Tag: grad school

People Who Say They Love Writing Are Liars

Writing is agony. I sometimes have the surges of energy and excitement that come along when you write something you are passionate about, but mostly writing is excruciating and exhausting. As I tell my students, writing is like football. Watching every game of the season does not make you Peyton Manning–it doesn’t even make you remotely good at throwing a ball. In order to be good you must do, not just observe. Like in football, writing cannot be taught or self-taught. No matter how many books you read on the topic, no matter how many writing courses you take,  to be a good writer, you must write. And like football, writing is hard: it takes effort, time, energy, and sacrifices. However, just like football players must also be coached, it’s a good idea to read a lot and read about writing in order to adopt good techniques and habits.

In this spirit, I’ve been reading Wendy Laura Belcher’s book Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks (2009) and really loving it so far. Belcher’s central argument is in favor of a daily writing schedule and she strongly advocates against writing in huge chunks of time, and against procrastinating in general. Many writers agree that the only way to write is…to write. And then write some more.

“Often it’s been observed: Writing is largely habit. Paradoxically, not writing can also be a habit. The writer who, again and again, must defer or delay getting to pen, paper, or processor finally develops mental habits of deferment and delay. A good percent of what passes for “writer’s block” is simply the habit of not writing, gotten out of hand and reaching the level of addiction—possibly because of pleasurable feedback, such as concern and attention from others over the problem or even through good feelings about the things accomplished instead. Thomas Disch’s cure for writer’s block at the Clarion Workshop was simply to insist that no other student communicate with the “blocked” student in any way, or even acknowledge his/her existence, until she or he had written a story. As a technique, it was devastatingly effective—usually succeeding within twenty-four hours.” –Samuel R. Delany

 

Most of us can relate to Delany’s argument. “Writer’s block” is a kind of hip predicament: it makes you sound all intellectual and cool. There’s also a certain glamor to procrastination. I often hear other grad students boast about their capacity to write 20+ pages the day before a paper is due. They seem to be happy about the fact that they haven’t started on a project yet or that they’re just being lazy. I’ve written before that I think this is a strategy within impostor syndrome—if you’re heavily criticized on a project, you can always justify your perceived failure by arguing that you didn’t really give it any time or effort. I also think that it’s a way to fight off the nerd image stuck to good students (and all grad students are good students, and all of us are nerds!). It’s a way to say–I’m in grad school because I’m inherently brilliant, and if I bothered to actually work hard, I’d reach the top.

If you do do your very best on a project, you expose yourself to criticism that can be uncomfortable and challenging to your ego. You can always leave your writing at that and never touch it again, but if you’re hoping, like me, to get published, you need to work doubly hard to transcend the first draft stage. That’s why I’ve been making efforts to improve my writing, and that’s why, after many recommendations, I am reading Belcher’s book.

 

On pages 26-38, Belcher lists and responds to the major obstacles to writing that her students say they encounter. Some of the most common include “I’m not in the mood,” “I’m too busy,” and “my ideas are not good enough,” to which Belcher gives excellent advice. She gives particular solutions to each of these complaints, but mostly the answer is: write, even if badly, even while in line at Walmart, even if you feel shitty. And mostly, I think she’s right–there is literally nothing that can prevent you from laying down words on the screen or on paper at any time of the day.

But one of my personal obstacle is missing from this list, and it’s about the difficulties of the editing process. Like most, I find that editing my work is by far the most challenging aspect, because the excitement of the early stages and the inspiration are mostly gone by the time you must revise your work. The first thing I do at the editing stage is to make a list of my editor’s (a professor or a very generous peer, but mostly my husband) comments, which allows me to better understand their criticisms by rephrasing them. The second thing I do is to make a reverse outline of my essay. Sometimes the progress of your argument seems logical, but time and insight may reveal gaps or forced transitions. Because I am revising seminar papers, I find a lot of superfluous paragraphs (often “lit review” type passages that serve to prove myself as an expert on the topic and do not really advance my argument). I also often feel like the actual research that I have made during the semester is superficial or even lacking.

 

During any given semester, grad students have to write three different projects from three different seminars, on top of the regular weekly workload. Even if you are savvy enough to do coherent projects with a common research base, it is very hard to make significant and profound research in such a limited time. So when I try to revise my work during breaks, I’m often frustrated because I feel like I have to re-read the same books because I don’t remember their arguments clearly enough, or that I have to read more books.

 

This is where I am right now. And of course reading new material will inevitably spark my creativity and passion for the project again. The problem is that it also provokes a real fatigue in me that is not uncommon to the post-semester depression I’ve written about here. Having to read new material also make me very nervous, because I am afraid it will change my argument tremendously and force me to transform my entire essay. Writing this now I realize that that’s a good thing–transforming my essay is the entire point of revising it. Anne Lamott says that it can take her up to five pages of bad writing to reach one good paragraph (“Shitty First Drafts”). I often feel like it takes me half of my actual final paper to reach that good paragraph. In fact, the professors who have read my work this semester all at one point pointed out one passage and wrote “this should come earlier”. The reason they wrote this comment, I realized, is that the passage in question is my actual argument, an argument it took me several pages to find. My adviser told me recently that it happens to everyone, because of course, as Belcher and others argue, writing is an integral part of the thinking process. In other words, you cannot come up with complex, challenging, original ideas without having written extensively–you cannot just “think them up”.

But editing is an exhausting and painful process. It highlights the issues with your arguments and writing, and it makes you come to terms with all the things you must do to improve just at the moment you thought you were done. So at the moment, I’m taking things slowly by trying to read a lot and doing a little every day. I am currently editing an essay I am still very happy and excited about, and reading Belcher’s book step by step in the hopes of being able to send it to an academic journal in my field by the end of the summer.


What are some of your editing techniques? Please share in the comments!

On Impostor Syndrome

Recently, I told my best friend I suffered from impostor syndrome less than another friend because I was more self-confident. She pointed out that we both expressed the same anxieties over and over again, and that neither of us was any less out of the hole than the other. After that reality check, I started reflecting on how ambivalent I still am about my capacities as an academic.

Many highly-skilled people, especially in intellectual fields like academia, live in constant anxiety to be discovered as impostors, and that no matter how highly respected they or their work are. The Wikipedia entry for Impostor Syndrome gives an excellent definition:


Impostor syndrome[1] is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Notably, impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women.[2]

That last sentence–about high-achieving women–refers to a 1978 study by Clance and Imes. The authors argue that women suffering from the syndrome can be classified into two categories. In the first, a girl is born into a family in which a sibling or relative is branded as “the bright one”, notably because they do not need to study or work to thrive academically. As a consequence, the girl grows up to believe that she is necessarily the “dumb” one, no matter how successful her own accomplishments are. In the second category, a girl is on the contrary praised for everything she does and often hears how talented she is. When she grows up and fails at certain tasks, she becomes doubtful about the image of herself her parents created. As a result, she doubts every one of her accomplishments.

Now, I hear your cries: it IS a very old study and this argument sounds like a good ol’ either/or fallacy that cannot accurately represent the issue. True. But I identify at least partially with the second category: in my family, I am the “bright one” (first-generation college student, first to go into graduate school) and I was told repeatedly by my parents about my great early reading skills. I do suffer from periodic anxiety that others will find out that I actually have not read enough to claim to be an English PhD student, and I have a recurring tendency to rationalize positive feedback by internally arguing that it is the result of luck, good timing, others’ benevolence, and/or pity. In fact, my second reaction to any positive recognition of my work (after pride & joy) is suspicion and rationalization (“he is only praising your work because he doesn’t really know your field” or “the American award culture is vain and meaningless” [that last one may be a little true]).

Overall though, I rarely doubt my abilities and recognize that I am an intelligent and highly capable intellectual. But these realizations have come to me after a lot of work identifying these logical fallacies and developing self-confidence. With the help of my advisers, I have worked hard to stop apologizing, to take confidence in my ideas, to drop needlessly hesitant turns of phrases such as “I think/believe that,” and to acknowledge that these anxieties are unfounded.

The thing about impostor syndrome is that it hides a very simple truth: no one cares about you and your work as much as you do**. It is a hard reality because it means that anxieties like mine that positive feedback is disingenuous are partially true. The purpose of feedback is to produce hopefully productive criticism, not to bless you with approval and praise. Reviewers and professors cannot care enough–enough for your desire to be acknowledged as an expert–that feedback can be entirely satisfying. In other words, the ratio of time, energy, and effort you put into any piece of work cannot be matched by the ratio of time, energy, and effort a reviewer can put in their feedback. Therefore, you are perpetually unsatisfied.

But this truism also gives me relief, because once you start acknowledging that only you can give yourself the approval you crave, life gets easier (most of the times). Since no one cares about me or my work as much as me, it only depends on me to do that work as best and I can and to accept the fact that I will never get the approval I need from others. Another thing I’ve come to realize is that there is no point in time where you will be crowned an “expert,” for if that was the case tenured professors would not suffer from impostor’s syndrome (which they do, of course). Just like actors who win the Oscar don’t stop trying to get next year’s Oscar, there is no point in your long academic life where you will stop reaching for the best–and that’s a good thing.

**I learned this fact from my adviser, Pamela Cheek, at the University of New Mexico.

Post Semester Blues

The topic of anxiety and depression in graduate school is not new. In the humanities & social sciences as well as STEM fields, graduate students increasingly admit to feeling sad, depressed, anxious, lonely, and with low self-esteem. Graduate school is hard. It demands constant work, time, and effort in an extremely competitive environment, and since the academic job market is very sparse (especially in the humanities, whose students are the most likely to go on to an academic career), the light at the end of the tunnel can appear very dim.

Featured image

There is a lot of blogs and blog posts from current graduate students, post-docs, drop-outs, and faculty who have written at length on the topic. Some of the recurring themes are about the hostile environment of programs, difficult relationships with advisers and colleagues, low or inexistent funding, loneliness. In my case though, I feel incredibly happy in my own program. It’s weird to start a post on depression with saying this, but it’s true. I get along very well with my cohort and I am generally happy with the classes I take and the classes I teach. I have two committee members who specialize in my field and we have a good relationship. I love my own work. I have a husband who is also in the program and we live in a comfortable house not too far from campus. I have a lot of friends here and in other parts of the country.

 

My problems begin when I’m on a break from the program. After the semester end, especially in the summer, I feel exhausted, which is of course unsurprising after spending 17 weeks working intensely. But my exhaustion does not stop. I am lethargic and weepy; I sleep too much and lie on the couch. I can’t muster the energy to read, even read for pleasure, which is my favorite activity. After a few days I don’t even watch TV. The easiest, most mundane activity–say doing  laundry or cooking a simple meal–demands a lot of energy. I sometimes refuse to go outside at all. I feel self-pity, and that makes me angry and frustrated.

 

I have been trying to pinpoint the moment these feelings emerge. For the past three summers I have suffered from parts or all of these feelings, and, in insight, I think it begins immediately after finals week. It starts with exhaustion, which I rationalize straight away (“it’s only normal you’re tired! You’ve worked hard all semester and now your body must recuperate”). And that’s true—in fact I often come down with a little cold on vacation because my body is indeed recovering for long periods of stress and little self-care. But I also use this as an excuse to relax and do nothing. And while I think it’s definitely important to allow yourself to not to do anything in order to recharge your creative batteries, in my case in particular, doing nothing brings about more doing nothing. And when I do nothing, I’m depressed.

 

I am what you’d call a workaholic. Like most graduate students, I work a lot daily, and I love it. I love going to classes and I love reading & writing. I’m one of these students who is sad that the semester is ending, and is excited to see a new semester start. My favorite place to be is the library. I am constantly trying to organize writing & reading groups and do collaborative work. I write seminar papers a long time in advance and spend a lot of time editing them. I’m not saying this to boast—I suspect the majority of graduate students to be like me, only they veil it with pretend disdain and a cool attitude.

I am writing this down because it is my personality: I am a highly enthusiastic, perfectionist intellectual who likes to spend a lot of time thinking, reading, writing, and conversating. I wouldn’t do anything else. I’ve read some of the articles from the blog “100 reasons NOT to go to graduate school,” (and many others like it), and to most of their (legitimate) complaints about the stark job market, high competition, hard work, I answer: but I loooove it. I would not regret going to grad school even if I ended up with no career. I am not getting my PhD in order to get a job; I am getting it because I love studying. I truly believe that being a PhD student is a job in itself, not solely a process toward something. And I am saying this while keeping in mind the considerable privileges I possess: living comfortably, being in a good, small program, being in a stable relationship, having no children and no elderly parent to take care of, being a white, able-bodied woman.

 

So now, why am I depressed comes the summer? I think part of it is because the transition from high workload to nothingness. The stark contrast between having deadlines and projects to do, to staying at home and having the “freedom” of doing whatever you choose is simply too much for me. I can’t cope with the open-endedness of nonsemester time, or at least not if I let myself be. Doing nothing brings about more doing nothing.

 

I have learned that I cannot let myself do nothing, not even for one day, or I will get caught into a lethargic state that not even my partner can get me out of. And I realize that it may sound pathetic to feel depressed over having nothing to do. Countless times, I’ve told myself, and others have told me, “just start something! Read a book! Knit a scarf!,” but it is incredibly hard to make yourself do something when you feel depressed. Lots of writers have described how hard it is to even get out of bed, or to complete small tasks. See Hyperbole & a Half’s visual account here: http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2011/10/adventures-in-depression.html

 

In order to avoid repeating the vicious cycle of doing nothing, this year I’ve taken action before the semester even ended. I’ve planned a virtual writing group with friends that I know will check on me and the objectives I’ve set for myself. I established a reading list. And I’ve done something every day since the last day of class. I’ve also compiled a list of truisms and little pieces of advice that you may find useful if you are going through similar things. They might be useful especially if you are staying at home and if you have no other occupation like a part-time job or volunteering or something like that.

Do something every day. It does not have to be anything important. Make a list of things to do for today and try to make another list for tomorrow.

You are not exhausted. Not truly. You should rest, but don’t oversleep and don’t let yourself establish a bad sleeping pattern. Every time you tell yourself you are too tired to do something, get up and walk around. Make yourself do it.

Find an excuse to take a walk. I am not an athletic person, so walking is the only remotely physical thing I do. And I have a puppy, so for me walking is a daily must. If you don’t, try to get someone to walk with you, or alternatively walk somewhere with a purpose. Prepare a good playlist or listen to podcasts or an audiobook.

Make a reading list of the books you’ve been wanting to read all semester. Make a movie list. Establish times of the day to read or watch movies.

Talk to people every day. This can be over social media, the phone, or in person.

Write that postcard to grandma or send your mom these pictures you’ve promised her. Do these little things you always say you don’t have time for. They may be boring but they are something to do and you will feel greatly accomplished for doing them.

If you can, buy new school supplies like notebooks. There are few things more enjoyable and it’ll make you want to write in it.

Do a little every day. Do not panic over great projects that demand a lot of energy like reviewing an article or writing an entire essay. Instead, have small objectives for every day, like write 500 words or read 50 pages. It’s better to do lots of tiny things than nothing at all.

Look over what you’ve achieved, not matter how small, and be proud.