Tag Archives: write every day

Writing through (and after) the dissertation

At the beginning of April, I resolved to start each morning by writing at least 750 words. 750words.com explains the practice, which is based on the idea of “Morning Pages” from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I neither write my pages longhand, as The Artist’s Way recommends, nor use 750words.com’s online site (I use Day One, a well-designed journal app that syncs across all my different devices), but the concept is the same: start the day by writing, and focus on getting words on the page rather than making them perfect. The Artist’s Way emphasizes stream-of-consciousness writing, though without the explicit prohibition against lifting the pencil from the page that I’ve seen in some free writing exercises.

Sometimes I do use my 750 words for stream-of-consciousness free writing. I’m getting ready to write my job materials, and I’ve begun several mornings by just writing out all the reasons I’m a good teacher, or all the reasons someone should hire me. I’ll probably do that a few more times, re-treading the same ground in different ways, before I actually sit down to write a polished set of letters.

Sometimes I use my 750 words for a sort of narrative to-do list. I walk through all the things in my task manager and write about how and when in the day I’ll get them accomplished. I work out a plan for things that need to get done in the next few weeks. I reassure myself that I can get everything done, that I’m on track. On those days, writing about my tasks for the day helps me feel prepared for work I might otherwise find daunting. It’s a longer, more sustained version of the pep talk I give myself when I open my task manager and blanch at the volume or difficulty of things that need doing that day.

Other days, though, I ignore the stream-of-consciousness, just-keep-writing instruction and use that morning writing time for more formal composition and drafting. On those days, my rule for myself is that I can’t use those words on my dissertation or other research. Instead, I give myself some space to write something polished, focused, and having nothing to do with my academic writing.

The practice has some obvious benefits: it means I keep the writing habit, in some form or another. Most of my energy in the last month and a half was focused on teaching and grading, so writing every day made it a little easier to get back to the dissertation once the semester ended. Even now that I’m back, I’m working on revisions, so it’s often a small-scale business of adding footnotes and clarifying or re-writing individual sentences. Producing several pages of text each morning, even if it’s text about how much I don’t want to finish the grading, helps me hang onto the drafting habit when most of my efforts are focused on a different stage in the writing process.

It also reminds me that writing as an activity is separate from the dissertation–that is, that writing is not by definition chipping away at this document I’ve been working on for years. Uncoupling writing from dissertation-writing may seem obvious, but it’s easy to get a bit myopic this late in the process. Now that I can see the light at the end of the dissertation-tunnel, I’m getting myself ready for all the other kinds of writing I’ll be able to do.

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Frustrations and false starts

I’ll get back to reception some time soon, but right now I’m forcing myself to write something, anything, and publish it to the interwebs, because it has been a day full of denial and procrastination over here. I have a writing group deadline on Wednesday that I’d very much like to make, but right now all I have are some barely-strung together summaries of the relevant criticism and document after document of stream-of-consciousness notes.

Generally speaking, that’s about par for the course in the early stages of my writing process. As long as I continue to work consistently, the stream-of-consciousness notes will proliferate, but eventually I’ll reach a point where I see how to turn them into a coherent whole. The problem is that I’d like to hurry this process up. I’d like to get some feedback before I have a complete zero draft. But what I have now is not so much, and it’s not so good, and the anxiety-ridden perfectionist in me does not want to send it out to my writing group, even though they’re not going to think the less of me for sending them an incomplete, mediocre draft.

The advice I want to give myself is, “Just write.” That’s what I say to students, colleagues, overwhelmed consultees in the writing center: Just write, and deal with making it good later. Get something down, because having written something, even if it’s not perfect, always feels so much better than having something you need to write.

But there are points in my writing process, like right now, when what I’m writing is just dreadful. Not rough and in need of polishing, but bordering on useless. I must have scrapped twenty or thirty pages of potential introductions for the last chapter I wrote. And even if that’s necessary in the long run, it’s frustrating when you’re in the middle of it.

That’s all that I have to say. Just that things are going like molasses in January here, and it’s frustrating.

Spring semester reboot

One of the benefits of the academic calendar is that each new semester provides a convenient point to reassess how things are going and start fresh. The spring semester doubly so, because it comes on the heels of new year’s resolution-making. I generally try to separate my yearly resolutions (which are almost always related to keeping my house cleaner) from my academic goals, so while I made a few personal resolutions at the beginning of the year (again, focused almost exclusively on being less of a slob), I’m just now sitting down to set some work-related goals.

This is especially important because I’m on fellowship this semester. No teaching, no office hours, no staffing the writing center–just me and my dissertation, all day, every day. Every time I tell someone I’m on fellowship, the immediate response is, “How will you manage your time?” My interlocutor usually follows this question with a fairly lengthy description of how much trouble he or she would have getting anything done with so much unstructured time. After the fifth or sixth conversation like this, I found I’d developed a fairly reasonable-sounding set of answers, which serve as the basis of my semester goals/don’t-squander-my-time-on-fellowship plan:

1. The first thing on the list is to keep doing what I’ve been doing, only better. I’ve done a pretty good job over the last year of devoting my mornings to writing and writing-related tasks (outlining, note-making, etc.). My best energy is morning energy, and I need to keep taking advantage of that. This means maintaining a consistent schedule that gets me started by or before 8 each morning.

2. Find out how best to use my afternoons. When I’m teaching, I schedule as many things as I can in the afternoon, when I don’t have as much focus and won’t be as productive in my writing. Stepping into the classroom always gives me an adrenaline boost, so I’ve taken to requesting afternoon classes–that way the adrenaline counteracts the afternoon lethargy. There are certain stages in my writing process when I can work straight through the afternoon and into the evening, but there are other times, particularly early in the drafting process when every sentence is like pulling teeth, when trying to write in the afternoon is a terrible use of my time. With that in mind, I’m going to try to save email, reading, research, and possibly blogging for the afternoons.

3. Set deadlines. That one’s pretty obvious, and it’s something I’ve been doing for the past year or so with a lot of success. Between my writing group and my dissertation advisers, there are plenty of people I can be accountable to.

4. Set ambitious goals. Having been given all this time, I want to make good use of it. On the one hand, I want to forestall any self-flagellation that’s likely to come mid-semester when I start tallying up what I have and haven’t accomplished, so I’m deliberately marking these goals as ambitious, best-case outcomes. If I fall short, it will be because I set a high bar, not because I got lazy. But I need urgency to get things done, and in a semester of unstructured time, I’ll have to manufacture that urgency. With that in mind, my goals for this fellowship semester are to get two chapters drafted and last semester’s chapter revised.

On that optimistic note, I declare the semester officially begun. Bring on the lounge pants and endless mugs of tea!

Progress

After successfully defending my prospectus yesterday, I am unofficially ABD. I still have to file paperwork to enter candidacy, which requires me to have a full, five-person committee, something that may take a while to put together. But I’ve jumped through the last major hoop prior to defending the dissertation itself, which feels good.

Now that the prospectus is behind me, my major goal is not to lose momentum. Fortunately (I guess), I’m scheduled to present a paper on what is essentially chapter two of my dissertation at a conference at the end of May. This should force me to jump back into my research and resist taking time off after the push to finish the prospectus. Much as I dislike the time and energy conference-going, and networking in particular, requires, I’m making an effort to present on the early stages of each chapter at various intervals over the next year or so. My hope is that this will provide some helpful external motivation to keep moving.

The prospectus exam was really helpful and not at all adversarial, partially, I think, because of changes my program made to the exam process a few years ago. Previously, the exam would be a joint prospectus/three area exam, meaning that the conversation was theoretically supposed to be both a discussion of the prospectus and a broader examination on the three major areas the prospectus would engage with. After an external review and some wrangling among the faculty over the proposed changes, the two components of the exam were separated into two different exams–a field exam at the end of the third year that functioned much more like a traditional comprehensive exam, and then a prospectus exam following completion of the prospectus. Since I’d taken the field exam last June, the focus yesterday was exclusively on the prospectus and my dissertation, not on examining me on the field more broadly.

And now to tackle the dissertation itself. The first thing I’m going to do is to renew my commitment to writing every day. I let this slip a bit as I was finishing up the prospectus, but I’m recognizing anew the need to make writing a habit. And, more practically speaking, I’ve got a paper to deliver in just over a month and nothing to show right now but an abstract, a chapter summary, and a whole bunch of raw data. Better get on it.

On process

At the beginning of this academic year, I set out to significantly revise my writing process and work habits. I’d been tinkering with my composition process for about a year, focusing on laying out the steps of my argument, the evidence, the organization, etc., before attending to the quality of the prose and the smoothness of the transitions—in other words, trying to follow the advice I give my own students and those I consult with in the writing center. After telling writer after writer not to get bogged down in word choice or mechanics until all the bigger-picture pieces were in place and all the necessary connections had been made, I finally gave it a try myself.

Around the same time, I started coming to terms with the fact that much of what I wrote would never go any farther than the text editor on my computer. That if, as I was telling my students, writing really is thinking, I needed to be doing a lot more writing, and I couldn’t expect all of it to find its way into a finished product. I was working my way out of the seminar-paper mentality in which everything I wrote needed to lead up to a paper to be turned in, otherwise I was wasting my time. I started piling up file after file of notes. I tried a few mind maps, and a few plain-text files, but I ultimately settled on a Scrivener document full of nested folders of notes. For a while it was just notes, but now it looks like this:

This new process was considerably more generative. Even better, I no longer had that constant nagging feeling that I’d had an important insight when pondering something on the bus or while falling asleep and then subsequently forgotten it. When I thought of something relevant, I wrote it down. (I also stopped thinking about my work when I was falling asleep, which did wonders for my sanity and general well-restedness.) But that still didn’t address the most important change I wanted to make to my writing process, the one piece of advice every writer will give you: Write every day. This advice takes many forms—Jerry Seinfeld’s don’t break the chain, making writing a habit, using your morning for writing. All variations on a theme: write every day.

I set the arbitrary goal of half an hour of writing a day and then proceeded to completely ignore it about as often as I followed through. Some days, I flip over to my text editor, read the first sentence of what I’m working on, and then go check if there’s any more email or if anything’s popped up on my RSS reader in the past thirty seconds. I do this over, and over, and over again. The half hour goal was intended to lower the stakes a bit—I didn’t need to produce a certain number of words or pages, or work on an actual draft of something, I just needed to write. Instead, it was just another thing I was avoiding in the morning.

I think part of the problem is that if I sit down and open up whatever I’m working on—usually some part of my prospectus draft—and just don’t have the fortitude to get started on it right yet, I often don’t have anything else to turn to. Part of me feels like I should be focusing all my energy on my prospectus draft all the time, which the more rational part of me realizes is a sure-fire recipe for burnout. So I’ve been brainstorming things I can do with my first half-hour of writing when I need to work my way up to the main event:

  • Work on a blog entry—this is one of the primary reasons I’m trying my hand at blogging.
  • Read back over something I’ve already written and free-write about it.
  • Skim through a book, chapter, or article I’m using and make notes about impressions, connections, usefulness, etc.
  • Identify a question or objection a reader might have and answer it.
  • Reflect on my writing process—how have I approached my writing recently? What’s been successful? What can I change?

I’m hoping to keep adding to this list until I have enough ideas to cover all the different forms of resistance and inertia that keep me from starting that first half-hour.