As I’ve been working on my dissertation, I’ve found that my best writing doesn’t necessarily come from writing something every single day. Instead, I try to be intentional about thinking about my project every day (with time off for good behavior.) That could mean reading a book that might change the trajectory of a chapter, diagramming a previous draft, or meeting with my writing group. Some days, working on my dissertation requires working on something else — letting dissertation ideas percolate in the background and keeping my energy up by imagining and exploring future projects.
Recently, I was explaining this tendency to write in short bursts (at an interview for a fellowship, no less) and I stopped myself and said: “I realize that this sounds a lot like procastination.” I qualified my own concern by mentioning some of the specific non-writing-but-dissertation-related tasks listed above. As an example of the success of this method, I recently became really frustrated with the two (out of five) chapters I had already drafted for my dissertation. Revising them wasn’t getting me anywhere and re-writing them was leaving me with so many different versions of approaches to the same material that I felt apathetic about all of it. I decided to be deliberate about not working on the dissertation for at least two weeks, and I gave myself permission to set it aside for as long as a month. (My deadline schedule at the time allowed for this.) I ended up focusing my energy on an upcoming research trip to England.
After the trip, I came home and re-outlined the entire dissertation. Things were finally starting to take shape and now I had a new approach that I felt confident about. This involved moving one case study from the third chapter into the first and adding a case study to the third chapter in it’s place. This move makes the case studies run chronologically throughout the chapters, which in and of itself should have seemed like an obvious way to order the thing, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it that way until I knew why. Now I know why. And it works. Really well.
A week later, I met with my entire committee. I handed them the new outline and talked about my non-writing activities, mostly fellowships. They agreed to read any chapters that were complete if I sent them within the next ten days, before they all had various commitments that would make reading and returning comments a slower process. I went home, cleared my schedule as much as possible, and proceeded to write three new chapters to replace the two that had been driving me nuts. I incorporated a good deal of the material I had already written, but one chapter was written entirely from scratch. There are still plenty of revisions to be made, but the shape of the argument is strong. The quick deadline helped, but if I had said it couldn’t be done, I knew my committee would work with me to find a date further in the future. The recent archive trip was also a big factor. But the chapters would not have come in the same way if I hadn’t been deliberate about giving myself the space to figure them out.
The sense of things finally coming together, even if there is still much revision work to be done, reminded me of a post I wrote on an earlier incarnation of this blog. (That blog, http://kirawalsh.com, is still in domain limbo, but its url will eventually be the home of this site.) In that post, I was talking about fiction, looking back on several longer projects that had stalled. I realized that they shared a common factor — they were all about one-third of the length I expected them to be when finished. The post was called “In Which Sherlock Sees a Pattern Developing.”
Let’s look at some trends. First of all, there’s a previous series of blog posts where I was posting word counters for my novel, working title Perfectly Average. Eventually I got bored of the word counter thing, mostly because it wasn’t climbing fast enough. On February 21st, 2009 I posted the word counter and it was at EXACTLY 33%, or 16,606 words. The next word counter isn’t posted until March 8th, and it’s only a few words more (44%.)
I looked at an older piece, something I remembered writing “all weekend” after I got excited about an idea:
…17,300 words. Almost exactly 1/3 of a 50,000 word YA novel. Now I’m stuck. The first five chapters took two days. The sixth was torture and took two days. The seventh? Um, well, I’m blogging right now but I’m sure I’ll get to it.
Finally, since I obviously wasn’t writing the other two-thirds of stories, I went back and looked at a representative sample of a bunch of longer works:
Henry’s Atlantis: 15,635 words . . . Untitled Mystery: 12,233 words . . . Raven Novel: ~13,000 . . . Waveriders: 11,012
Considering that each of these projects were meant to be a YA or MG novel in the 50,000-100,000 word range, they all fit the bill at being one-third or less finished. (I wish I knew the date of this blog post, but I failed to transfer it when I saved old posts.) My conclusion?
I write beginnings. Long ones. Even good ones. Some of the novel fragments I pulled out for this post were ones I hadn’t looked at in forever. I liked parts of them more than I could have expected now that I had the perspective of time. But the fact remains, they’re only 1/3 of the way there. The only exception is Perfectly Average, which I managed to complete during the CW Write a Thon. It’s at about 56,000 words and needs a huge edit before I start soliciting critiques.
I had some excuses for the problem, including the somewhat dubious claim that I was one-third or less done with, uh, being a person. Ultimately, I simply wanted to solve things:
What it comes down to is, I’d like to solve this problem. And the solution isn’t as simple as “just writing” and the solution also isn’t going to be putting these manuscripts in a drawer and waiting another twenty years of so to see if I know what a middle looks like.
What should I do? Any ideas? I’m going to come up with some of my own, but I thought I’d throw my dilemma out there. Consider this a beginning…
I still haven’t completed a novel manuscript I’m happy with, but in terms of my dissertation, something has shifted. I can see the end of it. Since I wrote those middle three chapters, I’ve drafted a revised introduction and outlined the conclusion. I know that I can complete it. I have the shape of the whole thing in my head. It’s a shape that is concrete enough that I can move forward confidently and fluid enough that I can still discover things as I go. Although one of my next projects will be turning my dissertation into a book, I’m also looking towards finishing one of those one-third-through novels. I’m not sure how it will happen yet, but I’m more confident than ever that I’ll figure it out.