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Three Books that Changed my Dissertation

Suggested reading for rethinking your writing practices.

December 8, 2016
 
 

Heather VanMouwerik is a Ph.D candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. Follow her on Twitter @HVanMouwerik or check out her website.

 

 

Writing is hard.

 

It can be isolating, messy, frustrating, mentally taxing, and a constant exercise in self-discipline. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either riding a great wave of creative productivity (which will eventually recede) or is trying to sell you something (like a new irreplaceable productivity tool). Occasionally though, when you are able to perfectly express yourself on the page and block out your negative inner voice, it can be transcendent.

 

Nevertheless, these moments of transcendence aren’t the only reasons why most of us in graduate school write. We have to write seminar papers, syllabi, abstracts, grant proposals, and, eventually, a giant dissertation—all utilitarian forms of expressing ourselves which can be creatively liberating or a terrible burden.

 

Five months ago, I decided that it was time to devote myself completely to finishing my dissertation. Although I still don’t have a complete chapter, I am inching closer to my goals day-by-day. But it is a constant struggle for me, someone who has difficulty writing everyday, who can’t help editing as she writes, and who would often rather clean the entirety of her apartment than write a paragraph.

 

During a particularly bad bout of procrastination when I decided that I could not write a single word until all of my books were reorganized, I discovered a stash of memoirs and how-to books that I had collected in my early twenties. Some of them were rather famous—Strunk and Whites’ The Elements of Style—and others were cute and esoteric.

 

Queen of self-delusion, I reasoned that reading books about writing was the same as actually writing, so I started to read. And I am thankful that I did! The overriding message of all of theses books is the same: writing is hard work, you are not alone, and you can write whatever you set your mind to. This message turned out to be the exactly what I needed to hear.

 

In the spirit of this holiday season, I wanted to share with you the three books that have had the largest impact on me and my dissertation in the hopes they might inspire you, too.

 

On Writing, by Stephen King     

 

I’m willing to bet just about every book-loving adolescent has gone through a Stephen King phase, because it is normal at that age to be fascinated with the perversions of the mind, the desolation of wide-open spaces, and the things that go bump in the night. Some of us move on, others (*cough*) continue to read and reread all of his books. High art they aren’t, but they are plentiful and entertaining.

 

Focus on process, not result. On Writing covers a lot of territory; however, I found King’s postscript most applicable to my situation. After being hit by a car and profoundly injured, King concludes his memoir-turned-writing guide by arguing that the habit of writing is almost more important than the actual result. As he writes, “I didn’t want to go back to work… Yet at the same time I felt I’d reached one of those crossroads moments when you’re all out of choices.” This is a very comforting message on days when I feel like I have erased more words than I have written, because it reminds me of why I went to graduate school in the first place: to teach, to learn, and to grow. My dissertation is an extension of that, so its completion does not define me, although its progress does.

 

Other Lessons:

- Write a lot; read more: The main thesis to King’s entire approach to writing is that you have to do it every single day and that you have to compliment it with a lot of reading. I give this advice to every class I teach, but when writing and reading is your job, doing it outside of work feels tiring. However, it has to be a priority, something I do everyday, whether it is the newspaper, a magazine, or a novel. Reading is the most important component in writing well, so I need to remember to treat it as such.

-  An end to cloyingly, abnormally, and distractingly dull adverbs: Although I find a lot of On Writing’s advice a bit pedantic and I love a good adverb, King offers sound advice on self-editing. He, for example, will write a complete draft of his novel, print it out, and cross out every single adverb he can find. This exercise forces him out of complacency, relying on adverbs to build a scene instead of tone and structure, and would be helpful if you struggle with clarity and wordiness. Also, it makes a great assignment if you are teaching an undergraduate writing course.

 

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

 

The day after I defended my prospectus, my advisor sent me a lovely little email. In it he told me to avoid working on my dissertation for a month, to enjoy and celebrate my success, and to read Bird by Bird. I followed his guidance, and I am thankful everyday for it.

 

Focus on writing small pieces and assembling them later. The titular lesson of Anne Lamott’s memoir and style guide is to not be put off by the hugeness of a writing project. Instead, focus on the little pieces—go bird by bird—until the larger project is done. In this spirit, I have written the majority of my dissertation on Scrivner, a composition program that allows you to create tiny units of text that you can move around your document. Even when writing seems overwhelming, it is comforting to know that you just have to write a paragraph.

 

Other Lessons:

- “’Listen to your broccoli, and it will tell you how to eat it’”: Quoting Mel Brooks, Lamott uses broccoli, that healthy vegetable children love to hate, as a metaphor for her job. In writing a novel, this means she needs to listen to her characters and to let them speak for themselves. For scholars, this means listening to your research, your documents, subjects, or data. Trust yourself, because  you have put a lot of time and energy into collecting, organizing, and reading about your topic. It is all there, waiting to be written about. So get to it!

- Shitty First Drafts: Seriously, just copy this chapter out and post it in your office, somewhere where you can read it everyday. One of my major blocks when it comes to writing is perfectionism. Every word needs to be perfect from the get-go; every sentence a gem. This is not only time consuming, but mentally draining. Instead, I (try) to adhere to Lamott’s idea of just getting the ideas on the page in the form of a shitty first draft. I make every undergrad read this chapter, and they love it as much as I do (only in part because they can say the word “shitty” in class).

- The Noisy Earphones of Doubt and Hubris: In the chapter called “Radio Station KFKD,” Lamott talks extensively about the negative effects of impostor syndrome and hubris syndrome. She describes how, when she writes, her head is full of self-criticism and self-aggrandizement, which makes it difficult to focus on actually getting her work done. I believe that scholars can relate to this inner racket. In order to calm (not silence) these voices, Lamott wants her readers to at least recognize them, because acknowledging doubt and hubris disarms them and breaks the hold they have on us.

 

My Life in France, by Julia Child

 

While not strictly a writing book, Julia Child’s memoir is as much about communication, learning, and passion as it is about cooking. Over the course of a few hundred pages, she transforms from a feckless housewife in France to a pioneer in American home cuisine. Along the way, she messes up—a lot. But she is never shy about letting her readers see these mistakes, and, instead, she uses them to illustrate the importance of laughing at yourself, ignoring haters (my words, sadly not hers), and working hard. All three of these lessons directly apply to the pluck, self-confidence, and diligence needed to thrive at graduate school and finish your dissertation.

 

When I am low or don’t feel like writing, I ask myself: What would Julia tell me to do? More often than not, she would say, “Put yourself together! And get back to work!”

 

Other Lessons:

- Make the Kitchen Fit You: Child was a tall woman, well above six feet, in a world that was built for petite people. Rather than making herself fit the space, she redesigned the space to fit her. After clanking around in kitchens with countertops too low, cupboards too unwieldy, and aisles too narrow, she built a kitchen to her dimensions. When I feel like I am chaffing from other people’s expectations or opinions, I remember that I am in control of my own life, and the only person who gets to decide its parameters is me.

 

These three books have made the transition from an overworked instructor, researcher, and dissertation-avoider into a full-time writer more enjoyable and productive. Your inspirational books are, most likely, going to be different than mine, but, remember, inspiration can come from unlikely sources. So follow King’s advice: write daily and read everything!

 

What books have inspired your writing? Have you received any pieces of advice that helped you get through your dissertation? I know we could all use a bit of inspiration, so please share them with us in the comments section!

 

[Photo from Flickr user Lidyanne Aquino and used under the Creative Commons License.]

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