There are many events that can interrupt your writing, both internal and external. Some of the external events you cannot control, or only partially. However, with the internal events, you do have a choice in how to respond and maybe get out of your own way…
In the book ‘writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day’, Joan Bolker describes three mental tricks we play on ourselves that can interrupt progress on dissertations. The first is ambivalence, the second, mental static , and the third, anxiety – what she calls ‘writing scared’.
Part of you really wants to finish your thesis, and part of you may not, and the latter part is likely to be sneaky (‘Wouldn’t this be the perfect time, when I have no other obligations, to have my teeth/appendix/hernia/home fixed?’ ‘ While I’m more working from home, I could have a puppy.’). Because writing a dissertation often is lonely work, the part of you that is social, that likes and needs companionship, will continually try to drag you out into company – or drag it in.
It is very much possible to want very much to write your dissertation, and also to want very much not to – and if the forces are just about equal, you will end up in the seesaw position with a lot of tension and no motion.
One solution to the problem is to recognize it and push off from the ground again, another is to consider applying force as well as weight. In the latter case that might mean engaging a friend as a cheering squad, or asking your promotor to set you frequent deadlines, or listing explicitly for yourself all of the reasons it would be lovely to be finished with your degree.
Most of us are ambivalent about the important psychic events of our lives: getting married, having children, being in love, or taking the sort of major leap forward professionally that earning a doctorate constitute. You can’t banish mixed feelings by denying them, or trying to legislate them out of existence, but if you pay attention to them, they may let you move forward. Learn to recognize, feel, laugh at, your own ambivalence, and the to get on with your work.
Static is Joan Bolkers name for the unrelated thoughts, feelings, and other distractions that pass through your mind while you’re writing or trying to write; it’s the mental debris that seems to have little to do with what you are writing about. You may simultaneously consider an abstract idea, remember what you forgot to do before coming to the library and notice that you are hungry. Even when you are writing about something that is terribly important to you, your thoughts may frequently wander down many side paths.
Struggling writers complain about easily getting distracted and note that distractions seem more often to come from the inside than from the outside. They experience static as disruptive, disorderly, a sign of incipient brain rot. There is an interesting experiment you can try with your own static that may convince you otherwise. Instead of trying to push it out of your mind, try writing down whatever is in your head. If you do this over time, you may be surprised to discover that there is indeed a method to your seeming madness: themes that are present in what seemed to be chaos, themes that reappear over and over again.
One very common theme of static concerns unfulfilled obligations, real or imaginary: ‘I need to call my elderly aunt, right now,’ or ‘I probably ought to be cooking tonight, since my partner has cooked for the whole week,’ or ‘This house really needs cleaning up.’
Some of these thoughts may be about the real toll that writing takes on other parts of your life, but some of the static is about a much deeper part of being a writer: there is something inherently and wonderfully selfish about claiming time for your own thoughts and words, about taking them seriously enough to dedicate a major piece of your life to them, and a smaller piece to the needs of others.
So static can come from many different causes: it may be merely the way our minds work; it may represent internal conflct about being a writer; ift may be a defenisve maneuver that we employ when we are conflcited about our accomplishment or afraid that our speaking out will hurt someone else. At its worst, it may be present in order to keep us from writing at all.
There are two different ways to deal with static, and either one can work. The first is ‘the Budhist way’ and it is based on meditation techniques, what has been described as ‘training-the-mind-puppy-not-to-wander-off’. There are various focusing techniques, where you’ll learn not so much pushing the statics out, but to pulling your thoughts back to the topic at hand. These techniques can be found in any number of fine books on meditation and mindfullness.
The second strategy may sound a bit paradoxal: it encourages you to move toward the static, rather than away from it. Try keeping a separte pad next to your main work and just jotting down the static as it happens. Giving the static a little bit of your time may keep it from taking all of your time and breaking your concentration.
Or: keep a runing list of all the other things you’d like to jump up and do (wash the bathroom, clean up your desk, pay the bills, practice violin…), and then promise yourself that you can do any or all of them, as soon as you’ve finished your set number of pages for the day. You’ll be surprised how much less attractive the items on your list look once you’ve finished our writing that day.
It’s a rare dissertation writer who is never really scared about his project. Writing a dissertation provides the perfect medium for anxiety, for both healthy and neurotic reasons. It’s a big deal to write a book, both psychologically and realistically.
There are many reasons for thesis writers to become discouraged. Most of them are highly individual, so I wont’ go in to them. But if you are a scared writer, do know that it is perfectly possible to write scared. You don’t have to get ‘unscared’ first; you just need to learn how to work despite your anxiety. In fact, writing is probably the best cure for a scared writer.
You can ask yourself what scares you so much; try writing down the answer, and pay attention to what you’ve writen. You can pretend you’re giving advice to one of the students you may have met during your teaching obligations, or to your fellow PhD-students who’ve told you about their blocks. You can try mantras for inspiration, and rewards for times when you write through your block.
Being scared is sometimes a defense, a wonderful way of shifting your deep concern about the meaning of what you’re trying to accomplish to a symptom that keeps you from doing it. But there are good ways to keep the fear from getting the best of you.
So, keep up the writing work, write every day, fifteen minutes will do (and it is allowed that a big part of it is rubbish!). Enjoy!
Photo’s via Flickr, with thanks to flash.pro and tootao