Yesterday I had the goal of writing 1200 words of a chapter draft. But when I got to my office to work, I felt groggy and unmotivated. I couldn’t think clearly, I didn’t want to write, and I was afraid that anything I did write would end up deleted the second I re-read it. So I called up some advice from my Amazing Advisor: “If you can’t write, do something else.” But not just anything else–something related to what you’re working on that will need to be done at some point anyway. Take notes. Photocopy book chapters. Work on the bibliography. Format a chapter.
These are only a few of the stacks of research materials in my office. The floor between the trunk and the bookshelf is covered with piles of articles, and this is only one quarter of my office space.
It worked. Instead of writing, I filled my work session with productive activity: I took notes on a book I need to return the library, I assessed eight books I picked up from InterLibrary Loan and decided what I should photocopy, I organized my desk a little and worked on a footnote or two, I took a thinking walk. By the end of the time, my mind was back in the game. I had a sense of what I needed to do next, and I remembered a particularly good article that would be relevant to the section I needed to draft (and I even found the article in my piles of office clutter). When I came back to my desk after the kids were in bed, I blazed through 500 new words in record time.
This is advice I need to remember on those groggy days. Something is always better than nothing. And at the end of the project all those pesky little necessary tasks are already done.
I can write prolifically about nothing. I know, it’s a gift. From really lame junior high journal entries, to pages and pages of freewriting about whatever it is that’s stressing me out about my dissertation, words on a page have never been a problem for me. Good words on a page, however? Words that make some sort of argument? Those aren’t quite so easy. Actually, if I have an argument to make, it’s not so bad. If I have a bad draft and have to tinker with it to have it make sense, well, then I’m stuck.
DEH has written about taking something that’s easy for her about writing and using it strategically to take the sting out of something that’s hard. For me, since drafting is rarely difficult, I will often opt to rewrite an entire draft rather than try to move paragraphs around or move sentences around within paragraphs. Even if I’m mostly cutting and pasting, starting from a blank page is refreshing for me rather than tiresome. Blank pages are so full of possibility, so perfect, so ready to be full of sentences as beautifully written as I imagine them to be. And if I’m dissatisfied at the end, there’s always another blank page waiting.
In one article I read today by a noted historian, she spent two pages outlining and quoting from a late-90s romance novel set in the Elizabethan court. Here’s a taste (I love the editorial elipsis right before “instantly”):
“My God, though Elizabeth, how beautiful he is! She wished for nothing more than to fly into Robin’s strong embracing arms . . . . ‘You are welcome back to Court, my Lord,’ she said . . . . With these words Robin . . . instantly pulled Elizabeth into an embrace which she resisted for less than a moment before returning it in kind . . . . [He] kissed her hungrily on the mouth. She yielded to the kiss and moaned with the familiar pleasure of his touch . . . . Then in Robin Dudley’s kingly bed, he made long awaited and passionate love to the Queen of England.”
–from The Queen’s Bastard by Robin Maxwell. Quoted in Carole Levin, “All the Queen’s Children: Elizabeth I and the Meanings of Motherhood,” Explorations in Renaissance Culture 30.1 (Summer 2004): 57-76, p. 65.
Somehow it’s hard for me to imagine Elizabeth Regina as the heroine of a standard romance novel, all sweaty in tangled sheets.
What research gems have you come across recently?
The hard part of writing for me is working out the argument. For smaller projects, like seminar papers, I learned how to pick a topic, dive into the text and the research, talk through my ideas, make outlines repeatedly on the backs of envelopes, and think things through until I had the entire argument in my head. Then I’d sit at my desk with stacks of books and articles surrounding me, post-it-note tags marking all sorts of relevant information, and I’d write, from start to finish, finding quotations as I went along. It usually took about three days to do the actual writing.
With the dissertation, the same things are hard, but I’ve got some added complexity. First, I’m a verbal processor, but far from my university and with no academic community to speak of near home. Long gone are the days when I’d hash over my ideas with roommates over breakfast, or with friends over coffee. Every once in a while when I get stuck, my husband (a computer scientist who isn’t quite sure what it is I do) will listen to me rant through my ideas. I’ve had to learn how to write first, and it seems I am always re-writing. I’m not one who can tinker with sentences or move paragraphs around. I’ve got to start with a blank page, old draft alongside the new, and type and cut-and-paste from beginning to end. Second, the very length of the dissertation means I can’t hold it all in my head at once. Working through the argument means a lot of writing, reading what I’ve written, re-writing, formulating ideas, writing some more. I’m not used to the iterative nature of writing a longer piece, and I find it hard (but it’s growing on me).
The thing I’ve discovered recently–a thing I actually practiced in my shorter writing–is that I’ve got to review and review and review until the problem gets small enough that I can get my head around it. I honestly thought it wouldn’t happen in a dissertation-length work, but it does. I finally have a document titled “What My Prospectus Really Should Have Said” that outlines a coherent, interesting, manageable dissertation. It took four years of dissertation work to get to a coherent view of my dissertation, but it’s here. And it makes me happy.
I suppose that’s been the hardest thing for me about writing–how long it takes to get to the point where the end is in sight.
My first year of dissertation writing consisted of trying to read or write in the evenings after the kids, then an infant and a toddler, went to bed. It took me months to get through Sidney’s Arcadia (which is decidedly long to begin with, and tortuously so when one can only get through about ten pages a night). I discovered (again) that I can do a lot in short chunks of time. But by the end of the year, I had little to show for my work other than a few ideas of what I might write about.
My coffee shop set-up this morning.
Fast forward to this year–four years later–and the dissertation has become a priority. This morning I got to settle in at the coffee shop to work. My younger was already at preschool, and the older one, home on a teacher in-service day, was ensconced in my office out back with the babysitter, having been ejected from the house by the housecleaner. I know I have it good. I’m in a situation where I don’t have to work for pay, and our family finances are such that I can pay for my writing time. Every day of writing is a luxury.
The change for me began when I really began to see my writing as a job, one that required uninterrupted amounts of time. I had to see it as something of value, even though I’m not getting paid to do it. I think even if I hadn’t been able to pay for time to write, the change in my attitude toward my dissertation would have resulted in other kinds of uninterrupted writing time. I read of one author (I can’t recall who) who dropped her children off at a church Sunday school every Sunday, and then sat in the car and wrote. A friend of mine always let her kids stay in the gym daycare as long as they were allowed and set up in the gym lounge to get some work time in. These women treated their work as something of value, something they would creatively make time for.It is possible to write a dissertation during regular evening hours, or even with small chunks of time here and there. With my particular writing temperament and habits, and at this stage in my dissertation writing, 16 daytime hours a week is about right (though I’ve done much work with much less time set aside). But it’s not possible to finish–whatever your time situation–if you don’t believe your work has value.
Here’s what I can’t live without:
Scrivener: I’m most often using a vertically split screen to write in my new blank document and cut-and-paste from my old crappy draft. I love the organizing tools, and the way it can handle my notes as well as my writing.
Microsoft Word: Sad to say, but a paper doesn’t really feel done until I can see it in Word.
Biblography program: I’m using Bookends right now, which I’ll stick with through the dissertation. I don’t think it’s fabulous, but it’s functional. I do love having a searchable bibliography with notes and pdf attached to relevant entries.
750words.com: Whenever I’m stuck (which is often), a 20-minute freewrite can often get me unstuck.
A Pen and a Piece of Paper: I’m a list-maker, and I have to see that list on paper. Backs of envelopes work too. (Here’s my latest list of what I need to put in my introduction. It’s on the back of an extra 2010 Schedule H tax form.)
Tiny Post-it Notes: My books end up with crumpled messes of book-marker post-its at the edge. I’ll often write one or two words about what I’m marking.
Pretty folders: I prefer my copied articles to look a little more attractive and enticing, so I splurge on fancy folders. (See above.)
Printer/copier/scanner: I’m old school. I like to read off of paper.
What tools can’t you live without?
I’ll be joining Dame Eleanor Hull’s writing group for the rest of this spring, but watch for activity here this summer!