A major commitment

Part of the Writing 101 assignment for today is to “commit to a writing practice.”  Specifically, they recommend taking at least 15 minutes every day for free writing.  No editing as you go, no stopping to re-read what you’ve written, just writing what comes to mind.  If you want to polish it up for a wider audience, you do that later.

This sounds like a really good idea.  When forced to do academic writing, I have found that the most important step is to just get something – anything – out on the page.  Large chunks of that rough draft will be crossed out and completely rewritten, but it’s somehow easier to write out a new paragraph when I have the old one physically in front of me.

At the moment, I’m not really interested in adopting a daily habit of pure free writing.  When it comes to just getting thoughts out of my head and into words, blogging has helped a lot, but I want to keep blogging as a fun hobby for now.  If I don’t have anything to say on a particular day, I don’t want to force it.

However, I do have something very big and very overwhelming that needs to be written: my PhD thesis.  What if I were to commit to 15 minutes of thesis writing every day, following the rules of free writing?  (Wait, isn’t there a book about this?)

No second-guessing my sentences, or worrying that a phrase is too cliché.

No pausing to look up citations.  No falling down the rabbit hole of reference after reference.

No messing about with formatting.

I could do all that later, once I’ve broken down the start-writing barrier.  Sources will have to be checked, graphs made, sections rearranged, and chances are that very few of my free-written words will make it into the final thesis.  But I have to start somewhere.

It’s a scary thing, making that kind of commitment.  I think I could maybe do 15 minutes a day – just sit down right when I arrive at the office and write – but officially declaring it a goal opens me to the possibility of failure.  If I don’t try, I can’t fail.  If I don’t try, I don’t have to face the guilt and stress and anxiety that comes with attempting to succeed.

But if I don’t try, I’ll never finish.  Maybe I’ll never finish anyway – although I’m leaning towards not quitting the program before graduating, I’m still undecided – but this is as good a time as any to try something new.

And so, as extraordinarily anxiety-inducing as it is, I make this commitment to myself before the entirety of the internet:

I will spend 15 minutes every weekday writing my thesis.  Just writing, no stopping to edit or thinking too hard about my words before they get to the page. 

To make this practical and feasible, I will allow myself exemptions on days with unusual circumstances.  If I have to stay home and take my son to the doctor, for instance, it’s OK that writing doesn’t get done.  Or if it’s the day before a major deadline and I’m feeling so stressed that I can’t concentrate on anything but the deadline – that’s OK too.  The key for me is to be consistent, not perfect.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Crap, that means I have to go do this today.  Ugh.  Wish me luck!

Blog what you need to blog

Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.

— P. D. James, author

Write what you want to write and not what you think you ought to write or what other people think you should write.

— Joanne Harris, author

(Thanks to Roxical Thinking for introducing me to these quotes.)

The act of blogging, for me, requires constant reaffirmation of why I’m writing.  Mine is a new little blog with a weird little niche in the vast expanse of catchy headlines and bad grammar that is the internet.  This means that some days (like today), I’ll get a measly two page views.  And I’ll be honest, that makes me a little sad.  Humility has never been my strong suit.  Because yes, I’m jealous when I see another new blogger who’s already got 1000 followers and pieces in The Huffington Post.  I start thinking, What makes her so special?  (Answer: She’s willing to publish non-anonymously and Tweet and do all that publicity stuff I’m completely uninterested in undertaking.)

At the same time, however – because the workings of my mind are remarkably paradoxical – each new follower gives me a little jolt of anxiety.  What if they don’t like what I write next?  Are they going to be disappointed that this blog isn’t all wry parenting posts?  Or all academic stuff?  Or all <insert latest post subject here>? 

That’s why the above quotations struck me so forcefully.  It’s good to be reminded that, fundamentally, I should be blogging for me.  I should be writing what I need to write.  I started this blog because I have Things To Say, and I needed an outlet in which to say them.  Writing is cathartic.  If others read my thoughts here, I should consider that a bonus.  If others actually like reading them, that’s a double bonus.

It’s an ongoing struggle to separate myself from external validation.  I know my husband reads my posts shortly after they go up; if he hasn’t mentioned it by the end of the day, it takes great concentration to avoid asking, “Did you see my blog post?  Did you like it?”  (I of course get great happiness when he does enjoy a post – just I as am enormously pleased to welcome new followers and commenters.  I just need to make sure that I’m not relying on their – or his – approval.)

Dear readers (and I know there are at least two of you!), why do you write?  Is it for fame and fortune or personal satisfaction?  Or a little bit of both?


Return of the Hydra

One of the reasons that the Paper From Hell was abandoned on a shelf for two years is that it was a Hydra.  The Hydra is a creature of Greek mythology, a many-headed reptilian monster; every time a head is chopped off, multiple new heads grow to replace it.  (If you’ve seen Disney’s Hercules, you’ll know what I mean – although please do not ever use that movie as an actual source of Greek mythology.)

Possessing an equally poisonous (if metaphorical) venom, the to-do list for Paper From Hell could not be conquered by ordinary mortals.  Any attempt to check off an item on that list would inevitably result in at least three more.  And not little fiddly tasks, either (although those were certainly not lacking).  Big, time-consuming, your-results-might-be-meaningless-without-it items.

Eventually, I decided that the toxicity of the Paper From Hell was negatively affecting my research productivity.  Hence the banishment to the shelf.  But I never fully gave up on the idea of finishing it, if only to prove to myself that I could.

Last week, with a renewed burst of mental energy, I took up the Paper From Hell again.  I’ve managed to consistently work on it for a few hours each weekday without falling into the pit of despair, which is a remarkable achievement in and of itself.  Abandoning the old to-do list completely, I read through the paper with a fresh eye, determined to do just the barest minimum necessary to finish it off for journal submission.

But then the Hydra reared its heads again.

Something that should be incredibly straightforward is not.  Something that the research literature treats as a settled problem has glaring flaws.  Numbers that other scientists quote without much thought are incompatible with other numbers quoted by at least as many others.  These numbers are not the topic of the paper; they are the basis of a tool far beyond the scope of my research.

This means more time.  More plots.  More reading, and yet another revision of what my results really mean.  I have to tell myself I am capable of chopping this head off, too, though my sword grows heavy and I am tired.

Because if I can do this – if I can drag this monster of a paper kicking and screaming to publication – then maybe, just maybe, I am capable of finishing my PhD.

But I hate writing

“I hate writing.”  This is one of my most frequent complaints whenever I have to actually write something for school.  I would much rather spend time coding a more advanced data analysis program than writing up my results in a research paper.  Writing is time-consuming, subjective, and cannot be mastered.

If we go back to a pre-grad-school time when my classes still required essay-writing, my dislike becomes even more pronounced.  Essays – ugh.  When my freshman honors class offered the option to lead themed class discussions in lieu of the usual three essays, I jumped at the chance.  (Bear in mind that as a severe introvert, leading class discussions isn’t exactly my favorite activity either.)

All this is to say that it was a pleasant but confusing surprise when I found myself (a) wanting to blog, and (b) enjoying it quite a bit.  Not just the community aspect – although that part is pretty great, too – but the process of composition itself.  But I hate writing!

What is it about the blog format that makes the writing not suck?  After some thought, I’ve come up with a few possibilities.

The stakes are low.  There’s no grade on the line, no impact on my professional standing.  I’m not trying to sell a product or drive traffic to advertisers – just writing because I feel like I have something to say.  A blah blog post is just a post that few people will read.  Lots of blah blog posts could translate to a general lack of interest and followers, but it’s extremely unlikely that anyone will bother to comment on the writing in that case.  In the end, it’s just me, trying something fun.

Rapid turnaround means no time to edit repeatedly.  A once-through for sense, a once-through for typos, and that’s it – publish.  If I want to post regularly, I can’t get stuck on making any particular post just right.  The low stakes factor plays a role here, too.

Unconstrained format.  Blog posts aren’t tied to the formal (and often deadly dull) structure of a research paper, and they don’t have to be organized like the dreaded five-paragraph essay.  I can play around with words and sounds and layout to land on something I find appealing.  And it can change from day to day.

Topics of personal interest.  Not since second grade, when I scribbled short stories on page after page of rough brown paper, have I taken much time to write what I’m really thinking.  High school was filled with contrived essay prompts and too-vague assignments; do they really expect us to come up with Serious Thesis Statements about every novel?  But now the words come easily; in fact, I often find myself composing posts in my head on the drive to school and looking forward to having the time to write them down.

Fellow bloggers, how about you?  Do you blog because of the writing or in spite of it?

Random thoughts on blogging

  • It appears that WordPress counts it as a “view” when I look at my own blog while logged in.  You’d think it would be easy to filter self-views out of the tally.  Not that it really matters…
  • It is much, much more intimidating to tell my curious husband about new blog posts than it is to release them to the internet at large.
  • Someone liked my introductory post just a few hours after it went up!  I did not expect that.
  • Dear WordPress proofreading software, I am pretty convinced that “sew” is a word, even if you are not.
  • The blogging-inspired “just write it” attitude has motivated me to take the Paper From Hell off the shelf where it has been sitting, nearly complete, for over two years.  It’s time to get that darn thing off to a journal.