Burn Me to Ashes

I am a bad writer.

Not,  I hasten to add, when it comes to getting words down on paper or, as is more likely to be the case, the screen. Sometimes I even put them down in combinations that look elegant and clever. My supervisor has always praised the clarity of my writing (an all too rare thing in academia).

No, I am a bad writer because the thing I hate to do, more than almost anything else in the world, is edit my own work.

When Q. writes, he is water on stone. He isn’t fast, and he isn’t pretty, but he is inexorable, unyielding, merciless. If Q. has an hour free in his day, he will go and write 150 painstaking, thoughtful, deliberate words. Q. quite likes the editing process. He writes and rewrites and fiddles until at last he is satisfied. When I edit his work (for I edit all of his work), there is always evidence of this tinkering, sentences where Q. thought about two ways to construct his idea and didn’t quite manage to erase all traces of the one he chose not to do. Q. misses those errors when he proof reads his own work because his eye sees the sentence he decided to write and skips over the remnants of the one he discarded.

When I write, I am fire.

An idea will simmer and slowly burn within, like hot coals. I will mull on it, chew on it, dream on it, until at last it explodes inside me, a roaring conflagration that demands I put my fingers to the keyboard (usually because the deadline for when the piece of work is due has drawn so near I can no longer ignore it). When I write, I burn. I hollow myself out. On a good day I write 1000 words in an hour. When I was writing the first draft of each chapter of the dissertation, once I actually started writing (and wasn’t just thinking about writing) I set myself the goal of 1500 words each day. Usually I’d reach that goal by 10 or so in the morning and I’d either keep writing if I was in the middle of something or I’d stop and go back to reading and researching. Some days I wrote 3500 or 4000 words- good words, quality words, words that are still there in my thesis.

I write blog posts (the only thing I’ve written in the last six years that wasn’t coursework essays or conference presentations or scholarship applications or dissertation chapters) in much the same way. An idea will float around in my head for a week or two (or more). When I finally sit down at the computer, I usually produce it in one sitting because I’ve already written almost all of it in my head. I read it over, tinker a little bit, and hit publish. I have never sat on a draft of a post for weeks at a time. I have never rewritten one over and over again. I either write the post, or I don’t.

When I am writing well, it feels like flying.

And when the draft is finished, and I have to turn back to the beginning, I fall to earth.

When I was doing my Master’s degree, at a university in the UK with enormous snob appeal, I did a course in my first term where the professor had me write a 2500-3000 word essay every week. Every week he’d give me a reading list of around 30 books, and every week I’d read as much as I could and then cry in my room until I had no time left and I HAD to sit down at the computer and write. And every week I’d write it, and then I would drop it off in his mailbox and go and have fun that night because I was free of it, and then two days later we’d meet in his office for a couple of hours and he would tell me everything that was wrong with it and then give me a new topic and a new reading list and I would go back to my room and cry for a while and then I would go back to the library and get the books on the new reading list and start again.

Every week.

It was absolute torture and a terrible blow to my self-esteem (because I had been the darling of my undergraduate department and I had won this huge scholarship to go to this fancy university and now I felt like I was being told how stupid I was on a weekly basis), but it had an unexpected benefit.

That professor taught me to do it right the first time.

In my undergraduate days, I was a tinkerer. I would finish essays two weeks before they were due, just so I could leave them alone for a week and then look at them again.

I didn’t have that luxury with him.

That course made me a better writer. It made me more decisive. It taught me to cut to the heart of a matter. It taught me to write clear, faultless prose the first time out.

Most of all, it taught me not to be afraid of dumping words, hundreds of words, onto the blank screen. The way I wrote those essays- a sharp, concentrated burst of writing- was largely the way I then wrote my Master’s thesis a year later and the way I have written my doctoral dissertation, just on a much, much larger scale.

It’s not that I don’t edit my work. Of course I do. The first draft of every single one of my chapters of my dissertation was filled with notes in bold to myself. I revised every chapter before I sent it to my supervisor. I revised the entire thesis before I sent him the full draft. I revised the thesis again in light of his comments before I sent it to the committee, and I am revising it yet again right now before it is sent to the external examiner.

I have added content, clarified the argument, made reference to more scholarship, updated translations. I have moved large sections of text from one chapter to another as the thesis drew closer to completion and the order of the argument became more apparent.

I have only very rarely touched the prose.

Vast, vast swathes of the thesis stand pretty much exactly as they looked when I frantically hurled them onto the screen while composing that first, very rough draft.

Every time I wrote a first draft I thought it was garbage.

It’s not garbage, though. It never is.

And now I really am in the endgame, and I’m at the point where I can and should edit the thesis not for content, but for style and presentation and order of argument. One of my committee members is not in my field and she has made some very detailed and helpful suggestions for changes I could make that would make the thesis more accessible to historians who don’t specialize in my era.

They are very good suggestions.

They would require me to read the thesis, in its entirety, very carefully.

I would rather do anything right now than do that.

The problem with fire is it burns out.

Every time I reach the final stage of the writing process, the point where I should take a good hard look at my prose and take the time to make changes and rewrite sentences, I find I am so heartily sick of reading it that I just can’t be bothered. I read it one last time to make sure I haven’t missed any glaring grammatical errors, and then I hand it in.

I am unbelievably sick of my dissertation right now. I hadn’t touched it since I sent it to the committee in mid-June, and as soon as I picked it up again last week all the loathing and frustration and boredom sprang back up as though they had never left. Reading it makes me physically ill.

I am done with it. SO done with it. I want nothing more than to do the last few content suggestions my committee members have given me and call it finished.

But if I want to call myself a writer, if I want to really be a writer, if I am serious about tackling one of the books that is in my head during this year at home, I have to learn how to edit my work.

I have to make those changes suggested to me by the committee member outside my field.

I have to find a way to not burn out.

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Habit forming

Microblog_MondaysI put on my running shoes this morning.

For the third Monday in a row.

Three times makes a habit.

At least, I hope it does.

 

For more posts from #MicroblogMondays, click here.

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Cultivating Stillness

So we are officially one week into the autumn semester here.

One week since Q. started teaching again.

One week since I did not, for the first time since we moved to this city seven years ago (except for the year I was still on leave after E. was born).

One week since I have, officially, become a SAHM.

And I am, not to put too fine a point on it, going absolutely fucking crazy.

Not with E. It’s got nothing to do with E. Right now we’re having a good time together. There are no tears at nursery school drop offs, because he knows I’m picking him up right after lunch. We potter around the neighbourhood.  We bake. We clean the house. We weed the garden. We spend part of every day building a couch train (where we take all the cushions off the couches and put them on the floor in a very particular order that is known ONLY to E. and tears ensue when I, or the stuffed animals helping us, invariably get it wrong). We read books (currently he is big into Amelia Bed.elia Goes Wild). We play alphabet Go Fish (and I regularly lose to his favourite stuffed animal, which is both amusing and somewhat humiliating at the same time). I successfully signed him up for swimming lessons (making sure to be logged in to my computer at the exact moment registration opened in order to grab our most-wanted spot), which will start at the end of the month.

It’s not E.

It’s me.

I am losing my mind because the future is stretching out in front of me, all nebulous and uncertain and I DON’T HAVE A PLAN.

I don’t do well without plans. (Understatement of the century, right there.)

I knew when I started the PhD I probably wouldn’t get a tenure-stream position. Being unable to move to take up a job elsewhere makes that highly unlikely, even before the job market tanked. By the time I was in the throes of writing up the dissertation, I knew I didn’t want a tenure-stream position, even if one existed. I didn’t have the drive for it. I wasn’t willing to work the hours it required. There was no room in our household for two career-stream academics if we were going to actually parent our son ourselves.

But I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I wouldn’t get contract teaching. Even if it was only one course at first, or just a few tutorials, I always assumed I would get my foot in the door. The pay wouldn’t be much, but my time would be flexible, I’d still be teaching, and I’d stay bound to the academic year. I could be at home with E. in the summers.

And then this academic year started, and I don’t have teaching, not one little bit, and my foot’s not in the door.

I’m supposed to be embracing this year at home.

I am supposed to be viewing it as “a golden opportunity to spend one more year with my son, who is probably going to be our one and only, before he goes off to kindergarten and his teachers see more of his life than we do” rather than “an indictment of failure because you just spent six years on a PhD and for what- if you’d just stuck with contract teaching you’d be entrenched in the courses by now and no one could get rid of you even though you wouldn’t be properly qualified”.

Oh yes, I haven’t actually FINISHED the PhD yet. I’m supposed to be doing revisions right now (more on that in another post).

So it is maybe premature to consider the PhD a waste of time when I haven’t even finished it yet.

We are a week into our new routine, and already I am catching myself trying to make up a new plan. At night, during E.’s quiet time, even when he is at nursery school and I should be working on the dissertation, I find myself surfing websites. My inner monologue goes something like this:

Ok, so we could transfer over your teaching qualifications from Australia. Then you could teach high school here. But there aren’t any jobs in teaching right now! Well, no, but you could send out your CV to some of the private schools- the ones that teach Latin and would like that you’ve coached rowing- and just see if they bite. But teaching high school in Australia stressed me out. It’s not family friendly- not during the year. I wouldn’t be able to do pick ups or drop offs for E. at school.

Ok, so what about university administration? There’s a job for a grant writer/editor at the big university downtown. They want a PhD in their minimum qualifications. You could be good at something like that. You could do well with something like that. You’re not actually qualified for that job, but if you get your foot in the door with a university, you can always move sideways into another position. Yes, but can I do an office job? Can I do nine to five? What if the job doesn’t come home with you? Wouldn’t that be a nice change? But what about the summers?

Ok, what about libraries? You love books. There are lots of interesting things to do in a library. Yes, but they want a degree in Library or Information Science. Great idea! More school! Let’s put off the decision making! Are you serious? Do you really think Q. would agreed to that? Yes, yes he would. If you said, “Hey Q., I know I just spent six years working on my PhD and I’ve been a student for nine of the twelve years we’ve been together, but I think what would really make me most happy would be to go back and do another two years getting another degree”, you know that Q. would agree. He wants most of all for you to be happy. He’s not the selfish one in this marriage. But that’s not fair to him. And it’s not making a decision, it’s just deferring it. You’d be hiding your fears in another degree program.

Right. So what about freelance writing/editing and working from home? You’re available for E. and you can do your own writing too. TOO SCARY. DON’T MENTION IT. WHAT IF I FAIL?

Well, LOOK. We need to come to some sort of decision here. This is your future and the future of your family we’re talking about. What do you want to do? PANIC STATIONS!

And round and round I go, over and over for hours and hours.

Today, I am saying only this:

Stop, Turia. Just stop.

I don’t NEED a plan right now.

I can’t make a plan right now.

I can’t even begin to try to imagine what the rest of my life will look like because a) I haven’t finished the PhD yet and I need to spend my time making sure my thesis is ready to defend when we finally settle on an examiner and a date, and b) we don’t yet know that E. will be an only. I’m 95% convinced that he will be, but I can’t make plans based on the assumption that we are really, truly, done with trying until we do the last FET.

So today I am telling myself to let go of the need for a plan. I am telling myself to cultivate stillness. I am telling myself to wait, wait at least until the new year, when the thesis will be done and the FET will have happened, before I make any decisions about the future.

And I am also telling myself to be gentle. I am reminding myself that I don’t have to figure it out all at once. What E. needs from me as his mother in the next couple of years as he starts full-time formal schooling is not necessarily what he will need from me when he is eight, or ten, or fifteen.

I am trying to train myself to imagine other possibilities. Q. and I were both raised by mothers who were at home with us for much of our childhood, who then went on to become teachers. Our mothers were always around in the summers. It is exceedingly difficult for me to imagine a life where that is not the case for E., a life where I work in an office and we have two weeks together in July or August. There would be good things in that life too. Maybe E. would get to go away to camp when he was older, something my sisters and I never did because our mother was always at home. Maybe E. wouldn’t spend hours marooned at school waiting for his mother to finish her work devoted to other people’s children so she could come and pick him up, like we did. Maybe E. would have a mother who could come to some of his assemblies and come on school trips and do all of the things during school hours that parents who are also teachers are never able to do.

My mother stayed at home until I was ten (the advantage of being the eldest). But when I was ten and she went back to work, she was only a year older than I am now. I don’t want to be a SAHM mum long-term. It wouldn’t be good for me mentally. I’m already struggling enormously with the idea of going without an income for the year, even though Q. makes a good wage and we will be ok. We won’t be putting much away for later, but we’ll be ok. But we’ll have to think about money a lot more than we have in the last few years, and we’ll have to be much more careful with it, and I’m realizing just how important it is to both of us and to our marriage that we don’t usually have to be super careful.

I’m really lucky, I know that. I am incredibly privileged that I can have this year at home with my son, that my husband fully supports me being at home, that he makes a good enough wage that we can manage with me at home without doing more than tightening our belts a little. I am (relatively) young still, and healthy, and I will have a PhD before the year is done, and I have the chance to choose, really choose, what I most want to do with my life.

Right now, though, I don’t feel lucky.

I feel adrift.

And trying to embrace the NOT KNOWING is proving to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life.

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Filed under Anxiety Overload, Blink and you'll miss it, Butter scraped over too much bread (a.k.a. modern motherhood), Life after the PhD, Money Matters, PhD, Writing

Not a birth day, after all

We wish you were here.

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Filed under 2.0 Pregnancy, Grief, Loss

The burning question

Microblog_MondaysSaturday night
E. is upstairs in bed, shrieking hysterically.

Q. goes up to investigate.

E. is weeping, inconsolable, because we haven’t measured to see if his arm is longer than a baguette.

Q. comes downstairs, gets one of the baguettes he and E. made that afternoon out of the freezer, puts the two pieces back together, goes back upstairs, and determines with E. that his arm is not yet as long as a baguette.

E. immediately goes back to sleep.

Q.: “Well that was one of my more surreal parenting moments.”

This post is part of #MicroblogMondays. For the other participants, see here.

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A room of his own (again)

If you recall, dear readers, I spent a ridiculous amount rather a lot of time in late February and early March thinking about E.’s new medium-sized guy room as a way of displacing the anxiety I was feeling over losing the baby.

I obsessed about it, really.

I spent every waking conscious moment where I didn’t have something else that I had to be doing surfing Pinterest and online catalogues and measuring and thinking and planning and worrying.

It wasn’t particularly healthy, my obsession.

But it was a lifesaver at the time.

It gave my brain something to think about,  other than the fact that I wasn’t pregnant anymore.

It gave me a chance to escape from the grief, to focus on something positive, to concentrate on creating something beautiful for the child I did have.

Eventually I made most of the decisions that had to be made, and found myself realizing:

The downside to all of this organizing is I can’t spend hours trolling Etsy and Pinterest anymore, and I think that’s one reason I’m clenching my jaw so tightly it’s sore pretty much all the time. I need another distraction. Organizing the house is only getting me so far- I’ve already done my clothes, the linen closet, the cupboards and drawers in the basement, and my books. There’s still a lot more I could do, but I can only stand to do it in short bursts of frenzied activity.

I’m a little afraid of how empty I’m going to feel inside when we get E.’s room set up in April.

We didn’t, in the end, get his room set up in April. We looked at the calendar, and looked at our schedules and realized that it would be insane to try and do it then, and luckily E. stopped talking about it as much and we were able to wait until August, which made a whole lot more sense on a whole bunch of levels.

This room was important to me. Not just because of how much time and energy and thought I put into it after we lost the baby, but because it was the first time I’d tried, really tried to decorate a room as a whole. I don’t have a great eye for design, but I knew I wanted E.’s room to be something special, something that would suit him now, as the little boy he is, but that would also be able to grow with him. As I said in my first post about his room,

We never did much with the nursery. Q. painted it, and I put a lot of time and effort into choosing the crib (because I wanted solid wood) and the mattress (because I didn’t want one filled with off gassing nastiness). But all the rest of the furniture was mismatched hand-me-downs, and we just put some random things on the wall, and called it finished.

E’s new room is different. It’s not going to have a theme or anything- I’m not really a theme sort of person- but it matters to me that I spend some time on it. The nursery was always going to be temporary. This is a room he will be in for a long time- possibly until he moves out if we never have another child, as if we don’t we’ll have absolutely no reason to rationalize leaving our current house.

Plus, I know who he is now. I want his room to reflect that.

For pictures of what the nursery looked like, see here.

The one big outstanding issue was the paint colour- I only managed to put sample strips up on the walls a couple of days before we were going to start painting as it took a while to empty the room out (it had previously been my study). I had hemmed and hawed and changed my mind a million times, but when I put my four final options up on the walls it was immediately obvious to Q. and I which was the right one. E. nearly put a spanner in the works by deciding he liked a different colour, but hey, he’s three, so we waited two hours and then he liked the one we liked best too. It was a difficult decision because his room is north-facing and it doesn’t have a big window. I was worried painting it grey would make it too dark. I kept seeing Benjam.in Moo.re’s Rev.ere Pew.ter recommended online for north-facing bedrooms, and that was what we ultimately chose. I’m so glad we did.

What I found most surprising was how much better both rooms looked once their purposes had been switched. E.’s old room looks much better as a study- cozier and neater and better organized, and his new room is almost unrecognizable. Q. said to me once we had taken out all the furniture, “I always thought this room’s proportions were ridiculous, but it isn’t actually long and narrow. It just looked that way because of how we’d set it up.” My study had been in a constant state of chaos since January, when our basement flooded and we ended up storing quite a lot of stuff in it, but it had become even worse since we set up E.’s medium sized guy bed in his old room, as that meant all the ‘baby’ things (change table, rocking chair, etc.) had migrated into the study because we hadn’t had time to properly put them away.

Everything looks so much better now. I cried when we put E.’s furniture in his room, because it looked how I wanted it to look, and I was just so happy it had all worked out. Last weekend my Mum was here and brought the curtains that she made with the fabric I ordered, and we got the last couple of things up on the walls, so I was ready to take some pictures.

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The bed frame and the night table are both from IKEA. The sheets are from Pot.tery Ba.rn Ki.ds (we used birthday money given to E. by his relatives).

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We actually bought him this sign (from Alphabet Photography) for his first birthday. We never got it up on the wall in the nursery, but it’s up now.

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The chair is from IKEA (as is the dresser, which is an old hand-me-down). The laundry hamper is from 3Sprouts. Q. made the shelves himself according to a design I found online. What you can’t see in this picture is the time it took to get those shelves straight (we do not have a straight wall in this house). Given they only hold 35 or 40% of his books, I’m planning on rotating them around regularly. Currently he’s obsessed with My Father’s Dragon and its sequels (which we have on loan from the library), so the other books aren’t getting a lot of use. The top shelves are too high for him to reach, but we have a step-stool that isn’t shown in the photo.

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E. was adamant: “I want a clock in my room. A red clock. Then I will know when I wake up if it is morning yet.” It is helpful at quiet time- it cuts down on the number of times he shouts down the stairs at me, “Is quiet time over yet?” because he can understand the concept of watching the big hand get all the way around to the same number again.

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My mum was so worried about making a mistake with these (especially since she’d never done grommets before), but she did an absolutely amazing job. They are perfect.

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IKEA Expe.dit with a mirror (also IKEA) mounted directly above. E. made the painting at his nursery school last October. An unexpected bonus of running the Expe.dit along this wall is the mirror bounces more light from the window into the room. Q. thought I did this intentionally and told me I was very clever, but it was dumb luck.

In the Expe.dit E. has stuffed animals that have been culled from the bed (there are still at least ten animals on the bed), some puzzles, some Playm.obil, some Schl.eich animals, his Pla.n Toys pirate ship, his Brud.er garbage truck, and the double decker bus we bought for him while we were in the UK. The two red boxes hold his birthday cards and the mail he’s been getting, so he can look at them all whenever he wants. The pink box on top of the unit is his treasure box that he chose and painted himself. It has little things that are special to him, like a rock from the lake, pinecones, acorns, and a seashell from Oz. We usually have flowers in the red vase.

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This bus decal runs along the wall right next to the door and the end of his bed. The wall above his bed is still blank because I don’t yet have anything I like for that space. Like the shelves, this decal took quite a lot of time to get on the wall.

I love his room.

“It’s the nicest room in the house now,” was Q.’s view.

And E.? He loves it too.

 

 

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Filed under Anxiety Overload, E.- the fourth year, My addled brain

Crossroads

This is my 500th post on this blog.

It seems appropriate to hit such a milestone at this point.

I turned thirty-five this summer.

My thirties thus far have been almost entirely devoted to achieving two things:

1. Motherhood

2. A PhD

The quest for both started in my late twenties- I was twenty-eight when I started at the clinic, twenty-nine when I started the PhD- but it’s safe to say that my thirties have been dominated by these two very different goals.

My blog has been there for almost every step of the ride. When I started it, in March 2008, I had just started at the clinic and I was in the second semester of my doctorate. I’ve turned to my blog in good times and (especially) in bad. I’ve documented wherever the roads to both became bumpy (and boy did they get bumpy at times).

Now I’m at a crossroads.

By the end of 2014, I should have the PhD in hand. I have a complete draft that has been revised. My supervisor and two of my three committee members like it (the third is being frustratingly slow to read it). I’ve had two and a half months free of it, and I think now I can stand to look at it again and start to make this final round of revisions before the defence. There have been many, many times along the way where I didn’t think it would happen, but I know now I will finish. And some days I even think it will all have been worth it.

I did become a mother, something for which I am grateful each and every day, even though that made attaining the PhD ever more difficult. And by the end of 2014 we will likely know whether our family is complete as it now stands, or whether we might yet welcome one more member.

Regardless of what happens with that final FET, the second half of my thirties is not going to have the same focal points as the first.

I will not be trying to expand my family.

I will (probably) not be in academia.

I don’t know what the next 500 posts will bring, but I believe that my blog will still be here, that I will still be writing in this space when I turn forty. I wonder if I will be as surprised by the next five years as I have been by the last five.

This year, the last before E. goes to school, my unexpected extra year at home, is my opportunity to put aside the stress and the panic and the constant deadlines of the PhD and to sit, really sit with myself and examine what I want out of my life, and what my family needs from me.

I have the chance now to find the new focus for my life.

I have the responsibility now to figure out just what I’m going to do now that there is no question that I have grown up.

It should be a bold new world.

I’m scared shitless.

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