Battling the I Don’t Wanna’s, part two: giving in

May 28, 2011 § 9 Comments

Yesterday, I lowered my sword Steel Will, fatigued and drained. I stared up at the Dragon “I Would But” and croaked, “You win.” I fell to my knees, too exhausted to hold up my own body. “I Would But” spewed black bile of guilt, shame, and humiliation over my head, drenching me until I became invisible.

I met V at our coffee shop for our weekly debriefing meetings. In these meetings, we give each other progress reports, offer support and encouragement when it’s needed (and wag our fingers on occasion). Twice while we talked, I felt close to tears. But we were in public, and I had to gain some control over myself. Today, I don’t remember what brought me to tears. It could only have been utter emotional exhaustion.

V left to meet a friend for lunch, and I called Robert. “I don’t think I can do it today, honey,” I murmured over the phone. The shame I felt giving in overpowered my ability to speak at a normal volume. With nary a negative word, Robert agreed. “You have to listen to your body, Amanda,” he consoled me. I went home to my husband and ate lunch. We went to the movies (Hangover 2, which is a must see if you enjoyed the first). We had dinner and caught up on our TiVo recordings. I forgot to write a post.

I rested.

Today I will dig my way through the mire of guilt and humiliation. I will draw up Steel Will once more and climb to my feet. I will engage the idle Dragon in battle. And I will win.

What approval means to an approval-seeking people-pleaser

May 20, 2011 § 3 Comments

I thrive on being patted on the head. As someone who pats her own back so infrequently and rarely without a derisive back-handed remark, I practically need approval from others in order to breathe.

This began when I was told in kindergarten that I had behaved well enough to earn the prestigious privilege of first-choice when picking my sleeping mat for nap time. “Amanda,” I remember Ms. B saying so sweetly, “I have been very impressed with your good behavior. Today, you get to pick the first sleeping mat.” I popped out of my seat as fast as I could and practically raced the sorry chumps who were much worse behaved than I. Grabbing the most desirable mat (the one that was still a little bit fluffy and had fewer rips), I taunted the rest of the class with my trophy. I was a better student, a better example, a more-favoritest-favorite.

And now I’m 29 years old. And today, folks, today was an “Amanda gets the first mat” kind of day.

I met with my dissertation director this morning, and we discussed the three latest chapters I’ve given her. She said a few times throughout our two-hour meeting that she thought the writing was working, that I was really on track, and that she was impressed with the rate at which I was producing.

I am glowing, my friends! 🙂 Literally glowing. I have been all day long!

Approval from my director means approval from someone whose opinion I hold in extremely high regard. Approval from her means that I have pleased one of the most important people in my life. Approval from her means that it’s okay to give myself approval.

I do know this is backwards…but I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who seeks self-approval from the approval of others.

Today has been a wonderful day. I am making progress; she’s noticing; we’re both happy with the shape the project is taking.

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Battling the I Don’t Wanna’s

May 11, 2011 § 7 Comments

Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where A-Ha moments happen every second of the day?

Why, it would take virtually no effort whatsoever to be motivated! Sure, it might be mentally taxing to have an inspirational thought every time you think, but still. At least then, you wouldn’t be faced with the I Don’t Wanna’s.

The I Don’t Wanna’s: a tough little army of reasons, excuses, justifications, and plain ol’ not-wanting-to’s whose prime objective is to keep you from your work. Like facing a moat or a fire-breathing dragon, you (brave knight) must face this barrier in order to rescue your work (sweet princess) from her assured demise.

My I Don’t Wanna’s come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes, they are as feeble as a mere “but I just don’t want to.” Easily hammered down and defeated. “But I have to,” comes my battle-axe response. Done. “But I just don’t want to” is no more.

Sometimes they are massive, scaly, venomous dragons with wings that beat deafening thunder. The Dragon “I Would But This Other Thing Takes Priority” buffets me with fiery guilt, shame, and regret. I am pelted by hailstones of “remember how you ignored this friend or that activity,” and I am almost always brought to my knees. Weakened. Humbled. Humiliated.

But, if we really are the brave knights we think we are, if we really do intend to accomplish the goals we ourselves set before us to accomplish, then we have no choice but to take to our feet again. Hoist that shield up. Draw the sword.

Our battle cry changes. “But I have to” becomes a mighty yawp of “I will because I want to!”

We charge the Dragon “I Would But,” raise the sword overhead, and push through until Steel Will slices through fleshy idleness.

We will be victorious.

The A-Ha Moment: dissertation edition

May 4, 2011 § 7 Comments

Alias: the eureka effect.

You know that moment in older cartoons when the mad scientist would stare contemplatively at his experiment and suddenly holler, “Eureka!” Typically much to the chagrin of a mild-mannered someone or something who inevitably jumps to the ceiling and hangs there by claws or fingernails until such time as the heart rate has been restored to normal.

Dissertation writers (hell, all writers really) experience the “a-ha” moment in fascinating moments.

In the shower.
Something about hot water, steam, and delicious-smelling soap allows seemingly incongruous thoughts to slip and slide inside the brain until: a-ha! They interlock.

Enthralled by television or engaged in a conversation.
Much like Dr. Gregory House, the stuck dissertator will hear that one right phrase uttered innocently by a New Jersey housewife or a dear friend, and all of a sudden: a-ha! The once occluded argument becomes not only clear but obviously so.

Over coffee, tea, or liquor.
The dissertator might whine and bemoan the project, distracted by her own monologue-turned-soliloquy, entirely ignorant of her miserable audience who foolishly asked, “how are you?” And then: a-ha! Twisting in circuitous and disjointed paths, the dissertator discovers her lost little point in the Forest of Angst.

In bed. Asleep…or otherwise.
Finally lulled to a state of ease, comfort, peace, and rest, dissembling barriers disassemble and tumble down to reveal a shimmering truth. Suddenly sitting up (perhaps to the disappointment of her sleeping…or otherwise…spouse), the dissertator exclaims: a-ha! Despite the inconvenience, she conceives the argument in perfect perfection.

Although Oprah, mistress of momentous moments, might pooh-pooh my single-minded construct of the “a-ha” moment, correcting my mistakes and warning me never again to err, perhaps she’s the limited one. Could an “a-ha” moment stretch beyond the sphere of self-actualizing psychological development? I believe so, yes. You see, friends, the dissertator’s “a-ha” moment is a precious commodity; infrequent, sparse, and rare, it lives at the threshold of insecurity and pride. Seek it too doggedly, and it will shrink into fear and doubt, the best cloaks of invisibility this side of Hogwarts. But ignore it, heed it no mind, hell even forget about it, and it will crash into you at full force.

I had an “a-ha” moment yesterday morning while reading, again, Twelfth Night. And, for fear of frightening it, I have only shared the revelation with a few trusted friends. I will attempt to “raise it,” as one of my committee members put it today at lunch. For, she told me, nobody else will do it for me.

In the meantime, if you and I are in a conversation, please disregard any future exclamations of “eureka!” that may issue forth from my entire being. Revel in them with me, won’t you?

Meditation on the Writing Process and Dissertations: Time for a wee break

May 3, 2011 § 4 Comments

I’ve been feeling a lot like a loser lately. And that’s only in the sense that in the wake of an uber-productive weekend (including two revised and polished chapter drafts sent back to my dissertation director), I have been extraordinarily unproductive. Sunday, I chose to rest after grading without feeling guilty about it. And I did rest. And I did not feel guilty. Monday, I did major domestic chores, which included paying bills for a couple of hours and filling out a job application for the Princeton Review so that I can proctor an LSAT exam in a few weeks. I didn’t expect either of those tasks to take as long as they did, but the Internet was acting rather slow for me…I imagine it’s because of Osama Bin Laden’s death, honestly. I think people were clogging up the Interwebs, if such a thing can happen.

Today, though.

Today I have been productive. I’ve read Twelfth Night, which I’ve been trying to do (according to my schedule on iProcrastinate) since last Wednesday. I’ve dog-eared the passages that will be particularly useful to my argument in Chapter Three. And now I’ve chosen to take a little break, not a nap, before plugging away at the segment on Twelfth Night.

As much as I fight it and struggle with guilt, breaks are important. They afford us an opportunity to take a breath, to walk away from the project, to gain some perspective. They might even allow us to recharge our batteries, reignite our motivation to work, offer us the chance to talk to someone else. As I write this massive project, the largest project I have ever worked on, I have had to reevaluate my writing process, my research process, even my very thinking process. How I create ideas, cultivate them, and rework them until they’re cogent has been entirely different from any other project I’ve worked on. No, not even seminar papers (those little conference-papers-to-be or wanna-be-publications) in all their 20-to-25-page glory are developed in quite the same way as a dissertation. I was once told, and I once naively believed, that writing a dissertation is doable simply because, in theory, it’s five or six seminar papers smushed together.

For those who have wisely avoided graduate school (I kid, but only a little), a seminar paper is the end-of-semester culmination of theory and application for a single course that tends to take an overwhelming majority of the total course percentage. If you bomb your seminar paper, you’re in a pretty bad place. Seminar papers can range in required page counts, but most fall between a requisite 20-30 pages minimum. In my line of experience, most professors ask for a 20-25 page paper.

Theoretically, a dissertation chapter would fall on the high-end of a seminar paper page range. But, no, dissertations are not five or six seminar papers smushed together. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a bold-faced liar and you should call them so to their face.

The difference is fairly stark:

1. Dissertations require you to maintain a single theoretical argument from page 1 to page 250. You have to span chapters with this single argument. The success of your dissertation can hinge a great deal on how well you articulate and consistently discuss that argument. It’s all about the follow-through. A 20-25 page paper, though long and daunting in its own way, simply doesn’t have the same requirement about it.

2. Although most PhD candidates will have written more than five or six seminar papers in their entire graduate careers, they likely will not have consistently written on the exact same topic from paper to paper. Frankly, doing so is improbable because of the very nature of graduate work. If a student has had the opportunity to take several graduate-level classes that have curricula identical enough to warrant repeat topics, then that student has been done a vast disservice. Although I haven’t had a graduate-level American lit. course, a fact that I would correct given the opportunity to, the British lit. courses I’ve taken at the graduate level simply did not make it possible for me to write on the same topic consistently.

3. The composition of a dissertation is less about the writing and more about the pre-writing. Yes, pages are what matter. If you have not written a page, then you have not really begun “writing” your dissertation. However. More often than not, the conceptualization of a dissertation takes a long time. (The amount of time differs on an individual basis, but for me, it was two years.) During this time, the candidate is conducting research, asking questions, coming to conclusions, and assessing other writers’ arguments in order to make their own. If a dissertation-writer failed to take the time (however long that is for their own purposes) to do the research and ask the questions and come to the conclusions, then that student’s own argument simply cannot be taken seriously. (How can one claim expertise on a subject, claim even a convincing opinion, when the proper steps have not been taken first?)

Because I am still learning the intricacies of dissertation-writing, I’ll leave my list there for now. But I will clarify this point once more: the dissertation is unlike any writing project I have ever undertaken before. That alone requires me to rework my writing process until it is something that I can sustain over the course of a years-long writing project.

Break’s over. On to Chapter Three.

Stickers, Post-Its, and Charts: unexpected tools to success

April 26, 2011 § 5 Comments

I believe in order to be a successful writer, you must have a system in place. Perhaps it’s a favorite coffee shop, or specific drink ordered there. Maybe it’s that one playlist that unlocks your creativity. Or maybe it’s your own obsession with planning.

Whatever your preferred system, that system requires tools. And my tools are all about the plan.

I have already mentioned one of my favorite new tools for keeping track of all those to-do lists in order to maintain motivation as well as to avoid double-booking responsibilities. iProcrastinate has been one of those apps that just really gets me going. It makes me utterly happy and excited to check those little “complete” boxes and see the required to-do items begin to diminish.

In addition to that awesome app, I have been using another set of tools to sort of “trick” myself into believing that not only is writing fun but it’s also something worthwhile. (I know, I know, the sarcasm is palpable.) V has voluntarily come along with me on this crazy ride, and as writing buddies, we have responded to each other’s needs by developing useful writing aids.

Behold! Our tools for dissertation success:

My tools to dissertation success

It may not look particularly fancy to you, but allow me to explain.

Our Sticker-Clipboards.

Doesn't photograph very well, but my clipboard is very pretty.

Have you ever watched a college football game and ever wondered why those boys have stickers lining their helmets? No, silly as it may look, the boys aren’t exploring their six-year-old-girlie-sides. The stickers mean something. Sometimes they mean success on the field or in academics (…more often than not they mean field success…), and often the football players can rattle off the meaning behind each individual sticker. Robert is the one who sparked this little idea. He recommended that we do something where we could collect success stickers and feel pride and motivation. My clipboard, although not particularly photogenic, is gorgeous with butterfly stickers representing pages completed and metallic floral stickers representing major goals accomplished (like submitting the fellowship materials and e-mailing drafts to my committee chair). V has adorable paw prints for her pages-written accomplishments (because she and her husband have three awesome dogs), and beautiful gold metallic bird stickers for major dissertation goals met (because she loves birds and was once the loving owner of a darling pair).

Every Friday, during our weekly dissertation meeting and “therapy” session (oh the therapeutic powers of raspberry Chai…), we tally up the goals we’ve accomplished and pages written. Each time we write ten pages, we get a new sticker (butterflies for me, paw prints for V). Each time we accomplish a major goal, we get a fancy sticker (flowers for me, birds for V). The placement and design of these stickers is entirely up to us, and we do have in mind the specific location for the dissertation defense sticker. Hey, it’s good to have a goal, right?

Our Post-It Note Argument.

My Post-It Note argument is written on the piece of paper; Vs Post-It Note demonstrates the concept.

You’re already familiar with the concept behind this little beauty, so I won’t go into greater detail here. If you need a refresher on the theory behind the Post-It note argument, please feel free to go back and read, “A Post-It Note Argument: a cure for the common ever-expanding diss topic.”

Please note: As far as I know, V has not publicly released her Post-It Note argument. Regardless her reason and my decision to do the opposite, I obviously respect both her privacy and intellectual property. Therefore, I have purposefully smudged-out her dissertation argument past the opening “My dissertation explores the.” Also, I thought I should mention that V’s handwriting is super neat and tidy…my poor smudging skills on Photoshop are what caused the wavy lines. Her original Post-It looks very nice.

The “Honest About Our Time” Chart.

How A.Hab. has been spending her time...

V is actually entirely responsible for the honest-time chart. She suggested that to prepare us for summer vacation (which can either be an embarrassment of riches in terms of undesignated hours or an enticement to laziness), we should keep track of how we utilize our time utterly honestly this week. This is the beginning of my time chart. My goal is to have a slew of mostly pink and orange (dissertation) time charts by the time this entire thing is over.

The Antithesis to Success.

Uhm...'scuse me calico-girl...but I can't see the screen....

A Beatrice who insists on being exactly where my hands are at all times, which often happens to be the laptop keyboard. This is often my view. Or, rather, the view my laptop camera has of me. 😉 The best way to combat this? Set her down on her favorite chair cushion and convince her she’d much rather be there than around me anyway.

So, these are our tools to writing success.

What are yours?

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