How to Succeed at Comps Without Really Trying, Week 10

I thought I might give some (practical?) advice to anyone who may ever find his or herself going through comps. Or staring at a landslide of books that it will take a summer worth the reading to move.

  • If you have multiple lists/topics: rotate your reading. If you read one list all at once, it will be dusty in your brain by the time you write your papers.
  • Although you may be told otherwise, your lists are not set in stone. If you find a source that will help you but isn’t on your list, read it. Quote it. You write your lists before you do your reading, so you’ll discover things along the way. Wonderful things.
  • Give into the nap. You’ll be more productive on the other side.
  • Nothing derails reading like a hangover.
  • Don’t mark in library books (even with pencil, it will take forever to erase everything). Instead, go nuts with sticky notes, preferably slender ones.
  • Once you find a kind of sticky note you like, buy the store out. Seriously.
  • Play music.
  • Understand that your papers won’t be made up of three or four heavily quoted sources, you can pick from every source you’ve read (over 100). So only mark the most important passages in each book, or you’ll have an overwhelming number of quotes by the end.
  • Understand that you may not know what your exact questions will be, but you can guess. Use this reasoning to limit the number of quotes you collect.
  • Understand that your papers may require different support than you anticipated. So mark every good quote regardless of how many you end up with.
  • Not every source you put on your list will be golden. If it isn’t going to help you write your paper (or at least expand your knowledge of your topic) put it down.
  • Find a daily reading rhythm. Set up hours, complete with breaks. Lots of breaks.
  • Find a weekly reading rhythm.
  • Adjust your reading schedule as you progress. Your stamina and abilities will change.
  • Don’t feel guilty if you can’t hold a strict reading schedule. Instead, view yourself as being immersed in your reading. Read every free minute you have. So you’re still being productive, but have a more flexible schedule.
  • Read outside.
  • Your brain will get exhausted. You will not be as mentally quick or nimble as you usually are. This means your abilities to socialize might take a hit.
  • Because you’ll be mentally exhausted, for the love of god, don’t try to date (if you do, let me know how it goes).
  • Always carry two books with you at all times. You never know when you’ll get stuck somewhere. And you never know when you’ll finish the first.
  • Pace your reading so you don’t burn out.
  • Push yourself hard enough that you don’t panic.
  • Exhaustion is ok.
  • Some of your peers will have read more than you. Be at peace with this.
  • Accept that the way you read will change. Drastically.
  • Kiss close reading goodbye.
  • Aim to read your shortest texts first. You’ll move at a faster clip (increasing your confidence) and by the time you reach the longer texts, you’ll have acquired the ninja-like reading skills required to handle them quickly.
  • It’s ok to have days where you don’t read as much as others.
  • Don’t neglect your body.
  • Realize that you’re going to be sitting on your butt for longer stretches of time that you probably ever have before. This means you’ll be burning fewer calories. Adjust your diet.
  • Identify the things that are vital to your life. Do those things.
  • Use panic to perform superhuman feats.
  • Respond to your reading by writing.
  • Learn to say no. Your friends and family might see your days as seemingly empty. They’ll invite you to things because they like you. Again, learn to say no.
  • Realize that you might not be able to read everything on your lists. This is ok. Read enough to write your papers, then finish the rest later.
  • You’ll never have another period of time to read like you do during comps. Take advantage of it.
  • Remember that you only have to do this once.
  • Your classmates are going through the same thing, use them as support.
  • Some classmates will disappear. People deal with stress in different ways. Let them disappear. They’ll come back. I promise.
  • If you are the one that disappears. Don’t panic. You’ll come back. I promise.

How to Succeed at Comps Without Really Trying, Week 8? 9?

I think I’ve damaged my reading process.
Naturally, I’m a pretty slow reader. If I’m reading something I love, I want to savor it, draw it in, make it my own. This is why my thoughts form in a way similar to Djuna Barnes’ metaphors (those wonderful, out-of-control metaphors).

Now when I read, I imagine my eyes are jumping across the page like a gazelle on meth. I mean I’m sprinting across the words, or, even worse, skipping over them entirely. If I hit a paragraph of scenic description, I’m past it in a flash. Because it won’t help me pass my comp exams. I need quotes that will look good in a paper, I need ideas I can tie to my other books (more specifically, I need evidence that supports my pretty-already formed ideas). Basically, I’m reading with such a narrow purpose that any language that threatens to take me away from that purpose, and I’m not interested.

I guess this my way of saying that I have less than one month left until my exams start, and I’m now “reading” in a (controlled?) panic.

This is also why I haven’t posted lately. Because the end is coming up and there’s still so much to be done.

Before, I was reading a novel a day. I was comfortable with that pace. Except, (during comp reading, and, hell, most other things in life) the thing about comfort is that, if you’re feeling good, secure, under control, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. Which means you pick the pace up, challenge your eyes to scamper across a page before your fingers flick it away.

I want to feel empty when I finish. I want to know that I did what I could. Because I’m ok with that. I don’t want to look back and see an afternoon of relaxation that I could have read that extra 50 pages, that short story, that article.

Back the running metaphor: on the last lap of say, an 800 meter dash, you pick up the pace because even though you’re tasting your lungs and wondering why in the hell you decided to do this in the first pace, you know you only have one lap to go.

And when you feel the last curve under your legs, you know what? You pick up your pace again. Because the faster you run, the sooner you’ll finish.

So here I am 3.5 weeks out. Go time.

Also, because of this insane fascination with speed, I’ve found an  appreciation for video game speed runs. Probably because they reflect my inner state. Let me show you what I mean:

How to Succeed at Comps Without Really Trying, Week 6

Oddly enough, I think I’m getting used to this. Reading. All the time.

I’m not saying that my brain doesn’t feel like it’s atrophying. Or that I don’t desire to wallow in a grassy field. Or that I’m not so so tired.

But despite all this, I may be hitting a stride here. I’ve come to grips with the fact that I can’t read during business hours, like I was originally panning to do. An 8-5 schedule implies that there is a beginning and an end. Both are lies.

Comp reading is like a flood: it rises and sweeps away everything that isn’t nailed down. It is the second half of the binary that has become my life. Should I watch a movie or should I read? Should I drink heavily or should I read? Should I go for a run or should I read?  Should I write or should I read? (These last two questions are often the hardest for me to answer as writing and running are usually at the top of my priority pile).

And of course, the answer is always the latter option, even if I don’t always do it.

Only very scheduled events survive the tide of reading, things that are planned a week or so in advance. Anything spontaneous doesn’t stand a chance. Because that empty time that say, a friend suggests we fill by going to a bar or watching a baseball game, isn’t really empty time. It’s already spoken for. Always.

Always. Always. Always.

My reading schedule is malleable though. If a friend wants to plan a lunch I can do that, but it means that I’ll be reading all evening (and thus will have to turn down any additional offers). If there’s a birthday party in the evening, I have to stay on task during the day.

Before this summer started, my professors kept saying that I needed to take advantage of this time, because I won’t ever have another summer like this. And this is true, but what they don’t mention is that life doesn’t stop. Friends and family still want to see you. Your body still needs to be exercised. Your groceries won’t buy themselves. Your car will still break down.

And all this needs to happen in those few hours in which you’re trying to wedge all these social activities.

Which means that, although I spend the majority of my days reading and fighting off an oncoming nap, I’m wildly busy because the pressure builds on both sides of the binary: if I don’t socialize enough I’ll start feeling like I’ve slipped through a crack in society’s fabric, if I don’t read enough I’m not taking advantage of what this summer is all about.

The edges of this flood are murky. Often they look like dry land upon which I can throw a frisbee or go for a hike, but really, it’s just more flood disguised as something solid.

But this is another way of saying that this binary isn’t so neat. There are so many social, mental, physical, emotional, moral, factors that something feels neglected all the time. And neglect leads to panic. Which leads to an overcorrection. Which leads to more neglect and panic.

So the flood has turned into an icy road and my life is an ’88 Bronco with bald tires, it’s fishtailing more often than it’s not, and every time I yank the wheel into the spin, I wonder if this is the time I end up in the ditch.

But the ditch is another metaphor altogether.

How to Succeed at Comps Without Really Trying, Week 5

I love naps.

Seriously. They feel good.

Sometimes I get so excited that I’m about to take a nap that I’m unable to fall asleep.


I’ve always joked about how reading is the closest thing you can do to sleeping without actually doing it. Except, this is no longer a joke. It’s true, and it’s a damned hazard.

I’ll start reading on my big brown LoveSac, then, after a few hours (or minutes depending on how well I slept the night before) I’ll start to notice myself dozing. I shrug it off. Sit a little straighter, but as soon as my eyes close for that extended blink, I know it’s only a matter of time before I reread the same page for half an hour, my eyes spinning their metaphorical tires in proverbial mud.

The progression goes like this. Sitting. Slouching. Laying. Asleep.

I’ve tried battling it. I don’t drink caffeine, so I figure, I’ll have a lil’ black tea and then have a sustained reading speed close to that of the Flash. But all this does is delay the nap for about 30 minutes. (I even researched how to prepare tea to make sure I wasn’t f’n something basic up, like you could somehow make caffeinated tea without releasing the caffeine. I studied charts on water temperature and steeping time. Turns out it gets quite technical).

I’ve gone for runs. Which wake you up. Right until you sit back down.

I’ve tried reading in public (which only equals public naps).

The nap always wins.

Then the cat outside starts howling, and I wake frothing.

Let me speak plainly. I hate this cat.

I hate this cat with a religious like insensitivity. I hate this cat as much as I hated the guy who, a few apartments ago, moved in below me and snored so loud that I had to 1) shift my sleeping habits so that any naps I took were at night and 2) move my bed into the kitchen.

This cat’s noises are so ass-clenchingly horrendous that they single handedly disprove the existence of God. I can’t even find a recording of a cat making noises that come anywhere close to this. I repeat, I can’t find anything this horrible sounding on the internet. The internet. Which contains this article which says that scientists have identified the 5 worst sounds. I’d take any of these over the genocidal warbling of whatever is slothing around my neighbors yard.

Because of the thick foliage, in the neighbors yard I haven’t been able to see this cat, which makes me think I’m not dealing with a cat at all. It could be some sort of grub demon spawn, sent straight from hell, and sent with no other purpose but to rattle my sanity every 35 minutes, which, I guess, would prove the existence of God.