, and willed myself to write down a time, in ink. I couldn’t do it. Scratch that. “I couldn’t” is surely a lie. My hand muscles were perfectly capable of grasping the pen and using it to write words and numbers on the paper. “I wouldn’t” is indisputably the truth. Regardless, it didn’t happen. The thought of writing down a time was revolting to me—my mind pushed back, vehemently. It was as if I had walked into a room with a really strong unpleasant odor, and my body pushed back, doubling over and wanting to throw up. That’s how I felt when I thought of committing to a specific writing time.

Why? Why such a strong negative reaction to the notion of scheduling my writing? It makes no sense.

Is my aversion to scheduling writing-specific, or does it apply to other activities? What about running? I almost never schedule the time I run, and I usually don’t decide the mileage in advance. I have never successfully followed a training plan to completion. However, I once followed a marathon training plan for a couple months. I didn’t schedule the exact times of my runs, but I knew approximately when they would occur (10:00 p.m., when my favorite writing venue kicked me out.) During the time I followed the plan, I hit nearly all the weekly mileage targets. Planning my running doesn’t seem to evoke nearly the level of negativity as planning my writing.

Is it rebellion? Not wanting to be told what to do? I love my little Toyota Corolla (238,000 miles and still going strong), which gets excellent gas mileage. But if the government passed a regulation requiring fuel-efficient cars, or incentivizing them in some way, I would be seized by a strong desire to drive a large truck or land yacht—preferably an old rickety one that makes coughing noises and spews blue smoke.

But with writing, how could it be rebellion? The government is not telling me to schedule my writing times, and neither is my employer. The decision about when to write is mine alone.

Perhaps my distaste for writing appointments is tied up with my fear of failure and rejection. Scheduling my writing time sets me up for failure. If I schedule myself to write at 10:00 a.m. and I oversleep, then my day is a failure before I even get out of bed. If my writing appointment is at 2:00 p.m. and I let myself get sidetracked by email, I have failed. I clearly can’t hack it as a writer, so I might as well not even try.

I hoped that writing about it would help me resolve my scheduling revulsion. It didn’t. I still do not understand it, and I have not defeated it. So, at least for now, I will continue as before. As I wake up each day, I will delight in my freedom, knowing I can write at whatever time I choose. No matter how tight the constraints of the day, there is always choice…some scrap of time I can devote to writing, if I wish. Scheduling would rob me of one of writing’s pleasures—the pleasure of choice.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Goodbye, my friend Running

A week ago, on Monday, July 28, I ran 8 miles. That’s a really long run for me, these days. Until the last three weeks or so, running has been hit-or-miss (mostly miss), due to fallout from finishing my dissertation. Eight miles was probably a couple miles too long for my fitness level, but I didn’t care. You see, I knew this would be my last Running outing for at least six weeks, and I wanted it to be special.

The day after my 8-miler, an expert surgeon sliced my belly open, removed a misbehaving part, and stuck me back together with 17 staples.

I knew I wanted to get in an extra-long run the night before my surgery, but it took me a week to figure out WHY. At first, I thought it was to prove something…to show myself I could still do it. But that made no sense. I already knew I could get myself in shape to run 15 miles, if I just kept at it. Then, I thought maybe it was some sort of fist-shaking last hurrah, a way of telling my medical problems “ha, you can’t keep me down.” Except they could. I toyed with the notion that an extra 8-miler would add some miniscule bit of fitness, allowing me to return to running at a higher fitness level than would have been possible if I had only run 6 miles. Nonsense, I’m sure. Six weeks ago, when this surgery began to seem inevitable, I resolved to get myself in as good a shape as possible, maximizing my probability of a quick recovery. An extra 8-miler would help, right? No way...the fitness gains come from the recovery, not the stress. With less than a day before surgery, overdoing it was likely to overtax my system, making recovery more difficult.

Finally, I figured it out. That 8-miler was my way of saying good-bye to a dear friend. When Running and I first met five years ago, our relationship was based on mistrust, even active dislike. I found Running to be boring, unpleasant, and demeaning. For some reason, we stuck it out, moving to tolerance, then cordial acquaintanceship, and finally, steady friendship.

When I was feeling blue or discouraged, Running would cheer me up.

When I was worried, Running gave me perspective.

When my mind was overwhelmed with too many things to do and no idea where to start, Running helped me prioritize.

When I was wrestling with a data analysis decision, Running helped me brainstorm.

When I couldn’t figure out a title or leading sentence for my dissertation, Running patiently listened while I tried out endless variations.

When I was stressed or mad, Running didn’t judge me, but gave me space to decompress.

When I was struggling with a difficult decision, Running brought clarity.

When every other area of my life was marked by incompetence, Running gave me a pat on the back for doing something right.

When I was terrified I would fail, Running reminded me Who was in charge, and that I could not fail without His consent.

When I was rude or unkind to people, Running gently rebuked me, and made me apologize.

When I was convinced I wouldn’t meet people’s expectations, Running presented the facts about those people, showing me I was misjudging them.

When I needed time to think, Running gave it to me.

When I needed time away from thinking, Running gave it to me.

When my eyes were turned outward, looking at the monsters around me, Running turned them inward, toward the things I could control.

When my eyes were turned inward, dwelling on my problems and inadequacies, Running turned them outward, showing me how far I’d come and how small my problems really were.

When I disappeared for a while and didn’t make Running a priority, Running welcomed me back (though my absence took a toll on the relationship).

Even when I didn’t feel like hanging out with Running, I was always glad afterward. On nearly all our visits, I ended up in a better and wiser place afterward than before. (Occasionally I miscalculated and spent too much time with Running, throwing off the day’s schedule and stressing out. But that was my fault, not Running’s.)

So, when I found out Running had to go away for a while, I felt compelled to make time for an extra-long visit. It didn’t matter that I waited too late at night to start, and we ran out of daylight. It didn’t matter if I had to take a few walk breaks the last mile. It didn’t matter if my feet hurt, or I had a stitch in my side. On a last visit with a friend who is going away, their annoyances turn into endearing quirks. I just wanted to celebrate our time together.

Farewell, friend Running. See you on the other side.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The 100% Rule for Running

Uh-oh…in my efforts to regain my running fitness, I think I may have made a grievous error (or narrowly avoided one, the data aren’t yet complete). Last night, my brother (who runs ultramarathons) reminded me of something I had forgotten—the 100% Rule. He said that most running experts agreed that a runner should not increase mileage by more than 100% per week.

What prompted this warning? Well, I had mentioned that I ran 20 miles in 4 consecutive days, something I have not done in quite some time. (Not 20 miles each day, mind you, but a total of 20 miles—specifically 5, 4, 4, and 7.)

Hmm, I have some questions about this 100% rule. When the percentage increase is calculated, is it always based on the prior week? It seems more useful to base it on some sort of rolling average, perhaps the average of the four most recent weeks. Suppose I ran weekly mileages of 10, 14, 10, and 2. If I based my allowable 100% increase only on the most recent week, I could only run 4 miles, far short of what I logged just two weeks ago. On the other hand, if I average these four weeks, I get a mean mileage of 36/4 = 9 miles. A 100% increase would get me to 18 miles, which seems very reasonable. Surely the experts would agree, right?

Another question: What if the prior weekly mileage (either for a given week, or for an average of several weeks) is 0? Then a 100% increase would put me at, well, 0. Even if the 100% rule were modified to something far more conservative (a 10% rule, for example), someone running 0 mileage could only increase it by … 0 miles per week.

Thus, there is a natural consequence to any rule based on a maximum percentage increase: no non-runner can ever become a runner. To become a runner, one must be born running, or must break the rule. There are no other options.

So, assuming the running experts actually want non-runners to become runners, there must be a mileage threshold below which the percentage increase rule does not apply. Rookie runners (or runners returning from injury- or dissertation-related layoffs) can dink around at the low end of the mileage continuum, until they reach the magic minimum mileage number—at that time, the 100% rule should be applied, to keep them from increasing mileage too quickly.

I wish I knew the magic number. Maybe the safest course is to assume I have already reached it,
and start limiting my mileage increases. My mileage for this week is 20 so far. Depending on whether I squeeze in another run this weekend, my next week’s mileage must not be allowed to exceed 40-48 miles.

I’m so glad I was reminded of this rule! I have really been enjoying my return to running, and I don’t want to risk ruining it by injury.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

I’m PhinisheD!

It is PhinisheD. Yep, somehow I finished my dissertation, defended it, and graduated. And I’m back! (on my blog, that is).

To start, I must first apologize to my small but faithful cadre of readers. I should not have abandoned you. To write an (at least somewhat) inspirational blog post about the joy of spending Thanksgiving Day at McDonald’s, then to disappear without a word, for over six months—such behavior is unacceptable. Perhaps I can explain it, but I cannot justify it. No, scratch that….I cannot explain it, because I do not fully understand it myself.

Still, even if inadequate, an explanation is warranted. Here goes…

Words cannot describe the emotional, mental, and physical drain of my last four months of dissertating. (Keep in mind that “drain” is not always negative….intense joy can be draining too!) A few days after that Thanksgiving blog post, I set my dissertation defense date, for January 31, 2014. Driven by a fear of not finishing (two chapters had not been even begun, and the other chapters were extremely rough), I found myself able to work far longer and harder than should have been possible.

Once the draft was “finished” (no more unwritten sections), I turned to revising, trying to bring the rough sections up to snuff, in hopes they would pass muster with my committee. I revised until I ran out of time, and then I sent it off—hoping for the best but fearing the worst. I knew my paper still had very real flaws, and I knew my committee had very real standards. However, I was unsure of the seriousness of the flaws relative to the standard.

The process is rather like being in a dark tunnel and having to leap over an unseen rock wall, of unknown height. You know you need to jump high, but you don’t know how high. Until you jump, you don’t know what will happen—you might sail cleanly over the top; or you might hit the wall hard, hard enough to bruise and batter your body, and then fall back down the way you came. With luck, your head will not crack open and you’ll be able to try again another day. Or, you might jump almost high enough but not quite—just high enough to grab the top with your fingernails and somehow drag your body over the wall, scraping yourself up but successfully arriving on the other side.

As it turns out, I made it over the wall with nary a scratch. All the writing training, feedback, and hours of revision paid off—I only had to do a few tiny edits after my committee read my paper. A few more tiny edits (formatting) for the Thesis Office, and I was done. (Some of these “tiny edits” were rather time-consuming, such as paring my abstract down to the specified 350 words, obsessing over my Acknowledgments, and looking up doi numbers for my 128 references—these tasks were mostly enjoyable, not stressful.)

Somewhere in the process of finishing my dissertation, all my creative writing energy was drained away. It was as if someone opened a spigot and just let it all pour out onto the ground. Blog ideas used to constantly invade my brain. I didn’t always write them up, but I thought of them…sometimes I even started writing them, and stashed them in the archives for later polishing (nope, I still haven’t slain the perfectionism monster). But from November to March, no inspiration. It had been stolen away, maybe by physical exhaustion, maybe by the mental effort of writing, maybe by the intensity of emotion, from fear to overwhelming joy. I had no energy to do what I should have done—start writing in hopes inspiration would strike.

After I cleared the Thesis Office in early March, I started to feel normal again and vowed to restart my blog. The problem was, that after such a long absence and after an event so momentous as a Ph.D. graduation, I was convinced my next blog post had to be SPECTACULAR. It had to engaging, inspiring, and beautifully written. Anything less would be a disappointment and might even out me as a fraud. I made a few token efforts, but they all fell short.

Finally, I came to my senses and gave up. If my first blog post as a Ph.D. had to be good, my blog was doomed. I can’t let that happen. This little blog has been a creative outlet and a source of joy for me (plus, it’s great writing practice!)…. I’m not willing to let it go.

Onward and forward… a new chapter in my blogging life awaits.

P.S. Interestingly, I started this blog almost exactly three years ago, on June 22, 2011. I just missed my three-year anniversary. I thought of waiting three more days, until June 29, so this post could land on June 29, the anniversary of my first real post (rather than the intro post marking the existence of the blog). But I decided the risks were too great—if I suffered a perfectionism attack during those three days, my blog might sit idle for another six months. Better to strike now, while my courage holds.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Unexpected Joys of the Dissertation: Thanksgiving Dinner at McDonald’s

Today I did something I have never done in my entire life: I spent over 12 consecutive hours in a McDonald’s restaurant. To make the experience even more memorable, it was Thanksgiving Day.

As a writing venue, this particular McDonald’s had several things going for it. Most importantly, unlike most of my usual haunts, it was open. Also, since this was a college town, it had been designed to accommodate students who needed a quiet place to work. Like most McDonald’s (hmmm….what is the proper way to pluralize a possessive proper noun?), the main part of the facility had several televisions blaring and was not conducive to studying. But this particular McDonald’s, instead a playland for kids, has a large quiet study room, with a variety of seating options and plenty of electrical outlets. A glass wall seals the study room off from the noisy part of the restaurant.

As an additional plus, the service was friendly, much friendlier than I have found in my rare visits to a big city McDonald’s. I was pleasantly surprised by the food, particularly the Homestyle Burger…it was really good! So was the Peppermint Latte (I had two.)

The one drawback of the quiet study room was the temperature. It was freezing!! Fortunately, I was somewhat prepared. I had multiple jackets, sweatshirts, and blankets. (I learned that lesson last weekend, when I had to borrow a writing blanket from a friend who lives in town.) I also had a pair of writing gloves (gloves without fingers). I purchased the gloves last night, in anticipation of a cold writing session. In the last six months, thanks to a kind husband and total immersion in the dissertation, I have only made a half-dozen or so visits to grocery/retail stores. One of those visits was last night, and it’s a good thing I did it. I should have looked for an electric blanket too.

During the day, most of the McDonald’s patrons appeared to be college students. Some stayed quite a while (though I outlasted nearly all of them). I suspect I may have been the only one born and raised in the U.S.A. In the evening, the clientele changed…more teenagers and children. I wonder if they were getting ready for Black Friday shopping?

A friend heard I was in town to write, and invited me to her home for Thanksgiving dinner. The friend, also a graduate student, understood perfectly that I could not commit to a specific time, that I might show up anytime or not at all, and that writing my dissertation took priority over eating a holiday dinner. But apparently my friend’s mother was horrified that I was spending Thanksgiving at McDonalds’s. I think my friend had to forcibly restrain her mom from delivering turkey and stuffing to me.

Speaking of moms, my mom and my husband ate Thanksgiving dinner together at Golden Corral, eighty-plus miles away. Since I ate under the Golden Arches, we were all together in spirit.

A year and a half ago, I wondered if I could find joy in the dissertation writing process. Today, I did.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Important note: Only 56 minutes of writing time were used to create and edit this blog post.
(Those who know me well are aware that I am engaged in a constant battle with perfectionism. This note is to reassure them I have not relapsed.)