Friday, May 3, 2013

On Finishing Things

When I was studying history in college, we didn’t take tests. We wrote essays. These could be anywhere from 10 to 30 pages long, and they’d be stuffed full of information and analysis that we pulled from old books, old libraries, and old professors. Each of us would start the writing process two or three months before the due date and bit by bit begin filling in an outline put together to guide that process. If my classmates were anything like me, no sooner had they written one paragraph then they immediately began to rewrite it; adding information, changing their argument, emphasizing and cajoling.

Usually we could expect to write at least three of these every semester, and they were all due within a few days of each other at the end of term. Inevitably, there were conflicts with other assignments and other commitments. These conflicts were irrelevant; the essays had to get done. No matter what. With so much class and study time being spent essay-ing (not a real word!), our final grade revolved around our writing. It wasn’t enough to juggle the workload, or to finish assignments, we had to finish them well

Five months ago, I started writing an application for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Research Fellowship program. The day after, I started an application on behalf of a local museum to receive some grant funding. Two days ago, on May first (May Day, for our pagan and/or socialist readers!) both applications were submitted successfully. I feel like I just got out of school for summer vacation.

Not that I didn’t enjoy the research, the writing, the process of taking raw data and crafting it like clay. If I didn’t enjoy all of that, I wouldn’t be doing what I do. But the thing I like even more than the doing is the finishing. Not because I no longer have tasks to accomplish or deadlines to meet, but because I had a goal and I achieved it.

If nothing else comes of these last five months of work, that will be all right. If the museum doesn’t receive its funding, I will be disappointed, although probably not as much as the actual staff. If the NEH doesn’t select my research proposal, I’ll wish that they had. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t accomplish anything.

Five months ago, I wanted to learn grant-writing, and I wanted to apply for a fellowship. Note that I didn’t say that I wanted to get a job as a grant-writer (although I would take one!) or that I wanted to receive a fellowship (although I would absolutely take it!). Five months ago I wanted to do something new, and I wanted to see how well I could do it. Because of that I spent an entire winter in two volunteer positions; 40 plus hours a week of late nights, conflicting deadlines, and writer’s block. And because I did once, I can do it again; better than before. Without even considering the professional implications, I’d say that’s a winter well spent. And now that one thing is finished, it’s on to the next thing.

That being said, the Chinese have a proverb that’s somewhat relevant: “Butcher the donkey after it’s finished its work at the mill.” So there’s that perspective to consider, too.

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If you don't hear from me again, either I'm in hiding from student loan collection agents or... well, just stay away from the Plymouth meat markets for a while. Post your condolences in the space below.

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