One of my vices as a PhD Candidate has been, I must confess, a tendency to spend a bit too much time thinking about, writing about, and talking about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. While it was the television show that first introduced me to Martin’s world, I quickly found the books and they now hold a prominent place on my bookshelf.
I tend to be a bit obsessive about keeping lists, particularly as a way of keeping track of my work. I like to keep a daily log of what I read, what research I conduct, or how many words I write. And for most of the time I’ve been working on my dissertation, this has been a great way of keeping myself on schedule but also motivating myself by seeing how productive I’ve been on a given day. I like this approach and it fits my own personal quirks.
There are many things a prospective graduate student is warned about by their friends, family, undergraduate advisers, and well-meaning acquaintances. You are told about the meager income, the possibility of increasing loan debt, and the isolation that can come from being a graduate student. One of my favorites is the increasingly frequent process of hopping over to facebook only to read yet another update on an undergraduate friend buying a home and/or car. The tears do little to add to the flavor of my ramen.
It seems fitting that my first post in what seems like forever should come after another post about the writing process. Last time, I tried to express how important it was for me to put away my fears of writing a flawless first draft and just get stuff on a page. This post tries to build on that. At least, I think it does…
It’s been some time since I’ve blogged. It’s been a busy, yet productive semester. And while I wish more time had been devoted to trips to the library and the archives, I’ve been doing quite a lot of writing. Grant proposals, conference abstracts, and writing samples have stolen away much of my work time.
One thing that really slowed me down was my ferocious struggle with writer’s block. Now, I could easily attribute this to fear. The fear that hundreds of other people would be submitting proposals to the various things for which I’m applying. But it’s far easier to say I simply struggled with an inability to articulate the ways in which my dissertation has evolved and my need to write everything perfectly right from the first draft. There were many a day I’d sit glaring at my computer writing and rewriting the very first sentence of a draft. After some time, I realized this wasn’t going to be a good long term strategy for productive writing. I was letting writer’s block win. What should be easy turned out to be extremely difficult. One page conference abstracts seemed like 20-page treatises looming on my to-do list.
Then I was fortunate enough to come across Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. In Lamott’s book is a chapter entitled “Shitty First Drafts.” The chapter essentially argues that sometimes it isn’t a bad thing to write a poor first draft. Sometimes it’s more important getting the words onto the page. Perfectionism is more often a hindrance than it is a strength when trying to write out new ideas for the first time.
Reading this liberated me. So I decided to embrace its core ideas. I sat down and just started writing. Most of what I wrote was absolutely awful. But sometimes I’d find a perfect little nugget that made its way into the final version. Sure, it means I have a lot of revising ahead of me. But I learned that I need to write a bad first draft in order to know how I don’t want to say something before I can figure out how I do want to say it. And as one of my professors always says, “the only good writing is good rewriting.”
Sometimes you can’t always sit around and wait for the perfect wording to come to you. I think everyone in academia tends to be a perfectionist in one way or another. That is probably even more true for a grad student writing a dissertation. But anguishing over every word and phrase exacerbates writer’s block. I found that if I was too afraid to write something poorly, it was far too easy to fall into the tailspin of writer’s block and procrastination. It’s one thing when you are cranking out a historiography to get it done for a class. There’s a forced deadline there that motivates you to write. But when you have no set schedule and you are writing for a long term goal? That’s a different challenge. Getting over my writer’s block and fear of bad firsts drafts was an important step in the dissertation process. I can’t guarantee I won’t face this problem again. But by embracing the “shitty first draft,” I’m able to be a more productive writer. And I have a feeling that will come in handy when I start writing more frequently. Because, after all, the best dissertation is a finished dissertation.
Two issues, somewhat related, came across my computer screen recently that gave me reason to think about the state of openness among historians, and academics in general. The first was the AHA’s statement on scholarly journal publishing. The second was a post over at Inside Higher Ed about whether or not one should blog. It also included an interesting aside about the ethics of live-tweeting and live-blogging academic conferences. I don’t feel fully comfortable offering any thoughts about the AHA’s statement, particularly because I am late to the open access topic, and don’t feel qualified to weigh in on the issue. But taken together, these two posts lead me to ask what I think is an important question:
Are historians (and perhaps other people in the humanities) doing an adequate job selling the importance of their work to the wider public?
Admittedly, I’ve never been someone who can easily go with the flow. While I very much like to appear calm, cool, and collected, my friends can attest to the fact that I trend towards high strung and anxious. As I have alluded to in the past, the ambiguity and lack of structure in the dissertation process has proved challenging. As such, I’ve put together a very detailed schedule based around four facets of fall semester work: archival work, historiography/reading from home, grant writing, and exercise.
I found out over the summer that I don’t do well with six days of consecutive work in the archives. I get agitated if someone sits in my favorite seat, I grow antsy cooped up in the library, and I end up focusing less than I should considering the importance of the task at hand. This has also been a big factor in the development of my rigorous schedule, as I hope some variety will keep things fresh. So with this preface out of the way, let’s unveil the schedule