You know, if you’re just bookish, there’s a tendency to get terribly bitter about people who are physical. - Norman Mailer
My dissertation is still too big and too recent for me to formulate many thoughts on the entirety of it. Honestly, the last two years have been reduced to a montage of travel, writing, working, and stress. Still, I found myself at several stages becoming currently-nostalgic–there’s probably a perfectly good Turkish or Russian word for it–but recognizing that what I had going was a rare and good thing. During the hardest writing I was mostly in seclusion, leaving the house to work out in the mornings and then writing for 10-12 hours. That was it. A life of writing, pared to the bone. It was an extraordinary several months, bought and paid for by working in Qatar so I would not have to write while I was teaching or working. It was an unbelievable luxury to be able to concentrate on this work and it suddenly made sense to me why students with a lot of funding and no teaching got so much done!
My deeply regimented schedule was punctuated by regular attendance at Berkeley Crossfit. I’ve gotten fat and skinny over the years, usually depending on how much I was fed on excavations and whatnot. I’ve tried bootcamp, which was fun, but not hard enough, especially after summers of shoveling over my head and ridiculous hiking expeditions in the desert. P90x, the republican exercise regime of choice (!) got me through a lot of last year, when being in the field mostly meant pushing buttons on a total station or filling out paperwork as I watched workmen. There was still a whole lot of cheese and chocolate.
Last April I started Crossfit. It was impossible. I was addicted immediately. Starting the program I felt inept, unfit, pathetic–I had to modify all of the workouts heavily. I thought I was pretty strong, but Crossfit emphasizes a lot of Olympic weightlifting and “pretty strong” very quickly becomes measurable in not-as-many-as-I-thought pounds. Still, I had a challenge each morning to conquer and after doing the impossible, dissertation writing just wasn’t that scary. I was also too exhausted to do anything else. I sat and wrote.
I kept going to Crossfit. I watched my deadlift climb, and started achieving minor goals. I started doing banded pull-ups with the very strongest (easiest) band, now I’m able to do unassisted pull-ups. I couldn’t even get up on the wall to do a handstand before; today I did 100 hand stand push-ups. The same week my dissertation was due, I hit a 200 pound deadlift. My lift weights are fairly modest, but I’m proud of them. I am still consistently humbled by Crossfit–doing long L-sits or muscle-ups still seems a long way away. The work-outs also are varied enough that one day I was the fastest in the class, the next day, the slowest.
Most of all, I was able to be a part of a community that was outside of academia (though there were quite a few PhDs hanging around) and that supported my goals every day. I was never really a “jock” in high school, but I deeply enjoyed my fellow participants in the life of the body, which helped so much in my life of the mind. Now that I’m in Qatar, without this community and the gym, I miss it more than anything.
So, my advice to people who want to finish their dissertation or write a book is twofold: 1) write 1,000 words a day. It may take you two hours or ten. 2) do the impossible every day. Join a Crossfit gym.