Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Write Every Building!!

Since discovering writing was the key to dissertation progress, I have read several writing books, and parts of quite a few more. While they all have different slants on the writing process, they are unanimous on this: in order to get anywhere, you must write a lot, and you must write whether you feel like writing or not.

Most stress the importance of setting writing goals. The books’ suggested writing goals seem to fall into two categories: time and volume. Time-related writing goals involve writing a certain number of minutes each day or week. Volume-related writing goals call for writing a certain number of words or pages.

I have yet to try a volume-related writing goal. If I sat down to write knowing I had to churn out two pages before getting up, I’m sure I would turn into a quivering pile of jelly. Once I started typing, my two pages would undoubtedly consist of endless repetitions of “I will write a lot”, “I will write a lot” or “I hate writing”, “I hate writing”, neither of which will result in much actual progress.

Time-related writing goals have worked well for me, on the whole. I set up an Excel formula to track the number of consecutive days 30 consecutive minutes of dissertation-related writing. This “writing streak” column of my writing log currently stands at 109 days. I have kept it going even when I was totally stressed-out and exhausted, and when my brain was too fried to think straight. It pained me to think of that triple-digit streak dropping back to 1. My longest writing streak has been 145 days…when it finally died, I hid from my dissertation for 2 entire weeks. Fear of a repeat of this disaster keeps me writing something every day.

As much as I appreciate the value of my “write 30 minutes every single day” goal, sometimes I crave variety. A while back, I set a goal of finishing my dissertation before Texas A&M built any more buildings. This is a fine goal, but it isn’t very motivating, because I can’t track its progress and I have no idea how likely I am to achieve it. Who knows what buildings A&M is about to break ground on? My only hope is to keep writing and just hope for the best. If I’m too slow or the building-building powers are too fast, then I’m doomed to fail. I may already be doomed to fail—I just don’t know it yet.

So, I have modified my original building-related writing goal into a better one (maybe it’s the engineer in me). I will continue with my “write at least 30 minutes a day” plan, but with a twist: I will attempt to write 30 consecutive minutes in every A&M building before I graduate. This goal is trackable, because it is has lots of subgoals. I can color in the buildings on the map and see my progress.

In order for this goal to be trackable, the set of buildings must be well-defined. I must admit I haven’t quite delineated this yet. For now, I’ve just started on the easy obvious buildings—there are plenty of these to keep me writing for months. I expect I’ll skip the dorm buildings. Even if I could get in, it might be inappropriate to barge uninvited into someone’s home just because I devised some odd writing goal. What about physical plant buildings and parking garages?

My new writing goal is similar to a running goal I set back in January. Sometime in 2012, I plan to run every inch of Woodlands jogging trail system. In the interests of having a well-defined goal, I will only count the trails on the official map of The Woodlands Parks and Pathways—I keep a paper map in the car and mark them as I run. I don’t need to run all the 20-foot sections of sidewalk that lead from a street to a park (unless they are drawn on the map). What a fun goal!! It prompts me to explore new places, and lets me feel like I’m progressing, even though I’m as slow as ever. I don’t need to run them fast, I just need to run them! It also satisfies that little engineer inside of me who likes to figure out the optimal running route, maximizing the miles of trail run in a given time by minimizing the miles of trails that get run twice. A certain amount of overlap is inevitable, but the less the better.

My write-every-building goal doesn’t give my inner engineer as much to work with, but I can still employ some optimization strategies, taking advantage of occasions when I am already in a building or am walking right by one.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote in the far-away-from-everything General Services Complex, after meeting an Institutional Review Board expert about my project. Last week, to my dismay, I realized my writing class would meet only one more time, and I had not yet written in the G. Rollie White building (adjacent to Read where our class meets). So, I plan to arrive early Thursday and write before class. I have written 30 minutes in Read before, but not since I set the write-every-building goal. Would it be cheating to count it?

Saturday night, I attended Aggie Muster for the first time. Wow, just wow. This part-time commuting grad student had heard of the Aggie Spirit but until now had never grasped what it meant. After it ended and I dried my eyes, I wondered if it had been appropriate to arrive an hour early, with my computer, so I could cross Reed Arena off my buildings list by writing 30 minutes. (ah well, what’s done is done.)

Last week, I knocked out the Cain building (the mechanical engineering one—Texas A&M has multiple Cain buildings!). Upon walking into the first floor, I wasn’t optimistic about a pleasant writing experience. All I saw were concrete corridors, and lab doors labeled with warning signs. Fortunately, upstairs I found restaurant-style booths and nice cushioned chairs. I settled in and made myself at home. I very much enjoyed overhearing  the conversations in the next booth. The students were discussing fluid mechanics, or some similar class. One of them casually mentioned “Oh, you just need to derive this formula, and then you can…..” That was all I could follow, but it made me rather sad that I had forgotten everything I had learned in my fluid mechanics class. That’s okay, I don’t want to be an engineer anyway...I enjoy writing in buildings much more than designing them!