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Riley Linebaugh is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany. Follow her @rileysline.
Part I: The Plan
It was a good plan. It was a simple plan. In fact, the plan was to simplify. I would refine my writing process to the essentials: pen and paper. Faced with two impending deadlines for a dissertation chapter and a chapter for publication, the productive-procrastination part of my brain lit up. I would not only meet these deadlines; I would take the opportunity to optimize my writing process. I planned to take one full week and limit my computer use to one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening to reduce interruptions and focus on producing original, critical analysis, or, in other words, really good stuff. Surely, the only thing standing between me and the quality of writing that I vaguely regard as worthy was my laptop and the distractions therein. I would design and follow my very own computer cleanse.
Riding the high of my Very Good Idea, I left my office immediately, half-written emails on the screen, to prepare for my detox. All I needed was a new A4 size, hardcover sleek black notebook and two smooth ballpoint black and blue ink pens to allow for meaningful color coding and transform into a Ph.D. student of yesteryear, equipped with the tools of her craft. I returned to my office and was confronted by a new challenge: How would I proceed given that my sources, primary and secondary, were stored on my forbidden device? Torn between the dogma of my detox and the sign posted in our copy room -- “Think Before You Print!” -- I did the only reasonable thing and printed out a dozen articles, double-sided and fit four pages to a sheet. I didn’t refill my glasses prescription for nothing.
In an If You Give a Mouse a Cookie turn of events, I was back at the stationery store. This time I was there to get a highlighter fine enough for the small text of my freshly printed reading materials and some of those very cool sticky notes of different shapes and sizes, which seemed to be a skeleton key for the kind of methodical close reading I was aiming for. Back at the office, I sat down and arranged my readings, finding immediate use for my sticky notes: “Author Name, Concise Title, Journal, Year” tags poked out from the side of each article for easy browsing. I opened my new sleek black notebook, which I had to admit bore an uncanny resemblance to the other sleek black notebook I had just sworn off, and my eyes grew large. I had bought grid paper instead of college-ruled paper! Overcome by regret, I decided to end day 1 of the detox there.
Intermission, Brought to You by the Netflix Docuseries Cheer
In the uncertain times of coronavirus and the primaries, there may not be a more uplifting and unifying story than that of Cheer and the lives it follows. If you haven’t seen or heard of it, there are dazzling write-ups that will bring you in and convert you to the world of Navarro and competitive cheer. It follows a high-performing college cheer team in the lead-up to the biggest competition in the sport, in which the literal blood, sweat and tears of years prior culminate in a two-minute, 15-second performance. Though its idiosyncrasies are what make it come alive, the show also raises questions to which more than tumblers and flyers can relate.
Cheer looks at people who take risks to find the upper limits of their expectations by showing up to practice every day and putting in the work. It shows the costs of those risks: broken bones, overwhelming pressure. It also shows the rewards of those risks … but, no spoilers. In the final moments before their competition, when the physical strain and emotional stress are highest, assistant coach Andy Cosferent asks, Why are you here? Why did you leave your home and your family? Why are you on this team? If you don’t know the reason why you’re doing this, then you have no purpose. You have to know your why.
Part II: In Process
It was a bad plan, but it was a part of my process. My plan had been, in part, reactive to my own feelings of impostor syndrome and a stressful workload. I felt overwhelmed by deadlines. I felt insecure about my ability to meet them. I feel generally insecure about my ability to write convincing, meaningful academic work. Like others in academia, I am uncomfortable confronting those feelings and instead dove into a poorly conceived plan in which I was set up to fail (I mean -- writing an analytical chapter without the easy access of primary sources? C’mon!) It is common to put off doing things because of a fear of failure. In this case, I obsessed over my writing method for exactly that reason. After day 1 of my detox, I turned to Netflix for distraction and came to episode 5 of Cheer and Coach Andy’s words.
What are the upper limits of my own expectations?
I have yet to find the balance between practicality and humility versus ambition and a sense of meaning within the thesis-writing process and therefore find it difficult to maintain realistic expectations. I know I am working on a highly specialized thesis that will be read by a few people, but I have the ambition to do impactful academic work. It doesn’t help that at every stage of the Ph.D., we are required to boast the profound significance of our work and its unique contribution to a field, which also seems to set the process up for some degree of failure.
This ambivalence leads me to dysfunctional behaviors such as reconciling my inability to meet very high expectations with built-in failure such as my poorly formulated computer cleanse plan. I have recently had the realization that instead of focusing on changing my writing habits, I should trust that it’s enough to commit to and follow my own process, even if it doesn’t look like how I imagine optimal writing.
Putting in the Work
Leading up to their competition, Navarro cheerleaders dedicate their lives to preparation. The series revealed the extraordinary lengths of their practice. Many people were on two teams, trained outside of practice in gyms and of course had one to two daily practices of their own. If I haven’t made this clear until now, I am not a cheerleader, and I’m not interested in becoming one. I am, however, interested in figuring out what practice means for me, someone who wants to train in writing. As Merritt K aptly tweeted, “I can’t stand precious narratives around writing. It’s a skill that you get better at with practice, not a mystical art …” As a Ph.D. student interested not only in completing my dissertation but becoming a better writer, I want to approach it with the same amount of diligence as Cheer’s acrobatic athletes. That means, as many have said better and before me, putting in the work every day. The only way to write and write better, is to write and write often.
What is my "why"?
If you’re not convinced by my attachment to Coach Andy’s wisdom, perhaps you’ll hear that of Rilke when he advised fellow poet Franz Xaver Kappus, “This above all -- ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: Must I write? … Go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.” In my first semester as a graduate student, my supervisor instructed me to take five minutes for a freewrite answering the question: Why am I starting this project? I have a desktop shortcut to my response; such is its value to my motivation. There are many reasons to lose sight of the "why." Writing is usually an unpaid endeavor; it is hard work, it is personal, it can be vulnerable. Persistence, in my case at least, requires some meaning of my own making. My "why" is bound up in self, in conviction and in how I have learned to value a certain expression of ideas. I’m still reaching for the right words to approximate my "why," which is why you find it conspicuously absent here. It’s in process.
I have a new plan. A colleague and I have scheduled a four-day writing retreat. We have booked an Airbnb with two desks and a short distance from a walking path along a river. We have not yet set any rules but will consider how to structure the days together. Our projects and writing goals are different, but we’ve agreed that in working together, we can lift one another up. I’ll bring along both the digital and analog notebooks but leave the detox attitude behind.
What’s your "why"? How do you cultivate and maintain a writing practice?
[Opening photo by Unsplash user Marvin Meyer; GIFs from GIPHY shared using their community guidelines]