Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Chapter 3: A Deadline and a Schedule

Well, peeps, I'm finally working on Chapter 3...or something similar to working. After I struggled for a while to get this chapter started, I decided one day to just pick a thing and start working on that. So far I have rewatched West Side Story and reread Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. At the moment I am reading Hansberry's informal autobiography, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, in search of leads for my chapter. In other words, I'm not sure what I'm looking for, but I continue to read in hopes that I'll find whatever I am looking for.

In other news, I put together a concise outline for my dissertation for the rest of the academic year. My goal is to be Dr. S by May 2012. I am two chapters in, and I have two more chapters left to write. I also have to work on the intro and a conclusion, but these sections don't worry me as much. Honestly, I think I could sit down and write half of the intro this weekend if I had to--operative phrase being "HAD TO." When my advisor saw I planned to hand in my draft of chapter 3 at the end of September, she suggested I be more ambitious and submit it at the end of August. I'm too proud to back off from a challenge, so I agreed to September 3rd. That's the date.

Of course, after I emailed her that date, I panicked. Now I have to write it before September 3rd! Because I work best with deadlines and guidelines, I put together a mini-schedule.

The physical process of me trying to figure out how to write a dissertation chapter in 7 weeks.

This looks a lot better...

Last week was Week 1 of my schedule. During Week 1 I was supposed to put together a work plan and do some research (aside from the writing and reading that are supposed to happen anyway). I have yet to dive head first into the research. I'm not sure why I'm postponing it (does looking for one book in my library's database count?), but it's Week 2 of my fantabulous schedule and no research yet.

Frankly, I'm having trouble focusing and staying on track. I think part of the problem is that I'm not sure what I want to say yet. I have written plenty of ideas, things that I could delve into about both texts: Cold War urban politics, violence against minorities in cities, white flight to the suburbs, Broadway...I know, I know: wasn't I supposed to be looking only at New York City in my dissertation? Yup. But I feel that Hansberry's play is crucial to this conversation about urban space and home, even if I am focusing on New York City in my dissertation. And even though West Side Story is not written by Puerto Ricans, it represented Puerto Ricans in urban space and propelled these representations to a mainstream audience.

So where do I go from there? Sometimes I feel like I don't have a clear focus yet. Other times I feel like I shouldn't even be writing about these texts and I should just start over. (I have written and presented on West Side Story before. It's something I can talk about at length. But for some reason I feel like I am at a loss for words right now.) So I come here to share my ideas and get feedback. I need a sounding board for the thoughts inside my head...

My bigger problem is that I am worn out and feeling more and more anxious every day. Instead of moving my chapter forward, my daily writing just reminds me of how aimless I feel and how I have no clue where this is going. My writing so far has consisted in me talking out ideas and questions I have, but nothing that I could use to start writing chapter 3. Also, I'm starting to feel constrained by the research. I'm avoiding doing the research because I don't know where to go. I am avoiding the writing because I haven't done much research. It's a vicious cycle, as you can see.

I'm hoping by this time next week I am in a better place and that the gears are in motion. So far I've had two suggestions offered to me (both via Twitter):

1) Just sit down and write the chapter (or at least a bulk of it). Do research and insert quotations AFTER you write. (via my tweep @readywriting)

2) Take a short break from dissertation work (a few days? a week?) to stop feeling anxious and reboot my energy level. My tweeps @jovanevery and @escapeivrytower suggested I don't see this break as me being lazy but rather me recharging my batteries.

(Thank you, ladies!)

At any rate, I'm hoping to finish reading Hansberry's autobiography this week and write an abstract of what I think my chapter is going to do. I'm hoping it helps me decide once and for all what direction I'll be taking this chapter in, before I take my break from dissertation work.

Any other suggestions, dear readers? Am I the only one who gets anxious when starting a new chapter? How do you tackle the writing? What's your writing process like?

Monday, July 4, 2011

A Journey into July…

End of June**
We’re officially homeless, well almost.  After the harrowing ordeal in which Craig’s apartment was robbed while he was sleeping, he’s remained uneasy about residing in South Philly.  Last week, he arrived home late and parked his car several blocks away (as his street was packed).  Sometime between midnight and 7am, kids threw a brick through the side window of the Prius and stole 3 books of CDs; we’re assuming it was kids as the thieves didn’t bother to explore the armrest compartment which contained money, our GPS, etc.  The bad news, the CD cases included both of our combined collections from high school and college (though, as per our music savvy friends, this assortment is no major artistic loss) and more importantly, the mixes I’d sent to Craig in Iraq.  The good news: insurance is covering everything and I’m guessing the adolescent robbers will not be congratulating themselves on their new collection of Tori Amos, Dave Matthews, and 90’s country music!

On a happier note, our generous friends, A&M, who are currently travelling Asia this summer, are allowing us to temporally make their lovely house our home base when we’re in the Philadelphia area.  Sometime in August we’ll rent our own place, if we ever find one with two decent sized bedrooms and a tolerance for furry, four-legged children.   Also, I have two adjuncting positions, so I feel reenergized knowing there I’ll soon be returning to the classroom and my destiny is not being forever tied to this laptop and a towering stack of stale books!
As for writing, it ain’t easy! Even with all of this time to dedicate to the project, I find myself over-thinking and re-thinking, typing and deleting, way more than I should.  I spent the past few weeks still fine-tuning the critical frame after my adviser exposed its weaknesses.  Ten books and eighty pages of notes later, I think it’s finally congealing. First, I need to craft an intro that properly acknowledges the work of critics who have tread this cerebral path before: revisit Said’s explanation of how the Western colonizers (England & France) defined themselves against the Orient and romanticized and exocitized it countries and their natives (what makes Thackeray so fascinating is how acutely aware he was of this typically absurd romanticization and repeatedly pointed this out in his satire).  Secondly, I need to consider the ideas put forth by more recent critics such as Amanda Anderson, Ann Stoler, Benedict Anderson, Ian Baucom, etc. and to explain how they perceive the nineteenth-century English struggling to define themselves and justify their empire, to categorize other nationalities, creeds and races and to figure out how to make the incongruent groups, spread across continents, somehow fit neatly beneath one British flag.  What makes Thackeray so remarkable is that he doesn’t try to justify, condemn or explain empire, but rather points out its absurdities and simply navigates himself out of the way of controversy.  What until you hear how he handled the issue of slavery while lecturing in the United States…

 All in all, with this new approach, I can successfully revamp Chapters 1 & 2, and complete 3 in the coming week(s).  The goal is to begin Ch 4 by July 14th.  I’m sure you see that deadlines keep getting pushed back, but the feedback I’ve received on Chapters 1 & 2 from academic folks I deeply admire has been positive and uplifting, so I must be doing something right!

JULY 4th***
We have a home! We’ll be living in Blue, Bell, PA, about 30 minutes north of Center City (all depending on 76’s day to day mood of course) and we move in on August 1.  Craig (and an amazing group of UPenn grads) moved the last of his items out of South Philly yesterday.  Craig seems much more relaxed these days, no longer wondering what is going to be stolen next…

This 4th of July I’m comfortably working at A & M’s house and this evening we’ll scout out some local fireworks.   Tomorrow I sit in on Craig’s final speech for his summer graduate course at U-Penn.  For his final talk, his instructions were to discuss someone or something inspirational, and we co-created a pretty miraculous speech about our dog Blue—his resilience, persistent and devotion.  Blue and I will of course be in attendance.  After that, the pup and I head back to the lake for at least two weeks of solitary writing (save a trip or two to the Binghamton library) and I hope to bring this project much nearer to its end.  I've recently had the chance to reconnect with friends in the area and feel ready to for another hefty dose of productive isolation.  Here's to positive thinking…