Writing about writing

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What am I afraid of? I can’t put my finger on it… I sit poised at the computer, fingers at the ready atop of the keys, waiting for the tappity tap tap that alerts me to my flow. But all I get is staccato sounds; infrequent, small bursts of activity amidst long silences…. Ideas? Where’d they go? What was I just thinking? I have a thesis to work on – I talk incessantly and passionately about my research, but as soon as I sit in front of a screen with a keyboard, everything disappears from my head – a miraculous vanishing act.maitriser-le-web-reseaux-sociaux

I sit, like a frustrated musician at a grand piano with the finest instruments, waiting for a concerto or symphony to flow out of me. But all I get is a crappy jingle that has probably been unintentionally plagiarised from something I’ve heard before. Ugh… I know the tools of the trade, the tricks to tickle the habit, and yet I resist using them. Write everyday. Be disciplined in your approach. Set daily goals/tasks/topics. Make them public so you are accountable (does humiliation for not doing what you publicly claimed really work as a motivating force?)

I struggle.
I procrastinate.waiting_to_write
I do everything to not write.
I’m afraid.
I’m a fraud.
I’m a fool.
I’m frustrated.

I find myself waiting for inspiration, knowing full well that this is not the way to get ideas (or writing) out of me. I have experienced profound flashes of writing elation, where I get lost in the moment and write with fervour in a feverish fit of flow. And then it stops. Dead. Where did it go? How do I get it back? What if I have nothing of value to say? WTF?

mjz4DV3x10DNRJoFvT0zufgI do not believe in my own ideas and musings. I am afraid of being publicly consumed and criticised. It seems that I am a coward. And what is life if I stay in the safe confines of my own head? I am passionate about sharing discourses and delving into dialogues about the human condition. I can discuss such things with strangers on a bus, travellers on a train and customers waiting at the supermarket checkout… and yet, I struggle enormously to articulate my thinking via the written word. Can I find the right word(s)? Can I get my meaning across? Am I using too many adjectives? Am I over complicating what is an essentially simple premise: my struggle to contemplate and capture ‘stuff.’ Stuff is slippery. I forget stuff. Somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind I know that I know the underlying theoretical issues that help explain some stuff, but I labour with accessing this knowledge. My memory is not sharp. Maybe if I wrote more, I would be more successful accessing what I know, or maintain the knowledge better? But these are the ‘what ifs’ that I am riddled with. What if my mind was sharper? What if I was a different version of myself that overcame these insecurities? What if, in a parallel universe, another me was successfully forging ahead?

dd7ebaf7f329992e21302762b28a3ff0None of these questions help me get on with the job of writing now! Even while writing this piece on the challenge of writing, I have followed the white rabbit down the hole and been distracted by new thoughts and ideas, losing my grip on the theme I was expanding (or lamenting) upon. The Mad Hatter teases me; the Cheshire Cat grins tauntingly at me. My brain pings. I want to follow every new trajectory in a way that is akin to experiencing ADHD symptoms. I start many projects and very rarely complete them all. Poor form. Poor discipline. I lose interest. I can rationalise that I have learned what I wanted and thus moved on. But this is self-deception of the highest order.Cheshire-cat-8

So, here I am, an aspiring author struggling to ‘phinish’ my doctorate. Colleagues, friends and mentors have more belief in me than I do. What do I need to spur me over the phinishing line? How do I access the internal dialogue and transform it into an academic thesis?

I will share my odyssey over the next few weeks and months. It doesn’t matter if you, dear reader, are not actually interested (though I do hope that you are). I need to forget that you might critique my process, or nod knowingly at my dilemma, offering no words of encouragement or enlightenment – because you know that while these are great to hear, they do not generate the writing. I know you will judge me, and I have to be comfortable with that. There will be flaws. I will mix tenses; use too many adjectives, analogies and metaphors. My narrative will lack cohesion; I will neglect to fully expound an idea due to being distracted, or simply losing my thread. I will feel vulnerable. I do feel vulnerable exposing myself to potential judgement. But I remind myself of the spirit of generosity that many readers display because the ‘stuff’ resonates. Because of empathy and shared experience. So, I give myself permission to write badly. It is a self-full journey. I have to find my own way….

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To Blog or Not to Blog

Today I attended the inaugural (for 2011) Collaborative Research Online Psychology Team (CROPT) meeting – given I was co-facilitating this event, it was imperative that I attend! Our first meeting looked at the benefits of blogging for thesis writing (a topic close to my heart).

 Thesis writing and research can be a very isolating experience. As a PhD student I have found that once you take the dive into the rabbit hole, it is an exclusive journey that is conducted in a vacuum. No one can truly share in your experiences. Your topic is unique and ideally, no one else is doing the same research (but serendipitously there is always someone doing something similar somewhere else in the world – many ideas/discoveries are worked on simultaneously without knowledge of the other). The criterion on whether a doctoral thesis proposal is approved is that it is original work that makes a significant contribution to knowledge. By it’s very nature it is a solitary process. In fact, the only people you really get to share part of your journey with is your supervisor(s), who help guide you through the morass, and are there to support, critique, encourage, chide, question and praise you (if you are lucky)!

 My supervisors (wonderful, inspiring women that they are) will be the only people (apart from the examiners) to read my work. All those words (90,000 of them) will only be read by 4 people (and 2 of them – the examiners – are judging me by my work). I am already putting myself off! Although I can hear my optimistic self tell me: it’s the journey, not the destination! The process is likened to being a sorcerer’s apprentice in research. I have digressed….

 Blogging to share the experience

The point of my diatribe is this: blogging is a way of sharing the words, the inklings, the epiphanies and sorrows. It is a way of finding an audience that is interested in my ideas and creating a dialogue so that I am not always operating in an isolated space. It is a means to encourage interaction with my audience. It is also a method for developing routine in the practice of writing.

 

Today I have ‘outed’ myself as someone who desires to be disciplined in the practice of writing (but thwarted by continuously finding (valid?) reasons not to)! This Blog is dedicated to my fellow CROPT colleagues who will be watching for my commitment to write 250 words per day via this blog. THERE! I have committed! Let the writing begin!

(This post was 419 words – can there be too many words???)

How the research journey is analogous to going down the rabbit hole!

“…burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.

The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next. First, she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything; then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and book-shelves; here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs. She took down a jar from one of the shelves as she passed; it was labelled `ORANGE MARMALADE’, but to her great disappointment it was empty: she did not like to drop the jar for fear of killing somebody, so managed to put it into one of the cupboards as she fell past it.

`Well!’ thought Alice to herself, `after such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs! How brave they’ll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!’ (Which was very likely true.)

Down, down, down. Would the fall NEVER come to an end! `I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?’ she said aloud. `I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth’…”

from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Chapter 1

 I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a child, never once considering that it would become a significant metaphor in my research career many years later. Now the question: “why is a raven like a writing desk?’ is meaningful to me; especially within the context of developing a research question. The Mad Hatter may not have known the answer to the question posed, but the question itself raises more potential issues to ponder and investigate (which makes it a highly valid and industrious puzzle to solve). For instance: what are the qualities of a raven? What are the qualities of a writing desk? What properties do they share, and what are their differences? How are they represented? How are they perceived? By whom? And so on….curiouser and curiouser.

Welcome to the research process, where questions abound, and a state of confusion is the only constant! You start with a nebulous thought that needs form and substance. This progresses in fits and starts to become a conceptual idea. You notice the white rabbit (the idea) and pursue it peripherally at first, taking tenuous steps towards it on the surface (the rabbit hole). Before you know it, the idea takes hold and down you plunge, into the research abyss (the deep well). This is the beginning of a long, arduous, challenging, inspiring, prosperous, at times lonely and futile, and other time’s joyful and productive journey. Like Alice scanning her environment, there are many distractions and disappointments among the breakthroughs and discoveries experienced. Dichotomous encounters and paradoxical principles become part of the flotsam and jetsam of the research voyage. Conundrums proliferate, periodically perplexing and sometimes beguiling. You lose your sense of time and place as you linger over the enticing tidbits that draw you in, and then take a tangential exploration that may come to nought, but the diversion was captivating nonetheless (this can also be called procrastination – but the process still can be of productive value). There may be many moments where you find the research equivalent of the ‘ORANGE MARMALADE’ jar, only to be disheartened at the emptiness and irrelevance of the contents, but file it for future reference (if it becomes pertinent).

The tunnel that you have entered at first is wide, fanning out in all directions, and then it can dip suddenly, taking numerous twists and turns (with the occasional dead-end). As the research journey progresses, the tunnel narrows as you remain focussed on the subject matter. Your analytical skills improve, and you are better able to scrutinise and dissect significant information and discard extraneous material. You feel a greater sense of purpose as the terrain becomes familiar and your expertise in the field increases, providing greater illumination. At this point you wonder why you felt so vulnerable at the beginning, full of self-doubt (because you did not have the knowledge required to get you as far as you needed to go). And like Alice, you should think nothing of tumbling down stairs! You are now defending your position (and thesis) with poise and courage, and totally transformed by the process!