Friday, May 19, 2017

Fear of the Blank Page

We've all been there. In fact, I was there until about three seconds ago.

No matter what kind of writing we do, whether we're consummate wordsmiths or grammar-phobic mathematicians, the blank page is, as one Modernist writer called it, "The face of fear." While we meet many other faces of fear along the way to completing a thesis or dissertation (procrastination, stalled research, critical advisors...), simply getting started causes its own unique terror. But there are several simple ways to overcome this phenomenon.

How to Vanquish the Blank Page

 1.  Put some words on it. This is the simplest way you can lessen the starkness of a white screen.  Something about empty white space instills fear in us, and of course it hurts our eyes too. Really: simply type out a working title. Format a table of contents or dash off an acknowledgements page. Or paste in your bibliography and begin to edit it.  Any of these little tasks not only fill the page with quite a bit of text, but it will get you comfortable with sitting with THAT document. (You know the one.)

2. Use a blue blocker, especially after sunset. Reducing the blue light in your life is good for your overall health, but it also decreases the whiteness (read: scariness!) of the screen. You can buy a physical screen blocker or download an app.

3. Trust that every little step leads to the next one.  You don't have to begin at the beginning! When I began the draft of my dissertation prospectus (so we're talking draft and prospectus... not even the real deal), I was terrified. So, I started with the low-hanging fruit. Did I know how to write a contextual history of the topic I'd barely begun to research? No. Did I even know what methodology I would use? No. So, I began by pasting in my bibliography, cleaning it up, and formatting it. I learned from that exercise which sources were most important to me. Then I was able to write a methodology (i.e. which literary texts I would research and using which sources).  Once I did that, I was homed in on a topic, and better suited to write the introductory paragraphs of the proposal.  And, if I had had to write a literature review, I wouldn't have been able to do that until I'd read everything for the rest of the proposal. Every simple task teaches you something that helps with the harder tasks.

4. Type up your notes. You've already written or typed out ideas, observations, and reactions as you read or researched. Paste those ideas into an outline. The outline can be loose! Whenever you write a first draft, it's just a draft. You can make it pretty later.  Seeing all your thoughts in one place, and connecting them with the tissue of a paper-structure (however tentative it may be) gives you a framework for imagining your paper. 

5. Actually use your imagination. True story: When writing up prospective chapter outlines in my proposal, I asked my advisor, "So, I just imagine the chapter I hope to have written and describe it? Like I'm describing the best chapter I can imagine?" Yes, she said.  Use your right brain to power through those crippling left brain moments. At some point you have to make your imaginary dissertation into reality (and edit the unicorns out of Chapter 2...), but visualizing it helps make it happen. 

These are the tricks I'm currently using to make my dissertation happen.  What frightens you about writing? And how do you find ways to overcome the fear of getting started?

Friday, May 5, 2017

Staying in Love with Your Thesis or Dissertation

Exams passed, proposal approved, and you happily move forward with your writing project.  The growing relationship between you and your significant document draws on several forces, not least passion and devotion.  For some writers, these forces never waver and may even increase over time.  Yet other writers can face weary stretches due to a fading of that initial spark.  How does it happen?  How can writers stay enthralled with their thesis or dissertation?  This post mainly goes out to those of you who ponder such questions.  But it also offers helpful bits even to those convinced from the outset that they will blissfully go the distance—and those thrilled to be nearing their project’s final stages.    

Prime Factors Behind Burnout

Waning enthusiasm over the course of such a long undertaking can result from many things.  You deal with certain matters beyond your control, such as outside commitments to work or family, schedules of your committee, or availability of resources for research, experiments, or data analysis.  But most important are your own contributing thoughts and emotions, internal matters that can press acutely but that you can likely address more readily.  Such as:

Doubts about your progress.  Uncertainties about the development of your lengthy document can crop up during writing slumps and delays.  You may also harbor doubts while waiting for feedback on chapters from your readers—or, after receiving feedback, while acting on requests for changes or revisions, major and minor. 

Concerns that what you’re doing is trivial.  Such concerns partner with the so-called imposter syndrome.  They may cause you to reconsider the theory or methodology you’re applying to your endeavor.  You may ponder tweaking your approach, revisiting your proposal, or even stripping away at the foundations of the entire affair.

Temptations to pull the plug.  These can accompany outbursts like “I’m sick and tired of this whole thing.”  Probably not the exact words of any contemporary American grad student, and most likely not always true about all parts of the undertaking.  For example, in the case of my dissertation, the literary texts I’m writing about are, to me, endlessly fascinating and enjoyable.  But let’s face it: even re-examining stuff you like can eventually become draining.  Outside the context of language and literary research, important supporting tasks like tabulating results, running statistical tests, or transcribing interviews can each get tedious.  Any project requiring long stretches of deep thought, creativity, intense focus, and adherence to standards and guidelines inevitably leads to exhaustion.

Some Solutions

OK, so what to do about all this?  Among the many possible courses of action, the following three seem eminently achievable:

Revisit work that brought you to your project.  Look back at previous studies or research relevant to your current doings—or at things not directly related to them.  This experience may help remind you of what drew you to your project in the first place or point out approaches to it you may not have considered yet.

Talk about your project.  Although your ultimate aim is to arrange your ideas in writing, talking them over with others can help you maintain momentum and flow, rediscover what excites you about your project, and see what others find interesting in it.  The first person to turn to is your director, who knows your project well but is still one step removed from the composition process and, therefore, able to rekindle your sense of its strengths and significance.  Certainly you can also approach your committee readers for similar feedback.  Friends and family members can be good sounding boards, even if they’ve already heard a lot from you about your various compositional ups and downs.  Also consider the benefits of sharing your project’s aims with new acquaintances in your department, across campus, and at academic conferences.  I recently traveled to a large national conference, where I presented a portion of my dissertation research, attended several panels on topics relevant to it, and took in few that were distantly related.  The trip was a brief but helpful break from the writing.  It gave me welcome chances to meet and talk about what I’m doing with grad students and faculty from other institutions.  I came back refreshed and reenergized.    

Take regular breaks.  Needed diversions from your largely indoor endeavor should be regular and clearly distinguished from your main tasks at hand.  Getting outside, especially now that the weather is turning sunnier and warmer, can do wonders for your writing, thinking, and overall enthusiasm for your project.  Such sessions of “meditation on the move,” a term writer and runner Joe Henderson has applied to recreational long-distance running, will be explored in a future post on taking your writing outside.  Look for it in the coming weeks.  Until then, happy writing!     

Meditation on the Move, Southwest of the NIU Campus