Category Archives: Process

Doing What You’re Not Good At

My friend and mentor, Dr. Susan Somers-Willett, once told me that most academic writers are much better at close reading than theoretical framing, or vice versa. She described herself as more naturally inclined toward bigger-picture scholarly questions. I am more of a detail-oriented, pick-apart-the-text-one-syllable-at-a-time kind of woman.

Back then, I thought there might be something wrong with me because I was having such a hard time thinking about my project in terms of literary theory or contemporary scholarship. The idea that I might be better at something that Susan was–whether true or not–was pretty exciting.

I continue to struggle to fit these two types of thinking into a single piece of academic writing. Today, starting a chapter revision, I decided to completely ignore all my evidence and examples, and focus on getting the big-picture, scholarly conversation stuff in place.

It was scary but so worth it! I already have a wealth of examples to draw from previous drafts. But rather than try to build an argument around those pieces of evidence, I focused on writing all my ideas on a rather daunting topic–nothing less than the history of poetry as a genre. I came away from my work this morning knowing that my advisor will not find the same old weaknesses in this version of the chapter.

I don’t know if I could have used this technique in earlier drafts or not. Without realizing I was doing it, I started writing my dissertation by putting down a wealth of detail that had no real point. It would have been awesome to figure out my theoretical questions before writing, but I don’t know if I was capable of doing that then.

Nevertheless, wherever you are in your writing project, I encourage you to try on an alter-ego for a day. Be the person whose strengths are your greatest weaknesses. It might be easier than you expect.


The Skill of Joy

After posting about positivity the other day, I went into a yoga class themed around joy. We read a passage about joy from Barbara Kingsolver, and then Keith, the teacher, talked about how joy is a skill. We practiced the skill in yoga by attempting to notice three things in 90 minutes that we thought glorious. At the end of the class we shared those “finds” with each other.

Another thing we did in class to discover joy was partner assists in different poses. We gave our partner a quick massage, but before we began, we silently said to ourselves, “I come in peace.” We also briefly meditated across from our partner, and were encouraged to notice something beautiful about them.

Once I got going, I noticed a lot of glorious things: the rich tones of Keith’s “om,” the clean wooden floor, the red curls of a woman named Anna, my own ability to put my foot in my hand and extend my leg (almost) all the way out, the excitement of discussing Kingsolver’s books with my classmates before we left to go home, and the beautiful skin of my partner.

Here is the Kingsolver passage, from High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never:

In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: a perfect outline of a dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with life again, like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.

I try to shut off the part of my mind that objects to the corniness of this passage and the practices in yoga, and keep looking for the joy. And as I sit down to my computer to start work for the day, I try to say I come in peace.

Praise for Students & for Selves

My great friend Rebecca Zook just started a blog about learning that I highly recommend called Triangle Suitcase. Her post on praise follows up with my last post on positivity.

Part of the point of Rebecca’s post is that praising students for effort is an effective way to motivate them. When trying to generate positive emotions in oneself, though, I think that effort is something dissertation-writers often overlook. Thoughts like  Wow, I’ve been in school for 24 years! That’s dedication! or I’ve read over fifty books on this topic–I’ve gone to great lengths! could be a way to generate positivity even when the writing itself is not going particularly well.


Awhile back, I posted about positive-to-negative ratios in meetings, and how the ideal ratio in meetings between positive and negative comments is at least 3 to 1. Danuta McCall helpfully posted a link to the original research (my information came from an interview Barbara Fredrickson did with The Sun).

My goal for graduate school has always been to enjoy the experience. At times, that has seemed impossible–even laughable. However, Fredrickson & Losada say that even fleeting positive emotions can accrue over time, giving one a storehouse of positivity that can:

  1. widen the scope of attention
  2. facilitate flexibility and a broader range of thoughts & responses
  3. increase intuition & creativity
  4. promote adaptability to new situations
  5. increase immune system functioning
  6. promote resilience to adversity
  7. reduce inflammatory responses to stress

You don’t have to be happy every moment to get these benefits–brief positive emotions help you in the present but also the future. This is partly because positive emotions trigger more positive emotions.

Let’s go back to #2 for a moment: positive people are less predictable, which indicates a greater ability to come up with original thought and meaningful insight. (Incidentally, positive people have better marriages, too, precisely because they are less predictable.)

Interestingly, there is an upper limit to how positive one should be. At a positive-to-negative ratio of 11.6 to 1, flourishing decreases. Intuitively, this makes sense to me: people who are incessantly cheery often seem fake or just ignorant. Indeed, the research shows that positivity perceived as fake is basically the same as negativity.  And you can imagine how hard it would be to learn in an environment where you were never criticized.

The Future Mister Doctor is my role model for positivity: he has a great capacity for gratitude, confidence in his accomplishments, and a tendency to dwell on the positive in conversations. Work colleagues of his frequently gush about all the wonderful things he’s told them about me. In contrast, my friends know about the Future Mister Doctor’s hot temper, his chronic lateness, etc. Indeed, during marriage preparation workshops we discovered that he was, in a sense, in a better relationship than I was. But more importantly for the purposes of productivity, the Future Mister Doctor works long hours, has a huge number of meetings and social interactions per day, and yet succeeds because he is  what he calls “actionable”–he gets his clients results. Not only that, but he has liked every job he’s ever had.

In a way, I don’t want to praise the Future Mister Doctor too much, because I don’t think he works at being positive. For whatever reason (nature/nurture), it comes easily to him. But I do think it’s possible for the more chronically negative person to build up their stores of positivity–exercising to release endorphins, keeping a “gratitude diary” of good things in one’s life, saying small prayers of thanksgiving, wearing ultra-soft socks, etc.

Experiment Results Part 1

Well, my month of exercising and writing my dissertation 5 days a week is up–in fact, I finished on September 13.

In the sense that I dissertated for 42 hours in a month, the experiment was a success. Even though I knew it was an arbitrary goal, I held on to a sense of urgency and convinced myself that it was important to finish at all costs.

But that sense of urgency wasn’t always my friend. There were three weekdays that I did not work–and not because I was lazy or unmotivated. They were days when I had a lot of time-sensitive work to do for my part-time job. And once I missed a day, it was very hard for me to make it up. I was truly working as hard as I could. During the second, third, and fourth weekends of the month, I had an underlying sense of stress because I knew I had days to make up, but I wasn’t able to alleviate any of it until the very end of my experiment.

Was it worth it? I don’t think so. I worked hard all month–I deserved peaceful weekends. Instead, the dissertating I did on the weekends felt like a punishment.

Also, remember how I judged myself on hours spent? That was a bad idea too. I was acutely aware, every day, of the minutes ticking by–I practically jumped out of my chair at the two-hour mark.

Joan Bolker, as usual, is right about everything. It’s far better to have a goal for the day, and reward yourself for completing it instead of punishing yourself for not completing it. The risk of setting a goal for the day is that it will take too long or too short of time to constitute a good day’s work, and for me, it is harder to figure out a reasonable goal during the revision process. Still, the task-related goal gives a better sense of purpose than the time-logged one.

I want to keep the consistency that I developed over the month. So I’ve decided to try a reward-based system. If I work five days a week, I get to buy a new-old romance novel from the used book store. I think this is brilliant for a few reasons:

  1. It facilitates happy, relaxed weekends.
  2. My reward is not expensive–only a few dollars per week.
  3. I am not in the habit of buying pleasure-reading books for myself, so I don’t think it will be difficult for me to refrain from buying books when  I haven’t met my goal.
  4. I can gloat over the fact that I haven’t become snotty about books just because I’m about to be a doctor of literature.

On the flip side, if I don’t meet my goal, it won’t have an effect on the next week of work. I can still take the weekend to recuperate and start all over on Monday. The “you’ve been bad, and now you have to be extra good to make up for it” philosophy doesn’t work in child rearing, dieting, dog-training, or dissertating.


As a kid, I was kind of a quote-hound. As a cynical academic, I can kind of see how an inspiring quote has only a very limited ability to change one’s life. Also, I tend to quote things like, “it jarred my slats” from L.M. Montgomery’s  Jane of Lantern Hill that I find amusing but mystify the people I’m talking to.

Anyway, I cracked open the September issue of Real Simple this morning and saw a quote that seemed pertinent to my dissertation this morning:

Nothing great has been and nothing great can be accomplished without passion.–G.W.F. Hegel

Yes, I thought to myself. I need to get some passion going. Then I did a double-take and flipped back to another quote a few pages earlier:

One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdowns is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. If I were a medical man, I should prescribe a holiday to any patient who considered his work important.–Bertrand Russell

There are a lot of contradictory adages out there that have a ring of truth. While some dissertators I know draw a lot of comfort and even strength from a mantra of some sort, it’s good to be adaptable.

For example, when I told the now-Doctor Gale that “There shouldn’t be all this craziness,” she used it as a sort of grounding tool while she was revising her dissertation. I was a little surprised that what I’d said seemed so meaningful to her, but when she repeated it back to me a couple of months ago (I didn’t even recognize it as my own phrase) it seemed like a crucial idea to hold on to. OMG, There really SHOULDN’T be all this craziness. Wow!!!

There’s only a little of summer left, so maybe now is a good time for all of us to assess whether or not we need more passion for our work or more vacation in the next few weeks. I fall into the passion camp at the moment, but I know there’s some of you out there who haven’t let yourselves take enough of a break this summer. There’s still time!

Part of the Process

As my friends I enter our eighth year of graduate school, our emotional issues relating to our dissertations are met with two kinds of responses.

Of those without Ph.D.s, would-be sympathizers often say things like, “Why would you put yourself through this?,” “It’s just a job,” or perhaps even “What the f*&# are you crying about now?”

Those on the other sides–the ones who have earned doctoral degrees, just nod wisely and say “it’s all part of the process.” My friend Jason, who has an M.D. and a Ph.D. thank you very much, claimed that the Ph.D. caused many more tears than medical school.

At this point in my career, my commitment to enjoying graduate school seems somewhat laughable. Some days I fail to honor that commitment. And yet, universally, the doctors I know say they went through the same problems. Crying about graduate school is not only well within the “normal” range of behaviors, it’s downright pervasive.

The Future Doctor Anderson hypothesized to me that the reason we cry in graduate school has to do not so much with inherent emotional weakness as the fact that in order to graduate, we have to rely on our perfectionism (self-criticism), desire to achieve (fear of inadequacy), pride (shame) and determination (willingness to beat one’s head against a wall). In other words, what makes us upset is very closely related to what makes us succeed.

It is almost impossible to remember that “it’s all part of the process” when you’re gulping back sobs in your cubicle. But striving to keep that perspective is the only way I’ve found to get back to work after my emotions spend themselves.


Before I started writing my dissertation, I found that freewrites were about the only way I could accomplish anything tangible. I did a lot of reading and a lot of thinking, and the freewrites allowed me to record my thoughts a couple of times a day (on a good day). I did very little re-reading of this writing–but the act of writing helped keep me moving.

Some people are proponents of the “write without letting your pencil leave the page until the timer rings” freewriting method. I got along better when I had a specific topic (a book I’d just read) and simply tried to type quickly until I ran out of steam — usually around ten minutes. I let myself pause instead of making myself write “I don’t know what to write” because I found that if I wrote continuously, a bunch of complaining would seep into the writing that was actually not emotionally helpful to put on paper.

Once I started researching my specific chapters (instead of the general reading I did at first), I stopped needed freewrites so much–I typed notes about my sources (with any additional dissertation thoughts, related or unrelated, in parentheses). And I typed my chapters. But I didn’t need to do the free-form, no-planned-direction type of writing for a least a couple of years.

All the sudden, with a complete draft of my dissertation done, I find myself turning to freewriting again at the advice of my Dissertation Support Group. And I’m reminded that freewrites can be good for getting unstuck any time. At the very least, some writing is happening.

I never want to freewrite–I always want to do the “actual” writing that other people will see as part of the dissertation document. But even at this late stage, sometimes I really don’t see another way to get the project moving.

Radical Revision

My friend, the Dr. Somers-Willett, very recently published the book that grew out of her dissertation. We were discussing my work, and she told me, “don’t be afraid of radical revision.”

The way I have been revising–the way many people revise–is by attempting to shove my responses to advisor and writing group feedback into my previous draft. But Dr. S-W suggested a way that was indeed more radical and much more frightening.

She suggested I write the whole chapter from scratch, pasting in sections from my old draft as needed.

When she said it, I felt a flash of recognition–yes, this was a good idea; yes, this would work better; yes, this would be more efficient in the long run. Then came the FEAR. (Oh, *&^%,  not again!)

As a teacher, I never got one revision that was written over from scratch. If I had, I would have jumped for joy. Most of them tried to address my comments but never did so in anything more than a superficial way.

Recently, I re-wrote my introduction from scratch. Not one sentence was kept in the original. When I went back to look at the old intro (hoping to salvage some of it), I didn’t see a single thing worth keeping. By starting over, I freed myself to improve much more dramatically.

But now I’m facing re-writing Chapter 1 and it’s seriously freaking me out. I want so badly to finish that it can be hard to trust in a method that feels like more work, even with my own experience and trusted advice contradicting telling me that this method is going to work.

Meaningful Work

I think most of us get into academia looking for meaningful work. Like Lloyd Dobbler, we don’t want to “sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed.”

When doing meaningful work, it’s easy to conflate your identity and your career. And that’s not good, especially when your dissertation writing isn’t going well. The natural cycles of writing and revision that involve frustration, inspiration, procrastination start to feel like endless cycles of self-destruction and self-reconstruction. It wears a person out.

In my undergraduate days, I believed I could have an extreme version of loving my job, where I was happy all the time. But that’s not what teaching or writing have been for me. And here I am in Missouri, surrounded by people who have made a commitment to meaningful work–they grow their own sustainable food, they tend their chickens and their bees and their maple trees. But guess what? They did not leap out of bed with glee yesterday in their non-air-conditioned houses on a 97 degree day. They complained all through lunch. And the rain that brought relief from the heat also brought a little relief from work–most of them weren’t sad to delay some of their outdoor projects.

In trying to dissociate my dissertation from myself sometimes I have pushed it too far away–it seems irrelevant, uninteresting, and not meaningful. Today I am thinking about how to work outside of these extremes. The dissertation is not me, but there is something about it that I want to keep pursuing.