On not writing the dissertation

I’m sitting at my desk in my home office as I type this. Immediately behind me is a wall upon which I have not one, but two, whiteboards hanging. Both of them have detailed timelines and checkpoints regarding the research/writing I need to do for my dissertation. I am grateful that they are behind me because it makes them easier to ignore. In this post I want to touch briefly on the important of not writing the dissertation. (Supervisors, don’t@me! lol)

I want to tell you

My head is filled with things to say

When you’re here

All those words they seem to slip away.

“I want to tell you” by the Beatles (released in 1966 on the Revolver album)

My head is filled with things to say

And none of them really relate in any magnificent way to my dissertation. I have spent each day this week sitting at my desk with my little writing timer, aiming to put into writing some of the things I need to get on paper for my dissertation. But despite having a mind full of ideas, they seem to slip away as soon as I am seated.

I’m fortunate because I have a variety of tools available to me in these moments. For instance, I know I can freewrite (click here to learn what that is) or let go of my inner critic and embrace the art of the shitty first draft. I can consider writing tiny paragraphs, akin to Anne Lamott’s one-inch picture frame. Or I can consider not writing on the dissertation at all. Cue blog post.

I have to admit, not writing the dissertation sounds a lot like procrastination to me. Perhaps it can be at times. But practiced intentionally, I think it has the potential to be a valuable tool for writers. Here’s why: Our minds tend to accumulate and hold onto thoughts, perceptions, and narratives, particularly if we don’t have a regular practice of sorting through and clearing our mental accumulations. This is one reason I practice meditation regularly and my meditation practice is what led me to the art of not-writing the dissertation. When I found myself sitting at my desk, fingers poised to write about the dissertation, I noticed that I had many many thoughts–but none of them were about the topic on hand. Regardless of how flexible I was regarding the topic (okay, you don’t want to write about methodology, how about this instead?), I still found myself with many things to say…just not about the topic.

I have to admit, not writing the dissertation sounds a lot like procrastination to me.

I found myself frustrated and inevitably my mind started wandering. With 15 minutes left on my “work clock” and nothing to show for it except despair, I decided that I would just write out everything I was thinking, no matter how connected or unconnected, absurd or brilliant. I did this until my timer sounded, closed my laptop and left my office. I wish I could tell you that this one 15 minute session was all I needed to break through, but it didn’t work like that. Instead, it took several days of giving myself the space, time, and permission to write about “lots and nothing” before something shifted–but it did shift. By the end of the fourth day, I was in a better place mental-health wise. And I even wrote and submitted an ethics application I had been stalling on for weeks (It took me two hours!). I also drafted outlines for three chapters, wrote a reflection on a relevant reading, and had a sense of where to go next in terms of my writing. I can’t say for sure that this practice will guarantee productivity in the way we might expect, but what I can say is that there is something in giving ourselves the space to write through our blocks.

I wish I could tell you that this one 15 minute session was all I needed to break through, but it didn’t work like that. Instead, it took several days of giving myself the space, time, and permission to write about “lots and nothing” before something shifted.

So if you happen to be stuck, give writing a try as a method or tool for working through your writing blocks. BONUS EDITION: You can feel good because you’ll be joining ranks of writers and researchers who swear by freewriting and writing as an inquiry method. And if you find yourself really really interested, consider picking up something written by Peter Elbow.

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