The Writing is the Hardest Part (apologies to Tom Petty)

Long ago, when I embarked on my long-day's-journey-into-night AKA grad school (in fact, I don't remember if it was before my MA or my PhD), a family friend looked grave and said that the last year was the hardest because of the writing-up. I didn't believe him then, because it seemed to me that formulating a feasible research question and finding information were such immense hurdles, that after overcoming those, writing would be easy! I'd never had real problems with writing - I'm a pretty verbal person. I used to do speech and debate in school, I am a (sorta-) published poet, and while the mere thought of talking to strangers on the telephone gives me hives, a blank sheet of paper or a document have never been sources of anxiety for me.

Until now.

You see, kids, I have entered the Twilight Zone known as writing-up. I am not unprepared: I have a ton of material, and lots of Thoughts and Opinions, but the problem is, I am so afraid of failure that I have a failure to launch. It's thesis performance anxiety - not at all sexy, and there are no heavily-marketed rhombus-shaped blue pharmaceuticals for it. Basically, the routine is this:
  • I wake up and remember that I have to write my god-damned thesis.
  • I open up the document and re-read the meaningless drivel I have written so far. It's not fail-worthy, exactly, but it's definitely not good. It just doesn't really go anywhere. Forget about being excellent, this writing might merit a 53 from a generous faculty member who would write "a brave attempt" in the comments.
  • I get sleepy because I am bored and also because my napping is a coping strategy:
    by a sleep to say we end/ The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation /Devoutly to be wished.
  • I nap and wake up three hours later, hungry because it's three hours later, and because I am now emotionally eating to mask the emotional distress at having failed to produce a coherent piece of work or to make any headway at all. So my soft gut also demonstrates my weak willpower.
  • I find other distractions - terrible films or television, massively ambitious sewing projects, the internet, solitaire, filing tax documents, or whatever it freaking takes! And when my family asks me "how's the writing going?", I resist the urge to cry.
Because it's tough. It's damned difficult, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
But that doesn't mean it's any less worthwhile. We shall overcome!


Ceri said…
I can totally see where you are coming from - although I have taken to reading books as a distraction from my terrible writing more than napping. My problem is that I have my thesis all written out in my head, I just cannot seem to get it out on paper in the right way. My supervisors think my writing is poor even when I think it is good so feeling a failure has become a standard response, which also doesn't help. There are some PhD students who just seem to be able to come in, do their PhD and go with minimum fuss and I wish I knew their secret. It will come with time I guess and just forcing yourself to keep going and revising and rewriting until it is good enough to be accepted. If its any consolation I keep reading about PhD theseses of great historians that were terribly written and riddled with factual errors and mistakes - and they got through in the end. We WILL make it!!!
Ariane said…
I nearly destroyed my laptop because I wanted to take a red marker and write right on the screen: Yes! Exactly! I know!
Even though I am just at the beginning of my PhD, writing is t-h-e topic. Sometimes I feel like a dog and a huuuge hand comes out of the sky and a loooouudd voice is screaming: "Sit down! Sit dooown. Nohoho, SIT DOWN!"
Last week I found a wonderful book by Joan Bolker: "Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day" (1998). I love the support she gives so that you can again/finally/hopefully "own your writing". So: good luck!

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