DISSERTATION: Creative Check-In

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, game jams

In tracking my creative work closely, I am learning a lot about myself and how I work. I hope that eventually that data can be generalized to others, although that’s not my goal. At the very least, I can propose hypotheses. Here are some thoughts.

1. Most importantly, the more stressed and unwell that I am, the harder it is to feel able to do creative work, both in terms of scheduling and prioritizing it, and actually accomplishing it when I finally do sit down to work.

In December, I opened and looked at my script a good half a dozen times, but I was stuck. I was too worried about other things (primarily, things related to Tom’s work situation and precarity). While being busy has gotten in the way of my creative work in the past, finding the time to get down to work was always the challenge.

2. Enjoyable, challenging work balanced with breaks and personal time can be fulfilling fuel.

Sure, I am now adjusting to teaching for the first time and managing other commitments that I have made (opportunities to publish, to edit/give feedback to others on their work, to collaborate on design projects), but I enjoy that work for the most part. It affirms (in most cases) my confidence in my own abilities, even though I may have the occasional doubt. Doing work that shows me my own capabilities helps me fight impostor syndrome!

But I also definitely need to build in more breaks and rest into my schedule. Yes, sometimes that means choosing between taking the time to cook a larger (time-consumption-wise), healthier, homecooked meal or eating something fast. It’s a balancing act. I also still need to find ways to fit more exercise into my schedule. But it also means actually taking a break and actually letting myself do nothing, take naps, stay at home, and, y’know, read a book, play a video game, regardless of whether there are chores that are left undone for a while longer. I am trying to get better at balancing all of this. I suspect it’s something that I’ll struggle with for the rest of my life, especially with my tendency to overcommit (which is prized and encouraged because it makes me so *productive*).

As an example of how skewed these priorities can get, I finally managed to make myself a doctor’s appointment and attended it to deal with some issues that I had started investigating in Fort McMurray. I had to cancel my Fort McMurray appointments when we moved here, and I only got a Quebec health care card in early November. So, yeah, it feels good to have those balls rolling.

3. Recognizing and naming burnout, and taking as much of a break as you can from the things burning you out seems crucial.

I feel like I keep having these mini-burnouts — I have the evidence of them and their mounting severity every time I write one of these posts. I’m not an expert on this by any means, but after not even attempting to work on my dissertation project for the past few weeks, I have felt able to do creative work and I find myself excited to work on my dissertation project once more.

4. It is easier for me to work with someone else. I find it easier to get past blocks and prioritize working when I’m working with at least one other person. This is born out by how many solo projects I’ve released versus how many team projects, I think. At least right now, having a lot of creative control is important to me, so I like working in small groups on all aspects of the game. Maybe that will change with experience.

I’m also trying to get better at asking for help (even with individual projects) and letting other people take over tasks in groups that I’m working with. One of my problems is feeling like if I ask for something, I’m being a pest or taking up other people’s time, but I think I am fairly generous with my own time, so I am trying to ask for help in ways that I feel are fair and respect people’s boundaries.


Speaking of that creative work, I participated in Global Game Jam 2019 with Squinky this year. We decided to scope really small and made a queer dressup game called “Mx. Dressup: Squinky and Jeka’s Outfit Creator for Dapper Queer Millennials”, which you can play here: https://squinky.github.io/mxdressup/

Squinky and I designed the game together, then Squinky focused on the programming and I focused on the art assets. Taking a whole weekend just to draw cute clothes was so relaxing. I gave myself permission not to think about anything else. We scoped small, so whatever assets I was able to get done, that was what went into the game. It was really, really nice.

And now, as an extra surprise, my brother is in town, and Tom is teaching him to drive (with the occasional backseat help from me — I can’t be the accompanying driver because I’m probationary, but I am allowed in the car, so I can give a different perspective and whatnot).

That also means that my brother and I are doing our best to get Icosahedral (which is a working title) into fully playtestable shape, as final as we can get it. We’ve been working on the project off and on since April 2017, which is pretty amazing. We’ve already done some playtesting with an earlier version and it went really well. But now, it’s time to think about the numbers and whether other people can run it, and the usual business of playtesting. It feels great to be back at it! I think we’ll have a playtestable version ready real soon, and I’ll be sending out calls for playtesters.

Time, scheduling and how busy I am is always a concern, but I am doing my best not to worry about the dissertation project. I feel like my thoughts about it have slowly matured inside of me, and I am excited to get back to it. That’s far different from feeling like I was banging my head against the wall in December and early January trying to get something done. I will be trying to prioritize working on it more now that I’ve had the chance to get used to my new schedule a bit. Of course, Tom’s situation could throw all of my plans out the window at any moment (yikes).

Now then, here’s hoping I can manage to make more progress on my second dissertation project!

DISSERTATION: Extensions, Burnout, and welcoming 2019

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation

Time for the first substantial update of 2019!

The first thing that I have been meaning to bring up is that I will likely have to extend this second design project past six months, strictly speaking. Having lost most of September to travel and QGCon, I was still hoping to be able to finish in five months to stay on-schedule with my ideal timeline for the making and writing of this here dissertation. But the truth is that while I was able to get a decent amount of work done in October and November, I involuntarily took almost all of December off, and I still haven’t quite managed to get back to work on my creative projects.

It’s not that I didn’t get anything done in December: I finished my syllabus and made a course pack for the course that I am teaching this winter, I made some last edits to my paper for Game Studies, which came out on December 31st, I’ve been working on materials to help organize future QGCons and have a record of the roles and responsibilities involved, working on conference submissions, updating my CV, and writing an interview piece between myself and another queer designer where we ask each other questions that I think is really pretty awesome. That’s on top of the usual holiday commitments and slowdowns. Not to mention that I have been cooking a lot more home-cooked meals, which is part of that invisible second shift that we don’t really talk about: my laundry is done, my bills are paid (thankfully), and I am working on all sorts of neat things…except for my creative work.

There are a number of factors here: my physical health, my mental health, and Tom’s work situation… which is a coded way of talking about the on-going harassment by process that he is facing, almost a year and a half after they first tried to bully him into resigning. On both December 20th and December 24th (the day before a commonly-celebrated holiday across the world), the RCMP dropped more work with strict deadlines onto our heads. These deadlines failed to take into account that everything is closed during the holidays, and practically everyone is on vacation, so there has been information that we’ve needed that we just can’t get as easily as under normal circumstances. And even if I didn’t want to prioritize this, the truth is that it is hard to think of much else.

On the health fronts: I have been sick off and on for the past two months with respiratory illnesses, colds, at one point I think a mild flu? I was socializing with a very sneezy five-year-old at one point who clung to me like a limpet, so, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. I think that I may have a deviated septum or other issue that is leading to frequent sinusitis and headaches. It’s on my list of things to check out.

Speaking of which, the reason why it’s still on a list might have something to do with the situation described in this article.

Honestly, I have never identified so much with an article about millennials or probably anything else. I feel this in my soul. And if this article is to be believed, I’m not the only one. I constantly feel at the edge of burnout, and I note exactly the kinds of behaviours written here — optimization means that it can be really hard to make time for things that have a low payout, or seem like they do, especially if they’re otherwise stressful for me. It can take me months to make a needed appointment, and I honestly just don’t have that much time for bad news or to be slowed down by issues that’ll require addressing them and then healing from them. I have a bone spur in my thumb that I had an appointment to deal with before we left Fort McMurray — but in Fort McMurray it was easier to say no to things because I would just not physically be in the same city that things were happening in. That left more time for things like doctors’ appointments.

On a similar note: I have whitecoat syndrome when it comes to taking my blood pressure taken, but in order to verify that, I was, again, in Fort McMurray, supposed to get a 24-hour monitor to verify. Since it makes me anxious, and since I had to leave Fort McMurray, that’s another thing I haven’t done yet. But, then again, I only just became eligible and received a Medicare card for Quebec, so that’s the excuse there.

Not to mention that, because of dysphoria and trans issues, I would really, really like to get top surgery. But the research exhausts me, and so does the idea of being out of commission for potentially months. Plus, since I haven’t been going to the gym regularly (too busy with everything in my own career plus the RCMP issues), I feel like I’m not in a good place for a surgery. They say that the healthier you are going into surgery, the easier the road to recovery will be. So I do want to get into better shape before I think about surgery.

All of this is of course a recipe for disaster — I have to admit that I have been ignoring these health concerns because they don’t feel like emergencies. But then, they will turn into emergencies. I know that. I know that as much as anyone quoted in that millennial article knows that they need to register to vote or whatever other thing they’re putting off on their to-do list.

…anyhow, what this means is that it is really difficult to be creative right now. And even things that aren’t strictly creative about the project feel pretty difficult. But I’m doing my best to work on it. At this point, it feels like this isn’t just about the ebbs and flows of creativity – this is about what late capitalism does to art, what it is doing to people. How come even the most “successful” of us can’t have a damn rest? It seems like we’re all just a step away from burnout.

So. I am hereby granting myself an extension until at the very least April for this project. I still feel strongly about the project — it feels big, meaningful, and like it is pushing me artistically. That excites me. I want to give this project the time that it needs and deserves.

DISSERTATION: On continuing to be tired

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation

Thought it was time that I wrote another autoethnography blog post.

Since the last time I wrote, I’ve been slowly plugging away at a variety of tasks that aren’t directly related to my dissertation research. What I am coming to realize, I think, is just how much external factors affect my ability to work creatively or work on code. Yesterday, for example, I tried to do some creative writing after a meeting and spent a good deal of time staring at the screen instead. Then, when I decided to try to switch to coding, I could feel my body physically saying “nope, nope, nope” — it felt like my brain and body could anticipate what would happen if I were to code right then — the slog of working through something that I would either have to interrupt and possibly lose the thread of for next time, or that I would get caught up in and skip out on other responsibilities for (such as the roast lamb dinner I was planning for last night).

I am getting other work done, such as finishing the syllabus and course pack for the course I am teaching next winter, and writing a co-interview article with Kara Stone, and choosing the abstracts for full articles for the issue of First Person Scholar that I an editing, but that tiredness that I mentioned before is omnipresent. The threat of burnout seems to be constantly just at the periphery of my consciousness. I find myself taking long breaks, but still not feeling refreshed by them. I have had unexpected bodily aches and pains too — a bulging disc in my back giving me more pain, requiring me to apply heat to my back and return to doing strengthening and stabilizing exercises and stretches from my physiotherapist, a constant returning sinusitis causing debilitating headaches just behind my eyes, and the most awful cramps — for which I applied more heat.

The biggest pressures that I am feeling related to my dissertation work are measuring the time that I have left alloted to this project against my abilities and the work left to be done. There are still prototype portable sensors to build and figure out, there’s still a lot of programming to do that is currently outside of the scope of my skill — but only just outside — that I really should be asking for help with (but everyone is busy, eh?), and there are the sculptures themselves to build.

Unfortunately, there are so many factors outside of my dissertation and currently outside of my control that are contributing to this stress, and it’s also very difficult for me to do creative work while I am stressed. Some things are within my control if I make the time for them, and that would make me less stressed, but it also will take up time that I feel I should be spending working on my creative project. I could really use a long break, where I don’t do anything related to work, but if I take that long break, it feels like I’m just eating into my time. There seem to be more days where it is difficult to work than there are good days, especially when it comes to work that I am only accountable to myself for.

Tom has been a big help, particularly for things that have just felt like a total slog (changing all my Harvard citations into MLA for the syllabus, for example, and gathering all the articles for the course pack).

Even making these records of process make me feel guilty when I’m not doing them, but the truth is that I haven’t been getting all that much done. I’ve solved a number of important programming issues, but there’s still a whole lot more, and I’ve written about half of the script for the game, but there’s still, again, a whole lot more.

I’m happy with the work that I have, but I wish that I could be more efficient and faster. Everything is a tradeoff: if I want to make a nutritious meal, that means going home early from work, or working from home. But when I work from home, because of all that’s left to do to set our place up, I am distracted by the mess and everything that needs my attention there.

Ah, and I shouldn’t leave this out for future Jess: last Thursday, we found out that our dear friend Serge Mercier, who I wrote about in my Master’s dissertation, was on his deathbed. Tom spent Thursday evening contacting people to let them know, and then we spent Friday taking Serge’s son to be with him at the hospital before he passed. We were there until about 10:30, then took his son home, and Serge died that night. Then, I woke up another day this week to a text message from my mom letting me know about a funeral that morning for a family friend that attended her church – someone I had known my whole life. So, that happened. Maybe those things also have to do with this state that I am in.

Finally, of course, the issues with Tom’s work continue. You can read a bit about them at rcmpaccountable.wordpress.com if you like. It continues to be draining and stressful. Come the end of January, Tom will have been on sick leave for a year because of this, and he has been actively fighting these issues since September 2017. Before that, things hadn’t yet bubbled up from under the surface. It seems that there are still years to go on this issue.

I guess autoethnography can mean disclosing some pretty uncomfortable things. It makes perfect sense to me that this would all be affecting my creative process, but I can see no alternative but to keep going, and keep doing the best that I can. I’m doing my best to rest, but I am worried that teaching next semester will only further eat into my time. Still, I know that it will be valuable experience, and frankly, I have to think about saving money for when my SSHRC runs out and because of the uncertainty with Tom’s work.