One email, six excruciating months. “Dear Nate, We were excited to read the draft of your dissertation. What a great project! We’ve attached a copy with comments from both of us and look forward to seeing where it goes from here.” My co-advisors sent me that around July 2013. (Full transparency: this is a recreation on my part, I don’t remember the exact words and I am no longer able to locate that email. On the details my memory is foggy - an effect, I am sure, inflicted by the job market, multiple moves, having multiple young kids, and the demands of the job - but I recall the heart of the experience keenly.)
Reader, I want you to know two things at the outset. One, even though this was over seven years ago and I successfully defended my dissertation and published a book based on it, and even though this isn’t even the exact words of the email but rather my own recreation, as I was typing the opening to this post my stomach dropped and my jaw clenched. Two, the email, like the comments on the attached copy of the draft, was very positive: “excited,” “great project,” “look forward.” I couldn’t feel any of that at the time though, and even now reading this over as I type, I still can’t, because of the emotional enormity of how it felt to be in that phase of the drafting process. All I could really see was “read” and “comments”, both of which implied judgment (there are no judgment-free readers, is a thing I wouldn’t defend intellectually but at a gut level it feels true, when it comes to people reading things I wrote) and “where it goes from here,” implying the fact that the document needed revision. Of course it did, it was a draft! But at some level, while I felt its imperfections keenly, I wanted it to be flawless. I also felt daunted. I had worked so hard to produce the draft and I was so tired. It was difficult to face the reality that so much hard work remained.
I will say, this isn’t all I felt. I did feel excited to hear what my advisors’ thought, grateful for their interest and engagement, and proud of my accomplishment in having gotten a full draft together, but the uncomfortable feelings were so much louder in the mix. In my memory I both opened the file immediately and also took a week to open the file, which obviously can’t both be true. Whichever it is, I know for sure that the seconds spent waiting for the file to open on my laptop must have felt like a week.
The comments included things like “great phrase!” “typo here” “move this sentence to the introduction of the chapter!” “have you considered engaging so-and-so’s work?” “I’m not sure I follow this point” “I’ve lost the thread of the argument here, can you reconnect this to the big point?” “this paragraph seems to belong somewhere else,” “fascinating idea!,” “what about this big idea you mentioned earlier, you could connect that to this point…” Again, I don’t recall the specifics but I’ve thought and talked about this a lot and I feel sure that the comments were positive and very useful, thoughtful, thought provoking, and that they ranged across what I’ve come to think of as the four main categories for how I work:
1. big ideas (reading new literature with a mind toward building on it or engaging it in some kind of dialog, figuring out how to interpret or analyze a source, articulating the key ideas and arguments)
2. big structure (the order of sections in chapters, the order of chapters in the work as a whole, and moving pieces from one section or chapter)
3. small structure (sentence order within paragraphs, paragraph order within sections and chapters), and
4. line edits (style, voice, punctuation, spelling, etc)
When I started to try to revise I went in chronological order on the page, which meant that I jumped across those different categories based on whatever my readers had found. I got at most five pages in and felt exhausted and demoralized, and there were about four hundred more pages still left to go over! I closed the file. I don’t remember working on it after that. I know I waited a while and the longer I waited the worse I felt. It turned into a serious case of writer’s block, which I didn’t tell anyone for a long time, which also made me feel worse. This lasted several terrible months, during which I felt very anxious and unhappy - not in general, in all areas of my life - I liked the rest of my life a great deal (and I still do) - just when I thought about the dissertation or tried to maybe work on it.
I tried to follow the advice I’d seen like “trust the process” and “believe in yourself” and I tried to take in the kind words of people I knew who told me I was smart, that my writing was good, that they believed in me, and so on. All of that just made me feel worse: I didn’t know how to make myself feel the trust and belief in myself that I was supposed to feel, so then I just felt more inadequate, and I worried that maybe my friends and mentors were saying nice things insincerely - I knew intellectually that wasn’t true but at a gut level I still wondered, and then I felt guilty for not trusting people who cared about me.
Eventually I decided that anything worth doing is worth reading about, so I started reading things about what it was like to do writing. I looked specifically for writers talking about block and bad feelings. I found writing by people I thought of as real writers - Joan Didion, John Steinbeck, Anne Lamott, Joy Williams, and John McPhee stand out in my memory - talking about feeling like I felt about writing. Very slowly I began to hope that maybe my feeling awful was understandable, and I figured out how to work despite how writing felt.
I’m going to break this post in two here for the sake of keeping the post in the realm of manageable length. In the second half I’m going to talk in some detail about how I worked as I got through my case of writers’ block and afterward. I would be very interested in hearing from others about your experiences with writing, both the emotional life of writing - what is it like to be you while doing the work? - and the logistical side - how do you organize a writing life?
A few quick thoughts in this pause - call it an intermission, maybe go get some popcorn! - in the middle of this post. I don't want the take away point to be that my advisors should have done anything different. I don't think they should have. I think my writing life, - and my professional life and life as a whole (not least, including being a new parent), both of which my writing life is nested within - was such that I think I was going to have this kind of writers' block episode no matter what happened after the first draft of the dissertation. I do think not being paid a living wage as a grad employee and looking down the barrel of the impending job market made things worse, but even under optimal conditions I'd have still struggled like this. If anyone reading this works with grad students (I don't), I'm not sure there's any lesson in my experience about what advisors should or shouldn't do. I'd be very interested in hearing from grad student colleagues about this.
I will add as well that in my next post as I talk about how I work, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting everyone would benefit from working the way I work. I do think every writer benefits from trying different ways of working and reflecting on how well they, uh, work for the writer, but not all ways of working are for everyone. In my experience a lot of writing about writing is unduly prescriptive and I think that's bad for writers - if the prescription works for you, great, but it's not like you're benefited by it being posed as 'you should do this' rather than 'maybe try this and see what happens!' And if the prescription doesn't work (in the way that "believe in yourself!" and "trust the process!" did not work for me) then the prescriptive tone will make you feel worse.
Finally, I plan to do the second half of this post in a few days. If you haven't read my first post and want to hear more about my book and who I am, that's here. Thanks for reading, I appreciate your time.
- Nate Holdren