The Writing Rollercoaster (Or, My Dissertation-Writing Funk)

Picture taken by me after we rode the

The last few weeks I have been out of the loop, my readers. Radioguy and I had family in town, and we took a trip to Las Vegas for my brother’s wedding. We had never been to Las Vegas, and this was a perfect excuse to fly out there. Also, we both really needed a break; baseball season had just ended, and I was starting to feel the burnout of months and months of working on my dissertation almost every day.

The advice of seasoned writers says that one should write every day, but I thought taking a few days off from dissertation writing would be good. I thought I’d return reinvigorated and ready to get back to work on Chapter 4. I was looking forward to not waking up in the morning and thinking “what am I working on today?” The days leading up to our departing flight were tough, but thinking about our little getaway in Vegas gave me the fuel I needed to push through and get some writing done. I thought this trip would recharge my mental batteries so I could finish Chapter 4. And so, with the exception of one moment of panic where I tweeted anxiously on a Sunday morning about the work I had left behind in Kansas City, I flew out to Vegas and didn’t feel guilty about not getting up early to work on the diss. However, I couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

Monday evening, after I had returned, I sat down and wrote about a page–that doesn’t sound bad, now does it? But it was hard. It may have been that hours before I had been two timezones away, or that I had just had my first official meal of the day. I forced myself to sit down and write; I had wanted to write on the trip back to Kansas City, but I finished reading Scott Poulson-Bryant‘s most excellent novel, The VIPs , instead (which I will be reviewing soon, by the way). So I promised myself I’d do something at home. But I was uninspired. I met my goal, but I didn’t feel like I had achieved much.

Maybe it was the exhaustion that kept me from working? After all, I’d just traveled from Las Vegas to Kansas City earlier that Monday. But It didn’t stop there. Every time I sat down to write this week I felt frustrated and annoyed. Writing felt like a chore, as I forced myself to sit down and write, one sentence at a time. Every day I wrote a little bit less. Also, I was running out of ideas. This past Saturday I sat down to write, but all I could think about was, “I really don’t know what to write.” I read over the thirteen pages I had written so far, made some notes, but didn’t really do much. Instead, I waited for my dissertation advisor to call and discuss my plan for the next few weeks.

I’ve mentioned before how writing my dissertation has changed how I approach writing. One of the things I do is write while I research instead of waiting until I am done with all of my sources. A lot of my writing happens while I digest and think through the sources I find. Throughout the course of a chapter, I will have moments of lucidity, inspiration, and frenzy. A few days later? Poof. All gone. So it’s not surprising that I hit a lull this week. I thought this dissertation funk might be because I was having trouble finding sources on the particular photographer I’m writing about in this section of the chapter. (Somehow I thought it was a good idea to write a chapter about two photographers I just discovered a few months ago.) But I’m running out of steam. Perhaps the problem wasn’t this week; maybe it’s just the burn out talking.

I used to stay motivated by thinking about the deadline ahead of me. I’d dream about what it would feel like to wake up on a Saturday (heck, ANY DAY) and not think “what do I need to do for the dissertation today?” But lately that doesn’t do it for me. When I think about next November’s deadline, all that comes to mind is how much more work I have left. When I think about what it would feel like to be done with the dissertation, I think of all the revision I still have to take care of before I defend. When I think about what it would be like to not think about the dissertation…I draw a blank. At this point it seems like the one constant in my daily life is the dissertation…and I don’t like that.

I need some motivation. I know I’m smart and I can do this. I know there will be an end–if anything, my advisor’s deadlines ensure there will be an end. But lately I lack the motivation to get up and get moving. In that sense, writing this dissertation feels like a rollercoaster: one moment I’m falling down at 80 mph with the wind blowing my cheeks back and my heart beating in my chest because of the adrenaline rush. The next moment I’m climbing to the top, chugging slowly, and feeling gravity’s pull. Right now it’s uphill. I’m looking for my adrenaline rush.

Fellow writers: how do you push through that lack of motivation?

Postscript: Sunday morning, after pressing the snooze button on my alarm once and falling asleep right after I had determined to get up, I finally forced myself to get up and work on the dissertation. I did a good amount of procrastinating (some of which consisted in researching debit cards fees from different local banks) but finally forced myself to read through my chapter again and actually managed to write something. I don’t know if forcing myself to write is the right thing to do, but at least I felt a teensy bit better about what I accomplished. Perhaps I am finding my way out of my writing funk? It could be.

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  1. > Fellow writers: how do you push through that lack of motivation?

    I force myself to write ONE THING. Even it is just one paragraph, or even one sentence, even if it not related to what I should currently be writing and is something I had planned to write later, or a re-imaging of something I have already written.

    Sometimes, when my brain is really resisting, I take down to the mechanical level and simply type out a few long quotes from books or essay that I plan to use. I find that this can help me since you can’t help but breakdown and process what you are writing even if you are just copying, and even the rough idea that comes along with that rote work? that is the ONE THING I write.

    ONE THING usually leads to two things or three things – and I rather feel better about getting one solid idea down in 20 minutes (or less) of work than fretting for an hour a more with nothing to show for it.

    Then I take a break, come back an hour later and write ONE THING again. . . slowly I prime the pump and next thing I know (hopefully, but not always) I am flowing.

    • Thanks, Mr. O. I’m going to try your “One Thing” suggestion. I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to produce a lot on a regular basis, especially when my major deadlines are quickly approaching. But that’s why deadlines are good: they force me to produce.

  2. Update: via Twitter I received these two recommendations:

    1) 750words.com–I started using this a few days ago, and it has come in handy to get my ideas out of my head…although so far i’ve used it for my non-dissertation writing. Oops. ;)

    2) The writers at U Venus put together a list of tips for writer’s block last March: http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/university_of_venus/tips_for_fighting_writer_s_block

  3. When I get really stuck on my dissertation, I work on another project–that way I stay in (or get in) the habit of writing but give myself time to incubate new ideas.

  4. Aargh. Finishing a dissertation–and the PhD program–is completely and totally an act of willpower. I like the “one thing” suggestion mentioned above; I did something similar when I was finishing mine, mostly because thinking of the project in its entirety was just too daunting. Another thing I do is to force myself to get up from the computer and do something else if I’m not being productive (ie, taking too many Twitter breaks). Usually the guilt of knowing that I should be writing is enough to bring me back to actually working, rather than sitting around pretending that I’m working because, hey, I’m at the computer. Or it makes me see that I do, in fact, need to take a break and think about things in another way, away from the computer. (This trick, however, does not apply to grading essays, because most days I’ll clean toilets rather than face down a stack of compositions.)

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