The Importance of Being Idle Or: The Secret to My Success (Not Starring Michael J. Fox)

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I was asked the other day if I would speak on behalf of the faculty authors represented here in order to provide some advice on how to write a book.  Needless to say, I’m both honored and humbled by the opportunity and challenge of trying to offer my colleagues some wisdom.  To begin, I have found that much of that generalized advice we receive on the road to finishing our dissertations applies to writing a book:  perfect is the enemy of good…make the time…write.  You remember all of those short epigraphs that seemed to fall out of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s fortune cookies.  Maybe you framed one of them over your typewriter or computer or used one as a bookmark for your copy of Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day.

Yet, I never found those epigraphs overly helpful, probably because – for me at least – it’s different reading the same mantra to yourself on repeat as if it will keep you from an ABD existential crisis.  No, that’s different than actually hearing it from someone else. So indulge me while I tell you the story about how I wrote my dissertation.

One of my advisors told me in 2012 that she believed I was the youngest person to ever receive a Ph.D. from the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA.  I finished my Ph.D. in just four years at the age of 28.  While I have never attempted to verify this impression, it has taken on a certain mythic proportion amongst my colleagues and classmates – akin to the Legend of King Arthur.

I’m the guy who wrote his dissertation in one year.

How, eager graduate students ask me, did I accomplish that?  What elixir can I offer them?

Let me start off by saying it’s not a particularly sexy cocktail.  Tom Cruise didn’t whip it up by juggling bottles around and you wouldn’t want to spend $15 on it at some poolside cantina.  No, it was the potent and unique combination of a lack of money, simple math, enthusiasm, boredom, and – as my close friends will tell you – a generous helping of obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety.

When I entered college, I was a first generation in college student who grew up in a lower-middle class household.  My mom cleaned houses before she went back to school to become a nurse.  My dad was a second generation employee of the Milwaukee County Transit Company.  When I applied for a scholarship through his work, my letter said “My grandfather is a bus driver.  My aunt is a bus driver.  My dad started as a bus driver.  I do not wish to be a bus driver.”  Evidently, this flippant letter swayed the scholarship committee because I was given a free ride to UW-Milwaukee as an undergraduate.

Sadly, my graduate education was not as generously subsidized.  Moving across the country and one year of out of state tuition at UCLA wasn’t cheap and I told myself and my wife that I would not take student loans totaling more than the annual salary of someone sitting comfortably in the middle of the middle class.  When I started my Ph.D., I was told I had 2 years of funding to focus on my dissertation.  Since I didn’t want to take chances with the writing and revision process, I gave myself one year to write it – just in case…to prepare for the worst.

Note:  One side of my family is Scottish, so there’s a heavy dose of Chicken Little pessimism amongst the Morton clan.

So I did the math.

It ended up being .78% of a page a day.

So I had a gun loaded with student loan debt pointed at the back of my head while I wrote one page a day.  Now we’re cooking with gas!  Perhaps more importantly, I found my topic – the adaptation of style in comic book films – pretty exciting.  It helped that I got to sit around, read comics, watch movies, and interview folks like Natalie Portman, Scott McCloud, and most of the Avengers.  It also helped that it was fairly contemporary topic – I didn’t have to spend hours in an archive looking at old studio reports or translating impenetrable French theorists (I’m looking at you, Doug).  As I always tell those who ask, the two most important questions you can ask yourself when you brainstorm a research topic are:  Do I like this enough to spend a lot of time with it and do I have access to the resources to do it?

Sometimes I add a third question at the end:  Are you willing to come to terms with the thought that something you love may end up evolving into something you outright loathe?  Basically, it’s the second part of the marriage vows.  In sickness and in health?  My romantic honeymoon with comic book movies didn’t last long.  The first couple weeks of writing .78% of a page went well enough, but then I ran into a rather paradoxical roadblock:  the chapter I knew the most about.  I had spent about two years thinking about the chapter on the adaptation of space and time in Zack Snyder movies, so I assumed it would be the easiest chapter to write.

Nope.  It bored the hell out of me.

I wasn’t learning anything about my topic and my own brand of forward momentum comes from intellectual light bulb moments.  In short, I needed the equivalent of Doc Brown’s epiphany in Back to the Future when he’s hanging his clock, slips on his toilet, conks his head, and magically comes up with the flux capacitor.

I initially tried to “write” through it.  I’d stare at the page, change font styles, and revise what I’d already written for hours.  Nothing was happening and it was torture.  I could almost feel the barrel of that imaginary FAFSA handgun against my scalp.

That’s my last gun metaphor – I promise – I’ve clearly been in Texas too long.

When I realized I had cost myself 5.5 pages of progress across a week, I made a fairly radical decision: I decided play some Call of Duty and take a walk.  During my walk, my mind came back to the chapter and I started re-thinking some of my initial ideas.  Eventually, I had a breakthrough and found myself running back to the house to write it down.  To quote one of my favorite authors, the late David Foster Wallace, “What writers have is a license and also the freedom to sit – to sit, clench their fists, and make themselves be excruciatingly aware of the stuff that we’re mostly aware of only on a certain level.”  Essentially, I found out that one of the greatest intellectual gifts I could give myself was to lean into boredom – to allow my mind to be unoccupied – and walking in a circle around a West Los Angeles park will do that for you really quickly.  Side note:  Walking is also the magical diet tip y’all keep asking me for – so you can kill two birds with one stone.

In short, boredom, enthusiasm, and anxiety are how I finished my dissertation in one year.

Now, how would I augment my advice for my colleagues – those working on a book and not living with the fear of sustaining apocalyptic levels of student loan debt?  Well, I still think those questions about curiosity and resources are pertinent and that breaking a project down into smaller units and holding yourself to a fairly rigid schedule is beneficial.  Even now, I often hack away at my articles by writing one page a day.  If you want to talk after about more specific issues, I’d be happy to tell you all about the logistics of writing a book proposal (which deserves its own circle in hell), dealing with peer reviewers, and indexing…the most mentally numbing part of the publication process.

And yet indexing brings me back to boredom, which I would contend is a actually tremendous gift.  I know that your access to time is probably different than my own.  For instance, most of you know that my wife and I are in a long distance marriage and we do not have children, so I realize that I have a certain level of privilege when I’m encouraging you to take a chunk of your busy day to get bored.  That being said, the benefit of boredom is that it is an intellectual palette cleanser.  As Heather Lench – a psychologist at Texas A&M University told Wired Magazine – “Boredom becomes a seeking state.”  In other words, it pushes you to brainstorm.  It pushes you to daydream.  It pushes you to create something to fill the vacuum.

In close, if I’m boring you right now (I probably should be)?

You’re welcome.

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