I used to feel, when I was a graduate student, that working on my dissertation was like being in love. It was the first thing I thought of when I woke up in the morning, and the last thing I thought about before falling asleep at night. I spent long, empty hours in between dreaming of its shape: who it really was, what it meant when it said this or that, whether or not our ideas were compatible. Whether it would leave me for someone else.
Even when we weren’t together, we were never really far apart. When I was walking to class, say, or on my way home from the library, the things I saw and heard often reminded me of the dissertation—weren’t they similar in this way or that? Didn’t that phrase perfectly articulate what my dissertation and I had been saying to one another just last night? We fought like lovers, too—after marathon days spent holed up together at my computer, I’d inadvertently say the wrong thing and it would clam up, turning away in silence. The more I tried to explain what I meant, the less we seemed to understand one another.
Fatigued and furious, I’d storm out and spend several days with actual human beings, talking about how difficult she was, intolerable really, why am I putting myself through this? I’d fantasize about a new life, and a new love: I’d be an au pair for a wealthy family in Barcelona, perhaps, and start writing critical essays about racialized domestic labor. But then a few days later, when my ire had cooled, I’d wake to a shapeless circling in my mind, the answer to our lover’s spat made plain before me (ohthatswhatyoumeant). Then I was back in my dissertation’s arms, obsessed with her every move, willfully blind, once again, to the world around me.
It wasn’t the healthiest of relationships.
I’m not sure whether I think the dissertation-as-lover metaphor still works. But what does work is the idea that we have a relationship to our writing. That is, we interact with it repeatedly, we hold it in certain regard, and often follow a certain pattern of behavior around it. I like this way of thinking about writing, because it disrupts our obsession with the amount we get done, and focuses our attention on the way we go about doing it: Are you distant from your writing, coolly pretending like it doesn’t exist? Are you afraid of it, doing everything you can to avoid looking it in the face? Do you find it impossible to give it time now that you’ve had kids, even though you were like sisters at some point? Maybe you really could just take it or leave it as far as writing goes. It’s like cleaning the bathroom: nobody wants to do it, but once you start, it ain’t that bad and everyone’s much, much happier afterwards.
Could be you’re like me and my friend Arpi. We hardly see or talk to each other, but when we do, there’s always a lot of cackling involved. She always knows exactly what I mean, and she always drops some wisdom that leaves me shaking my head at how lucky I am, wondering why we don’t do this more often. Whatever your relationship to writing looks like, really stopping to examine what it looks like can help us see things that might otherwise not come to the surface. We spend so much time dreading our work and feeling guilty about it that it’s easy to forget the other ways we relate to our writing.
The second thing that’s useful about this approach to thinking about our writing is that doing so makes clear that our interactions with it can’t look the same day by day. Oh sure, we’ve got to have some rituals and routines, some basic behaviors we can count on. We know from the research that every-work-day writing will absolutely boost your productivity. We also know that times of rest and idleness are important to our ability to problem solve and experience flashes of insight (although, as might be expected, fewer people shout that fun fact from the rooftop of the ivory tower). But even when we take those ideas into account, the fact is it’s not going to be All Love, All The Time, no matter how diligent you are about writing. Some days you just can’t give your writing the attention it needs.
Because your son will forget his homework and you’ll have to drive all the way back home to get it. Or you just will not be able to keep yourself from minute by minute monitoring of the election/protest/debate/match. Or the Dean will propose some cockamamie, labor intensive reporting scheme for your department, and it will take 30 extra minutes of the faculty meeting to bang out a first draft of the Departmental Letter of Outrage (and you don’t even want to think about the proposed “revisions over email” coming later that day). Either way, you make this perfect little writing plan, then your actual life happens, and now your precious 45 minutes is barely 15, and what can you get done in 15 minutes?
It’s tempting in moments like these to throw up our hands and forget trying to squeeze in writing for that day. But here’s where the idea of dissertation-as-lover really comes in handy. Once we start thinking in terms of our relationship to writing practice (rather than our accomplishment of writing tasks), it creates a whole different set of options and obligations and reasonable responses when we run out of writing time. Lots of meaningful interactions can maintain and strengthen your relationship to your writing. Here are a few you might consider:
The Set Up: Ok, ok, you can’t get to the writing today. But you’re going to be hanging out with your lover/manuscript tomorrow and you want everything to be neat as a pin. Not only does it give the best impression of you, but it makes it easier for you to find what you need once the two of you start talking. Take 15 minutes to clean up your writing space, removing all reminders of life’s most mundane, distracting concerns, and make it a space in which the two of you can spend time together just focused on one another. More importantly, be sure to put in place everything you’ll need when the writing arrives. Notebooks, pens or pencils, pull up the reading you’ll actually need to refer to when you write (not every text you’re freaked out you might possibly need), print and open the document. Turn off all visual and aural notifications on your computer—and if you write by hand, why not just go on ahead and turn the damn thing off? The next time you walk into your writing space, you’ll be ready to go with no hesitation and no distractions.
The Reminder: You haven’t written in a while and can’t quite remember what you were on about the last time. Take 15 minutes just to read through what you did before, and if you haven’t already, make a note of what you’ll do next time you sit down to write. Read without a pencil or pen in your hand, so you can resist the urge to actually revise anything. The point is to catch up with your manuscript, the way you would if you were having coffee with a friend you really enjoy but haven’t had time to see because they’re just as swamped as you are. When you’re done reading, then you can pull out something to write with and note what you love about what you’ve written, and the one thing you’d like to change. Start there during your next writing session.
The Confab: You don’t have time to write it out. And besides, you don’t know what the hell you’re saying anyway. Every time you sit down to write you think you’re on the right path, and then a day later, you’re trapped in a theoretical bog and can’t seem to pull yourself out. Now’s the time to ask for help. Call someone you trust, tell them how desperate you are and ask for 15 minutes of their time. Hit the voice recorder on your phone and describe to them what you’re trying to say: have them say it back to you and then correct the parts they don’t quite get right. Chances are you’re not going to solve the problem in 15 minutes, but at least two things are likely to happen: First, you’ll find out that your idea, while fuzzy, is not the piece of unbearable shit you thought it was. And second, your friend may throw you a vine, something to help pull yourself out of the mire and start down a new pathway. Is it the right one? Who knows. But it’s better than the bog, and that’s all that counts.
The Poetry Reading: Oh goodness, this one’s my favorite. Don’t write. Just read. Pick up the book you’ve been dying to crack open and read 5 pages of it. Pick the pages you think will be the juiciest—not the review of the literature (unless of course, you’re stuck in your own literature review hell and are hoping someone will put some structure around the blooming mass of citations you’ve collected). Pick the part that’s the reason you’re most interested in the book, settle into a comfy chair (no sitting in front of your computer) and just…drink it in. Damned if it won’t spark ½ dozen thoughts about your own work and what you want to say next time you write.
But, but, but… I know what you’re thinking. These things don’t really count as writing, so why bother doing them? Some of them don’t even involve turning on your computer! If you’re not putting new words on the page, then you haven’t really written. And if you can’t really write…then why even bother?
But think about it from the standpoint of maintaining a relationship: If you’d scheduled an hour-long lunch with a colleague and then your day blows up and now you only have 15 minutes, what would you do? Chances are you wouldn’t just not show up without any notice whatsoever. Depending on the nature of your relationship, you’d send a text and ask to reschedule. You actually might try to squeeze in 15 minutes in the hallway, chatting about whatever’s most pressing until both of you have to rush off. If the relationship is intimate or involves a power differential (a colleague who’s actually a friend and who’s having a hard time, or the chair of your department) you might actually prioritize it, rescheduling other obligations around that meeting, even if it has to be shorter than originally planned.
In other words, writing, like any other relationship, very rarely turns out perfectly. Instead it looks different on different days, depending on what else is going on in your life. When that happens, you do the best you can to tend to the relationship in that moment—because it matters enough to you to do so.
So think about what you and your writing are to one another: what you are and what you’d like to be. Good for you if can linger the way you did when you were both a little younger. Even better if you find ways to stay connected, even if you only see each other for a few minutes in the morning. Give your writing a quick kiss before you start the rest of your day. Squeeze its hand—just for a second—while you’re both standing at the back of the elevator on the way to a meeting. Whisper something in its ear after dinner, just to let it know you haven’t forgotten it. It’s not perfect. It’s not everything. But it’s enough to keep the love alive.
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Michelle Boyd. Writer, Scholar, Coach