The benefits of dissertation infidelity
Here’s the thing: I have tremendous anxieties about writing. Am I starting at the right place? Are my claims nuanced enough?Have I answered the three obvious criticisms of my point? Is my prose captivating? What if I did get off on the wrong foot, followed a path I didn’t properly chart, and will soon find myself in the middle of a dark forest with the sun setting and no breadcrumbs to lead me home?
This feeling borders on the good side of productive and stressful for academic stuff, because the worst I can do is imaginen writing to an anonymous reviewer, or my advisor (neither of whom is very scary, as one of them is faceless and the other one is a cuddle) – but it’s becomes a killer when writing for magazines, since I can immediately imagine three or four specific smart and/or nasty people harrumphing by their morning coffee “well here he goes on his bullshit again…”
And yet I’d like to believe that for most people in this PhD business, writing is a ultimately a passion – why else would you be in a business where your job hangs on a 100,000-word document? In our hearts, we want to be like Tony Grafton, who writes 3,500 words over the course of a long morning.
Which is probably why this passing comment on The Daily Beast turned into #graftonline on Saved By History and Tenured Radical – a challenge to finish your next project before Tony Grafton, by promising yourself to write a certain number of words per day. A number which – since not everyone is Tony Grafton – seems to hover between 500-1,000 words per day.
I’ve been trying this out on and off, and guess what – it can work remarkably well, but can also leave you feeling like a miserable wreck by lunchtime. Sometimes you have off days, you’re pondering over a particularly complicated knot in your argument, or your sources that day simply happen to be particularly boring. And that’s when the pressure kicks in again – even though you realize your writing is always tentative, you’ll eventually edit out the boring bits and rewrite the rest, in the moment the feeling of “I would never want to see this in print” can get quite overwhelming.
So here’s a suggestion that flies in the face of the conventional wisdom telling you that whatever you do, you should be pushing your dissertation forward.
Write other things. Specifically, things that are completely free of the pressures associated with writing for a formal audience. Write fiction, screenplays, poems, autobiographical ramblings, unconnected thoughts on films you watched, blog posts (how do you think this one started…), things you may want to show other people if they turn out well and if you are into that kind of stuff – but that you are not writing for other people. Do things that would be totally not kosher in your discipline, without being conscious about “experimentation”. Basically, do the stuff that makes writing fun without doing the stuff that makes it stressful.
You may find the experience liberating. The stress-free writing, without the constant superego of your advisor/publisher/peer-reviewer breathing down your neck or the necessities of the scholarly apparatus dragging the pace of your ideas to a crawl, can generate spill-over energy that feeds into your academic writing, and most importantly, can help you psychologically cement the idea of writing as something fun and exciting. Plus, you may end up with a blog or a movie script, which never hurts.
As an addendum, I think that one of the things that’s at stake in thinking about writing strategies is this false dichotomy between approaching writing/graduate studies as “your calling” (devote all the energy you have to it at the expense of everything else) or as “just a job” (you go in, do the work, get out). Of course, there’s a third option, which is “a job that is fundamentally based on a creative activity” – which means there has to be room for play and experimentation, and getting comfortable with the writing process. And while getting comfortable does by definition mean a whole lot of writing, it does not necessarily mean that the best way to get comfortable with the process is by only working on your dissertation. So maybe embrace the other options?