Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Can't Everyone Just Shut Up and Let Me Work?": How to Communicate During Those Monster Project Periods

(I was MIA last week. I'm never MIA, but I was MIA. I'm going to be less gone here pretty soon... adding some new and more frequent blog features. That's right, even more communication advice, so stay tuned! In the meantime, my back was against the wall last week in a way that I haven't experienced in a while. I know my college readers can relate and I'm sure my non-college audience can, too. That's why I felt this topic was most appropriate. I'll be sharing exciting updates very soon about blog changes and book news! Now, let's talk. I've missed you in the past week!)

200+ pages.

When I was in grad school, in one particular term, the number of required papers added up to this number.

Now I remember that semester well. I rarely saw the light of day, my friends, my husband... clean clothes.

Big joke among my colleagues was that you pulled out the least stinky shirt/pants from the laundry heap and wore it without thinking twice. We tried be presentable without being offensive. Our focus? Doing well on our papers (so many of them!), hopefully getting to present at a conference or two, maybe scoring an early co-authorship on a publication, and maintaining high grades to keep our assistantships.

That's right... many of my classmates and I wore two (smelly!) hats: graduate teaching assistants/research assistants and college students writing an insane number of papers!

I remember I didn't necessarily have to ask for time to get my work done because my husband and I agreed together that I would go back to graduate school. We didn't have kids at the time, and we both accepted that sacrificing time from each other would pay off later.

And I wasn't smelling so great, so do you think my husband was really missing me? Just sayin'.

Fast forward 14 years and 10 days...

I was told by my editor of my soon-to-be-published book, "You need to cut about 100 pages from your manuscript." 

(A station break: For anyone reading this space for a while, you go right ahead and just revel... revel in your rightness... I knowwwww that brevity is not my strong suit. I own it. I'm working through it. Counseling is on Thursday.

I'm thinking lots of time away from family and friends to
get this move down... what say you?

Just kidding about that last part. Not that there's anything wrong with counseling. I love counseling!).

These days, taking that "cocoon time" to get work done isn't so easy anymore. I have two little people who demand my attention. I have a dual role on phase 2 of this grant project while I've stepped away from teaching through this academic year.

I'm The Chicklets roller derby carpool organizer. 

I have to exercise 6 days a week or risk gaining 5 more lbs.

My little guy needs a 4th birthday party planned.

We have no bread in the house to make yet another (*&%$#*!) peanut butter and jelly sandwich! (Ooh, did I say that out loud? Who doesn't love making PBJ... again?)

My husband has his own high-octane career and is traveling. Again.  Sigh.

However, I also have a dream. I have had a dream to write a book since I was a teenager.  This dream has slipped out of my hands twice already (I'll explain more in another blog post).

Now the reality of the dream is about 90 days away.

(Which hardly seems possible!!!!!!!!!!).

I had to find a way to close off my real life... and slip into a hole to do that head-down, hands-on, focused editing.

Students, you know what I'm talking about. You have to edit papers, do projects, study for exams.

You need your full concentration.

But your life, and the people in your life, need you.

School needs you, too. And just like I committed to write a book. You committed to college... and all the work and hours it entails. 

So what's the communication lesson here?

Sometimes you need others to leave you alone during those monster project periods! Or maybe you have other needs! But how do you do that? Here are some tips, which I just took myself...

-Tell those close to you exactly what you're doing: "I have to cut 100 pages from my manuscript!"

Saying "Damn, I have this huge project to do!" is too vague. I had no problem telling my close friends, casual acquaintances, Twitter pals, my running buddy, even the store clerk (okay, not quite) the magnitude of my challenge. Every time they said, "Hey, how's that editing going?" I felt a renewed determination, particularly at the moments that I really felt like giving up. I'm not a giver-upper in any sense of the word (hello, pudgy, penguin-y 1/2 marathoner here!), but I struggled... for sure! Those who knew kept me going.

-Ask clearly and directly for the "non-negotiables" to support your goal: "I'll need to be in my room where it's quiet so I can concentrate. I'm going to need about 20 hours to work on this, so you won't be seeing very much of me."

Be very specific about your needs! Saying, "Why can't you just give me some time to work?" or "I need quiet!" is too vague of a statement.

-Don't forget to ask for help at the second you realize you need it, and definitely give updates along the way: "I think I'm on track to meet this deadline. Here's what I've gotten done so far. I'm a little bit stuck on this other part, though, and I need help." 

My editor and I had largely been communicating via e-mail, but after a few back-and-forth's, I totally picked up the phone and asked for her help in the places I became stuck. If can put my tail between my legs and do it (does that quote ever get old?), so can you!

-When your project is done, use some repair words if you've neglected someone a bit too much, "I'm sorry I got a little short with you. I felt really stressed and worried about how I was going to get this done and I didn't mean to take it out on you." 

After literally not seeing me most of last week, my 8-year-old expressed considerable discontent. She missed me, and when she tried to curl up next to me quietly to do her homework or read, she was... well... distracting. Too distracting for the intense editing I needed to do.

Once I turned my "skinnier" manuscript in at 9:47 last Friday evening (on my 16-year wedding anniversary--talk about an on-board spouse!), on Saturday morning, I cuddled my little girl and tried to liken her third-grade teacher to my editor, and her Writer's Workshop stories to my book. I asked her what would happen if she had to cut 100 pages from her stories, and she said, incredulously, "That would take me three years!" After I explained myself, we did some reading, more cuddling, and I believe all was forgiven.

Have I had other big, "testing" deadlines or projects in the past 14 years that have forced me to shut myself away? Of course, I have. 

But, like my graduate work, this book feels intensely sacred, and so incredibly personal.

It represents many twists and turns in my life... failures and successes... and finally, after conceiving of the idea eight years ago, a full-circle moment.

And, just the idea of being the recipient of so much--gulp--criticism... brings me right back to those student years.

So, wonderful student, just like my editing marathon, and the next one that I'm sure will follow (and the one after that) won't last forever, neither will your current papers, exams that require hours of studying, or projects.

Talk about all the support you need:  Time, a well-lit, quiet room, a "check-in buddy" to ask how many more sources you found for your research paper...  a hamburger.

You just might get it.

And, hey, ask for a little help with the laundry, should you find that it's piling up.

Students, how do you get the time, space, and quiet that you need to get your studying or writing done? Colleagues, what recommendations do you have for students who don't have lives that seem to support the hours or environment needed for college work demands? 


  1. My first experience with your blog, thoroughly enjoyed myself and will be back - congrats on the book!!!

    1. Hi, Deborah,
      I think this is a duplicate comment, but I'll say hello twice!


  2. This is my first experience with your Blog and I thoroughly enjoyed myself!! Congrats on the book contract! It is my intention to follow in your footsteps within the next 5 years....

    1. Deborah, thank you for your note! Congratulations to you on your plans to write a book! I promise to be there for you when you have to edit like a maniac, too. We need to support each other... start a group, indeed :-). Ellen

  3. Just found your blog, and what a timely article! I, too, teach communication at a community college, and I'm juggling many other projects and family responsibilities. Thanks for this! I'm looking forward to following more.

    1. So nice to meet you, Donn! Thank you very much for reading and commenting! I look forward to connecting with you, as well. Where do you teach? Ellen

  4. Our busy lives force us to put up boundaries and limits to others. As a parent, that gets very hard. As a spouse, it is also hard if the other spouse doesn't fully understand. As one who can easily gain weight, your body doesn't understand ANY break...a recent problem for me that kills me.

    As for the book Ellen, it will get done. One page, one day at a time. That philosophy has worked for ages and it will work for you, too...Now Shut UP and get back to work!

  5. Bruce, your words always inspire me. I can't wait to connect with you and, in fact, am going to DM you today to schedule our previously discussed call. I did get the editing done. Round 1, anyway. But round 2 is coming soon, or so I hear from the editor. Thank you for grounding me... yet again. Well, not in the literal sense :-). Ellen