The writing desert

Before this morning, I had not written a single word in four and a half weeks. I should be ashamed of myself, shouldn’t I? It is not all entirely true, I had somehow managed to scrape up to 1,100 words in those four and a half weeks. That’s 22 days (not including weekends, because I don’t work on weekends at the moment – that’s a story for another post). That is fifty words a day. Five-zero. I have gone from writing 2,000 a week to clocking absolutely nothing. There, I said it.

So when I faced my inner questions and my inner demons yesterday on my day off/research day/battling the Spanish consulate under the tyrannic sleety Mordor-like weather in Edinburgh sort of day, I saw the abyss. I asked myself some really difficult questions, and dare I say I had no answers.

But is there really a why to all this?

Why have I not bothered to open the document again and start writing? Why have I created a different document instead (so as to not to interfere with the corrections of the first part) and yet have largely ignored it anyway?

What is it that physically stops me from writing again? Am I scared? Is this *fear*?

Well, my conclusion was that it was. During the day (whilst on the train on my way to and from Edinburgh) I focused only on reading blog posts about PhD paralysis, the Valley of Shit, and other procrastination related topics, mainly covered by the Thesis Whisperer. Her blog is a great inspiration at times of despair and part of the reason why I chose the word Mongrel to describe my PhD persona was because of her own post, how to read like a mongrel. Yet, reading about why I am stuck or why I procrastinate is not really the way forward in solving the issue. Reading about procrastination and how to beat it is just another way to promote procrastination. It is a never ending, vicious circle.

So whilst reading the Thesis Whisperer, I saw a link to yet another article, written by Virginia Valian, called “Learning to work”, in which the extreme consequences of paralyzing procrastination are explained and analysed. Valian compares the lack of enjoyment that comes from working on a thesis with the pressure to perform and achieve objectives that people with dysfunctional sexual lives experiment. Obsessed with what the outcome (written thesis / orgasm) people end of putting too much pressure on the pathway and hence end up hating having to work on the actual road-to-success because, well, the work becomes gruesome if it does not lead to instant satisfaction, literally.

Valian suggests that what worked for her is to achieve some sort of commitment with herself and reserve time to do some high intensity work/writing/reading for a limited period of time. She spoke about it with her partner, and he suggested three hours. Valian was struck by such suggestion. Two hours? Too much. One hour? Too much. She ended up deciding that the best she could do was 15 minutes. She could not see herself working at high intensity for more than that without going bat shit crazy.

Having read about this did not make me feel one tinsy bit better. I suppose that you are meant to feel good when you read about other people going through the same situation, but that does not really solve my current difficult questions. Proactively, I asked myself some additional questions and found myself at a bit of a crossroads.

Then it hit me. I have just gone by the half way point of my PhD time. On January 31st, when I have sort of “in house” assigned myself to attempt to finish writing Chapter 3, I will have 2 years left to go, and 2 years and 4 months will have gone by. Aaaah, panic. Panic, panic, panic. Or not?

Interestingly, my answer to this was “well, I better get started then”. I assume the fact that I am scared, but being scared is not going to go anywhere, and there is nothing I can do with my fear other than fight it, so here we go. Taking Valian’s words, I decided 20 minutes is a time frame that works for me. I used to wake up at 630 every morning in the summer because it’s so damn bright in Glasgow that all you feel like is getting up and doing stuff. Sadly, this means that the downside of it is that the winter is like living in Mordor permanently. And no one wishes to get up before 9am because it is FREAKISHLY DARK OUTSIDE. So I told myself I could attempt to get up at 715, put in the 20 minutes of free writing or high intensity research, then go wake up my better half and the hamsters and have breakfast. In my mind, this worked as a feasible plan. Whether it will work or not, I can’t tell right now, but I am willing to pilot it otherwise I will be living next door to my fear for the weeks to come.

So then I drew this:

Now I did not believe for a second that this will work straight from the box, but we can all dream, huh? Also, it is so much easier to delude oneself about something working before the whole thing even starts. It’s the whole “yeah, I will start on Monday, I will be fresh” sort of attitude (and we all know what happens on Mondays…

Unprecedentedly, this morning I woke up naturally at 705. I spent ten minutes trying to shake off the sleepiness and then then went for it. Set up my timer for 20 minutes. And head down. I managed to whizz through 600 words of stuff that I know needed to be written. The alarm went off and I had a few sentences to wrap up, so I did. That, I have to say, has been my only productive burst of the day, but it is good enough. For a second it reminded me of the mornings I used to spend in my office before going to work at 11, when writing a sentence after the other was the only way I could ensure they were not gonna get lost in my head. Those days are long gone, but this system sort of gives me a glimpse of hope. Mind you, it’s not going to work all the time. It probably won’t be overly successful. But it’s a way to tackle my writing paralysis, and to stop worrying about not being able to write by writing.

Is this punching the fear with fear? I bloody hope so. I don’t think I can afford looking at the abyss for much longer without getting vertigo.

Keep being resilient. And be a mongrel.

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