writing: April 2009 Archives

Sprint v Marathon

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If late fall and early spring were examinazing! then my late spring and early summer are shaping up to be dissertastic! which should go some distance towards explaining why I seem to be fixated on that particular process as of late.

I wanted to make note of Jim's comparison of dissertation-writing to the baseball season, because I think he's dead-on accurate. The day Jim posted that, I was explaining to someone or other why I'm such a fan of baseball. I like the gradualness of the season, and while every once in a while, you can watch magical things happen (last season's Rays, e.g.), part of the appeal for me is its omnipresence. There's always a game on somewhere, so I can watch if I want. But I can also miss a game or a week as well, without feeling like I've missed too much. It's not a game that readily lends itself to the highlight, and it fits well into the zone of continuous partial attention (CPA) that characterizes my working spaces.

I'm not interested in spinning the allegory out too far here, though, except to note that writing the dissertation is a lot more like going through a season of baseball than it is other sports (and maybe other activities). To use another well-worn sports analogy, it's much more like a marathon than a sprint, and part of the trouble that folks have in making that transition is that, for their entire educational careers, they've been practicing the sprint. And there are some folk who manage, through luck or persistence, to sprint a mile, stop, sprint a mile, stop, sprint a mile, stop, until they've done a marathon's worth of sprints. In a sense, I did that with my own dissertation.

But when I got to the book, I wised up, I think. I still accomplished it in a very intense stretch of time, but the way I used that time was very different. Instead of bouncing back and forth between front and back burners, I kept my book on the CPA burner, and figured out how to manage different types of activities at different times, all of which kept me focused without burning me out.

But my advice here is not to do what I did, with either project. Rather, I'd say that it's important to be open to the possibility that the "rules" you've constructed for yourself and your writing--composed as they were during a time where your work was much shorter and burstier--might be revised. What I ended up doing was trying really hard not to love my quirks too hard. Use outlines, freewrites, bubblemaps, timed writing, journaling, notetaking systems, everything--in particular, try out those things that you don't think you need. Accept that the dissertation process is different from anything you've done before, and develop new habits and strategies to manage it. Try a different word processor, a new chair, a new workspace, a new workflow, everything. In the process, you'll learn more about what you need to get it done and what you thought you needed but don't.

The major projects that I've done (and there was a long stretch where this blog would count as onesuch) have always changed the way I write, sometimes for a while, sometimes forever. And I'm much more conscious of what I need to write well, which has served me well since then. In some ways, I'm tempted to argue that that's the real affordance of the dissertation--just as exams give you an unparalleled opportunity to learn the field, the dissertation gives you a similar opportunity to really learn who you are and can be as a writer.

I'd like that idea much more if it didn't sound like I was romanticizing the process unnecessarily. I don't mean to--I've both seen and been part of less-than-ideal dissertation situations--but I think that, even when things aren't going well, we can still learn a great deal about our writerly selves, for better or worse.

That's all. I feel like I have maybe 3 or 4 more posts about dissertating in me. We'll see how much time I have over the next few...



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This page is a archive of entries in the writing category from April 2009.

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