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.
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.
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.
I grew up on a farm, and the plague of my young life was misbehaving cows. News that the cows were out periodically sent the whole family into a flurry. “Out” sometimes meant the cows were in a neighbor’s corn field or on the highway. This occasionally happened in the middle of the night. To this day, when I drive down any highway, I automatically scan any and all herds of cows for signs of trouble.
The thing is, if cows want outside the bounds of a barbed wire fence, they can pretty much plow through. But my dad always says that if you can keep them in for a few days, they’ll forget they know how to get out.
It does seem to work that way. The cows get out several days in a row at generally the same spot (even though the fence has been repaired). Then, for months at a time, they behave perfectly.
Even though I know what good and healthy disseminating looks like, sometimes I have days that seem defined by bad behavior. However, I’ve found that just one day of good behavior is enough to get me back on track for several weeks.
For me, when temptation (the Internet, the d***ed spider solitaire, the pool) is overwhelming, the best thing to do is simply corral myself to my desk chair for a little while–no matter how bad it feels. Because the next day, thoughts of temptations have receded, and I’m able to focus better and for longer.
Both of my brother-in-laws, who work in the restaurant industry, are happy to work seven days a week. Imagining chopping vegetables for eight hours straight and then having to cover someone on my day off is downright appalling to me. But they are both of the opinion that a weekend (or other two-day break) breaks up their routine in a bad way. Another way of putting this is that Mondays are terrible precisely because you’ve had time off. You’re not used to working, and now you have to get used to it, and fast.
I really believe that working five days a week is best for me. But there are other ways of working it out–writing six or seven days a week, writing every other day, two days on/one day off . . . it’s worth experimenting, especially at the beginning of the dissertation writing process to find out what patterns keep you in your groove.
Another advantage of experimenting with your work habits is that you will confident that you’ve chosen the best process for you, which can be comforting when you discover other people’s habits. I usually have a reaction like “how could you possibly work that much?” and people tend to react to me like, “it’s amazing how you’re able to make so much time for things besides work!” As far as I can tell, there’s usually a bit of jealousy on both sides. But what other people do is not important. It’s only important that you aren’t ignorant of your own best practices.
Sometimes when I’m trying to start working, I get this fluttery feeling. Sometimes that feeling makes me want to clean something, sometimes it makes me want to find comics to read on the internet, sometimes I want to call a friend, and sometimes I want to play a computer game.
“Just for a minute,” I say to myself. “Just to clear my head and calm me down.”
What happens next is embarrassing. With each successive game, I get more and more agitated, telling myself I just need to win one more time and then I’ll get back to work. All the while I’m more and more alarmed at how much time is passing. “Oh, sh**! 3:00 already!”
So I’ve started a new ritual to deal with the flutters. It’s very simple–I’m not into incense or mantras or meditation, though I don’t see any problem with using those techniques to get in the mood for working. All I mean by ritual is that I do the same thing ever day before starting work, to calm me down and get me focused on the task at hand.
I read five pages of The Craft of Research. It’s a guide to writing that I enjoy reading. It’s clearly written, infused with a you-can-do-it! attitude, and relevant to what I’m trying to accomplish. I think reading anything that you like, that you think is well-written, could be great–even if it wasn’t related to your dissertation specifically. It should be something you know well (this ritual should not be suspenseful), something you like, and, most importantly, something that doesn’t spark any wild emotions.
My last post about breaking a no-work period by making tiny goals got me to thinking about the best time to make daily goals.
For me, the answer is hands-down at the end of the workday, especially if I’m transitioning between activities.
For example, when I’m researching, I don’t find it that difficult to pick up where I left off the previous day. I organize my files by publication date, and then simply read them in order. If I don’t write down “Begin reading sources from June of 2004” at the end of my work day, chances are I’ll figure it out and start reading the next morning anyway.
But, when moving between chapters, starting a new revision cycle, or approaching the introduction or conclusion of a chapter, I need that plan in place. Otherwise, I sit down in the morning with a panicked, overwhelmed feeling that rarely leads to productive work.
I have a calendar just for dissertation matters, and if I use it to plan my next day’s work, I start the day with a specific, reachable goal. In the calendar box for tomorrow, I wrote “make a list of reasons supporting my conclusion” and “make a new outline” (based on the list of reasons). So I know exactly what I will do tomorrow. I will sit down at the computer, open my chapter and a new document. I will read the chapter, pausing to write down reasons in the new document.
It doesn’t sound hard, does it?
That’s the idea.