Wednesday, April 4, 2012

IWSG: Anxiety or D is for Dissertation (or my other favorite, D is for Degree)

I know I said I wouldn’t be around as much, but I didn’t want to miss an Insecure Writer’s Support Group meeting. If you haven’t heard about IWSG, go over and visit Alex and sign up on the linky-do to join.

This month, I’ve been noticing something. I have two projects going on. They are both, essentially, writing. One is scientific writing. The other is of course science fantasy (seriously, that’s what I’d name my genre, but I have to come down on the side of normal ::shakes fist at da man:: ). The funny thing is that right now, I’m using writing to unwind from writing.

Bwah? That’s crazy talk.

Not for me.

See, the problem with my dissertation isn’t that I don’t know what I’m talking about (I do), and it’s not that I can’t string together words to form coherent sentences (I present my blog as proof of competency in that arena), which begs the question: why don’t I like writing my dissertation?

I hate it in fact. It makes me angry and scared, and when I’m done looking over the comments from my committee members (and never has there been a group in more dire need of the rule: honest but not cruel!) I feel small and miserable. Worthless, even if I’ve been working too long on it.

With my dissertation (which is in its sixth full rewrite *gags*), every time I sit down to work on it—which for the record, is Every Single Day including the weekends—I’m worried. The comments I’ve gotten back from my committee could scorch the ground, and if they’d been through Eden, you’d think it was the Atacama. They are intense. No, wait: they are INTENSE!

And they scare me, because they have all the control.

So when I write, every word is pounded out across my heart. It hurts to sit and write because I know that no matter how good it is, it will never be declared good. The best mark of approval they will ever give out is “good enough.” To which I always want to know, “Good enough for what? Toilet paper? Nobel? What does it mean?”

Clearly not Nobel.

The point is that I can’t sit down to write without this dread that no matter how incredible my skill, no matter how hard I work, no matter if I could fart funded grants, the best I’ll ever get is “good enough,” but the worst, ah, now there’s a problem.

The worst are comments that call into question my ability to write, form scientific thoughts, and in general, imply that I am complete moron.

“What a mess, that’s not English! Hell, that’s not even American!” Yes, my advisor wrote that on one of my papers. And that’s just one of the comments I feel I can reasonably quote because it’s also sort of funny. But then there are comments that say stuff like “I don’t think you’ve actually thought about any of this,” Or “Did you even try, because this, quite frankly, is awful,” or “Did you really site all these references, because it just didn’t seem like it.”

Yeah, my committee members are a cheery bunch who take the time to bolster my self confidence at every opportunity. Too bad they think dynamite can be used for shoring.

The problem is that it’s kind of like a query letter. You know how query letters go, every time you get a response, it’s either “I love it, and I’d love to see more!” or it’s “Wow, good luck with that one.” Except in academia, even the “Good luck with that one” responders are locked into making it work. That’s what the committee is bound to do. So they hate it, and they *have* to work on it. It’s not their project, and they don’t want anything to do with it, so any error—any error at all, no matter how ridiculous—and they go nuts. I swear, missing a hyphen might as well be murdering puppies with these people.

And for the record, I couldn’t care less about the proper use of a freakin hyphen. That’s what a bloody style guide is for. So it’s pointless to go on about crap like that until the last edit before being published. URGGH!

Whoops, I went all horrible squid of anger there, and that wasn’t my intent. I was trying to describe the difference between the writing that hurts me and the writing that sets me free. See those jaded paragraphs? That’s what burn out looks like (beware the burnout, grasshopper, it’s the same everywhere, mine’s just with research and committees).

Right, so suffice it to say, there’s a little bit of pressure when I write the dissertation. In fact, there’s so much pressure, I can feel the damned keys tapping away on my soul. It’s horrible to hate something that I love on so many levels. So I run around like a headless chicken, avoiding everything to do with my project. I hate sitting down at the computer. If I’ve sat down, then I would rather respond to student emails or surf the internet, or maybe I should practice that lecture one more time. Anything to not feel the angry little person in me screaming at my committee every time I sit down to write.

Insert crazy novel.

Not crazy as in I write whatever I want however I want it. It’s not even a write-whenever-I’d-like-to (don’t I wish!). No, my novel is crazy because there’s nothing like it (at least not that I’ve come across), and it’s ridiculous in premise. It’s so odd that its realistic chances are slim. Which means it’s all mine. So few people are going to ever see it that I don’t have to worry about whether it’s soft-skinned face, or soft skinned face (it’s the former for those of you curious about it, but my feelings are that you only ever use punctuation when there’s the possibility of misunderstanding if you don’t use it; in short punctuation is politely informing your readers of exactly what you mean without being a dictating pain in the arse). Regardless, chances of my novel getting published as the draft I’m writing right now? Zero. There is literally no way this will see the light of day without a huge edit and some serious soul searching.

My work in progress is for exactly one person: me, and to hell with the rest of the world (no offense world, I just need some me time).

I wish I could write my dissertation with that same kind of freeness, but now I’m stretched to deadlines and meetings and if I don’t get it done by, and what will my committee say when they read it? Is it “Good enough?”

And what exactly was so terrible about it last time that they hated it?

It’s crazy to have two such completely different experiences with writing, but I imagine there are plenty of people who feel like I do when I work on my dissertation when they’re working on their novels. Take a step back and breathe.

As much as the idea of it might hurt, you can always redo this draft. There’s no need for the crazy stressful pressure we put on ourselves. We can do as many redos as it takes to get it right. Even in academia, they’ll let you do it again. And even after you’re finished, they let you redo it one more time to clean up all the hyphens and what not.

So today, I’m going to write everything like I’m writing in my WIP. I’m writing for me.


  1. Bravo!!!! It SUCKS that the committee is so outright rude, but I'm glad you are writing with sheer abandon on your WIP. If we can't write for ourselves then we will not enjoy it in the end.

    Hyphen's be damned. ;0)

    1. It's funny, but I didn't feel strongly about hyphens until a couple edits of my dissertation ago.

      And the committee really try to mean well, but sometimes they're overwhelmed too. I know, I'm making excuses for my torturers, but it's easier for me to feel like they aren't being mean on purpose.

  2. Very cool that you are writing the novel for yourself, and that you persevere in the face of all that criticism. Hang in there! One day, that dissertation will be finished, and all your writing will be for you again... until you decide to publish.
    You will right? Because it's a joy to read your posts!

    1. I joke with my friends about a day when we all laugh and say "Remember when I was worried about my dissertation? who knew that the awesome novel I was writing would instead be the thing that changed me forever and not that silly dissertation."

      Yeah, we grad students dream like that.

  3. I've never written a dissertation before, but I feel your pain. You just stay in there and show them you know what you're doing. And you rock!

    1. Thanks, Alex, and trust me, if you've published anything (holy cow, I need to buy your book, what is wrong with me??), you know exactly my pain with the dissertation. The damned thing is really no harder than a novel, except no matter how crappy it is, you don't get to trunk it without ditching years of your career at the same time.

      Thank you for the words of encouragement. (And seriously, you are a blogging ninja, you rock. I'm more of a pirate myself, but that doesn't mean we can't be friends).

  4. Rena - I don't know how you do it. It's tax time in my world (which means crazy-time at the day job) and my writing/blog life is suffering and I'm ready to throw in the towel. Then I pop on here and read about the gnormous amount of hard work you're going through on your dissertation and all I can say is I've got nothing on that!

    Hang in there! You'll finish it. A-game finish it! And then you'll have more time to start a new trend. Science Fantasy - I like that :)

    1. You know, I don't know how to say it other than, it's not a competition. Sadly, the only reason I know that is that I used to play the who's had a worse day competition. Then some things went terrible in my family and I could pretty much "win" whenever I wanted to. I learned to stop playing. Sometimes life is full of terrible, sometimes daisies.

      While I have a ton on my plate, and it is huge pressure, I have let other aspects of my life fall to the wayside. I haven't folded laundry in a month. I have done exactly as many dishes as need to be done for my family to eat (usually just before they need to make an appearance on the table), and we've been eating out a lot. I can do this by promising myself that this is temporary. This is something that I will experience for another month or two (three on the outside), and then I'll go back to my other duties. In short, I've done so much only by letting so much else fall to the wayside.

      Besides that, I've got the Ford Philosophy: If you can't be happy, be productive. (This is brought to you by the same family who, literally, and I mean literally, moves mountains when they get in our way; we aren't anything special, unless you count the extra special helping of stubborn we were born with.)

      And at least with Science Fantasy, everyone would know where to put it in the book store (unlike Sci Fi with Romantic elements).

      Hang in there, I'm sure you've got this licked.


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