I’m Back, and Everything is Terrible

I’m getting new business cards this week with my website on them, so I guess I need to actually update it. There will be future posts dealing with my dissertation, the writing process, my baby steps towards being a playwright, politics, arts and academia. But for now, some updates:

  • I have 2 chapters finished in my dissertation. I have two more to go, and I am running out of time. I am dedicated to writing 500 words a day on this, minimum. I should have a complete draft by the end of February.
  • I was commissioned to write a review if the Berkeley Rep’s production of It Can’t Happen Here. If it is accepted, this will be my first publication.
  • I submitted a play to a new play festival. This is a first for me
  • I had the opportunity to teach Introduction to Dramatic Writing this fall. It was amazing.
  • For the past 14 months, I have been working as the Box Office Manager for my college. I resigned last week because the work was getting in the way of finishing my dissertation.
  • Who’s a new Trader Joe’s crew member? Me!

That’s the gist of what I have been up to since my “Porridge..” post. Still writing, still struggling. There has been one major development in my research: the 2016 Presidential Election.

I will be devoting many future posts to how the election of Donald Trump changed my focus – it will take some space and time to untangle my emotions, to create some scholarly distance. For now, all I can say is this:

I feel incredibly guilty. Guilty because up until Trump announced his candidacy, my dissertation topic was just an interesting historical anecdote. I thought it was going to make a good dissertation, but I seriously doubted I had a book in me. My “so what?” was thin. Now it’s gargantuan. Now my research is relevant. It matters. Unless I complete stop working, I will benefit professionally from the 2016 Election. If It Can’t Happen Here had stayed an interesting, but isolated, historical moment then I believe our democracy would be stronger.

It’s a heavy responsibility.

 

 

This Porridge is Too Hot

Ever see a cat when it gets read to sleep? The way they turn little circles on the selected spot, knead the ground/pet bed, lay down only to get back up again? I’m like that when I try to write. Everything has to be perfect. I can’t write at home because it is never clean enough and it’s so dark inside. Solution? Coffee shop, of course. Perfect – unless the table is wobbly, there are too many people, the roasting room is running, the sun is shining in my eyes or on screen, or I forgot my headphones. Dear lord, the headphones – NEVER forget the headphones.

I used to pride myself about being low maintenance. I realize this morning that I have been living a lie. I had my husband take me to new coffee shop this morning just because the other it getting too crowded and I can never get my favorite table. This means I spend a great deal of time looking over, longingly, at the stolen utopia until it opens up and sprint to claim it. And the tables are to tall. And my students stop by. And I am afraid I’ll be asked how the dissertation is going. And. And. And. So here I am, in a new spot. It’s okay – a little warm. But I can set up and –

Wait.

Oh no.

Dear god no.

No headphones.

How can I concentrate without my ambient music? How can I possibly block out the business meeting at the next table? Or the the fucking up talker ordering the world’s most complicated coffee? Should I just pack up and watch Book 3 of Avatar: The Last Air Bender instead?

The truth is, this cat-like fussiness is an excuse. Yes, I work optimally in a clean, bright, caffeinated environment with my custom writing playlists. But “working optimally” is usually 50% work, 50% trying to find the right spot.

Just fucking write, Macy.

Post Script: If anyone is near Garden District Coffee and has a spare set of headphones, I’ll include you in the Acknowledgements on the diss.

L’Apéritif

Writing a dissertation is a lot like eating an elephant – you have to do it one bite at time. I know I’ve probably said that here before, but it helps to keep reminding myself of its truth. The dis is huge and terrifying at times. When people ask me how my writing is going, my first inclination is always to mumble and run away. Because it’s not going well. It never is, because “going well” means it’s done.

When I’m staring at my elephant and feeling overwhelmed I turn to “dis hack” blogs for advice and commiseration. I read one somewhere that advised doctoral candidates to resist the urge to write linearly. Instead, accept that the writing process is going to be messy. Work on the sections you can, when you can, regardless of where they fit into your overall research. I tried this. I really did, but It doesn’t work for me. Waking up waiting for inspiration to strike usually means that I will be inspired to binge watch Avatar: The Last Airbender for the fifth time.

No. I’ve found that my process needs a map. I know a lot of young scholars in my situation will put off their introductions until they finished everything else. This is mainly because the writing process will lead to new discoveries, new directions – and you’ll just have to rewrite the introduction. I don’t care. I’ve tried to write my first chapter a few times, and I feel so adrift, directionless, without an anchoring idea. To mix a metaphor, it feels like I am writing in quicksand. This month, I have made it my goal to write my introduction. Today, I just finished the first section, and I am about to move on to the second (the lit review). This means that I will not have anything to show my advisor for some time, but at this rate I was going I was never going to even get properly started.

The introduction is a great first bite from that elephant. It’s has 4 sections, each of which will be 4-6 pages in length . Broken down, my introduction will have a brief overview of the Federal Theatre Project, a Lit Review, Methodology, and Chapter Breakdown. More than just providing me a roadmap, this method will also help to remind that I have “enough”: enough research, enough time, enough to say. The introduction gives me confidence.

My bite plan is to write the hell out each of these sections, edit, add citations and footnotes, then get to chewing the rest of the beast.

Let’s eat.

Like Trying to Nail Jello Dictators to the Wall

One of the most difficult aspects of the writing my dissertation is the political science sandbox that I need to play in a little bit. A great deal of my argument depends on how I define “fascism.” Not too hard, right? I mean, fascism as political ideology and practice has been studied and written about for decades. Surely there is a consensus on the definition, thinks past Macy.

Haha, nope. Lets all point and laugh at Past Macy. She’s so naive and hopeful.  Silly girl.

Let me tell you all something: If your understanding of fascism comes from one lecture in a freshman level history class, or some stupid Facebook post your relatives pass around, or from ANYTHING that took you less than a day to read you are wrong. At the very least, you are missing major aspects of the ideology that are essential to understanding why it took hold.

I am in the middle of reading Kevin Passmore’s Fascism: A Very Short Introduction as a way to get a better grasp of the development and definition of fascism as it existed in Europe in the 20th Century. The book is excellent, and I encourage anyone to pick it up if you want a starting place. It’s been very helpful, as is Passmore’s definition. Maddening, but helpful. Passmore defines fascism as “a set of ideologies and practices that seeks to place the nation, defined in exclusive biological, cultural, and/or historical terms, above all other sources of loyalty and to create a mobilized national community.” That’s just the first sentence – the whole definition goes on for 26 more lines. The problem with defining fascism succinctly is that it is at times both revolutionary and reactionary, order and violence, exclusionary and inclusive. Scholars and dictators (and your relatives on Facebook) alike pick and choose which aspects of fascism they need to argue/lead/prove a point about a contemporary world leader at a given time. There is a lot of disagreement and misunderstanding out there.

As a theatre historian, I don’t have the knowledge base of this political, economic, and ideological system to write about it exclusively. Perhaps if I knew exactly what I would be researching for my dissertation back when I was twenty, I would have double majored in PoliSci but it took me a decade just to narrow the FTP to this topic. I don’t have the luxury of spending another decade studying fascism.

Luckily, I don’t really need to. Before purists clutch their pearls, I not writing about actual fascism in my dissertation. I am more concerned with the fear of fascism, it’s specter and American reaction to it. What was it about fascism that terrified some Americans enough to stage this mass protest against it? And why was that staging, that anti-fascist stand, so dangerous? We take for granted that fascism was always the big bad of the geopolitical scene. It’s the ultimate insult, the worst accusation you can throw at politician if you want to undermine his/her agenda. It is the reason Godwin’s Law exists. This wasn’t always the case. In my dissertation, I am looking at the performed fear of fascism on the national stage as it stands against perceived anti-Americanism.

Identity. That’s at the center of this issue for me. How we identify fascists today is very different from the why they self-identified in the 1930s. Just like the way we identify Americans, and enemies, and allies.

The definition is slippery, and hard to nail down. What is more fear-inspiring than an enemy that you can’t fully define?

Crying in the Archive is a Thing – The Hallie Flanagan Papers

Last year, I was able to do my first archive visit. I traveled to New York the first week of September to delve into the Hallie Flanagan Papers held at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Archive research is an amazing thing, and I wanted to share my experience.

My first day to use the archive I was practically vibrating with eagerness. I showed up to the NYPL in Lincoln Center at 9am ready to research. Guess what? That branch doesn’t open until noon. After getting over my initial disappointment, I realized that I had a huge problem. I was going to lose nine hours of research time.

One of the difficulties of getting a PhD in southeast Louisiana is that if you need to do ANY kind of archive work, it’s going to cost you. For me, my archives were in New York Washington, DC. This means no taking a day to dig deep into a single box, take my time, ponder a letter’s significance to my research. No – I had three days in NY, five in DC, to get as much material as I could because this was my one shot. So, 27 hours with the Hallie Flanagan papers was just cut to 18 hours and I was panicking. Take into account that part of my first day was devoted to registering, figuring out how to request materials, and what the rules were for the material, and I didn’t open my first box until 2:45 PM on the first day.

The Hallie Flanagan papers were wonderful and frustrating. I was hoping that I would be able to search for the specific play I am writing about, but that was not going to happen.There were a possible 32 boxes I had to go through of Flanagan’s person papers, hoping for anything to do with It Can’t Happen Here. Added to the fact that I could only have one box at a time, and only have one folder open at a time, I could only do one thing: make the archive portable. I took pictures of EVERYTHING even remotely related to my dissertation. Without the ability to see it all at once to compare and draw connections while at the archive, and without the means to come back, I brought what I could back home Louisiana. I have so many PDF’s of documents in my cloud that I could recreate most the archive in my home office.

Taking the archive with me, however, did allow me the freedom to be in awe of some of the things I found. Doodles by Gordon Craig, thank you notes on hotel stationary written by Ernst Toller, a garden party invitation signed by ELEANOR ROOSEVELT! I was most moved by a folder full of letters written by graduate students to Flanagan, asking blessings/guidance on their thesis projects concerning the Federal Theatre Project. I did it – I cried in the archive. Flanagan had saved the letters, and copies of her responses. She was so happy that people still found it important, that her work was not forgotten. I felt like I was reaching back through time to touch her, to learn from her. I was able to hide my face (because I can only ugly cry) until I composed myself.

If someone had told me, 15 years ago, that I would be crying in a library over letters written by students to some woman who used to work for Roosevelt I would not have believed it (even though I cry a lot). But it happened. The archive touched me. Now I just need to make it touch someone else.

Death and Resurrection of the Dissertation

I am a walking cliche today. Or, a typing one. I am at a coffee shop – blogging. Double cappuccino, 2%, asiago bagel with hummus, blogging about blogging about grad school. Is this being basic? Is that what the kids call it?

I’m here because my condo is killing my groove and killing the dis. Okay, I’m killing to dis- but the condo is my weapon of choice. The killer was the Never-gonna-be-Doctor Jones, in the spare bedroom, with the Netflix.

I had a conversation with one of the PhD faculty, Dr. W, and she told me that it was okay not to write everyday – I just had to engage everyday. Not engaging leads to dissertation death. Every day spent examining, planning, reading was a productive day. She told me not to beat myself up for not writing. Writing for writing sake is not productive. Good advice, huh? I wish I had taken it. After my archive visits, I basically punished myself for not IMMEDIATELY writing by shaming myself into ignoring everything. My dissertation is on life support. Not dead, but close.

I had high hopes of getting a chapter done over the winter break, but I had two sets of parents come in, and a semester’s worth of home neglect. Those are just excuses, though. The real problem was that I lacked focus and discipline. Seriously, how hard is it to get up and devote a few hours to something you are good at and find interesting? I’m note sure what my problem was, but I needed to fix it fast. I want to graduate in August, damnit. I want to finally get that sweet title and my wizard robe. That’s not going to happen unless I can find some of the old Macy – the driven one who can’t stop telling people about her research.

So, how do I revive this dissertation? Get out of the fucking house. Prime the pump. Write a little blog post, set an intended page goal, and then fucking WRITE THE DISSERTATION. It’s hard, but I get to write about the Great Depression, Hitler, Huey Long, Hallie Flanagan, and agitprop theatre. You know, the stuff that makes my heart sing.

This is a mea culpa post to myself, and my sickly dissertation. Tomorrow’s topic: my first archive trip ever!

Filling the Creativity Tank

On top of being isolating, writing the dissertation can zap one of creativity. It’s all archives and analysis and arguments. I am a nerd, and I love that stuff, but I’m also an artist and a writer. I need some real theatre in my archive. I need to fill up the creativity tank.

This past weekend I participated in a 24 Play Festival as a playwright. The theme was “Out of Context.” The five playwrights grabbed text messages from our phones that we thought would make good titles, then traded them. My title was “Real Life, Dolphin Unicorns.”

My first thought was “What the hell am I going to do with that?” The title suggested something fantastical,  but I didn’t really want to write something dealing with a new world – I’m too type A to not have the rules established of a fantasy world. The person who supplied the title told me he was telling someone about narwhals. For some reason, narwhals make me think of Lisa Frank art, which made me think of life in Mansfield. I got very nostalgic – thinking about how easy things were when I was kid – but it didn’t last long, because I prefer an adult life here than a kid one there.

Then – KABOOM.

My play would be be about a girl, 23, who left her job as a high school teacher early because she got called Ma’am. She builds a fort in her living room, names it narwhallia, and chooses to reject real life for a land of dolphin unicorns.

It was a silly little play, but I enjoyed writing it. I enjoyed seeing it produced. I enjoyed being creative.

Tank filled – back to the archive.

 

The England Riot

I have picked up Susan Quinn’s Furious Improvisation this week. I have skimmed it befor, mining it for information needed ASAP, but have not taken the time to read the entire monograph.

The prologue tells the story of The England Riot. Not England the country, but the tiny little farming community in Arkansas. I’ve been to England AR once. I was trying to drive back to Ruston, LA from visiting my boyfriend, and I go lost in Little Rock. I got out the city eventually, but I was east instead of south. Not wanting to face the interstate again, I mapped out a route that would take me through some of the Natural State’s flat lands.

The riot happened in January, 1930. January is cold and wet in Arkansas. The farmers were suffering from a drought during the growing season, and the Red Cross was not providing enough food. The farmers first gathered outside the Red Cross, but when the organization refused to release rations because they were out of forms, the farmers drove into town and stormed the relief officer’s home. The plantation owner wired for emergency rations from Little Rock, and vouchers were distributed.

My research into Federal Theatre occasionally reveals anecdotes from Arkansas. They are usually about poor farming communities, tarpaper shacks, and one room school houses. Very different from the Arkansas I grew up in, yet it is still familiar. I was talking with a dear friend from Houston the other day and I told E that growing up I used to climb my grandfather’s apple trees and eat the fruit straight from the branch. She declared me “real life Anne of Green Gables.” I guess I was. My grandparents had a farm, I worked on it during the summer. My parents worked in factories. The most educated people I met were my teachers in school. It was a quiet life, far removed from the starvation and panic five decades earlier.

As I dig deeper into Federal Theatre, I am looking forward to uncovering more tidbits from the place I hail.

 

 

Acedia Strikes

The process of writing my dissertation has been a cycle of breaking promises to myself. Even making these promises publicly doesn’t change the outcome. I am suffering from acedia.

Acedia is a concept that I first heard of last spring from my dissertation advisor, JF. It is a state of listlessness and sloth. It’s not depression, but this rejection of one’s divine calling. It is falling short of one’s purpose and potential by filling time with both non-activity and useless manic busy work.

To borrow a tumblr word: GPOY.

Acedia is my struggle. I battle it everyday, and I have been losing the battles.

Dissertat-ing is incredibly isolating. I hear that a lot, mainly from people who have a cohort. When I tell them I have no cohort, they all look at me like I just told them that I was a born a blind orphan. There is no one to lean on, to give encouragement to, to learn from.

Last week I promised to write about Shad Ledue. Perhaps that will happen later.

Book reading this week: Furious Improvisation