In my last post I wrote about getting writer’s block while in graduate school, after having written a rough draft of the dissertation. This post is the second half of the story, in which I discuss beginning to work again. First I talk about how I dealt with writer’s block specifically, then I turn to how I set about doing the actual revisions on my dissertation. That revision process also involved some aspects of emotional self-regulation that helped me not fall back into writer's block.
Amid my dissertation malaise I really turned a corner when I finally admitted writing felt impossible - I truly did not believe I could finish the dissertation - and that I hated doing it. This was a hard thing to say out loud. Quitting was not an option, I was the only income and source of insurance for my family, and I’d gone to grad school in part to escape years of employment insecurity, so the thought of trying to figure out how to do anything else was terrifying as well. (As I type this I am aware that I was naive about the state of the academic job market when I went to grad school in 2005 or so. I am also aware that the market is even worse now than it was when I finally graduated in 2014. Graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty have been massively failed in multiple ways by a lot of powerful people and institutions.)
Having admitted that writing the dissertation felt impossible but that I still had to write it somehow, my job became figuring out how to spend my time doing something I hated and that I didn’t believe I could succeed at. In effect I had to find a way to make my putting in the time to do the work not contingent upon how I felt about doing the work. I still didn’t believe I could finish the dissertation, but I knew that the only shot I had at finishing was to spend a lot of time writing.
As I said last time, the first thing I did in order to make myself get back to writing was to start reading things by other authors discussing their discomfort in writing, and works on academic writing and the writing process. Three works on academic writing that helped me were Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers, and Paul Silvia’s How to Write A Lot. I recommend them all. (I’ve since discovered Joli Jensen’s Write No Matter What, which I highly recommend as well.)
In her book, Belcher comments that writers who feel overcome by the difficulty of writing could benefit from having any kind of positive writing-related experience. In response to that, I started writing again, but not on the dissertation. I would sometimes write on my bus ride to work, just noting observations about my fellow passengers and about what Minneapolis looked like out the window. I counted the words I wrote doing that. I counted any words whatsoever that I wrote. I also tracked the time I spent on writing and the words per hour. That helped me because it gave me a sense of success. If the goal was “make words appear on the page” I was meeting that goal. Meeting a goal felt good and I was hungry for anything about writing to feel good.
My next goal became speed. By aiming to have as many words as possible by the end of the writing session, I spent a great deal less time staring at a blank screen waiting for the perfect idea worth typing to cross my mind, and I did a great deal less deleting of things I typed. Sometime I would do things I felt silly about, like setting the font to white on a white background, or setting the font so tiny I couldn’t read it, or making the window very small and setting the font to 200 point so I could see only a piece of a word at a time. All of that helped me write even faster and stop paying attention to what I perceived as errors. (Over time this approach - typing fast to see where my thoughts end up as a result of the typing - has become a key practice in how I go about practicing a writing life.) After doing that for a while I became convinced again that I could write - I didn’t think I could write well, but I knew I could make words appear on the screen.
It was still hard to get back to academic writing, though, because that writing still counted and would still face judgment - and it felt like very high stakes judgment, judgment that could have an impact on whether or not my kids would have health insurance. In order to deal with the transition back to academic writing specifically, I relied heavily on writing with timers.
In my experience, ome people work well with a stop watch, to count time spent on writing. I do not. I work well with a timer instead. The timer means I set a commitment to writing time before I start, and it means I am allowed to stop when the time goes off. Having the clock ticking down also means I spend less time doing things other than making my fingers move on the keyboard - fretting, pondering, looking up the exact wording of a quote, searching for another source for this footnote… Those all have their place, but personally I need to count them as not writing, or they are all I will do. Having the timer going means I actually write during my allotted writing sessions.
I also worked often in short sessions. That helped too because it meant I knew I could stop soon. That helped me get over the discomfort of starting. To spend a whole day feeling all those bad feelings I had about writing sometimes seemed like more than I could take so I would have trouble getting in the chair in the first place. I could definitely do fifteen minutes, though, and I knew I would feel better afterward. “If nothing else, I can stop soon,” I would tell myself. Often at the end of the fifteen minutes I wanted to keep going, and at that point wanting to write felt amazing, compared to how I often felt.
Having the time period be short meant that I could face the task. Tracking the time and words gave me a sense of accomplishing something, of forward motion. This way of working also meant I typed a lot faster and let my prose have imperfections. Good sentences took more time to craft and lowered the word count by the end of the session so, really, I was better off writing bad sentences, I told myself. This meant I got a little less sensitive about seeing what I saw as imperfections in my prose - I developed a few more calluses, so to speak. After a while of working this way I had logged a lot of minutes and words and felt like I could write again. I had some sense of being in motion.
Having learned to deal better with some of the emotional self-regulation challenges posed by writing, I still faced some challenges at the level of the knowhow required to do the work. I had never revised a dissertation before, I didn’t know how to do that, so I set about looking for material on how to revise. Of the material I found, I remember this blog post from Tweed Editing being particularly helpful to me at the time.
Here’s what I ended up doing on the page, so to speak, in order to revise my dissertation. First off, I shelved my advisors’ comments, as good as they were. Part of the writers’ block experience had meant feeling out of control. (I’ll add that the terrible state of the job market and the poverty my family was living in given graduate employee salaries didn’t help; nor did my employer’s opposition to our graduate employee union drive!) I realized that I did not feel like the dissertation was mine and that feeling was making things worse. In order to deal with that, I had to figure out what I wanted to do with it as a writer. At a gut level, I wanted to throw it away or hide from it, and that was such a loud reaction that I didn’t know anymore what I wanted the actual document to do, say, accomplish.
I knew I wanted the dissertation to be good and that’s about as far as I was clear. In order to figure out better what I really wanted to do, I did the following. Somewhere along the way I had figured out the categories I mentioned last time -
1. big ideas
2. big structure
3. small structure, and
4. line edits.
I realized that for me, I worked better if I kept a writing session focused on only one of those categories. For some reason if I tried to do more than one of those kinds of activities in a writing session I became much, much more tired and felt worse about writing, so I tried to be very conscious that a given work session was focused on only one of those categories. This way of working inadvertently helped me because it meant I had committed to multiple passes through the entire document, each time making some kinds of diagnoses and/or improvements, while ignoring other issues until later. That was another thing that helped me to be less sensitive about things that I experienced as flaws in my work. It helped me to start to see my work as part of a developmental process, and to see ways that the work was in fact at a developmentally appropriate state. This helped me to start thinking of my work in relation to work-in-progress I read from friends and colleagues and to stop thinking of my work in relation to published works I had read. That is, I began the process (and I will stress, I merely began) of accepting the draft-ness of my draft.
I kept working with timers and tried to track my work in spreadsheets. Because I was tracking time and word count, I was unsure how to track time spent re-reading my dissertation. Partly in response to the metric I was using, word-count, I decided I would continue to do regular rapid writing sessions to state the core ideas of my dissertation and its component parts. (I call these ‘free writes’ but they’re not really free so much as they’re rapid and relatively focused; Robert Boice calls this ‘generative writing.’) Free writing ended up becoming a central part of the revision process, again with accidental benefits, in that I would periodically hit on new ways to frame my core arguments.
As I worked, I remained afraid. (Reading the first draft of chapter two made me cry - full on sobbing, tears streaming down my face - five times.) As I went through the dissertation draft, I did free writes in response to the question ‘why does this matter, why should anyone care about this? Okay, but REALLY at the deepest level, why does this matter and who cares? What is the most significant answer I can give to these questions?’ I set a timer for fifteen minutes and wrote an answer to that question for the dissertation as a whole, then I answered it for chapter one. Then I did a very, very painful diagnostic rereading of the chapter, followed by another free write.
I did the same for each subsequent chapter: free write, diagnostic rereading, free write. In my diagnostic reareading I ignored issues of line-editing, and focused on big ideas and structure. In the diagnostic rereading, I created a reverse outline. A normal outline lays out the plan for a work of writing that an author hasn’t written yet. A reverse outline lays out the structure of a draft that an author has already written.
For each reverse outline, I wrote a bullet point stating the point of the chapter, then a bullet point for the point of each paragraph. When I came to section breaks I would also add a bullet point summarizing the point of the section as a whole. When I had all the bullet points written down, I spoke out loud to the empty room a summary of the chapter using the bullet points, explaining what I was doing and why. Anywhere I stumbled, I made a note, because I stumbled at points where the logic was unclear or where I was repeating a point. Identifying these stumble-points helped me work out structural problems.
Given what I’ve said above, you’re probably not surprised to when I say this work was emotionally very hard to do. I got up and paced a lot. I cried more than once. I now look back at that as a time of tremendous challenge in which I learned a lot and I’m proud of myself for both enduring it and figuring out how to navigate it. While it happened, though, it felt awful.
I eventually found that having a paper print out of the dissertation and having my computer read the text out loud to me meant I kept going because it was harder to stop - partly because the speech gave me a sense of being pulled along rather than pushing myself through the text, and because it was annoying to reset the text-to-speech tool each time I stopped. This also kept my notes very minimal because I had to keep up with reading and listening while I jotted them down.
Once I got through the whole dissertation in the way I described, I had more big ideas about my aspirations for the dissertation and its parts, a little bit of excitement about those ideas (which, in context, felt huge, given how I’d previously felt), a plan for how to revise the whole thing top to bottom, a sense that those revisions would improve the thing in a real way, and a sense that I could in fact do those revisions. The list was long and that length was intimidating, but it was a finite very long list: do all of these tedious steps and then the thing will be much better. There were very few unknowns left, and for those unknowns I had raw material in the form my free writes. I also had a new sense of confidence that with enough time spent free writing I could eventually figure out the parts I hadn’t figured out yet. I knew that in the face of those parts I hadn’t yet figured out that I would likely feel a sense of despair again but that this was just my emotional response to the work, not an accurate assessment of the situation. I then set about revising using the tasks I’d set myself. I moved things around structurally in the draft, and I used my free writes to change the introductions and write better through-lines connecting the chapters to each other. I remember that I rewrote and improved the introduction to chapter one very quickly, which was very exciting. I spent about another hour or so reworking what I had written in my two fifteen minute free writes abbot the chapter. That became an introduction to the chapter that was much better than the prior chapter intro.
A reader might in fairness ask why I didn’t just proceed in the ways I describe here in the first place with the first draft instead of sending it to my advisers. In retrospect, I wish I had, but I didn’t know to do any of this. More than that, though, I felt very nervous about the draft I’d written and I wanted validation from my advisors, which is why I sent them the full draft. I also wanted help, because I felt I couldn’t do the work, didn’t know how to do the work. Their comments really were a lot of help but as I’ve tried to show here I wasn’t initially able to take that help on board.
After I had a fully revised draft, then I took out my advisors’ comments again. Again I felt all the old fears - judgment! More work but I am so tired! - plus some new negative feelings: that draft was so much worse than the one I now have, why on earth did I think it was okay to share that, how embarrassing!
I copied the file from my advisors and cut and pasted their comments into a new document, so I didn’t have to see their comments and my draft prose at the same time. Then I sorted their comments into the categories I had identified for myself - big ideas, big structure, small structure, line edits. Then I went through their comments in light of the new draft. A few of them no longer applied in one way or another because of the revisions I’d made. A few I now felt confident enough to disagree with - I was in the driver’s seat now, it was my project again. The rest, the vast majority, were very helpful and thought provoking. I typed those up in my own words, and went through them in order of priority, starting with big ideas. I did short free writes in response to those, and did further revisions based on the other comments. Again the free writes helped me do some of those other revisions.
As I did all of this I never felt a stable sense that it was possible to write a dissertation. There were moments when I thought ‘hey, I think I really can do this!’ but they were temporary, until I sent the fully finished draft off to my committee for my defense. It was only after I had written the whole thing and revised it that I really believed I could write and revise it, because I had definitely done so.
I’ve since come to accept that in general as a writer, a sense of confidence and trust in the process is something that I feel late in the process. At least at this point in my writing career it’s more of an effect of and reward for doing a lot of writing than it’s a starting point. I remind myself sometimes that for me writing is not feeling-dependent. I’m committed to writing, which means I can’t write only when I feel like writing. I find the less I think about it the better it goes. If writing is an optional thing that I have to will myself to do, then it’s harder. If writing is a routine thing that I just do because it’s part of my day, it’s much easier. Or at least less difficult.
Over the time I’ve worked in the general ways I’ve described here, I have had more good feelings in writing. For one thing, I have felt proud of myself for all the work I had done and proud of myself for enduring it and for figuring out how to do all of this. I found that actively motivating, I would sit down to write and think ‘this might be unpleasant but you’ll feel good about yourself afterward because you did a hard thing.’ For me that was much more motivating than ‘trust the process’ or ‘believe in yourself.’
I will add that over time I have become more self-aware about my emotional responses to my work. I am telling you a story wherein I was repeatedly gripped by negative emotions about writing. During that time I was not always entirely conscious about what I was feeling; my mental state was less ‘I feel afraid right now’ and more ‘Augh! Oh no! Run away!’ I have since followed Robert Boice’s advice in Professors As Writers and spent time documenting and improving my self-talk as a writer. It’s worked pretty well, and is still a work-in-progress. For a long time I believed that my self-talk as a writer was an immutable given. That’s a mistake, though changing this self-talk is a slow process. Boice’s book is a helpful resource on this. There is also a helpful diagnostic quiz on emotional habits in Helen Sword’s book Air and Light and Space and Time. If anyone reading this is in a similar emotional rough place with their work, my heart goes out to you. I can say for myself, it worked well to focus on figuring out how to work despite how I felt, and then to later being working on changing how I felt, rooted in knowing I really could write again. My efforts early on to change how I felt and then write did not work out. It might work differently for different people, though. I do want people like me, who write but uncomfortably, to know that I’ve found it is possible over time to diminish that discomfort. I’m still working on this but I’ve made good progress, which has frankly been a big relief.
Alright reader, we’re done for now. I’ve told you what it was like to write the dissertation and how I did it, in terms of my individual process. In my next post I’m going to talk a little about the interpersonal context - sociality, the organization of the collective life of writing - that sustained me in doing this work on the dissertation and the book.
- Nate Holdren