I love Ms. Mentor’s advice columns from the Career section in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Here’s a sample of why. P.S. When I was still in ABD Hell, I related to this, 100-freakin’-percent.
A Dissertation Writer’s Rumblings
Ignore your febrile fantasies, decide to do a good-enough dissertation, and finish it — or not
Question: Writing dissertation. Must be last person on earth, never see anyone anymore unless teaching. Does that count as seeing people? Think not. Need a laugh. Pray each night to write damn thing and finally finish Ph.D. without turning into bloviator. However, noticing that friends and family glaze over quite soon after asking about research. Hate to bloviate. Thus, no pronouns. Plan to eliminate other parts of speech as needed, maybe take vow of silence. Good?
Answer: Maybe. Maybe not.
Ms. Mentor obviously captivated by your writing style. Impressed by your efforts at minimalism. Thinks it’s catching, but will try to extricate self and talk more ordinarily. (What is normal among academics? Discuss.)
Everyone knows dissertation stress. What you’re doing will never be finished, or it will be laughable and absurd. In a just world, you would be hanged as an academic fraud and your remains fed to feral dogs (they’d call it recycling). Your B.A. would be yanked and your records deleted. Your high school would post your weaselly, smiling graduate photo on its Wall of Shame.
Or you could ignore all those febrile fantasies, decide to do a good-enough dissertation, and finish it — or not.
Half of A.B.D.’s (All But Dissertationers) never finish, but they are not failures. They’ve chosen other things — such as a social life, or children, or a career that doesn’t require years of poverty (and maybe chastity) before a tenure-track job perhaps materializes in a Remote Village.
But suppose — against all odds, and despite the clamoring of unschooled relatives (“You’re writing about ‘theory’? Will that get you on the bestseller list or something? Will they make a movie of it with somebody cool, not Tom Cruise?”) — you still want to “do the diss.”
Finishing is character building, you say.
And your discoveries will revolutionize the field.
And, besides, you love the work — and now, finally, you’ve gotten to where Ms. Mentor’s impeccable wisdom might be of use. As Hegel (or perhaps Emerson) famously said: Nothing great is ever achieved without passion.
You have to be driven to do it, external rewards or not. If you’re not passionate about your subject, why bother? But assuming that you are passionate, Ms. Mentor will now suggest ways to get yourself to finish the diss.
Writer’s block is fear — fear of getting something wrong, not getting an A, being unmasked as an impostor at last. Every writer except the most doltish of hacks approaches a blank page or screen with trepidation, and the hardest word to write is the first.
Ms. Mentor assumes you’ve already broken your dissertation into manageable parts and set up a timetable: one month for Chapter 1, one for Chapter 2, for instance. (Your director and your committee can help with planning, as can such books as Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day.)
You also need to set weekly and daily goals: three pages a day, or two hours, or another unbreakable quota, preferably at the same time each day. If you have rambunctious children, try early morning or very late hours, when the world is quiet and no one is moving except a few randy ne’er-do-wells, logged on to their computers from strange time zones.
Do not get on the Internet.
Turn off all phones and put your cellphone where you cannot see it light up, vibrate, and dance.
Write by hand — as Ms. Mentor writes her first drafts — so as to sneak up on the work. Tell yourself, as Anne Lamott recommends in Bird by Bird, that you’re about to write a “shitty first draft.”
Then do it.
Editing a mess is much easier than grunting out the first draft. Anything is easier than the first draft (except, of course, root canals without anesthesia, or being devoured by wolves; those really hurt, or so Ms. Mentor has been told).
If you can isolate yourself totally from the stream of yammering humanity, do it for the first draft. Lock yourself in your carrel. Hide out in mountain caves. Let beauty-school students practice pedicures on you while you scribble.
Encourage roommates to surprise you with treats, but only on Fridays after 5 p.m. Ignore their grumbling. Put your fingers in your ears and chant, “La la la la la.” True friends will understand.
Many people, of course, won’t, and the Dissertation Era (which Ms. Mentor hopes will not be a Dissertation Decade for you, as it sometimes is for unfortunate literary scholars who must work as adjuncts in three places and grade thousands of compositions while grinding out their great opuses) may mean giving up on those people who, well, aren’t into you.
Except for family members whose caprices are inescapable, you do not need narcissists who tell you their love problems incessantly (unless their stories are vivid, lurid, and ever-changing, and you can use them in your chapters about neurotic behavior). You do not need broken-winged people, addicts, or whiners who have to sleep on your couch for a few days to “get my head together.” You do not need people who “will be great” once they get over their bigotries or their resentments of you (“Why are you always writing? Let’s go get a beer and forget your silly homework.”).
Anyone whose moods get you down, or who picks a fight when you’re trying to finish a chapter, or who disparages your work, does not belong in your life.
Find a writing critique group, if you have a strong ego. If you’re not sure, convene a group of friends in which all of you make deadlines for one another and meet once a week to celebrate what everyone has written, taught, sold, or cooked. Have lots of chocolate.
Yes, give up useless parts of speech, especially adverbs. They are the softeners, the wimps of the grammatical world. You need to be ruthless, self-protective, fierce, whatever your mode.
Some writers are gushers, bloviators who spew everything in their first drafts and then pick out the best chunks. But you may be a bleeder, a one-word-at-a-time agonizer (as Red Smith said, you sit at your desk “and open a vein”). Or you may be a Beavisite, converting all long jargonized theoretical explications into the simplest of language: “Cool” or “It sucks.”
Now all you have to do is explain yourself to the world.
Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge and is the author of Ms. Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia.
Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. For an archive of her previous columns, see http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/archives/columns/ms._mentor
From The Chronicle of Higher Education, issue dated December 8, 2006
Section: Chronicle Careers
Volume 53, Issue 16, Page C3