"The sensation of writing a book is the sensation of spinning, blinded by love and daring. It is the sensation of a stunt pilot's turning barrel rolls, or an inchworm's blind rearing from a stem in search of a route. At its worst, it feels like alligator wrestling, at the level of a sentence"
Finish Your Writing Project by Keeping the Goal Small
One of the classic ways in which students and all writers get stuck is thinking that whatever they are working on will become their Magnum Opus -- the most important work in their life.
We get so involved in our writing, it starts to feel like a part of ourselves and once that ego gets slapped in it becomes oh so hard to finish.
You think your work will reflect your greatest achievement or all of who you are. The problem with that logic is that as living beings we remain in a process of becoming. The book can never be done while you are alive. If the book reflects you and you are not dead, there always seems to be more.
Even folks who think they want to be done may suffer from this "magnum opus syndrome."
The book, thesis or dissertation may well be your magnum opus...But likely not. It's a school paper that must speak to the requirements of the program. Such grand work rarely is born out of such a restrictive structure...in my opinion.
Also, a great irony is that your work is much more likely to at least lead to your magnum opus if you stop treating it as such. Your writing needs room to breath-- too much ego does to writing what too much water does to a plant... Don't drown your writing in ambition.
Just write the darn thing...
Struggling with the literature review?
"The writer knows her field - what has been done, what could be done, the limits - the way a tennis player knows the court.
And like that expert, she, too plays the edges.
That is where the exhilaration is.
She hits up the line.
In writing, she can push the edges.
Beyond this limit, here, the reader must recoil."
Stephen King, who has sold over 300 million books says,
"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: Read a lot and write a lot.There's no way around these two things that I am aware of, no shortcut."
Paul Simon, musician and author of my most favorite lyrics
"You want to be a writer but don't know how or when? Find a quiet place and pick up a humble pen."
So get going...find some place quiet and let's get reading and writing...Start somewhere, start anywhere, just start...
Overcome the "embarrassment syndrome" in writing...
Students get stuck with writing in all kinds of places! Even when I overcome one obstacle a new challenge presents itself.
This month, I noticed a number of colleagues suffering from the "Embarrassment Syndrome."
They did not want their advisers to see their, as Anne Lamott would say, their "shitty first drafts." Or even their shitty second drafts.
They are embarrassed.
I'm Sorry You Have "Muffin Top"
I told one colleague, "you just need to let your adviser into your changing room." She laughed and like the analogy so I am sharing it with you.
Your advisers are for writing what your good friends are when shopping. A good friend tells you if the jeans you tried on give you muffin top or if that color makes you look like you have a hangover.
Have you ever been to a dressing room that has three or more mirrors? You see all sides of yourself...and sometimes it's horrifying. That's what a good adviser does...they act as the multiple mirror system. They help you see your blindspots not to mock you; they do it to help you fix it.
I deliberately picked committee members who live in my blindspots. My chair helped me see assumptions I was making and my other committee member always caught when my thinking got sloppy and incomplete.
I let them see me messy and while it was uncomfortable at first eventually I got used to them being in my dressing room and commenting on my work.
Faculty Have Shitty Drafts Too
The Chair of our Doctoral Program told me he wants to reinstate a program that invites students to working sessions with faculty. In these sessions faculty bring really rough drafts and students can see the process of working through from crap to published.
You can hide until your work is perfect. The impact, however, is that you risk set backs and missing out on the incredible opportunity of working together.
Moving quickly with support is worth a little criticism, don't you think?
Pop a little draft of something to your adviser today...
A bright and cheerful colleague of mine, Sarah McLewin Kincaid, was kind enough to share her tips for re-igniting her passion for her masters thesis.
Her suggestions are wonderfully whimsical. I will try #1 today on my way to the library.
Here are Sarah's suggestions...
"One fun things I do to help me with my thesis is make a list of fun ways I can work on it. Here's a few things on my fun thesis list
1) write a poem about a reading
2) read the news on Tunisia
3) go to coffee with a Tunisian friend
4) find images that represent my research question
5) journal about my progress
6) watch a documentary related to my topic"
I love her list because it engages the left and right brain. It also shows that Sarah engages her whole self with the project. She engages with film, art, and people. This ensures that her whole being is a part of her writing...not just her frontal lobe.
I suspect her thesis will be not only more enjoyable to write, but also a wonderful reflection of herself. This will help her after she graduates as well. She will be an integrated whole, not just someone who engaged her brain for two years.
Email me with your suggestions or respond to Sarah's!!
Because I had the fabulous luxury of receiving a grant that "forbade me" from taking a job, I spoke with a few people who work full-time while writing their dissertations. They offered this important tip...to finish, occasionally you will need to take time off from your job.
You might need to finish your proposal, write up your field work or move through a difficult writing portion. While ideally you are writing at least two hours a day (rather than just on weekends), sometimes sustained deep writing sessions will be in order.
This might mean thinking ahead now about how you want to use precious vacation time. Truth is, finishing your dissertation or thesis will give you a feeling of peace and relief almost no vacation can provide.
A colleague wrote to ask for help moving forward on her dissertation when she's on-site, far away from colleagues and steeped in the details of a life in a foreign country.
So how to move forward when you feel like you're all alone at the Arctic Circle in the middle of the night? Well, she isn't at the arctic circle, she's in a developing nation trying to do research, learn the local language and struggle with daily life issues like broken mopeds, etc.
That's not all, she's also being swept up into activist activities as part of her research and the peculiar schedules of those she's interviewing.
From Bed to Laptop
Roll out of her bed (or cot or hammock if that is the case) right on to her laptop when she wakes up and start writing.
That means writing from 6-9am or 7-10 and only then leaving the house (or hut). This means making sure your machine is charged and doing nothing before writing other than using the bathroom and having some water. This ensures that no matter what happens for the rest of the day that you have written at least three hours. Two hours is enough to move you forward, but I recommend three because inevitably you will go online for something or get distracted for a few minutes.
Ideally turn-off the wifi and go to it. In a few days your brain will be trained with thoughts in the am. Even if you aren't sure what you will write, just sit there. It will come.
When I do this, the rest of the day I feel a sense of freedom and accomplishment. I'm more available to others in my life. She may even feel more present in her interviews.
In sum...write before you can think of an excuse not to.
Let me know how it goes!!
This week I munched a vegan bacon double cheeseburger with an alum of my doctoral program who works with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While I pondered the mystery of a vegan cheeseburger, I asked him any writing tips he had for current students wanting to complete their dissertation or thesis.
He gave some simple, albeit, vital advice.
"Don't add hurdles," he said. He realized that he could pick a project that would require hundreds of research hours on a topic he knew nothing about or worked with what he knew.
Already an employee at the EPA, he chose environmental negotiation and as a result produced a great dissertation and now book that builds on his accomplishments in his field.
Many people - myself included - can become lured by foreign travel or esoteric interests when selecting a topic or working on their research.
As a masters student in Paris, I actually pondered doing my research in India. Luckily I realized the insanity of that and the benefits of working right where I was -- in France.
So, when thinking about your topic or even your research approach, remember this is not your final piece of work. Focus on how you can finish...save India for another day.
Sarah Federman, PhD