As September approaches, I look back to the work I did this summer and wish I had made more progress on my thesis. Unfortunately, this past month, I found myself experiencing not so much writer’s block as writing resistance. My thesis proposal was comprehensive, and a good blueprint and a springboard for what I need to do. However, I still found myself reluctant to dive deeply into the greater task of writing each chapter. There was always something else that I needed to do instead, such as catching up on my long neglected leisure reading, or organizing my daughter’s move to an out-of-province University. I told myself life was too hectic to leave me much time for writing. But, the truth is these are excuses. Life was and will always be busy, and I wrote my MA thesis with more demanding things demanding my time and attention.
After finishing courses and candidacy exams, this summer should have been the time to speed up my thesis work, but instead I found myself slowing down. Guilt was my companion these past two months, even as I got some work done, presented at a conference, and continued with academic reading. By my standards and expectations though, I didn’t produce enough writing. So, the issue became how to overcome this sudden resistance to writing, this desire to do anything else but sit in front of my laptop to write?
Because I am in academia - and let’s face it because it’s a great way to procrastinate even more - I decided to do some research on my writing inertia. I spent hours trolling the internet looking for other writers or grad students who had similar symptoms. Every time I found a kindred soul and read his or her story, I felt like an invisible participant in an online support group. I read about these writers’ struggles with the writing life where each one described the act of writing as a confrontation. For some it was like going into a cave to battle the dragon, like fighting a war, like running a marathon, etc. While there is no denying that writing is hard work, I also find it exhilarating, rewarding, and the main reason I am following this career path. I am passionate about writing, and that’s why I wallowed in guilt this summer when I lost some of that momentum and energy that had carried me through exams, courses, and teaching all these years.
Following the online research, I read writing manuals like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and decided to put some of her great suggestions in practice. She recommends facing writing by working on one paragraph at a time, one line at a time. Lamott basically advocates old-fashioned discipline and constancy. At this time in my career, her advice resonated with me in a very personal way helping me break out of this stillness.
My grandfather was a farmer who after working the fields would head to the shore and swim five hundred meters out to the sea, every single day. He didn’t do it to look better, to train for a race, or because he wanted to set a good example of physical fitness. He did it because he loved swimming, and loved swimming in the ocean with its shifting currents, its uncertain waves, and its daily challenges. Summer or winter, rain or shine, calm or turbulent waters, he would wade into that ocean, and swim for an hour to gather his thoughts at the end of the working day.
When I was eleven years old, he would sometimes take me with him. I always complained at the start of the swim arguing that the water was too cold, too choppy, or that I was too tired. He would ignore my comments, and as we dove in he would encourage me to go further each time. Try to make it to the end of the pier, to the next buoy, to that fisherman’s boat, he would say, as we swam side by side, matching his stroke to mine. For me, it was both scary and exciting to know that the ocean floor was so far beneath my feet, and to know that I couldn’t stand still nor rest for long. I would vary my strokes using the breaststroke and the backstroke when I felt tired. Sometimes, I would tread water for a few seconds, but that used up more energy than stroking, and it didn’t move me closer to that day’s goal. I quickly realized that remaining in one place was more tiring than moving forward.
The most exciting part was swimming back to shore to finally feel my feet touch the sand. I would stand up, turn around, and look with satisfaction at how far I had gone that day. I had managed to reach that point which looked so far and daunting from the shore, and knew that I could, and would, go further the next day.
Remembering this time in my life so many years ago, gave me the confidence to wade once again into the vast academic ocean. Now, when I sit down in front of my computer, I remember to keep moving, to pace myself, and to breathe, as I write my thesis stroke by stroke by stroke.
PhD Candidate, University of Calgary