An Olympic-inspired Writing Post

It’s summer. The weather is glorious and the beer is cold. The Rio Olympics are in full swing; I’m watching in my free time. Lots of amazing things have happened, particularly the spectacular achievements of Simone Biles and Simone Manuel. (And I guess Michael Phelps did okay, too.) I’m disappointed with the USWNT futból loss, but that’s another story. (On the other hand, felicidades Honduras!)

The great achievements of the Olympians reflect years of those athletes working towards big goals and dreams by taking small daily steps.  I’m pretty intimidated by big goals, so I started thinking about how we accomplish big writing goals and dreams. Working on our big writing projects is sort of like training for the Olympics. (I’ll grant that there are some big differences, but let’s go with the analogy, shall we?) Big writing projects are mental marathons, a test of endurance, strength, and skill. We work for years to produce a dissertation, book, or even a steady stream of academic articles.

Nevertheless, I suspect that most of us aren’t training or planning anywhere near as carefully as the Olympians. (I know I’m not.) We (by which I mean me) somehow seem to think that through the application of sheer willpower, we’ll produce something great. We train (write) in sporadic bursts of binge writing that make us hate ourselves.

We could take some lessons from these Olympians. They’re training and planning consistently for a long-term event that they know will take years.

In the writing world, novel writers are often classified as “plotters” or “pantsers.” “Pantsers,” for the uninitiated, refers to those people who write novels by the seat of their pants with no forethought. I think most academics would be horrified to think of themselves as “pantsers,” but I further suspect that many of us approach academic writing in exactly this way. We’re sure that inspiration will strike and catapult us to greatness. Until it doesn’t.

Planning to meet big goals requires breaking them down into smaller, more manageable tasks. We should not approach writing like the Underpants Gnomes from South Park. If you recall, the Gnomes were going to start a business with the stolen underpants. Their corporate business plan looked like this:

Step 1: Steal Underpants
Step 2: ?
Step 3: Profit

Perhaps unsurprisingly, their corporate empire of stolen underpants never materialized, just like so many of our writing projects.

Use a bullet journal. Use fancy project tracking software. Use an Excel spreadsheet. Use a bar napkin. But let’s make a pact, shall we? Repeat after me: When undertaking a large writing project, I will have a plan. (I’ll be in the corner repeating these words a few hundred times if you need me.)

I’ll write more soon on actually making a writing plan that’s slightly more sophisticated than the Underparts Gnomes’ business plan. In the meantime, here’s the second part of this post:

The other thing that I realized while watching the Olympics was the Olympians train according to a plan to maximize what their bodies are able to do. However, part of their training plan also includes knowing when the body needs to rest.  Writing in crazed binges without a plan prevents us from taking care of ourselves physically. We seem to think that because our work is that of the mind, we get to ignore our bodies in the quest to push ourselves toward ever-greater writing productivity.

There’s productivity advice all over the internet. Some of it is good and some is utter crap. People are trying to figure out how to do more stuff in less time so that they can do more and more stuff, as if life were an unwinnable rat race of endless doing. Fewer people talk about the importance of rest and sleep. I write a lot about caring for ourselves emotionally, but it seems to me that to be operating at peak performance, we’ve got to be taking care of our bodies too.

Writing, as it turns out, is often terrible for our health. Maybe you’re one of those lucky people with a standing desk. Most of us, however, are sitting in chairs that don’t fit us very well, slouched over tiny laptop screens, for too many hours a day. Lots of people work this way until the point of exhaustion.

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from academics is that they’re tired all the time. They have reason to be. They’re often working way over forty hours a week and juggling classes, teaching, research, and crunching their writing time into a few stolen minutes here and there. Our exhaustion training starts early in graduate school.  We’re crushed under a huge reading load, impossible deadlines, and the prospect of writing a dissertation on the side in all of our spare time. Small wonder that academics have trouble maintaining life/work boundaries.  As one graduate school colleague told me, “You just get used to being really tired all the time.”

 Living life exhausted is neither normal nor desirable. Exhaustion is not a badge to be worn with pride.

Some academics feel guilty if they’re not working all the time or writing during any and all spare minutes. I get that some people need to work way over 40 hours a week. Some people have to work that much because they’re working towards tenure or busting ass just making ends meet and buy groceries. But is there anywhere in life you can say no? Are their things in your life that you could eliminate or minimize?

One of the best changes I’ve made in my life the last year is incorporating more exercise into my life. I’m trying to walk for at least 30 minutes a day, six days a week. On days when I have time, I like to walk more than that. One of the things that fell apart with my massive life transition was my commitment to strength training. I’m trying to schedule (like on a calendar) time to do strength training. The benefits of consistent exercise have been enormous: better sleep, focus, energy, lower stress, better health, maintaining a good weight. I need to make my physical health a priority, even above writing.

Without rest, sleep, and physical nourishment, there’s no way that we can be thinking lofty dissertation thoughts. It’s like Maslow’s hierarchies of needs. Physiological needs always come first. And yet somehow we seems to think that even when (especially when?) we’re not meeting those needs, we’ll still be able to engage in highly creative and analytical work. We’re not getting to self-actualization without sleep, people.

In conclusion, planning and physical care are often overlooked, but critical parts of writing.

With that said, VAMOS, HONDURAS, VAMOS!

Photo: Denver Capitol Building, July 2016.

Archival Research, Part I

This is the first in a series of posts aimed at people without much archival research experience who need to do some.

A lot of people I know are either at archives this week (spring break or Semana santa, depending on how you look at it) or planning to be at archives this summer. I confess that I’m jealous. Archival research is the highlight of being a historian. (Really!) Tracking down obscure primary sources feels as exciting as chasing after buried treasure. When compared to the difficulties of writing, researching is downright fun.  

However, I wish I’d had some kind of a guide when I started doing my own archival research. I didn’t receive much in the way of instruction; my department assumed that PhD students in the archives would eventually “just figure it out.” I did eventually get a handle on how to do research at archives, but learning required a bumpy process of trial and error. I learned that archival research can be intimidating, overwhelming, and baffling for the uninitiated. I’ve drawn from my own experiences here and also polled the Twitterverse for wisdom and advice for beginning researchers.

[Many thanks to all the #Twitterstorians who contributed ideas to this post: @bookmobility, @cdimas14, @icpetrie, @rachelgnew, @storied_selves, @MexHistorian, @marydudziak, @StuckeyMary, @stschrader1, and lots of nice people who retweeted my question about archival advice!]

Network Early and Often  

I’m not kidding when I say that networking is a vital part of archival research. The success of my archival PhD research was directly tied to the relationships I created with archivists and other researchers. If writing is always better when made social, archival research is way better when made social.

Figure out through your professional network who has been to the archive you’ll be headed to. Do you know any fellow researchers who will be at the archive while you’re there? Network ahead of time so that you’ve already got some friends and colleagues when you arrive. Get in touch with them and ask them what their research experiences have been like. What tips can they give you? Other researchers can help you think through your research, as well as point you to interesting and relevant sources that you may not have known existed. They’ll also help make your archival research experience less lonely.  

Relationships with archivists can make or break an archival research experience. Aside from being nice and respectful to people because it’s the right thing to do, making friends with archivists often leads to research breakthroughs. More than one person I know has reported that helpful documents have magically started showing up when they establish friendships with the archivists. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Little things can help you cement your relationships with archive staff. Introduce yourself to the director. Remember people’s names. Write down names to put in your acknowledgments. Take people out to lunch when possible. Send a thank you card to the staff when you’re done. Bring people brownies.       

Do as much research ahead of time as possible.

Learn the archive’s policies ahead of time. Do they allow photography? Photocopies? Do they charge for it? What are photo reproduction policies? Does the archive require that you send a list of documents you want to examine ahead of time? Does the archive only allow pencils? Some archives have very clear policies about these things, while others have policies that change depending on which staff members are working that day.

If the archive has any kind of online catalog, do as much research ahead of time as possible. Make a list of documents that seem like they might be helpful, just to get you started. Often times, you may not know what you’re looking for when you first start, but you’ve got to start somewhere. It’s okay not to know everything at first.

Despite all of your great research ahead of time, you need to be prepared for the unexpected. Anyone who has done archival research will tell you to be prepared to hear that the documents you want don’t exist. Sometimes the things listed in the catalog are not in the box. Sometimes there are no subject headings for your topic. Sometimes documents have been stolen. Sometimes they’re damaged or the paleography is impossible. You could look at these as roadblocks or you could look at them as opportunities. Sometimes having to use your own ingenuity and creativity will unearth some really great stuff.  

Get a good camera.

You may be able to take awesome photos with your smartphone, but for photographing archival documents to consult later, you’ll probably want a an actual camera. I don’t think its necessary to lug a DSLR to an archive unless you really want to. If you can afford it, upgrade your digital camera to the best one you can get. I shoot archive photos with a pocket camera, the marvelous Canon S95. It is worth thinking about the size of the sensor, as many archives seem to suffer from poor lighting. A camera with a big sensor will be able to take clear photos in dim light. A flip screen will also help save your back. A small lightweight tripod also does wonders for producing clear, sharp photos.  Consider these two photos. The one on the right was taken with a cheap digital camera and without a tripod. The one on the left was with my S95 and a tripod.


Practice Self-Care

Archival research, although really fun and exciting, can also be a profoundly lonely and isolating experience. As historians, we’re usually working alone, spending hours a day reading old documents. Self-care is particularly important when you’re researching in a foreign archive. Not only will you be dealing with the usual research stresses, but also with different cultures and languages and all of the stress that goes with travel.

It’s easy to go through long periods where the research isn’t going well, you’re faced with the prospect of sorting through another huge pile of documents that probably aren’t useful, the box doesn’t have the document that was listed in the catalog, etc etc.  Plenty of people get discouraged while doing research.  So, get your self-care practice in order. Eat well. (Especially eat a big protein breakfast!) Hydrate. Get some exercise. Take breaks. Sleep enough. Be social.

Next post: nuts and bolts of being in the archive.  

Procrastination: Shame in Disguise

Many writers (this one included) procrastinate. We shove our writing projects, no matter how important, under a towering pile of meaningless stuff. We write email, read the news, catch up on Twitter, and watch kitten videos on YouTube. Somehow all of these things take priority over nurturing our own creative and intellectual passions.

Lots of us assume that we can solve our procrastination through better time management and organization. We make schedules, use timers, and invest time learning the latest software that promises to help us manage our projects with magical algorithms.

There’s nothing wrong with any of those solutions and many of them help people move forward with their writing. However, I think we can’t deal with our penchant for procrastination until we get a grip on underlying issues of shame.

When we procrastinate, we’re setting ourselves up to fail. Our actions speak louder than our words. You can tell yourself that your writing is important; however, unless you’re actually writing, your actions tell a different story. Procrastination says that your writing isn’t very important to you. By which, you mean that YOU’RE not very important.  

Procrastination confirms to us all of the bad stories that we tell about ourselves. If you listen closely, many people (self included) have a toxic internal story playing in the background about themselves and their writing abilities. Our stories may be unique and individual, but we often hear them whispered in the ugly voice of shame:

You’re not good enough.

The idea that we’re not good enough cripples our writing ability. It is safer to write nothing than to write something flawed.

As I wrote in this post, procrastination, or the fear of starting, is often just shame, and its handmaiden, perfectionism, in disguise. It’s a double- edged sword, though. Procrastination helps us avoid feelings of shame, but also creates feelings of shame when we don’t write. Feeling shame is downright unpleasant. I, for one, would do almost anything to avoid it, including the kind of self-sabotage that procrastination provides.

When we procrastinate, we’re setting ourselves up to fail. We procrastinate and don’t write because we assume that anything we do write won’t be good enough. Then when we don’t write, we confirm that the voice of shame is probably right after all: we’re not good enough to write anything. It’s a vicious cycle that prevents us from being the writers and people we want to be.

So we make choices that confirm our worst stories about ourselves as people and as writers. Our procrastination confirms that we aren’t good enough. Once the voice of shame has convinced us that we’re worthless and people and as writers (so why even bother writing?), then we’re thrown into a cycle of guilt and panic because we’ve got deadlines and haven’t written a thing. Frantic binge writing magnifies our already shitty feelings about ourselves and our writing. Then we get to be angry at ourselves for causing this whole sorry mess in the first place.

Here’s the thing: to deal with this whole messy shame and procrastination cycle, we’ve got to take a deep breath in and start. Write something. Write anything. Just write. When we write, we tell the voice of shame to STFU.

If you’re a procrastinating writer, the cure for procrastination (and shame) is writing.

Writing is an act of telling yourself that you’re good enough as both a writer and a person to write some words. In choosing to write, we are choosing to prioritize ourselves. In this post, I argued that taking care of our writing is an important way of taking care of ourselves as people. Taking time out of our busy days to write signals to our minds and spirits that we, however flawed, are valuable and important. We become important to ourselves.

The act of writing is an act of positive self-affirmation. In a world that’s constantly trying to beat us down and make us feel small, writing is courageous. It is sometimes an incredibly subversive act.

Writing can even be joyful when we realize that attending to our writing means that we’re being brave for ourselves and affirming our own self-worth. Every time I write a blog post, I’m pretty sure that the sky will fall on my head each time I click POST. Somehow, it hasn’t yet.

If you’re a chronic procrastinator, you already know what you need to do. Your goal is to make writing, which is really a part of a broader self-care practice, not some special thing that you do every now and then. Writing is something you do daily because you’re worth it.

Photo: Volcán Agua at sunset. Antigua, Guatemala, 2013. Full image available here.