Progress, However Slow.

When I restarted this blog, I thought it would be easy to keep it up. I do have a major project underway, for which I am accountable every single day. How hard could it be to add a few hundred words here at the end of the day? It turns out that this has proven difficult. I have been writing every single weekday. I am still not meeting my two page/day goal, but I’m fitting in, on average, two hours/day of solid focused writing time, and Big Book Project is growing. I am slowly working my way through chunks of chapters that I was previously intimidated by or uncertain about. The difficult emotional memories that accompanied the last few months of dissertation work, and which I continued to associate with manuscript revisions a year later, are finally beginning to fade. I am finding my own “authorial” voice. All this is good. But, it turns out that it sucks up a lot more energy than I ever would have imagined. And if anything else in life comes up on top of that, absolutely anything at all, then the blog post is the first thing to go. In the past two weeks, I took a trip outside Moscow to a friend’s summer cottage, or “dacha.” It was nothing short of wonderful. Cool. Relaxing. With lovely bike ride around the forest. However, I also managed to come down with a nasty stomach bug almost as soon as I returned home. Bouncing back from that was a challenge, as I (foolishly) continued to work on my book rather than taking a couple of days off to recover. That and then some fun personal life events have kept me off this space. But now that I’m recovered, hopefully I can get back on the blogging bus. Because I do work slowly, it does help to have this space as a reminder that progress IS progress.

And now, an illustration from the window of the suburban train that I took to the dacha:



Words and Penguins.

On a productivity scale of poor, fair, good, and excellent, the past two mornings would fit squarely into the good category. I have managed to write another 1.5 pages. The chapter’s argument has come into better focus. I know exactly which spot I need to expand, and I know what “chunk” I need to write next. Also, I rediscovered this piece on the Thesis Whisper about how to turn out a large number of words/day and “not go bat shit crazy.” She argues that most writers (of all stripes) only have two hours/day of good, creative writing time. The rest of the day is best devoted to tasks such as edit-cleaning, reading and organizing. Based on my own experience with Big Book Project (and some other article projects as well), I am inclined to agree with her. I have genuinely tried to get in four solid hours of productive writing time very day, and no matter what I always fall short of that goal. On my best days I get three hours, and on my worst one. This piece reminded me to go a little easier on myself. I learned during Dissertation Project that the more I nagged myself for failing to meet the quotas I set for myself turned out to be quite counter-productive. The more I chastised myself, the less productive I actually became. Oh Catch-22, Catch-22…

There are two things I would like to become better at though. I’d like to do a better job of hard focusing. Some mornings I sit down and plow through my ten minute writing segments, with only short breaks at each half-hour mark to do things like brush my teeth and pack my bag for my trip to the archive. Other days I fail miserably at this, and take breaks between ten-minute segments to do idiotic things like check Facebook and send emails. This is bad, because I have noticed that I really do lose concentration threads are essential for working out the knotty problems in writing. Must improve. The other problem is that ever since April, I have a hard time buckling down first thing in the morning to writing work. To be fair, I was coping with some sad professional news: I had been a finalist (one of three) for a slick job at Famous Ivy League University in Major American Metropolis, but unfortunately did not get the job. It was a thrilling to make it that far in such a competitive search, and I got very positive feedback from the search committee. But the let down was HARD. Very bad for writerly motivation. It took me an hour on most mornings to collect my thoughts and gather the courage to sit down at the computer and return to Big Book Project. I’d like to get back to my regular routine of rising, breakfasting, and sitting down to work.

While I’ve been working on that, city life has improved. It is no longer nearly as hot. YES! And these hilarious, yet strange pink penguins and their polar bear companions have appeared all over central Moscow. They are part of an ice cream fest. What’s not to love?



I Blame the Heat.

This week the average high in Moscow has been about 30 Celsius. That is hot, folks. Hot. The heat is made worse by the thousands of cars that clog the streets. I never visited Moscow during the Soviet period, but I have heard from friends here that there were almost no cars. Even the average Soviet Lada could be difficult to come by for an ordinary family. Most people relied on public transportation, which I want to point out is generally excellent (and cheap) all over Russia, even in the smallest most “provincial” cities.  I am told in fact that my beloved Moscow looked something like this in the 1980s:


Those open lanes next to the Kursk Train Station are now almost always clogged. And that giant half-empty parking lot is now home to a kitschy post-Soviet shopping mall. But no matter. The city is has been boiling. And I am pleased to say that while I have worked on Big Book Project every single morning for the past three days, cranking out another 1.25 pages, I have not had any energy left over in the evenings to write blog posts. Afternoons are spent in the archive, and the process of getting there, working there (no AC), stopping off at the grocery store on the way home, and then getting back to my flat in the sweltering humidity leaves me totally drained. The only I’ve been good for are Skype calls with family and Netflix. (Netflix is in Russia now. But the selection of things to view is very odd and frankly, not great.)  Hopefully things will cool off, I’ll regain some energy, and will be able to say more about both the writing process and life in Russia, which in general, is always interesting and usually pretty great (despite the heatwave.)

Q: Where Did the Week Go? A: Conference.

Despite the dearth of new posts, I did manage to work on Big Writing Project exactly two days this week. And heck, I wrote another page! What happened to the other days? They got devoted to the writing of a conference paper, the delivery of a conference paper, and the recovery from the delivery of said conference paper. Some months ago I was invited by my boss to present a paper on a SubTopic in the field, which my work also happens to address. I was pretty excited and honored, because my boss happens to be an expert on said SubTopic. And it also happened that the material from the paper coincided almost exactly with the material I am working on in my current chapter. Preparing the paper forced me to revisit a big chunk of Dissertation Project (aka Big Writing Project), something I had been very reluctant to do. But now I am glad that I did. It felt good to take apart what now feels like a very rough cut of a more mature project, to tease out the pieces that are most useful, and to put them back together again as something new for presentation in front of an audience. And it also felt good to get feedback, much of which validated the very raw ideas I presented. Yay! Plus I got to meet some very nice and interesting senior scholars, who had good advice about how to present one’s work in SubTopic field, etc. Even though the process was intense and exhausting (Did I mention that fatigue is a big problem with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome? Seriously, if any of you readers with EDS or other chronic health issues have advice about coping with fatigue I am all ears.) and even though it meant three days of no chapter writing, it still proved quite useful. And stimulating. And fun. Fun conquers all.


Confucius in Moscow.

A few weeks ago I read this article in The Guardian by two scholars of Chinese philosophy. I have been thinking a lot lately about their suggestion to “see the world as capricious” and to not get too fixated on the fulfillment of a singular goal. To do so is to risk losing sight of the bigger picture and its multiple interconnections, and to literally lose opportunities and experiences that might ultimately turn out to be more important than the original goal or plan itself. I learned from my dissertation experience, that when I try to force myself to stick to an exact, militaristic writing plan that my productivity goes way way down. And as a consequence, I get really frustrated and angry with myself for not meeting my “quotas” or as a Stalinist might put it, for not (metaphorically) “fulfilling the Five Year Plan in four years.” I am thus approaching the book manuscript production process a bit differently. I know roughly how much I need to get done (two pages/day in June) in particular amount of time. Having the goal helps keep me on track. Or rather, as Anne Lamott would say, it gets my butt in the chair. But I also know that the goal is somewhat lofty, and if I don’t meet it every single day, I don’t panic. Why? Because the world is indeed capricious. Life has a way of intervening into the best laid plans and changing the course of everything, whether we like it or not. Interestingly, once writer-me accepted this, both my work-life and my real life improved. Yesterday was, for example, was an exceptionally capricious day. And even though I only write 150 words, I could not have been happier with the way things turned out, even though they started off quite badly.

It rained all morning. Hard. Everything was grey and cold. I woke up thinking about some residual health-related anxieties that have mostly now resolved, but were still nagging at the time. I had planned to go to the archive in the afternoon, but was also expecting a friend over for tea after work. Since the archive would have involved a long walk in the rain from the metro with a backpack, I decided that combining that with a grocery schlep had the potential to be too taxing. Better to take the shorter trip to the library and focus exclusively on writing. I wrote at home for half and hour. Cranked out 50 words and then headed to the library after lunch. After two hours of work and 100 more words, I headed off to the grocery store. I arrived home with a bag of cheeses, smoked fish, and cake, only to see that my friend had left me a panicked series of messages. She was on an article deadline and trapped in the library until 8 pm. She would not be able to make it over. Rats. What to do with all that smoked fish? I could have stayed home and kept working, since I had in fact not met my two-page quota. But I had also been invited to another friend’s exhibition opening. Didn’t think I would be able to make it originally, because of the tea for two I was planning to host. But now an opening. Instead of buckling back down at my laptop I headed off to see my friend’s show, which was part of a diploma exhibition showcasing the work of some of Russia’s up and coming contemporary artists. Describing it all would require another blog post. Suffice it to say, some of the works were great. All of the people were interesting. And since the rain had finally passed we all enjoyed the glow of the northern twilight underneath of one of Moscow’s landmarks, Vera Mukhina’s 1937 statue of the Soviet Industrial Worker and Collective Farmer:

Mukhina at Twilight

And as an unexpected bonus, I ran once again into my colleague from New Zealand. She hadn’t eaten all afternoon, so after the show she stopped by my place where we enjoyed our fill of cheese, smoked fish, tea, and cake. Time very well spent.

Another Day, Another Page.

Technically, I should have posted this yesterday, at the end of my writing day. But that did not happen. “Life got in the way,” in the sense that I ran into my colleague from New Zealand in the library again. I mentioned to her that I was planning to meet a colleague from NYC, who is in Moscow for some summer research at a new craft beer pub. We decided that when it comes to craft beer sampling, the more the merrier, and so she and I prepared to leave the library together. I got in a solid one hour and fifty minutes of focused writing time between home and the library. I also managed to photograph the necessary pages from a primary source text, which I will soon be using as evidence in the next section of my chapter. Productive, but I have still not yet managed to meet the four hours of focused writing time/day that I have set as my goal. Studies have shown that four hours of focused creative work (writing, art making, music composition, etc. etc.) is the average maximum that an individual can achieve before the returns start to diminish. Of course this time varies from person to person; some can do more, some less. But I am keeping it as my goal, if only because it functions as one more measure that helps me stay on track in this age of distraction.

So, the craft beer was delightful. The food excellent. But it meant a late night. Once home I went straight to bed. No time for blogging. And this is disability related. As I think I have mentioned before in this space, fatigue is a major component of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. So too are sleep issues. The combination can result in snowball effect. Sleep for me is a necessity. If I stay up late, then I have to sleep in if I can (Sometimes I have to be up early to teach or attend a meeting. And if I do, well, then that’s just that. I weather the unfortunate consequences and try to readjust my schedule to include more self-care and rest. I also keep a firm eye on my schedule and try to avoid mixing late nights with early mornings.) It is not just a matter of not functioning my best the next day; sleep deprivation can wipe me out for the next week or longer. So that is what happened today. In late, up late. But I managed half an hour of writing this morning. And I managed to crank out another page. Now I’m off to the archive. Will try to get another half hour in before bed. Not ideal, because I don’t usually write as well after dinner. But today perhaps, worth a try.

Oh and in case you are in Moscow and looking for craft beer, here is the spot we tried. Very good, but it is also worth exploring other outlets. The economic crisis (Ruble plunge) has made imported beer too expensive for many Russian consumers. In response, domestic producers have created a delicious and burgeoning craft beer market. There is more variety every month. Enjoy!

Beer Happens. Moscow.


The Best of Intentions.

I really did have the best of all writing intentions when I woke up this morning. Intentions and a Plan. I write best in the morning, so the Plan was to get up, have breakfast, and get right to work on Big Book Project. Oh and also try to solve that nagging little problem about a broken rec. letter link in a fellowship application portal. This meant I had to check my email (bad). And right there was an email from said recommender with broken link reminding me to please contact the fellowship administrators, because he was ready to upload his recommendation. One does not want to disappoint letter writers. So I set about trying to solve the link problem, which required the installation of a newer web browser, two emails to the system administrator, and careful tinkering with the application itself. Which led me to read the fine print. Which led to questions about my eligibility for the fellowship. Turns out, since I have not yet had my Ph.D. for two years (two-year Ph.D. anniversary is in September), I am ineligible for the fellowship this year. So. All that tinkering and emailing for nothing. Disappointment aside (It was an amazing opportunity.), the morning I had set aside for writing had also evaporated. Or almost evaporated. I wrote for a whole ten minutes. Woot?

Not really, because this point I need to be cranking out two pages/day. And ten minutes won’t get me there. So instead of going to the archive this afternoon as planned, the new Plan was to go to the Lenin Library and sit at my desk in the reading room for longer than ten minutes. And then, boom! I ran into a colleague from New Zealand, who has come to Moscow for some summer research. Instead to heading up to the reading room, we went to the “bufet” for some delightful instant coffee. And she showed me the proofs of her new book about Cold War-Era Soviet political posters. Now, those visuals are amazing. Also, we enjoyed the coffee. In this particular case, I have no regrets about not getting right down to work.

When I eventually did sit down at my desk, I did get work done. 1.5 hours of serious focus allowed me to crank out another page. Not two, but then one is better than none. And everyday the rest of the chapter seems to come slightly more into focus. So I’m grateful for that, because this next bit is tricky. Because it is tricky it makes me nervous. I’ll get back to it tomorrow, when the New Plan is the Old Plan: get up, get to work, go to the archive.

We’ll see. For now, a view of the Kremlin from the Lenin Library reading room. At least they spoil us with the scenery:

From the Reading Room-Lenin Library