Why, why, why? I dunno.

I got back in the pool today for the first time in ages -- my first thought the instant I was fully submerged: this feels great -- why didn't I do this sooner??

This seems to be a refrain I'm working with lately. I've been looking back on the past 5-7 years and just wondering what I was doing with myself that whole time. Where did the time go, and why didn't I finish this dissertation in that time? Why didn't I write these chapter sooner? Why didn't I revise them sooner? What is taking me so long? I know that finishing is going to feel great -- so why didn't I do it sooner?

I keep thinking that if I can just come up with the answer to these questions, it will free me from whatever psychic chains are keeping me tied down to this project. But, I've thought about all of those chains and come up with a few, but none of them seem to be the ONE that is holding me back. I've thought a lot about the one that kept me tied to my identity as a student (I LOVED being a student. On my first day in kindergarten, I came home sobbing because I didn't think it was "real school" because they didn't give me any homework. When I was 7, I used to pretend my room was "college." In Jr. High my mom's university sweatshirt was my favorite outfit.) But, I don't feel like a student anymore. I've let that part go -- willingly and happily. (I can actually make mac and cheese in a pot on my own stove instead of having to do the plug-boilover-unplug-plug-boilover-unplug dance with the hotpot.) So, it isn't that anymore, I'm pretty sure.

I've thought a lot also about the Good Enough chain. That heavy thing tied around my ankle that I drag along behind me as I walk and as it scrapes along the ground it hisses: "not good enough" so persuasively that at times I know with absolute and complete certainty that I'm not good enough for the Ph.D. My work isn't good enough - or even worse, that it just isn't enough. I haven't read everything out there that there is to read that might possibly relate to my subject -- I haven't found all of the research that I know I need to do to really make my argument complete. But, I think I've made my peace with this. I know that I'm NEVER going to do all of that stuff before I need to finish, so I just have to draw a line and say -- there. That is enough. It is enough. I am enough.

So, if it isn't either of those things, what am I left with? Laziness? Well, duh. Yes. This sucks, why wouldn't I want to read a novel or bake cookies instead? But, laziness is a temporary glitch and one I'm not really grappling with right now. Fear of failure? Oho, that's a huge one. And another No Shit kind of obstacle. But, has it been enough to keep me from finishing for a decade? Maybe. But, right now my fear of losing my job so outweighs this one, that it is rapidly diminishing into background noise on KFKD. Nothing I can't handle. So, what is it? Why don't I finish???

I don't know. I just don't know. And when I think about this, I keep running into a wall. I thought maybe the right thing to do would be to get some help with this question, but the last time I saw my therapist, she was not so helpful. We went over the same old shit, and I could just hear her thinking "get over your damned self and let me get back to people with REAL problems!!" I may be exaggerating, but I really think that we have reached the "just do it" phase of therapy.

Well, here I am, in the library, attempting to just do it and I'm stuck.

I looked at that chapter that I had to write 2/3rds of and decided that maybe perhaps in the time I had available, this wasn't the chapter to work on. So, I picked up another one that I have already taken one stab at revising and one that I have a chance of actually completing before the deadline next week. It is in pretty good shape in parts, but the two halves of the chapter don't work together. They never have, and I had hopes that my last revision had addressed this. My advisor disagreed. So, now I'm looking at it going, "hm." How do I integrate these two parts more fully? How can I connect them more clearly? And, fuck, how do I do it in 7 days??

How do you revise your own work? How do you step out of the conceptual frameworks that you have carefully created and see new and better ones that enable you to more truly say what you're trying to say? Any suggestions would be most welcome.

Well, I guess I'm not going to write myself into any brilliant answers to my dissertation hangups. Maybe they are questions that just don't have answers until you finish. That would suck. But, then again, wouldn't it be a bit of a shock if something about this process didn't suck. Anyway, I'm going to stop the three-year-old's refrain of "why, why, why?" and get back to getting over it and to just doing it. The clock is ticking.

5 comments:

At 2:37 PM Laura said...

stewgad, when I need to make a pretty major revision, I start over. I open a new document, have the old one handy, but don't rely on it. It doesn't always, work, but it frees you from the old framework.

 
At 7:57 PM zelda said...

outlines! i write an outline of the paper (chapter), just point form so i can see the order of topics and what info will be touched upon in each topic. if you can't write out the outline, you can't write the paper. how else do you know where you're going? :)

 
At 11:23 PM StyleyGeek said...

Retroactive outlines are pretty useful. You draw up an outline based on the headings and subheadings you already have. Then you write a one or two sentence explanation (as though for someone else) of why that chunk of text is there at all, and why it's THERE in particular.

You also can use arrows or your own system to mark how the different sections relate to each other.

I find it's much easier to see how to restructure looking at a document like that than looking at the whole chapter.

 
At 8:45 AM Scrivener said...

I agree on the retroactive outlining. I encourage my students to do that all the time.

I so could have written this post myself. Except mine would have turned out less eloquently and probably twice as long. ;)

 
At 1:14 AM Ms.PhD said...

Based on your description of the problem, I think your problem is probably not in outlines but in transitions, links between things.

I'm a big proponent of the idea that there are really two major hurdles to writing, at least for me.

1. Deciding. You have to be, like our esteemed President, The Decider. Usually when I'm struggling with writing something, it's because I know on some level that it won't work but I'm too lazy to throw it out and try a different idea. Once I have a really clear idea, the writing part comes easily.

2. Transitions. Outlines don't work for me because in outline format, things often seem to 'go together' when they actually don't, but you don't know that until you try to write the transition between them and realize that's where all your assumptions break down.

So I say go back to your assumptions. Why are those two things in the same chapter at all? Can you break down what your original thinking was in putting them there?

Usually when I want to compare/contrast, I have to break things down into the smallest possible pieces, and usually when I'm struggling it's because the definitions I'm trying to use are too vague.

Then I look at how I make the argument. Are you listing things separately but in parallel form when you should be discussing them as pairs of related concepts? Sometimes, as the proponents of outlines and starting over from scratch would have to agree, organization can really affect your thinking.

I don't know if that helps... Please do let us know what you found most useful. I'm always curious to know how people actually accomplish the act of writing.

 

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