By the time this is posted, the spring semester of 2016 will be underway, the final semester of my MFA. How am I feeling? Excited, terrified, exhausted, ready, not ready, and a lot of things in between.
But, no matter how much I think about walking across that stage in May, there is still work to be done: my thesis.
Things are coming along, slowly but surely. I’m chipping a little bit away everyday, but sometimes it feels painfully slow. What’s been helping me get some serious “butt in chair” time is getting together with friends and having writing parties. Much like having a gym buddy who shames you to get off the couch and hop on the treadmill next to them, enforcing a strict rule of silence for specific time intervals is amazingly effective in putting a fire under one’s butt to get writing. You don’t want to be the only one staring at your empty screen as you listen to the sound of fingers flying across keyboards. It’s a kind of strength in numbers thing, with your adversary being the work itself.
What are some other thesis essentials that have helped me tackle this trying time?
What? you might be asking—aren’t you working all night? Nope. I’ve been sleeping more (going to bed at a semi-reasonable time) and as a result I’ve been feeling a lot sharper and more ready to focus on my work. Yeah, it has cut out some of those hours at night when I have been productive in the past, but I’m also finding that I can wake up earlier and get to work, so it seems to balance out—or even tip in my favor, as the writing isn’t competing with coursework.
If you’ve read my prior posts, you’ve probably picked up that I’m a bit of tea addict. I have a whole cupboard of delicious teas, and my amazing best friend sent me a set of herbal and green teas for my birthday in December <3. I know if I have the goods in my cupboard I’m going to have less of an excuse to run out to the store and escape my computer. Have a beverage of choice nearby—it gives you less of an excuse to leave your work and possibly never return(!).
I have this thing where I have a hard time listening to certain music when I’m writing. Usually, if I’m not familiar with an album/song, I unintentionally listen to it more intently to hear the lyrics, and this keeps me from writing my own words on the page. My go-tos are instrumental film scores, classical music, and songs that I know inside out and could sing in my sleep that are of a similar mood to what I’m working on. When the song and lyrics are unfamiliar, it’s like the wires in my brain are crossing and I’m stuck. If you’ve ever listened to a podcast and tried to read something at the same time, it’s kind of like that. (Or maybe that’s just me?)
When I’m going on a marathon session in the comfort of my own apartment, finding the right balance in my attire is important for me. If I’m too comfortable (in my pajamas) then I don’t feel as serious or as focused. I’ve learned that if I wear my bathrobe I just think about the tortured writer character in Secret Window who is always wearing a bathrobe. (SPOILER ALERT: He kills everyone and buries them in his yard—not exactly the energy I want to bring to my writing sessions.)
Obviously if I’m wearing something that isn’t comfortable for sitting in for a long time, I’m going to get fidgety and just think about how something is digging into/strangling me, instead of putting words on the page.
Favorite writing outfit: T-shirt, flannel, running shorts/leggings. Bonus tip: If I’m staying at home all day planning to write, going through my morning routine as if I was going to go to work really helps me get in the zone and feel ready to write.
EXTERNAL HARD DRIVE/BACKUP METHODS
For all you anxious folks (like me) and all you non-anxious folks, I implore you, invest in an external hard drive if you haven’t already. Nothing is worse than your computer crashing and those few minutes of terror where you wonder if everything is gone forever. Save yourself the stress, the grief, and the possible feelings of wanting to die. Google Drive also works in a pinch and lets you work anywhere as long as you can log in to Google. Hooray!
I always keep a few essays and books close at hand when I’m writing, usually of the writer, style, or topic I’m trying to channel in my work. For example, this week I’ve been revising an essay that involves some scene-based action but mostly it is reflective and meditative, occasionally diving into memory.
I was feeling stumped and frustrated on how to untangle this piece and make it work, so I referred to an essay by Charles D’Ambrosio (whose work I wrote about in my previous post), “Whaling Out West,” to see how he did it… which sent me on a quest to compare how he begins each essay in that collection. Apart from giving me a quick respite from my own words, this little bit of study and analysis recharged me and helped me think more deeply about my own beginnings to essays.
Seriously, breaks are important. Get out of your house, walk around your neighborhood, go to a coffee shop, check out a gallery or museum. Give your mind a break, because if it’s tired and worn down on one task, you’re not going to be able to do as much. For nonfiction writers in particular, going out and living is important to our work. You won’t get the same ideas and experiences that can drive your writing if you lock yourself away like a regular Emily Dickinson.