If you’re writing your dissertation, you’ve probably experienced the all too common range of emotions, from initial elation to paralyzing fear to plunging despair, and in between many starts, stops, and freezes. Here I suggest how you can at least cut down on those maddening swings and coax, invite, and entice the Flow.
Craving publication, we may view journal editors as the enemy, obstructing our fame, fortune, and at least one publication. And when the acceptance finally arrives (and with relentless perseverance, it will), we rejoice, send out email blasts to everyone we know, and reply to world-renowned conference directors with gracious replies. Before all this, though, we should do one thing that’s both considerate and diplomatic: thank the editor.
This action makes sense for several sound reasons:
You’re knee-deep or, more accurately, file/notecard/article/laptop-deep in your dissertation. You don’t hear anything around you—refrigerator opening, kids tussling, clothes washer whirring. You don’t even hear your name called for dinner. When you come up for air, you realize that your partner hasn’t spoken to you for days. When they do, it’s only to wail, “I never see you anymore!”
When we’ve squeezed out a few sentences, a paragraph, or page of the first draft of our current writing project, in our elation we may be tempted to go back and revise. The pull to polish is irresistible. So, we revisit those hard-won sentences and baby them into perfection. Then we sit back and bask with satisfaction.
But what do we have? Admittedly, a start, but really just a few sentences. We know we should have kept going with the fearsome task of confronting the blankness, but we yield.
Your fingers play the keyboard like a concert pianist, your pens run dry with astounding speed, your pages pile up like gold. “Wow,” you think, “this is how it should be! I’m gonna go all night!”
But then, faster than a form rejection, more powerful than an editor’s frown, able to freeze your brain in a single flash, a horrible thought zaps you: I can’t stand it anymore!
What! Why? A strange reason: Your writing’s going just too well.
Do ideas flood your brain like a herd gone wild? Do you flail around, physically and metaphorically, trying to corral them and drive them into the barn? Are you going mad trying to figure out how to use them all?
I am almost constantly barraged by ideas for essays, stories, poems, novel slivers, quirky descriptions, and metaphoric pearls. Ideas surface everywhere: as I edit clients’ manuscripts, wash dishes, huff through workouts, wait on line, watch people, meditate, fall asleep, and even during tactful small talk at business dinners.
All the deluging ideas used to make me groan. Sometimes I’d even feel envious of writers who complained about their sparse fits of inspiration. I’d grouse internally that my ideas never seemed to stop. How would I ever get to them all, much less organize them or make something of them? Most would end up in a mass of ragged notes or on scraps stuffed under the scanner.
If you’re contemplating a doctoral program in which a dissertation is required or you’re already registered and sneaking up on one—and you feel stumped (read: procrastinating)—here are five ways that should help you begin.
The dissertation is the crowning achievement for your degree. Having reached at least the threshold of the dissertation, congratulate yourself. You made it through all the prerequisites and courses, and you’re that much closer to the award of your degree. You’ve done it all because . . . . ? This is the time to remind yourself: How is this degree part of my life’s goals?
It can blare out while you’re working on any piece, anytime, anywhere. You’re writing along like butter, and suddenly a stomach-wrenching jolt slams you up against a concrete wall. That thunderous voice in your head rebukes: “THAT’S THE WORST, MOST HORRIBLE, STUPID PHRASE SINCE . . . .” And you’re paralyzed.
Take heart. Such a message doesn’t have to plunge you into a full block. Recognize it for what it is—your ever-present inner editor, often old programming, maybe residue of parental strictures, telling you that you shouldn’t be writing, you’ll never be a writer, and you might as well go sell burner phones (if that’s not your day job already).
Between bouts of hating what we write, we may secretly admire our creations. And we’re entitled to. But there’s a difference between admiration and excessive love of our own words. Such love blinds us to editorial blunders, judicious cutting, faults in logic, and any other revision, and reduces the possibilities of publication.
Is your dissertation dragging you down? Are you dragging your feet, your manuscript in sorry tow behind you like an annoying younger brother? Are you doing the impossible already—on campus or online, like many other graduate students juggling family, work, and school? Your academic struggles are intensified by the stresses of such multiple responsibilities and, possibly, loss of your long-range picture.
From what I’ve learned and observed as a longtime coach of graduate students and writer of creative projects, here I address some issues that can trip you up. And I share some steadying remedies so you handle your dissertation and other creative projects with less dragging and more speed and even enthusiasm.