There are many events that can interrupt your writing, both internal and external. Some of the external events you cannot control, or only partially. However, with the internal events, you do have a choice in how to respond and maybe get out of your own way…
In the book ‘Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day’, Joan Bolker describes three mental tricks we play on ourselves that can interrupt progress in PhD’s. The first is ambivalence, the second, mental static , and the third, anxiety – what she calls ‘fear of writing’.
Part of you really wants to finish your thesis, and part of you may not, and the latter part is likely to be sneaky (‘Wouldn’t this be the perfect time, when I have no other obligations, to have my teeth/appendix/hernia/home fixed?’ ‘ While I’m more working from home, I could have a puppy.’). Because writing a dissertation often is lonely work, the part of you that is social, that likes and needs companionship, will continually try to distract you.
It is very possible you do want to write your dissertation, and also that you don’t want to write at all, and if the forces are just about equal, you will end up in a seesaw position with a lot of tension and no motion.
One solution to the problem is to recognize this and push off from the ground again, another is to consider applying force as well as weight. In the latter case that might mean engaging a friend as a cheering squad, or asking your promotor to set you frequent deadlines, or listing explicitly all the valid reasons why you should finish your degree.
Most of us are ambivalent about the important psychic events of our lives: getting married, having children, being in love, or taking the sort of major professional leap forward like your PhD. You can’t banish mixed feelings by denying them, or trying to ignore them, but if you pay attention to them, they may let you move forward. Learn to recognize, feel and laugh at your own ambivalence, and then get on with your work.
Static is Joan Bolkers name for the unrelated thoughts, feelings, and other distractions that pass through your mind while you’re writing or trying to write; it’s the mental debris that seems to have little to do with what you are writing about. You may simultaneously consider an abstract idea, remember what you forgot to do before coming to the library and notice that you are hungry. Even when you are writing about something that is terribly important to you, your thoughts may frequently wander down many side paths.
Struggling writers complain about easily getting distracted and note that distractions seem more often to come from the inside than from the outside. They experience static as disruptive, disorderly, a sign of incipient brain rot. There is an interesting experiment you can try with your own static that may convince you otherwise. Instead of trying to push it out of your mind, try writing down whatever is in your head. If you do this over time, you may be surprised to discover that there is indeed a method to your seeming madness: themes that are present in what seemed to be chaos, themes that reappear over and over again.
One very common theme of static concerns unfulfilled obligations, real or imaginary: ‘I need to call my elderly aunt, right now,’ or ‘I probably ought to be cooking tonight, since my partner has cooked for the whole week,’ or ‘This house really needs cleaning up.’
Some of these thoughts may be about the real toll that writing takes on other parts of your life, but some of the static is about a much deeper part of being a writer: there is something inherently and wonderfully selfish about claiming time for your own thoughts and words, about taking them seriously enough to dedicate a major piece of your life to them, and a smaller piece to the needs of others.
So static can come from many different causes: it may be merely the way our minds work; it may represent internal conflict about being a writer; it may be a defensive manoeuvre that we employ when we are conflicted about our accomplishment or afraid that our speaking out will hurt someone else. At its worst, it may keep us from writing at all.
How to deal with static
There are two different ways to deal with static, and either one works. The first is ‘the Buddhist way’ and it is based on meditation techniques, which has been described as ‘training-the-mind-puppy-not-to-wander-off’. There are various focusing techniques, which will teach you not to extinguish the statics, but to reign in your thoughts on the topic. These techniques can be found in any number of books on meditation and mindfulness.
The second strategy may sound a bit paradoxical: it encourages you to move toward the static, rather than away from it. Try keeping a separate notebook next to your main work and just jot down the static as it happens. Giving the static a little bit of your time may keep it from distracting you.
Or: keep a running list of all the other things you’d like to do now (wash the bathroom, clean up your desk, pay the bills, practice violin…), and then promise yourself that you can do any or all of them, as soon as you’ve finished your set number of pages for the day. You’ll be surprised how less attractive the items on your list will be, once you’ve finished your writing for that day.
Fear of writing
It’s on a rare occasion that a PhD student isn’t really scared about his/her project. Writing a dissertation provides the perfect medium for anxiety, for both healthy and neurotic reasons. It’s a big deal to write a book; psychologically and realistically.
There are many reasons for thesis writers to become discouraged. Most of them are highly individual, so I won’t go into them. But if you are a scared writer, do know that it is perfectly possible to write with fear. You don’t have to get ‘unscared’ first; you just need to learn how to work despite your anxiety. In fact, writing is probably the best cure for a scared writer.
You can ask yourself what scares you so much; try writing down the answer, and pay attention to what you’ve written. You can pretend you’re giving advice to one of the students you may have met during your teaching obligations, or to your fellow PhD-students who’ve told you about their blocks. You can try mantras for inspiration, and rewards for times when you write through your block.
Being scared is sometimes a defence, a wonderful way of shifting your deep concern about the meaning of what you’re trying to accomplish to a symptom that keeps you from doing it. But there are good ways to keep the fear from getting the best of you.
Photo’s via Flickr, with thanks to flash.pro and tootao