Sunday, July 8, 2012

:: Lessons Learnt ::

I learnt a lot from finishing the second draft of the dissertation. But there are four things that I have learnt which I believe are going to help me be a better writer, of things both academic and non-academic :

  1. Developing A Regular Writing Practice : When I began writing my dissertation, I was teaching. In fact, my first semester as a dissertator I taught two writing classes. It wasn't that the classes I was teaching were intellectually demanding per se, at least not in the way the dissertation writing was. But it required a different kind of intellectual and emotional work. And I had very little idea how to balance the two. One of my advisors told me, write 15 mins everyday, and I did. There were days when carving out those 15 minutes seemed harder than staying alive. But I tried my best anyway, and I must admit, it did help me reach the goal of a finished dissertation.

    Of course, there were days when I spent way more than 15 mins. But what having such a goal did for me was that, it really lowered the bars. I would try to put in concentrated 15 mins of writing time, and if I could do that successfully, would consider my day to be a productive one. That way, I did not suffer from the anxiety or guilt of not writing, which, in my experience, really lowers my productivity. In a nutshell, the conclusion I reached is, it is important to develop one's own regular writing practice. Whatever that might be. A 15 min. everyday approach helped me to stay close to the topic of my research and writing, I never really felt too detached from my dissertation. Consequently, I never had to devote time to fall back into the project. This, I have learnt, is crucial. Writing a little bit everyday helps me to stay focused, it gives birth to new thematic problems, it forces me to push myself to think through the conceptual problems of my work on an everyday basis, rather than feeling scared and removing myself from it completely. Last but not the least, it also helped me to break a big project like that of a dissertation into smaller accomplishable goals. And that is what lead me to this first stage towards completion.

  1. Distance From My Own Work : Inspite of developing a regular writing practice, there might be days when I will have to take a break. And, that is not only okay, but desirable. Such breaks – whether they extend for a day or two or to a week-- allowed me to develop some critical distance between my work and myself. Consequently, I was able to think through some of the conceptual problems better. Such breaks can also be used up to do further readings which will enhance the quality of the writing project. What is important, though, is to be self-aware of that break, and not fall into the practice of using the idea of a “conscious break” for a LONG period of procastrination.

  2. Giving A Project The Time It Needs : I took exactly three years to write six chapters. I began the project with a plan to write four chapters. I ended up writing six. Not that I changed my original archive of texts, but somehow two of my two original chapters ended up dealing with issues which are really divergent. I felt that they would benefit from chapter breaks. But three years is a LONG time in dissertation-land. And while I know other academics who have written great dissertations in a shorter period of time, I am not unhappy that it took me this long. My dissertation is by no means perfect, I am already making a bibliography so that I can begin to revise it successfully. But it's better today than it would have been if I had defended it last year. The leasson I learnt from this one : writing projects develop their own lives. And sometimes they demand time to marinate. It's best to give them that time.
Caveat : Giving time to a project does not really mean lazing around. No project marinates on its own. One has to prepare the marinate – that is, decide on the spices, the proportions, the other condiments etc., and then actually put the pieces of meat/whatever to marinate in that mixture. So, giving a time to a project basically means working on it and working on it some more, whatever form tha
t work takes --- reading more, writing more, revising, taking out things etc. etc. etc.

  1. Letting It Go : We all work within institutional constraints. In my case, I will have to defend this dissertation by Fall 2012. So, it was essential that I send it off to my co-chairs sometime during this summer. Between my co-chairs and myself, we decided on the deadline of July 1. That would be the day when I would turn in the whole compiled dissertation to them to read. After that, I will be doing their suggested revisions before I finally turn it in to my entire committee before defense. Now, sometime around the last week of June, I recognized that the July 1 deadline isn't going to happen. But, it is totally possible for me to turn it in by the end of that week of July 1. I also recognized, it is not perfect per se. And if I did have time, it could have been made better. But then, I was also beginning to feel leastless. I was feeling like I haven't really accomplished anything in these last three years, and my productivity was going down. Besides, my co-chairs need time to read this really LONG piece of work. And honestly, I needed critical feedback and eyes on it other than my own. So, I gave myself the absolute deadline of Friday July 5. So, what I have learnt from those last few minutes of turning it in, sometimes it's essential to just turn the damn thing in. Whether it's to a committee, one's writing group, publisher etc.. That whole process of letting it go and turning it in is as important as doing the work, giving the project time and actual writing.

I hope to continue to revise my dissertation and turn it into a monograph. Someday. But even if I never set my eyes on it after I defend, I believe, this whole process has taught me to be a better writer. It has taught me a LOT more about my own writing processes, and I hope to take the lessons from it elsewhere-- both to my academic and non-academic work.  

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