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Posts Tagged ‘finishing the dissertation’

It can be REALLY hard to throw away fourteen pages of a dissertation.

Especially when you’ve been working on them for four months.

My fourth chapter was going nowhere. I’d started it right before I started working full-time, and over the course of the next four months I had literally gotten maybe a few sentences a day written, and each sentence was like pulling teeth. I had twenty-five pages of notes and was quickly falling into a reading trap (reading more and more and taking more and more notes but doing very little actual writing). More and more often I would get home with plans to work but would find every excuse to avoid it, because just thinking about this chapter made me feel ill.

Part of it (no, really, most of it) was the subject matter. This chapter was on Akira, which I recognize as a super-important film in not only the realm of anime but cyberpunk / sci-fi / visual spectacle. But I’ve never liked the film. Sure, some of it is gorgeous to look at, but the story bores me. And I was trying to write via an angle that I had very little expertise in–the actual mechanics of anime-creation and graphics. So I felt a bit like a tap dancer who’d just been asked to perform in a ballet.

And then I took a week off from work, which gave me the time to get back into a good headspace and see things a little more clearly. I sat down to watch another movie–Oshii Mamoru’s Sky Crawlers–thinking that maybe it would give me some inspiration. And the movie was great.

I started writing about Sky Crawlers and had written fifteen pages in the space of two days. I’d thought those pages could be added to my fourteen Akira pages, but in reality I only saved about two of them. And once I abandoned the old stuff, I felt SO much better.

Even though everyone’s reluctant to abandon a piece of writing, especially one that they’ve slaved over, I think most of us realize that it’s essential to the writing process. Half of writing something good, whether it’s a dissertation or an email, is knowing what to cut out. And there’s a strange sense of satisfaction in taking something you’ve worked on–but that has also kept you up at night–and just dropping it in the virtual rubbish bin.

So, lessons learned:

1. Don’t try to write on a book / movie that you hate. Yeah, sometimes you have to, but avoid it at all costs. You don’t have to LOVE it, but something has to draw you to it.

2. When things get really bad, watch or read something random. Maybe it’ll end up as material, maybe it won’t, but it can shake up your brain a bit and get you out of a rut.

3. If writing is genuinely painful, consider starting over. Don’t stress about “wasted time”–even if all that work didn’t result in a finished product, it probably gave birth to plenty of meaningful thoughts and ideas that will show up in your next piece.

4. Destruction is an essential part of the creative process. This isn’t news to most people, but a lot of us kind of ignore it. Drafting and developing doesn’t just mean that you write a draft and then tweak it–sometimes it means that you write a draft, get rid of 60% of it, and then revise and add to what remains until it barely resembles your original work.

Chapter four is a completed draft now, 28 pages in about 3 weeks. I’m going to do my best not to cling to it too tightly.

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Most grad students dream of being on fellowship, especially when we’re up at three in the morning grading a stack of undergraduate papers with the knowledge that some paper or other of our own is due in a few days.  The idea of getting paid, sometimes quite well, to do nothing but work on your research…to wake up every day knowing that you are responsible only to yourself…to work from home, or from the library, or from a coffee shop, for however many hours you see fit…it seems like a lifestyle that only existed in ancient Greece.  No wonder fellowships are so competitive.

Having been on fellowship for four months now, I can say that it is indeed an idyllic existence.  But it comes with a few unpleasant realizations.  For me, the hardest parts have been 1) realizing that, given unlimited time, few deadlines, and a generous amount of money, I’m not nearly as self-motivated as I should be, and 2) I spend a lot of time feeling really guilty about how I’m living my life, especially when so many people around me are working their asses off just to make ends meet.

Like a lot of creative types, I always imagined that if I had plenty of money and time I’d devote myself wholeheartedly to producing great work.  Instead, I’m discovering that I spend a lot of time…meandering.  Sleeping in the afternoon.  Reading online newspapers.  Thinking about what to cook for dinner.

For the record, I *do* work–in the past four months I’ve managed to finish a forty-page chapter draft, read a half dozen or so books in English and Japanese, network regularly with other scholars, attend several workshops & academia-related events, and commute once a week to Tsukuba University to attend a Japanese grad seminar.  But I still feel woefully unproductive.  Maybe that’s the problem–when someone gives you money solely for the purpose of conducting research and producing academic work, you will never, ever feel productive enough.

I realize now that I’ve done some of my best academic and creative work under harsh deadlines, surrounded by intense distractions of coursework, teaching duties, or part-time jobs.  In a way, having plenty of other responsibilities forces you to focus your academic work–when time is so limited, you can’t spend any of it trawling the internet or watching TV.  Under these conditions, the final push to finish a paper or other project is usually a sleep-deprived 48 hours of mad typing and reading.  It’s kind of a thrill to work that way, even if it probably isn’t the healthiest.

Other grad students have told me that they had similar problems getting motivated to work during their fellowship periods.  I marvel at those people I know who can just set a routine and stick to it–get up in the morning, have their cup of coffee, work for three hours, have lunch, work for another three-four hours.  I wish I had that kind of discipline.  Microsoft needs to invent some kind of virtual whip-cracker–a digital assistant who will berate you if you slack off too much.  I’d probably just disable the program, though.

There’s a lot of research out there that suggests procrastination is actually a fear of success.  People don’t put off doing something–or dance around doing it–out of a fear of failure or rejection, but out of a fear that they might actually accomplish something.  Because with that accomplishment will come evaluation, judgment, and perhaps the realization that the end result wasn’t worth all the work.  I can relate, particularly in recent weeks, when my procrastination seems to have taken on an almost manic quality.  At times I will do anything to avoid finishing this dissertation, and facing the inevitable judgment (always harshly negative in my mind) that comes with it.

In the end I have to remind myself that distractions and meandering are part of the whole research process–dissertations rarely happen in a smooth, linear progression of research and writing.  There are plenty of bumps and gaps along the way, and some of those bumps and gaps can lead you in new and interesting directions.  Right now, though, I would be really grateful for some program that I’ve heard about which will apparently disable your internet connection for several hours at a time.  Sometimes you need stuff like that.

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Thoughts on life after the PhD

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

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