Yes, it's the holidays.
Yes, you have a cold.
Yes, your Mom is calling
No, you don't have wrapping paper and you forgot where you filed your flight info.
All this is true.
and YES you still have a dissertation/book/article to finish.
So, the instinct is to say "Screw it, it will have to wait until the New Year."
I am all for taking a few days off. I'll be taking a break next week. That break, however, is planned. Not an accidental break that occurred as a result of defeat.
To support you during this season that begs you to eat sugar and forget your commitments, I wanted to share a little piece of delicious advice from Barbara Sher.
Almost twenty years ago, I found myself graduating from college with no idea what to do with my life. Graduating early seemed really cool, but the clock ran out. Somehow, I stumbled on a little 10 cassette program about finding your passion.
It was cassette format so you can imagine how long ago this was.
Now, hokey as it may sound to you serious folks, Sher's program was terrific for me. She had me hang up index cards on my wall filled with dreams. Then she had me pull one off at a time and do it...it worked. I soon found myself Swing dancing all over Philadelphia and rollerblading down to the art museum.
Her handy little method helped pull me from a blur partly caused by 4 years of philosophy back into life.
Her program helped me decide to move to San Francisco and ultimately become the Manager of the Institute for Health and Healing Resource Center. A wonderful Institute and a wonderful job.
So what's in this for you?
Barbara Sher's Gift to Writers
Barbara (she doesn't know but we're on a first name basis), had this wonderful little technique for getting yourself moving when you feel like your feet are stuck in cement.
Here's her strategy....
1. Pick the smallest little part of the project you are willing to do.
2. Think about one thing you love about it.
She gave the example of a swimmer having to at least stick her toe in the water everyday and think of one thing about swimming she liked.
You won't believe how cool this is and how effective it is against writing resistance.
Give it a try. Pick at least one tiny little thing you can do today on your project. It may be just holding a book you have to read. Or, she recommends, walking around the room with your manuscript in your hand.
It might be emailing your adviser with your time plan for the next few months. When you do it, think of one thing you like about it.
You may like the feel of the book or you might recall what you liked about your adviser enough to choose him. You'll see, it's powerful. Then you might be inspired to do something else...soon you'll be full on in action.
But don't worry if it's really just a small thing the next few days. Just keep it in motion.
This is ultimately the idea behind the book Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day.
Let me know how it goes.
I'm still taking coaching clients, so please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And I will be leading a dissertation intensive the third week in February through George Mason University.
If you have more than two pieces about writing, you're likely confused. Some writers advise one strategy and others totally disagree. One area of debate seems to be the gestation period. Some successful writers will tell you that taking a break is a good idea...you need to get away from your text so that you can interact with other materials and get some perspective.
Other writers tell you to show up at your desk everyday. Just sit there if you must like the wonderful poet Mary Oliver who said in a recent OnBeing interview that she would sit 5am-9am each day.
Where are you on this?
Do you do best when you write daily or do you find yourself needing to step away often?
The tricky thing here is knowing the difference between gestation and procrastination.
How do you know if you're gestating or procrastinating?
I asked myself this question the past couple weeks when I noticed I had not written any blogs.
Was I gestating or hiding?
One way I've figured out how to circumvent this little conundrum was to make sure I was writing every day. I allow myself to change what I am working on, but if I set aside 4 hours a day everything seems to move forward-- often in unexpected ways.
For example, I started working on one application and started reading articles that helped me finish up something else.
Hope this helps. If you're not sure whether you're gestating or hiding, just start working on something else. Then take a break, go to a holiday party, stand under some mistletoe and wait for a new idea or a kiss. Either will do.
I want to make sure my clients and readers have the best support, advice and strategies for writing. Therefore, it's not enough to draw on my own experiences and those of the individuals I have counseled.
I must reach beyond. This week I am reading How to Finish Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker, ED.D.
She is actually trained to help folks with writing issues. How cool! I'll be sharing a few things I'm getting from her book in the coming days.
Everyone has her own writing style!
I love that she does not say greater writers all do "thus and such." She says you can write in toothpaste in the closet if that works-- only if that works.
The main piece of standard advice, though, is that all writers are working daily. Yes, that means even this holiday weekend.
Bolker has found that it is better to work a little everyday than trying to do writing binges. Or, trying to write after a full day of work.
Writing Reward Versus Writing Punishment
Many times writers beat themselves up for not meeting goals. She has found after working with thousands of folks that rewards work better than punishment.
For years, I have been setting up writing rewards!
It works really well for me. This fall, I wouldn't let myself buy a high-end blender (smoothie/soup/hummus maker) until I submitted my article. It meant waiting two extra months. It arrived last night! I'm now searching for anything I can liquefy... (a potential writing distraction..ha ha)
To motivate me for the next sweep of work, I've picked another reward...It's big enough to motivate me. Why not give it a try? Think of a goal in your writing, pick a reward and then don't give it to yourself until you achieve it. (Warning: avoid regular food goals-- it's too easy to gain weight while writing)
For the first few days after the Paris attacks, I didn't want to write any more. At least not for the moment.
At the Center for Narrative and Conflict Resolution we often discuss how violence, while itself a speech act, often works to silence its victims and its observers. There is something about violence that seems, perhaps because it is an unspoken act, that seems to reach into ones mouth and steal words.
Emotions swirl. Primal emotions of revenge and ire bubble up from the gut to the throat easily. Somehow, they seem to get stuck right there. I feel them stuck somewhere in the inside of my cheeks. When I touch that spot where despair hits my conscious mind and responsible mouth, my eyes well up.
I feel heat, nausea, and water in my eyes. But there are no real "thoughts" in that experience. There is just raw wonder. Not inspired wonder, but the kind of wonder that pulls you look towards Hades and Dante's Inferno not toward heaven or the Divine Comedy.
Walk Inside That Pain
I want to close off. Wake up, watch the stars dissolve as the sunrises and fill up my bird-feeder and forget.
This week, however, I'm haunted by another poet as much as by the events that have taken place in Paris, St. Petersburg, Beirut, Baghdad and now Mali.
The poet, whose name I'll add when I find the reference, warned that we all have a door we will not walk through. He warns, however, if we never dare to enter, we will simply rearrange the furniture in the rooms that do not scare us.
The thought of rearranging furniture for a lifetime seems like some kind of hell or at least purgatory.
The French word for purgatory is similar to the English word, though fare more onomatopoeic. By this I mean the word sounds far more like the experience in French -- purgatoire
Writing Our Way Through the Purgatoire of Violence
Those who have read Anne Lamott's delicious book on writing may well remember her sentiment to the effect, "I either had to start writing or kill myself." When she said it, it sounded hilarious. That is her gift.
I'm wondering if writing, speaking even when the words seem to be tucked in the heart, under the liver and behind the eyes is worth the effort. It at least gets us around the purgatoire of rearranging furniture.
At our Town Hall Meeting on the recent events at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Professor Rich Rubenstein encouraged participants to admit "areas of uncertainty."
That's a way of saying, you can talk, write or even just make a weird noise even if you have no solution. Your efforts at speaking are in and of themselves a response to violence.
Most of the people with whom I work worry about not having enough time.
Correction...every person I coach worries about not having enough time to complete their writing project.
This made me wonder...is it really true that no one has enough time or do we just use time pressure to motivate us into action?
As scholar of narrative, I pay very close attention to how people "story" themselves and their lives.
There is a narrative of time scarcity that flies around like a bat loose in a barn. Everybody below screaming, Time scarcity! Time scarcity!"
When you think about how much time it took to write a book just 30 years ago before laptops and personal computers, then you wonder...can it really be true? Is time missing?
I'm encouraging people (myself included) to consider the possibility that we actually have all the time we need. Assume that we are in the perfect place in our projects and everything is on schedule. Then START!
Stoic Theory of Time
The stoic philosophers thought a great deal about time. They did not see time as something real but rather "incorporeal" and always relative to something else.
They understood its flexibility. Their model allowed them to consider that an entire year as the present.
The point of all this is that time can be warped. You can think of five minutes that felt like an eternity (physical pain often) and a summer vacation that went by in a flash.
Given time's incorporeal nature and warping ability, why not assume that whatever we have is enough?
So let's all take a deep breath, sit down and start.
There are a few "Classics" when it comes to books on dissertation writing. One by David Sternberg called How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation provides tons of good tips. Even though it was reissued in 2014, however, I still find some of the concepts a touch dated. Many of your faculty might be part of the "old days" too!!
Dissertation/Thesis Writing in the "Old Days"
No professional life:
Back in the old days, folks usually just went to school. Yup, they enrolled in a masters or a doctoral program and they probably didn't work. At least they didn't hold a full-time job or have an extremely demanding "non-academic" life.
Back in the old days, folks had typewriters or wrote by hand. Long, slow, and if you'll ask you'll hear quite a few stories of the husband making the edits and the wife retyping them. I have heard this a few times.
Oh and if you lost your draft it was over!! One of my professors at the University of Pennsylvania, somehow put his dissertation draft on the top of his car in a box and then drove away. It was impossible, he said, to collect all the pages all over the highway. He wrote it again.
Bibliographies & materials all by hand
Yup! They had to do it all by hand. All the articles they read and books they skimmed they had to do live. Anything they wanted to site, they had to touch with their hands. Furthermore, they had to squeak out that bibliography letter by letter.
Dissertation/Thesis Writing Today
Now many folks have to balance very real and very demanding professional lives WHILE writing these labor intensive documents. I am working with folks in the military who are trying to get work done AFTER they finish their day job. Another colleague is running a non-profit, taking care of her newborn AND working on her dissertation. It's an insane challenge and we need new strategies for dealing with these challenges.
My future blogs and videos will talk more about this. In my coaching sessions we deal with these issues often, creating individualized plans that work for folks.
Ok, the death of the typewriter is probably the greatest gift for the current doctoral or masters student. Being able to edit, save, revise, etc. all on this handy portable device is extraordinary.
I have worked on my documents on the beach in Bali, Indonesia, at dozens of Parisian cafes, in the Library of Congress, and in airport waiting areas.
On your worst days just be thankful for the laptop.
While we get the laptop and bibliographic software (endnote and zotero), we have another challenge. Now when we type in our topic, we get 50,000 hits! It's information overload.
My future blogs and videos will talk about how to deal with this. For now, suffice to say, if you're overwhelmed, it's normal. We are the info glut era and if you are writing a research paper you're going to hit it head on.
The difference between the past and the present actually takes up much of my coaching sessions because most faculty wrote in the THEN not the NOW. So I work with folks on these issues.
Keep trucking...just remember you're not alone...tens of thousands of folks are struggling to finish their writing projects.
My super colleague Sarah Kincaid organized a terrific writing day this Saturday. Eight folks showed up in a bright conference room over-looking the trees.
Sarah brought coffee, donuts and snacks. We tapped away at our keyboards taking breaks to share ideas and fill up our mugs.
What a treat it was it work together and break the isolation of writing.
We worked from 9-5 with a lunch break.
If you have unfinished writing you're working on grab some friends and find a nice room.
Everyone has something unfinished and there is something about power in numbers.
"People are rewarded in public for what they do in private"
Sarah Federman, PhD