Everyone seems to have a system for writing, and most people are willing to share it. As most dissertation/thesis, aspiring freelance writers, and budding novelists know, there is a sizable industry devoted to telling you how to write: what time you should write and for how long, what tools you will need, what alignment the planets ought to be in. A quick Amazon search for “dissertation writing” spits out the following titles: the ever famous Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, Writing the Winning Thesis or Dissertation: A Step-by-Step Guide (what is this “winning,” are there prizes I didn’t know about? Is it cash? I hope it’s cash.), Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Process from Choice to Topic to Final Text. I have yet to find the title that actually interests me, which is How to Write Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day While Playing Online Games and Watching West Wing Reruns. But alas.
Higher education websites are full of advice too, notably from overworked assistant professors describing in horrifying detail how one manages to produce enough published material in order to get a full time job and ultimately receive tenure. Those articles frankly scare the shit out of me, not only because they speak to the appalling state of the academic job market but because they make me fear that the rest of my life is going to more or less feel like my first year of grad school. I have always been “good at school” in general. I always handed in assignments early in college and managed to get through final exams without having to pull any all-nighters (yes, the high school lunch room was MISERABLE for me, thank you for asking). But in grad school I found myself feeling like I had to Say Something Brilliant in every class I was in, that every term paper I turned in needed to be of publishable quality (before I really had a clue what publishable quality was). It seemed like everyone else had read Derrida back in like the third grade and had interesting and insightful things to say, and here I was just trying to figure out what “poststructuralist” meant. I felt way, way behind. I wondered why they had admitted me in the first place. And my lack of interesting things to say in class or write in my term papers meant I had a hard time producing anything worth reading.
A switch sort of flipped in my second year when, after reading what most everyone else had been reading (you should read your Derrida, kids, it builds character), I started chasing rabbit trails. I started reading stuff that wasn’t assigned and exploring subjects that people weren’t talking about and thinking of ways to make them interesting. That’s how I wound up with a disseration that I feel passionate about and that is getting written pretty quickly. I get so excited by the discoveries that I actually can write for seven hours a day and forget to eat lunch (and ignore West Wing reruns) when things are going well. But getting there has also meant deviating from the schedule I established back in college, which was of the YOU MUST WRITE THIS MANY PAGES A DAY AND COMPLETE PROJECTS ACCORDING TO THIS SCHEDULE model that most advice columnists recommend. I’m all for forcing yourself to write sometimes when you feel like procrastinating, making yourself just get it done when a deadline is looming and you know what you’re going to be saying anyway.
But sometimes procrastination isn’t just procrastination, if you know what I mean. Sometimes it’s actually invention. Sometimes there’s that book title that sounds really interesting to you but doesn’t seem to be relevant to whatever you are working on right this minute, so you put it on your “free time” list. Then you get so exhausted with your current research that you pick it up anyway just to get your mind off of things and finding a new piece of information or a new connection that makes the whole thing come alive again. Sometimes you fall down a Wikipedia hole during a bout of internet insomnia and wind up finding something significant. This semester, I decided to take a class in Sociology, which I didn’t need to take and was, in fact, discouraged from taking because it would take time away from my dissertation, just because the course description sounded fascinating to me. I wound up discovering scholars I had never heard of and encountering a wealth of data and theory that helped me complete both a dissertation chapter and an article in just a couple of months (over 100 pages of solid, final draft quality work, haters). In other words, you never know where the rabbit trails are going to take you. (That sounded unbelievably cheesy).
I don’t think we allow ourselves to do that enough, chase whatever wayward interest happens to seize you at the moment and follow it where it leads. More than that, I don’t think we encourage our students to do that enough. In a future post, I’ll explain why I structure and schedule writing assignments in a sort of idiosyncratic way, but I’ll just say this here. Sometimes, the way we teach writing tends encourages a mindset focused on meeting a deadline at all costs (or suffer late penalties), or producing X number of pages, instead of producing vibrant, exciting work. Structures and schedules are important, otherwise, we probably wouldn’t get much done. But we ought to teach ourselves and our students to manage deadlines in a way that leaves room for discovery, whether that means taking on fewer projects at a time, or, when it seems important to do so, devoting a day or a week to chasing a rabbit.