off and on

grandma’s flowers, originally uploaded by pilgrimgirl.

Being a scholar, an “academic,” allows me to meld my daily life into whatever I study. Even the most mundane of experiences can augment the way that I’m approaching a question or a problem that I’m seeing in my historical work. I see this as an asset, as an important skill that I bring to the table. However, it can also be a bit wearying. I feel the weight of the unfinished dissertation pulling me constantly. It’s always there in the back of my mind, even in my most carefree of moments.

I tend to be very good at “turning off” the dissertation mind on weekends–meaning I can put my work behind me and just enjoy the family or the garden or some solitude. But on weekdays I’m not so good at it. There’s just always more I should be doing, or at least I feel that weighing into my decision-making.

One reason I love being out on the water with my outrigger team is that when I’m handling the boat, I don’t have the mental space for the dissertation. It’s just ‘gone’ for those few hours. There’s a lightness and freedom in that. But as soon as I’m off the ocean, it’s there again.

I’m not complaining. I love my life, I love being engaged in my work. I love graduate school–fiercely, even. But sometimes I wonder how the constant pull & tug of stress makes it difficult for me to enjoy the now and is a barrier to saying YES to today and this moment.

For those of you who’ve taken a similar path, can you offer any advice?

4 thoughts on “off and on

  1. Missoula Redhead

    Are you sure you didn't read my mind?

    Part of my issue, which you don't mention, is that sometimes, *because* of the weight of 'unfinished' business with my dissertation, I find myself feeling like I'm playing hooky from it. And sometimes, despite knowing I should work on it, I get so overwhelmed by the very enormity of it that I just …don't. I ignore it and hope it will just write itself. Of course, that just leads to a whole 'nother round of guilt and pressure!

    I think these thoughts are the dirty little secret of dissertation writing. No one knows HOW to do it, because we are all such different writers, who approach it from very different ways. I like to go in chunks where I work for days on end on something, and then spend a week or two decompressing. Others are 'write until you can't write any more' every day. Others write at night, or in the morning, or in a silent place, or the pub. I figure as long as it gets DONE, how and when and where are beside the point.


  2. Gray

    I had a semester when I found it very hard to progress. My research was done and I only had to finish writing. I was teaching and loved it very much. I found that I started to put all my effort into teaching and not enough into my dissertation. I was never sure if it was a form of avoidance or the delight of developing and teaching courses I really enjoyed. Both were surely true. As time went on I struggled with increasing concern that I was treading water and life was passing me by.

    An elderly and wise faculty member created an opportunity for me to live in the UK for four months, with free room, board, and transportation, but no stipend, in exchange to helping with a research project two days a week. That got me through the dry period. I was happy, all distractions were removed, the research was fun, and I had plenty of time write in a great environment. Because I had no income my motivation was fierce to finish my work, but I had no distracting concerns about life's necessities.

    I don't know how I could have finished that year if I had a family, or if I was not able to remove myself from my environment. I think that my four productive months abroad advanced me nearly a year. I completed my penultimate draft in England. (It was on A4 paper, which caused a minor logistical nightmare when I returned, in those days before word processors.)

    Finishing my degree a little early turned out to be quite traumatic. I hung on an extra semester until they strongly encouraged me to leave. I left behind a woman who I loved to distraction, and left behind those wonderful days of teaching, writing, and intense involvement with the university community. The poignant sense of loss is still with me. I regret that I had been unable to stay longer.

    I wish that you never feel stuck and always progress, but I also hope that you are able to experience all the joy and pleasures of graduate student life.

    Thanks for reminding me of that uniquely important period of my life.

  3. Kevin

    I used to have a hard time "turning it off" as you say. I did some reflection and realized it was because I was holding myself to an unrealistic standard. Every night my overachiever self would ask "did you finish it yet?" and of course the answer was always "no." That constant sense of failure created anxiety that was neither productive nor necessary.

    After I realized this, I worked on reframing that internal dialogue to be in terms of a daily outcome I could achieve and control. E.g. "work diligently for three sessions of 2 hours." That puts a clear boundary around work-time, and I could assess my daily success or failure objectively.

    Shaping one's own thinking this way is easier said than done, but I suppose I pulled it off often enough to do what I had to.

    Ultimately it comes down to finding some way to consistently get into a mindset where you can "just do it." That's going to be different for everyone.

    My two favorite books during this period were "The War of Art" by Pressfield, and Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations."

  4. Tyler

    I'm sure that you'll miss this grueling internal dialog when it's gone. Accept it and don't turn it off – it's making you more you every day.

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