How to stop your brain from short-circuiting when you are writing all the time

Image credit: Nilufer Gadgieva
Image credit: Nilufer Gadgieva

I studied history and international relations in college; my schedule was regularly stuffed with classes like Constructing Hinduism and Islam and Diasporas and Transnationalism. I collected and worked through huge stacks of books, each of which usually came hand in hand with a writing assignment.

When you’re working on three papers at a time all the time, even if you’re as fond of writing as I am, you start to lose your brain a bit.

You see, writing never ends. You’re never done. You could always, always be doing more: rewording that last sentence, finding a better quote in the second paragraph, or restructuring your introduction. Since there’s never a point at which your work is indisputably finished, you have to decide for yourself when to walk away.

And that can be terrifying.

But there are ways to keep yourself sane:

  1. Inject some left-brain activities into your day. When compiling my schedule in college, I would always make sure to have a more quantitative class (science, economics, or foreign language) to balance out all the writing. That way, I could switch from essays over to vocab flashcards when I felt myself start to fall down the rabbit hole; I was still using my time productively, but giving my creative side a bit of a break.
  2. If at all possible, give yourself 24 hours between the writing and editing stages. It’s hard to stop writing, particularly if you can’t shake the feeling that this piece of writing is just not your best. So rather than keep hacking at it, put it away. Get some sleep. Take a look with a fresh pair of eyes the next day and you’ll be surprised how often what looked like a hot mess the day before has mellowed into something that just needs some tweaking.
  3. Separate your content edit from your grammar edit. Don’t try to focus on whether your argument reads clear at the same time as you read for stray commas. You won’t do a good job of either. Instead, read first for big structural things – tracking your thesis statement, making sure your ideas flow logically, etc. – and then, once you’re confident in the information you’re presenting, do a final read that’s only focused on grammar.
  4. Set limits. I’m the kind of person where if I tell myself I have five hours to work on an essay, it will take me the full five hours every time. Even if I only really need three. Sound familiar? Try telling yourself you only have three hours. Chances are if you stick to your guns, you’ll get it done in three.

It’s not easy to create-create-create, but with the right approach, it doesn’t have to eat you alive.

Are We Choosing Our Careers Wrong?

When I was in third grade, everyone I knew wanted to be veterinarian. It was the dream. Puppies and kittens all day long: what’s not to love?

And then we all grew up and realized that vets don’t just sit in a room full of snuggly animals and giggle the days away. You may love animals, but if you’re going to keep your sanity as a vet you need to also love (or at least tolerate) sticking your hands inside them.

Turns out, many awesome-in-theory jobs come with day to day practices that are less glamorous: government workers get buried under paperwork and photojournalists frequently slog through dank and dangerous conditions in search of the perfect shot. Yet for some reason, we often ignore these day to day realities when we start career planning. We zero in on the puppies and kittens and are disheartened when we realize we spend most of our time injecting them with needles.

Why do we do this? Why do we choose careers in anticipation of big events and ignore the day to day realities of those jobs, which actually determine how happy we are?

Today, I dig into this topic on Cognoscenti, NPR Boston’s opinion website. Check out Rethinking The Way We Choose Our Careers for more.

On Graduating and Becoming “Real”

Credit: Nottingham Trent University
Credit: Nottingham Trent University

Four years ago today, I graduated college somehow became a “real person”. In my nicest sundress with hair I spent hours trying to make look effortless, I smiled for pictures and ate large helpings of pasta salad and chatted with friends and relatives (and relatives of friends) hours longer than I would have lasted had this not been such a special day.

Then I went back to my house, threw a few garbage bags full of clothes into the trunk, hastily duct-taped my front bumper back together, and returned my key hoping that Residential Life wouldn’t notice the huge chunk my cork-board adhesive had gnawed out of the wall. On the two hour drive back to my parent’s house, I pulled over twice for “coffee,” which was really just an excuse to sit and cry in my car listening to MGMT’s Kids on repeat.

I wasn’t ready to be real.

For me, graduating was just as terrifying as it is was exhilarating. I loved my small, tight-knit campus where a twenty minute walk arduous and you’d met just about everyone you needed to know by sophomore spring. Living there felt like playing house. The world beyond that community seemed vast and foreign and despite my proven ability to write an annotated bibliography and analyze a primary source, I felt woefully unprepared to leave.

Turning 16 is considered momentous, but nothing really changes except for your newfound freedom to drive after midnight. (Oh, wait. That’s 16 and a half in Massachusetts. My bad.) You’re an adult as soon as you turn 18, but many of us continue to live under our parents roofs and grumble as we’re told, “You’re an adult now, so you have to go pick your sister up from soccer practice.” You can drink legally at 21, but chances are those beers you have on your birthday aren’t your first.

But somehow in the span of a single graduation ceremony, everything changes. You graduate college and you are suddenly this contributing member of society, thrust into a world you’ve only ever seen through plexiglass like a zebra let loose in San Diego.

When I was a student, my shortcomings were excusable. The world forgave my messiness and aversion to talking on the phone, politely ignored my financial ignorance and my utter inability to wake up before 8 a.m. As a graduate, a working adult, these traits were no longer quirks but liabilities. So not only was I suddenly a brand new category of person, but I was tripping myself right out of the starting blocks.

I recognize now that my rocky transition into adulthood was a privilege: I didn’t feel prepared because I never had to be. My small liberal arts school prepared me for a sheltered, scholarly life that I would never actually live. There are many, many students who step away from college with far greater poise, who considered themselves “real people” well before they donned the caps and gowns.

But for those who still feel like children dressed up in their parents’ clothes, like I did, take heart: you have been a real person all along. It’s okay to feel unprepared. Turning your tassel from right to left won’t miraculously change you. It’s okay to be a work in progress; it doesn’t make you any less “real”.