My first Moleskine

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I was an artsy person when I was younger. As a teenager, I cultivated as many cheesy disciplines as I could, not sure why at times. I suppose as an outlet for self-expression. I wrote poems and short stories. I drew for a while, and thought I was good at it (when I know I really wasn’t). I didn’t sing in public, but I rendered an amazing air guitar solo to most The Corrs songs and sang silent back vocals when nobody watched me. I even had a bit of a singing ritual before all my basketball games – as a means to prepare myself mentally for the difficult task of playing the game. I won several lame awards for my poetry ‘skills’ and I hold as a treasure the day my Spanish Literature teacher told me she imagined me doing “something artistic” as an adult.

Let’s just say her prophecy didn’t really turn out as such.

I suppose we all feel, as teenagers, that that is the adult self we will adopt, hence it sort of makes sense to imagine ourselves in the future the way we were at the time. Which of course it is a fallacy. “I will never change!”. Oh boy, how wrong I was.

I can’t draw, so let’s not even go down that path. I do some incidental cartooning for this blog because I don’t want to break any copyright laws. And I can cartoon myself (see image above, huge glasses, messy hair). I have not written poetry since I felt high school, which is a blessing for the world. I occasionally jam one or two Cranberries songs on the guitar, and imitate Dolores O’Riordan with some hellish screaming, but yeah, that’s not really singing. I haven’t written fiction in many years. Every so often I get ideas, but they never go anywhere.

But then I had a bit of an off-topic compulsive buy and went for a Moleskine blank page notebook. I think I was a bit influenced by the fact that my wife has a few white page notebooks and ink flow pens and she does wonders with them. A pinch of healthy jealousy, I believe, made me go for it. Why not.

As I said in a post a few days ago, I am having trouble writing. I just fear it’s not going to be good enough. So after putting some thinking into it, I thought that if I could have an outlet for my terrible writing that has nothing to do with the thesis, then maybe my writing “joints and ligaments” will become more elastic and and greased up, helping my thesis writing in the process. I am what I write, after all! But, I need a place to be completely mediocre (this blog is a start) and slightly personal (beyond the scope of this blog) so the Moleskine sounds like an all-round good choice.

I reckon that there is a Mongrel teaching out of all this. Part-timers tend to have slightly more means than full timers on the basis that normally they work full time jobs. Since I don’t have children (but have hamsters, which are much easier to maintain), splashing on a fancy notebook to write mediocre stuff is completely acceptable. It’s what the Thesis Whisperer calls throwing money at problems. It’s not like I can throw massive amounts of money at problems, but I see this as an ‘quality’ investment that is worth a chance, and the pomposity of the whole thing seems reasonable. I know I am running the risk of sounding like Buzz Killington here, but my little poor child self likes “fancy”.


Ps. Yes, I had to buy a pen to go with the notebook. Fancy notebooks require fancy pens. So that mediocre posts like this can be sketched and written in fancy ink.

Holiday packing for Mongrels

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Sitting at my office space last night, I didn’t do much work – my head is already on holiday. I think everyone feels a little bit like that. I look at the screen and see the words I should be writing, but all I can think of is food, and free time, and eventually sun and heat. In an unprecedented move, we are going to Barcelona for Christmas to visit my family (and eat my body weight in prawns) and then to Adelaide to visit the wife’s family (and get a tan, and get all sorts of Port Adelaide gear, and eat my body weight in prawns). We are flying in three days, so no wonder my mind is already there.

We have a friend staying over until Friday morning, and then we will be going crazy about packing and cleaning the house and all that stuff. Yes, I have not packed. I have not even given myself time to think what I want to pack (and I might need to, cause I have a ridiculous baggage allowance this time). We have not decided what bits of the house we are going to leave uncleaned. I have not decided what I want to wear. I don’t own a bikini, so I don’t even have gear to survive Australia (living in Scotland really reduces the amount of summer clothes you buy by 150%). I have not purchased 50 factor sun screen. I don’t own a pair of sunnies. I am still thinking of some Christmas presents and doing absolutely nothing about it. I haven’t yet thought of what I want to visit in Adelaide (other than the aforementioned Port Adelaide store in Alberton). I have no idea of how we are going to spend our days in Spain. I feel I literally know nothing.

Well, not nothing. Important stuff, I happen to know.

I have an appointment to renew my Spanish ID card and I have penned myself for 2 full days of research at the Biblioteca Nacional de Catalunya, perhaps the most decent library there is in Barcelona, and the source of most of my original sources. Source of sources, yeah. I have been eyeing this book that the wife got me that she thought would be “right up my alley”, Helping doctoral students write by Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson. So that is in the suitcase. And I have spent the last few hours of my life scanning as many articles as possible and transferring them into my Dropbox so that they are accessible on my tablet, with the typical PhD saying of “just in case”. Which really means “I will have them accessible yet not access them at all and then feel guilty about it”. But it’s always good to have them as back up plan in case mingling with the family gets utterly annoying (“oh sorry, I have some work to do, I can’t play bingo with gran”).

If those feel like some terrible priorities, we have also shortlisted every single sausage joint and churro serving cafeteria between here and Adelaide and that will be the basics of our diet: German hot dogs and Spanish doughnuts.

Fatty foods and the occasional reading. My kind of holiday.

Work on weekends?

Every so often I reminisce about the very first days of my PhD. Two weeks into it I had managed to secure a job in hospitality, so that I could pay the ridiculous bill that the accommodation services was charging me to “work for them”. I felt I had to work every second of my life, both in hospitality and in my degree to (a) go somewhere with it and have hot food on my plate and a roof above my head, and (b) to kill all the time that I had to spare because being social was not much of an option since my wife was back in Australia for the year.

Back then I did not have an office, so I had to go to hot desk spaces that the College of Arts had in campus. They were alright, considering that at that very beginning I barely had any books to carry around yet. I did a lot of work in my room too – having lived in private accommodation for years, going back to student halls (and with a position of responsibility) was like being 21 again, trying to nerd myself to death. And the library was my second home.

Needless to say, then I had a lot of basketball games in the weekends. Having to pay plenty of bills, any cash rolling my way was much welcomed. But when I got home after long travelling around Scotland, I would sit at my desk, get myself a coffee, and read/write/research in general. I also worked some times at night. I was the Queen of Unsocial hours. I am not very surprised now that, looking back at that time, I had managed to (1) get so much work done, compared to the work I have done ever since becoming a Mongrel, and (2) got myself sick with a suspected stomach ulcer at the end of my first year.

Well, this all changed when I became a parttimer Mongrel and the wife moved back to Glasgow. Now I had things to do and fill in my weekends with outside of games (although I still do far too many), I don’t feel like working in the evening, and ever since the winter started, I have issues with getting up early to do any work. It is just so cold outside and in the house it is just not nice to be working! And I am barely awake at 8am, imagine at 7… So I only occasionally work unsociable hours. And for the past year, I have not worked a single weekend. I just can’t.

Now not working on weekends has many advantages, I have experimented. First, there is this terribly daunting feeling that every PhD has that there is always some work “that I should be doing”. Once you finish a section, there is always something else to read, to write, to look up, to think about, etc. It’s the student loop. But undergrads, for example, when they go on holiday, they don’t really need to take with them the burden of assignments that they will have when they come back. PhDs take that burden everywhere, like a suitcase or a passport. And I feel that I needed to drop that burden off my weekends.

I don’t feel guilty for not working. I feel awesome!

There is of course something I should be doing at all times, but I have forbidden that from weekends. It is a no-go area. I am not allowed to think about my PhD. I need to reconvene with myself and my partner on those days, and I need to pay full attention to trivial tasks like going for a walk, do the shopping, and mainly lying on the couch catching up with movies, telly, or anything we care to watch. It is an awesome deal that I recommend to everyone.

Lately, however, I have started feeling concerned about this lack of activity. I don’t want to work on weekends and I don’t want to do anything that will jeopardize the very necessary resting time my body and mind need. I also don’t feel guilty for not opening up a book on an average of 100 days a year. I am part time, after all! Increasingly, however, I feel I need more time (and effort) to catch up with where I left off the week before on Monday mornings, and Monday mornings I am barely a person for a sustained amount of time, which makes it even harder. I feel that that has disconnected me from my project one weekend at a time, and I feel that perhaps, if I only worked on it for a block, for a 20-minute block, I would be facilitating the process on Mondays and eliminate the catching up process. To this day, what I find most difficult of the writing process, for example, is going back into it after more than 48 hours have passed since I last closed a document. So maybe a quick refresher on both Saturday and Sunday will help?

I am unsure about this. I am not sure whether it will be genius or fall on its arse, and I am not sure whether it is worth a try. Right now it all seems a bit useless since holidays are literally a few days away and I will be gone (from the UK and my PhD possibly) for a full three amazing weeks. Maybe it is an idea to consider after the holidays, or when winter starts fading away.

I will see how that one goes. #BeaMongrel

The writing desert

Before this morning, I had not written a single word in four and a half weeks. I should be ashamed of myself, shouldn’t I? It is not all entirely true, I had somehow managed to scrape up to 1,100 words in those four and a half weeks. That’s 22 days (not including weekends, because I don’t work on weekends at the moment – that’s a story for another post). That is fifty words a day. Five-zero. I have gone from writing 2,000 a week to clocking absolutely nothing. There, I said it.

So when I faced my inner questions and my inner demons yesterday on my day off/research day/battling the Spanish consulate under the tyrannic sleety Mordor-like weather in Edinburgh sort of day, I saw the abyss. I asked myself some really difficult questions, and dare I say I had no answers.

But is there really a why to all this?

Why have I not bothered to open the document again and start writing? Why have I created a different document instead (so as to not to interfere with the corrections of the first part) and yet have largely ignored it anyway?

What is it that physically stops me from writing again? Am I scared? Is this *fear*?

Well, my conclusion was that it was. During the day (whilst on the train on my way to and from Edinburgh) I focused only on reading blog posts about PhD paralysis, the Valley of Shit, and other procrastination related topics, mainly covered by the Thesis Whisperer. Her blog is a great inspiration at times of despair and part of the reason why I chose the word Mongrel to describe my PhD persona was because of her own post, how to read like a mongrel. Yet, reading about why I am stuck or why I procrastinate is not really the way forward in solving the issue. Reading about procrastination and how to beat it is just another way to promote procrastination. It is a never ending, vicious circle.

So whilst reading the Thesis Whisperer, I saw a link to yet another article, written by Virginia Valian, called “Learning to work”, in which the extreme consequences of paralyzing procrastination are explained and analysed. Valian compares the lack of enjoyment that comes from working on a thesis with the pressure to perform and achieve objectives that people with dysfunctional sexual lives experiment. Obsessed with what the outcome (written thesis / orgasm) people end of putting too much pressure on the pathway and hence end up hating having to work on the actual road-to-success because, well, the work becomes gruesome if it does not lead to instant satisfaction, literally.

Valian suggests that what worked for her is to achieve some sort of commitment with herself and reserve time to do some high intensity work/writing/reading for a limited period of time. She spoke about it with her partner, and he suggested three hours. Valian was struck by such suggestion. Two hours? Too much. One hour? Too much. She ended up deciding that the best she could do was 15 minutes. She could not see herself working at high intensity for more than that without going bat shit crazy.

Having read about this did not make me feel one tinsy bit better. I suppose that you are meant to feel good when you read about other people going through the same situation, but that does not really solve my current difficult questions. Proactively, I asked myself some additional questions and found myself at a bit of a crossroads.

Then it hit me. I have just gone by the half way point of my PhD time. On January 31st, when I have sort of “in house” assigned myself to attempt to finish writing Chapter 3, I will have 2 years left to go, and 2 years and 4 months will have gone by. Aaaah, panic. Panic, panic, panic. Or not?

Interestingly, my answer to this was “well, I better get started then”. I assume the fact that I am scared, but being scared is not going to go anywhere, and there is nothing I can do with my fear other than fight it, so here we go. Taking Valian’s words, I decided 20 minutes is a time frame that works for me. I used to wake up at 630 every morning in the summer because it’s so damn bright in Glasgow that all you feel like is getting up and doing stuff. Sadly, this means that the downside of it is that the winter is like living in Mordor permanently. And no one wishes to get up before 9am because it is FREAKISHLY DARK OUTSIDE. So I told myself I could attempt to get up at 715, put in the 20 minutes of free writing or high intensity research, then go wake up my better half and the hamsters and have breakfast. In my mind, this worked as a feasible plan. Whether it will work or not, I can’t tell right now, but I am willing to pilot it otherwise I will be living next door to my fear for the weeks to come.

So then I drew this:

Now I did not believe for a second that this will work straight from the box, but we can all dream, huh? Also, it is so much easier to delude oneself about something working before the whole thing even starts. It’s the whole “yeah, I will start on Monday, I will be fresh” sort of attitude (and we all know what happens on Mondays…

Unprecedentedly, this morning I woke up naturally at 705. I spent ten minutes trying to shake off the sleepiness and then then went for it. Set up my timer for 20 minutes. And head down. I managed to whizz through 600 words of stuff that I know needed to be written. The alarm went off and I had a few sentences to wrap up, so I did. That, I have to say, has been my only productive burst of the day, but it is good enough. For a second it reminded me of the mornings I used to spend in my office before going to work at 11, when writing a sentence after the other was the only way I could ensure they were not gonna get lost in my head. Those days are long gone, but this system sort of gives me a glimpse of hope. Mind you, it’s not going to work all the time. It probably won’t be overly successful. But it’s a way to tackle my writing paralysis, and to stop worrying about not being able to write by writing.

Is this punching the fear with fear? I bloody hope so. I don’t think I can afford looking at the abyss for much longer without getting vertigo.

Keep being resilient. And be a mongrel.

I don’t want to be a full time PhD

This might come as a shocking revelation given how much I rant about the benefits I see on being full time, perhaps with the a the-grass-is-always-greener sort of attitude. This is not really a shock to myself at the moment, but it has happened now, and I have made up my mind about it now, so it is now when I choose to explain it.

This “revelation” has been building up for the past year, but has reached a point of maturity in the last four weeks, I reckon. The story started when someone asked whether I was going to send another application to the AHRC scholarships. My first reaction was perhaps too instinctive, but it said a lot. “I don’t think so, I don’t see the point”. At that time I thought I was being somewhat cheeky, and bitter about having failed to secure full time funding for the past three years. This would be, if I tried, my fourth application. It takes plenty of time (the best of two or three weeks) and brain matter to get one of these applications completed. Not only you have to think how to best sell your research, you also have to do so in limited space and time. Over the past three years, I have come to the conclusion that sending that sort of application is a good yearly right of passage: it makes you review your research and puts you under the pressure of showcasing the best out of it in 1,000 words.

I think I have developed a good method and my ideas towards my research are getting clearer and clearer as the years go by (as you’d expect), but so far all my applications have still failed at College level because others had better and more engaging projects. Which I am sure they did, of course, I am not mad at that. I work with a really small niche within a non-relevant field in the English-speaking world, so I am cool with that, with the little apparent impact that can be seen from the panel’s perspective.

Whilst answering this question, I also said that I would rather apply to this one-off small grant that the Institute of Catalan Studies gives for projects that deal with my author, and that would be more relevant in the longer run. This grant is way more prestigious within my field even though it does not fund full time PhD dedication. And having said that, I prepared a proposal for this particular grant, and sent all the info earlier this week. And decided to stick with my decision of not applying for the AHRC.

It is of course easier said than done; for a while I thought I was just kidding myself. I thought I would renegade from applying and be bitter about it but then apply last minute just in case this year there is a dip in the quality of the other researchers and my project gets funded. But then I thought that if I do get funded, I would have to become a full time PhD and lose my status as a Mongrel. And I don’t want that, I don’t want that at all.

When I was a barista, it made sense to have the dream of being a full timer, because it would provide a better quality life and more academic opportunities. Being an academic was the only dream behind putting all those coffee-making hours. It seemed like the only possible route out of it. However, in the last six months I have realised that being an academic is not the only way out, and that there is way more to life than PhDing. Being part of the senior management/admin support group at some point in my career also seems like a possible route. And I love the fact that I am doing something significant for my school, in a completely different capacity, and valued as such. PhDing is only a part of my life and not the sole focus of my existence, and I feel that that provides me with a much better and broader experience of the whole thing that full timing would not allow me to.

So no, I am not going to go for it, and I am going to be zen about it. I would much rather take my PhD slowly and stay a Mongrel. I have always loved wearing many hats and I don’t think I would be able to get rid of this one. Nope.

Stay a Mongrel.