Saturday, March 29, 2008

Focusing energy

We only have so much energy. So making good choices about how we focus it seems like a good plan.

One choice we can make is to focus our energy on the thing we are trying to accomplish--to keep that goal in mind and to use it to guide our choice of steps.

One pattern of energy use with which I am familiar from my own past is using energy on telling myself what is wrong with a situation. Obviously I value understanding clearly and recognizing our situations and our abilities. But there's only so much energy worth spending on the things you know. Having, for example, dyslexia, causes problems for a scholar, it cannot be questioned; but what good does it do to repeatedly return to that problem? Yes, that should be a parameter that affects how you plan your time and whether you might want to hire an editor, but beyond that, what good is considering it?

Your deadline is looming? Obviously that should affect how you plan, but do you let it become the focus of your thoughts and the focus of your energy? Or do you simply recognize it in your plans?

Whatever your situation, if you have a goal, focusing your energy on the steps necessary to reach that goal is the most effective way to move towards that goal.

Friday, March 28, 2008

the psychological vs. the practical

I didn't really have much to say tonight. I felt like I only had old territory that I could cover again (not that I haven't done that usefully before). Tonight, at least, I didn't feel like that exercise.

I was thinking about my normal subjects and how I more frequently focus on the psychological aspects of writing than I do the practical aspects.

I suppose on one level this is because I assume that most people can master the practical through practice. On another level this is because I think that if you can master the psychological--if you can learn to control and constructively use your mind, then you can take whatever actions are necessary for mastering the practical.

The psychological provides the foundation from which all else grows. I suppose this point is important to me because I sometimes have people say "I don't have time to do that work." My thought is generally that that work is the most efficient thing that you can spend your time on if you're really interested in finishing your dissertation quickly.

I suppose another reason is that I struggled more with the psychological than the practical: for years I struggled, getting stuck on one little practical thing after another. But I finished in a whirlwind after the point that I started dealing with the little practical things differently.

Some people don't want to try to change their process because they think that changing psychological habits is too time consuming. But that is based on the presumption that change only comes very slowly and with great effort. Habits may change only slowly and with great effort; practices and behaviors, however, can change rapidly (however much effort it may require to create that new behavior--writing requires effort, so a change in behavior that involves more writing is going to feel like hard work, because writing requires effort).

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The best of all possible worlds

My yoga teacher today was talking about the philosophy that the world is perfect, and that we, as part of the world, are perfect, too. Candide came to mind, of course. And the ironic, cynical perspective that goes with it. But there is a beauty, too, to the philosophy: so much of the world we live in is our creation: if we see it as beautiful, then it is; and if we see it as ugly, then it is that, too.

The idea my teacher was suggesting was an idea of self-acceptance, that our present state is perfect as it is; the perfection lies in our being what we are, not in our ability to act in certain ways.

I was thinking about these things during the class, thinking about them with respect to the position of the writer. So often we, as authors, get stuck on our own imperfection and the imperfection of the work that we've created. Instead of sharing that work, we see problems with it and work on it more or abandon it. If that is our situation, then we want to work at recognizing our own perfection.

At the same time, we can also recognize that our work may not be what we want it to be. We may be certain that it can be improved. We don't, after all, want to sacrifice quality for expediency--at least not too much.

These are two competing paradigms: one that says to be accepting, the other to be critical, exigent, even.

The resolution, it seems to me, relies on balance. We embrace both possibilities--both that we can strive for our vision of perfection, and that we can strive to accept our innate perfection--we embrace them, but keep each in balance. Embracing the idea is not simply surrendering to it; it is not giving up our free will to decide. Instead it is opening up to the additional perspective so that our choices are made on the widest array of options. Being able to recognize your own perfection does not mean slipping into sloth. Just because you have realized perfection, and can see it in your own manifestation, does not mean that you stop acting. It may mean choosing different courses of action, but it does not imply to stop acting.

My yoga teacher, in exhorting the class to recognize our own perfection was not suggesting that we shouldn't still try to practice yoga with our best form, or that we shouldn't seek to improve our practice. Preaching our perfection did not stop her from trying to help us adjust our poses.

It's common, at least in the US, to think of yoga as a physical practice--a series of poses. But yoga is a way of life. The philosophy of yoga is applied in all realms of life. Such as in writing. Recognizing our perfection means being able to accept our writing for what it is, blemishes and all. But that doesn't preclude our trying to create a better written work, it just changes the emotional valence from negative to positive.

And that's really what the trick is--to be able to act and to take actions that help us approach our goals.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Orienting the reader

One thing that seems to happen a lot is that the writer, who is intimate with the topic, and who has been thinking about the topic at great length, forgets that the reader will not have been thinking about the project nearly as much as you. This is true, even if you're a dissertation writer working on a project that is very close to the work being done by professors that you work with. Professors have plenty of responsibilities, so you can bet that they're not thinking about your research as much as you are.

When you forget to orient the reader, then it's easy for the reader to get lost in the details--and, because you're not orienting the reader, there's not a lot of stuff to write except for the details. The material that orients the reader is also the material that creates the framework that makes the details coherent.

If the reader is given too many details without enough material to orient him/herself, then he/she becomes lost in the detail. The reader then cannot see the forest for the trees: all the details are the trees that make up the forest, but the material that helps the reader orient him/herself is the material that says where the trees stand in relation to each other in in relation to the larger forest in which they stand.

There are two main kinds of orientation that you can give the reader: logical and textual. The logical orientation material describes how a piece of the paper--a paragraph, a section--relates to the other ideas that are presented. The textual orientation describes how a piece of the paper relates to other pieces of the paper; it talk about the structure of the presentation of the argument.

Realistically, you want to give your reader a good amount of both kinds of orientation.

If you haven't done a good job of clarifying your ideas, trying to put in this material to orient the reader will be a big challenge. But if you do there's a good chance that you'll have a solid work.

Monday, March 24, 2008

We are all some extent

We have little or no control over the world--at least not as individuals. If a hurricane floods our home, or an earthquake destroys it, we have no control over the earthquake or the hurricane.

That being said, however, we can choose how much we are victims of our situation. On a basic level this is a choice between focusing on what we can do and what we can create in our lives, or focusing on that which we cannot do or cannot have. We may not be able to choose what the situation is, but we are able to choose what we focus our attention on.

By focusing on what we cannot do, we place ourselves in role of victim, because we are focused on things we cannot control, and therefore focused on what happens to us. By focusing on what we cannot do we create a frame of mind in which we have no power.

By focusing on what we can do, we place ourselves in a role of empowered actor, because we are focused on the choices available to us and the things that we can control.

Many times I hear people say "I have problem X," in fact, I know I've said many times myself. I've wallowed in focusing on my problems many times. I've let it paralyze me. Nowadays I realize the best response to a statement of "I have problem X" is to ask, "what courses of action are open to you?" Talking about the problem has a strong tendency to focus on what cannot be done, which puts one in a victim-mindset. Talking about the courses of action that are open forces the focus to shift to those things that can be done, which automatically puts one in the mindset of an active agent, one who does things, rather than simply accepting a situation.

So, yes, we may be victims to blind circumstance over which we have no control. But we do not have to be victim to our own patterns of thinking and reaction, instead, by focusing on what we can do, we can put ourselves into a frame of mind in which we have the power to make choices and affect our situation to our advantage.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


As I mentioned in my previous entry, I don't always have anything to say that I find particularly exciting or new. I know, of course, that what is interesting to me is not always interesting to others, so there's always the possibility that something that isn't interesting to me will interest others. As a result, I often recycle and repeat ideas as I search for better ways to express the ideas that I find the most interesting and important, but as a result of the repetition, the ideas don't always feel fresh and compelling.

Because of this, I'm always looking for topics to write on. I don't want to repeat constantly, but my imagination is not infinite. To my readers, then, if you have a topic you'd be interested in my addressing, let me know.

Two faces of one coin

Sometimes it's an annoyance to think of working on this blog--what to say? I don't always have deep thoughts, or even thoughts that I think are worth sharing (which, of course, would not be a first in the blogosphere). But the discipline is good--I feel good for having gotten in and made the effort. What comes out may not be good--the result may not be good--but the process itself can be seen as a result, and the more important one.

This may well be true of the dissertation, too, even though a dissertation obviously has a lot more riding on it than a blog posting.

We can look at the value of receiving a degree--it's not inconsiderable. But how does that measure up against developing productive and pleasurable work habits? The work habits will be with you where ever you go and whatever you do.

Working on a writing project can be like this, especially if you have become disenchanted. The idea of working on it isn't fun; the idea of working on it may be a possible source of pain. But that is an indication of the state of the work process: to the extent that it seems likely to be unpleasant to work, you have a sign that indicates that your work process and your relationship with your work can be improved.

On one face is the unpleasant aspect; on the other is the pleasant aspect.
For me, in this blog, the unpleasantness is minor: I force myself to write even when I'm tired or otherwise lacking enthusiasm. And the pleasantness outweighs it. I feel good just for having brought myself to the process. I also feel good when someone finds something useful in what I've written.
For a dissertation writer, the unpleasantness is probably greater: the dissertation project may have years of emotion energy invested, not to mention disenchantment. But the payoff can be greater, too: a degree, and maybe a new, better relationship with your work.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Two-edged sword

This is really about pros and cons, about trade-offs and the imperfect nature of the world we live in.

Too often, we can't have everything we want. Usually any choice we make has good and bad about it.

I was talking today with someone who missed their last deadline (grammatical note: I use "their" because there is no genderless third-person singular pronoun. This is a conscious choice; I know full well that some petty grammarian out there will think it's wrong. I write to be understood; if you can't understand that sentence, well, I doubt your ability to judge my writing. It should be noted that I don't need anyone's approval to post. If you have a dissertation reader that cares about using "their" in situations like the above, then you better think twice about whether you want to insist on using it.). This person was concerned about getting something to their advisor quickly. They were also concerned about giving the advisor something of insufficient quality. There's no perfect answer here. There are two ends of a spectrum: on one hand, something could be delivered to the advisor immediately. That would minimize the wait time. But to send something immediately means not doing any work on it....actually now that I think of it, the spectrum doesn't really have two ends, it just extends out from the one extreme. Instead of sending it immediately, one can work on it and improve it. The longer you work on it, the better it can be, but then the delay increases.
So there's a choice between quick and dirty, if you will, and slower and cleaner. Neither answer is perfect. Both answers have advantages. Both have drawbacks. And really there's not only two options, there's a whole continuum of answers. You can e-mail your advisor at 10:00pm tonight. Or midnight. Or at 9 tomorrow morning, or noon, or before the day is out, or you can mail it the next day, and so on.

One way of looking at this situation is to let it frustrate you. "I'll never get it right, darn it!" Another way to look at it is to see that this built in imperfection of the solution can free you. Whatever your choice, there will be a downside, so why not just make a choice, and decide to live with the situation?

We do this all the time: "Am I going to buy the cheap one that's low quality, or will I buy the expensive one that's high quality?" We don't always agonize over such decisions. Wouldn't it be nice to leave the agonizing over the thing out of it? We can make a decision and accept the cost of it without agonizing.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't look for a solution that doesn't have any drawbacks. But if such a solution isn't readily apparent, how much time and effort are you going to spend looking for it? The time and effort are costs you pay to look for that other solution. And can you be certain that the time and effort will be insignificant next to the gains of the better solution?

Our lives are filled with decisions; each possibility has strengths and weaknesses. To the extent that we can recognize and accept this, we're freed from the necessity of agonizing over the decisions--free to act and reap whatever benefit we can from our action.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Plan ahead and don't leave it until the last moment

I often hear from people interested in my services: "I have only four weeks to complete my dissertation" is their cry. This is possible. But it ain't easy.

When you're writing something as large as a dissertation, there are just too many logistics to handle. Large papers don't get written quickly--at least not by most of us.

More importantly, large papers don't get approved quickly: someone has to read them. So, if you only have a few weeks left on your dissertation, the first thing you have to do is make sure that your faculty committee is on board, and willing to do the last-minute reading that you need them to do in order to finish.

Because your dissertation has to be approved by a faculty committee--usually three, or more, professors--you have to plan for weeks of time to circulate it and get feedback.
When you have a year to work with, or six months, that's plenty of space in which to handle the timing requirements. But if you're down to six weeks, and your dissertation is long, that feedback time is a huge proportion of the time you have left.

You can swing it with a committee that is going to do the reading, with a committee that is ready to take on that project. But you have to make sure they're OK with that process, because it's a big commitment in the lives of people who are very busy. It's not that they don't want to help; it's not, even, that they wouldn't rather work on your dissertation than many of the things they're committed to. But they have committee meetings, administrative responsibilities, classes to teach, other students with dissertations and oral exams, not to mention their own research. So you have to be able to work with them, because they've got plenty of other pressing engagements that are no less necessary than your dissertation.

One thing that can really help with this kind of situation is to plan ahead: if they know what's coming, then there's a much better chance that they'll be able to make the time for you.

A similar issue is involved in working with an editor: turnaround time is going to be non-zero. A few days, at the least, are needed for long works. When time is short, this kind of assistance can take up a large proportion of remaining time.

The more you can plan ahead, the easier it is to manage the remaining time.

Mostly I've focused on people with approaching deadlines, and what they can do and what they should expect. But better still, than having a good plan for what to do with a short deadline, is planning ahead enough in advance that you're not frantically trying to meet a deadline, but instead you start thinking about the process of finishing up a dissertation ahead of time.

I know this is easier said than done. I know that, if you've been working on a project for a long time, you're ready to be done with it. I know that it costs a lot of money to enroll for another session while still working on the dissertation. If you have an approaching deadline, you have to plan correctly, and part of that is getting your committee ready. Another part of planning well, is to make realistic assessments and then work on plans that match those assessments. Many people get themselves in trouble by making very ambitious plans without any good backup, and then they compound the problem by letting their disappointment at their failure interfere with their progress towards their goal.

So plan ahead now. Whether you're planning or hoping to finish in May or December, or May 2009, your plans should include the time it takes to get feedback--sometimes more than once--the feedback process can take a month or more.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Day off

I know I preach persistence and the importance of working on a project everyday. But it's also OK to take a day off every now and then. Better than OK--it's even good. Rest is good; stepping back from your project for a moment can also be good.

It makes sense, therefore, to take a day off, or a few days off from the program. It's not something to beat yourself up about.

Just make sure you get back to it before too long.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Up and Down (2)

Most of us have ups and downs. They're part of life, so it doesn't really make sense to beat ourselves up about it.

I was talking today with someone who was angry at herself for not getting enough done in the last three days. She had, by her own admission, been very productive in the four days preceding--a time in which she wrote a complete 20-page submission to be a chapter in a book.

Now, admittedly, she is trying to finish her dissertation and working on that chapter wasn't working on her dissertation, so it was an obstacle. But productivity is generally a good thing. Her dissertation isn't on any deadline that is about to fall.

Anyway, my feeling was that, after working extra hard for a few days it's neither surprising nor inappropriate to have a few days in which it is harder to get going. It seems to me a natural enough response to doing something that is draining.

It's nice to maintain an even keel most of the time, and to make consistent progress on a regular basis. But to deny that there are ups and downs, and to blame yourself for the downs sets up a pattern of negative reinforcement that probably isn't going to help you get your work done.

We have ups and downs. If we can accept and choose good responses to our ups and downs, then we'll find it easier to maintain our levels of productivity because we won't be getting weighed down by regrets for what we think we should have done.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Just so I did something today...

This posting--late at night, just before the day expires--is mostly just so that I can keep up my string of continuously posting on my blog.

But this is a principle that helps with any long-term project: make an effort to work on it every day--even if it is just a little bit. That little bit on the day when you don't really feel like you're into it, or feel like you're tired or too busy or whatever, that little bit plays a crucial role in helping build the habit of working on your project.

If you've been away from your dissertation--because you took time off, or just because you've been procrastinating so darn much--it can be hard to get back into it, because you're not used to using your time in that way. Making the commitment to do something--anything--on a frequent and regular basis (and I don't mean once a week) helps you realign your habits to get to work on the project.

I suppose it's possible to finish a dissertation working on it one day a week. I wouldn't bet on it being the right strategy for timely completion.

So work on your project every day, even if all you do is write something brief about it more for the purpose of saying you did something than in the hope that you get a lot of progress out of the effort.

This principle of working on your project every day is expressed in Jean Bolker's book "Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day". The reasoning I present is not exactly like hers, but that difference makes her book a worthy read. If you follow her advice in that book, your path to completing your dissertation will be considerably smoother.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Outlining and an overview

I tend to assume that we all are taught outlining at a relatively early age, so it seems, perhaps, a little obvious to talk about how much it can help in the writing process.

But then I work with people who have trouble putting it to use, and I reflect that, I too, though taught to outline, had trouble with the practice for a long time.

Nowadays I like outlining, but only the most basic of outlines. I try to avoid long, highly detailed outlines of a whole work. I find it too easy to get lost in detail. Instead I just make simple out lines that help me see the overall arc of the project I'm working on. Often I keep my outlines to one or two levels. Usually if I'm making an outline with more levels, I find that it's hard to finish--I get lost.

By keeping the outlines short and sparse, it makes outlining a simple task--one that can be accomplished in a short time.
I can add detail later. Often I add detail when I'm working on one of the sections of the higher-level outline. I make a simple, two-level outline, and use that to guide my efforts. But then, when I start to write a single part of that simple outline, I make another simple outline of the one part that I'm working on--again it can be a simple two-level outline, but it has more detail because it's more focused on a specific part of the paper. Again, I want the process of outlining to be simple and quick, so I can get on to writing.

Outlining helps me see what the overall picture is, which helps me keep the writing relating back to the main points and not drifting off into too much detail.

I also like to estimate pages for each piece of the outline. For whatever reason, I rarely meet anyone who does this. It's amazing to me how much adding pages to the outline helps me see the project as more manageable. Suppose you have to write a paper that you estimate will be 100 pages. That sounds like a lot, to me, at least. But if I have a simple outline that breaks the paper into five pieces, I can see that each piece will be around twenty pages--maybe some longer, others shorter. But twenty pages doesn't seem intimidating--or not as intimidating as 100. If I then break the twenty page paper up in a simple one-level outline with four parts, I can see that I have to write four related five-page papers. And five-page papers aren't intimidating at all. If you break it up further and further, suddenly you see that you have to write a page on this subject and two pages on that--and none of those little pieces are intimidating.

And yet, if you're working from outlines that help you see the overview, and help you see how each piece relates to the main project, those little pieces won't be details drifting off into nowhere, they'll be anchored in the basic ideas that drive the whole project.

At least that's how I like to use outlines to help me make a paper feel more manageable while still being able to see the overview of the project.

Of course, that makes it sound simple, but it rarely is. Writing on a complicated subject is complicated. As you try to make outlines, each one reveals strengths and weaknesses. Different structures create different opportunities and different obstacles. Working through that is part of the learning process that is writing.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Feedback and Gratitude

Two days ago I posted a request to hear from whoever might be reading this, and I got a great response from someone who had appreciated what I had written (Thanks, you know who you are!).

There's nothing quite as nice as getting positive feedback.
It reminds me of a common theme about which I've written: you won't get positive feedback unless you make something that you share with others. And that certainly makes all the effort more worthwhile.

It wasn't easy to get someone to give me positive feedback on my blog. Over the course of slightly over a year, and over 100 posts, most of them several paragraphs long, few of them very short, two people have taken the time to say nice things. And I don't really consider that a bad investment--because if I hadn't put my ideas on the page and risked the rejection involved in putting my words out for public consumption, neither of those two people would have given me any positive feedback.

Ok, sure, maybe the people who contacted me are easier to please than your faculty committee. That only changes the weights of the factors in the equation; it doesn't change the basic dynamic, which is that you can't get feedback unless you do the work and risk the rejection.

Where does gratitude come into this? Only in my gratitude for the people who gave me positive feedback. Putting your work out there, gives you an opportunity to get feedback, which creates an opportunity to have something to be grateful for.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Gratitude and Politics in Academia

Recently I read a book called "Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier" by R.A.Emmons. I'd like to thank my friend who recommended it. As a result of reading the book, I've been trying to focus more of my attention on things to be thankful for, which is consistent with my general belief that we can change our psychological habits by working on them.

I was also recently talking with a dissertation writer who was having difficulty with her faculty committee. That's a statement which is pretty much generally true in my life, and has been since I started working with dissertation writers. Which isn't surprising, since someone having problems with their committee is much more likely to look for outside help than someone who is getting along just fine with their committee.

It's hard to be grateful for a committee that is causing problems. And it would really be far too new-agey for me to suggest that you try to find things about them to be grateful for, though there may well be such things.

What I am interested in, at least with respect to giving advice to dissertation writers, is how to get the most out of your committee. Which would give you something to be grateful for.

There's an old saying "you catch more flies with honey than vinegar." What role can gratitude play in this? Well, look, I'm not asking you to actually be grateful for anything your readers did, what I am doing is suggesting the possibility of acting grateful on the premise that it will help you get better responses.

In the relationship with a faculty committee, you have to be able to express doubt, disagreement and problems. But there is some discretion in how to express that doubt or dissatisfaction. Let's say, for example, you get harsh criticism. You could respond by complaining to them: "this doesn't help me at all," or something perhaps more subtle. Does that help you move forward? Does that motivate them to help you?
You could also respond by choosing not to respond to them, or even by complaining to someone else. If you complain to a different reader, what will they expect you'll do when they give you their feedback?
What I recommend is to say thank you. "Thank you for taking the time to comment on my work." Sure, it's their job, so they damn well ought to give you feedback, but that doesn't mean you can't say thank you. It's liable to create some minor spark of positive feeling.

There are other levels to this that I was thinking of writing about, but I'm running out of steam, and I have other stuff to do.

But, briefly, gratitude is a factor in people's lives. Some people have no gratitude, but even the ingrates have interests and desires. One thing your committee wants is for you to finish your dissertation. Make no mistake, it is to their benefit when they have more students successfully file. They may be very particular about not wanting to be embarrassed by signing off on sub-par work, but they still want you to finish. Also, people who give advice want their advice to be followed. To the extent that you can thank the committee for their advice, and to the extent that you can follow their advice, you give them opportunity to feel good about you.

This little not-essay isn't quite as focused as the idea I started with--maybe it's that I didn't have a clear idea; or maybe it's that I just haven't found the right words. That's the battle with writing. I'm grateful this is a blog, so the worst I suffer is the scorn of my few readers.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Traffic on this site; Feedback request

I don't get much traffic on this site. Over the last two months I've gotten something like 50 visitors altogether. Most visitors look at a page, maybe two.
Recently someone has looked at a lot of pages--maybe thirty or forty pages over a few days. I would love to hear from you, whoever it is that is actually reading this.
It's immensely gratifying to know that someone cares enough to read several pages; it would be great to know what you're thinking about what you've read, especially if you have any questions about these general issues that I've been writing about.
Every writer wants feedback; I'm no exception.
So, please, if you've read even a few pages of this blog e-mail me. Tell me how you've been using this material; tell what kind of project, if any, you're working on. There's no obligation. Or leave a comment on the blog; that would be just as good as your writing me.

You could call this my monthly request for feedback.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Change and Risk

We tend to see change as risky. While we know what we're going to get from the status quo (both good and bad), we're less certain what we could get from change.

Change creates new situations, and it's difficult to anticipate what those new situations will bring.

A writer will invest lots of effort into a draft. There will be strengths and weaknesses of that draft, but we know what we have, and we know we can continue to try to push forward on it. Because of all the effort that does get invested in a draft, we become attached to it--we like its strengths and its weaknesses are familiar. The idea, therefore, of scrapping the draft and starting anew is intimidating. Will we have a new draft with strengths equal to the last? Will we even have the energy to complete a new draft? It all seems very risky.

Of course I write this to suggest the importance of being able to change, of being able to scrap that old draft to start fresh. I don't think that the effort on the old draft was wasted: we learn from writing that draft; we learn what didn't work.

It may feel like a huge risk and a huge loss of invested effort to decide to start a completely new draft from the blank page. Making a complete change in a work in progress feels like a huge risk. But actually it's not. First off, we're only talking about an investment in a piece that isn't working, a piece that is problematic. Secondly, if the old draft does support what we're trying to accomplish, then once we get going on the new draft it should actually be pretty easy to incorporate sections of the old draft--if not verbatim, at least with only some editing.

We only think about change when we're not satisfied with out situation. For example, I would suggest changing a draft that has been rejected, but I would seriously question the need to change a draft that has been accepted. Given that premise, change really only incurs one additional risk: the risk of uncertainty. Otherwise, the worst change can do (at least as a writer) is leave you exactly where you were: with a draft that is not accepted.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sticking to it

One thing about setting a goal of doing something daily is that days are going to come when the effort seems difficult. Maybe there's no motivation; maybe there's no clear idea of what you're going to do.

Today is such a day with me and this blog. But I figure, for this blog, and for work patterns in general, to stick with it, and to get in there, at least for a few minutes, to struggle with the task; to struggle with finding motivation, that is ultimately a path that will lead to progress or lead to a better sense of self discipline.

I'm not sticking with this blog entry for long--sometimes it's best to be brief. But, at least for today, I've lived up to my commitment (to myself) that I would write in this blog everyday.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

More on Style

Style fascinates me, perhaps because I feel so limited.
My palette is always the same logical arguments.

I was thinking of changing, though. Maybe experimenting some; playing with sound--or at least thinking about it; playing with indirection, with misdirection, with the formal and the informal. Long sentences, carefully crafted, built out of many separate pieces, each working with the others, encompassing more complex and detailed ideas, can provide one side of style. Short sentences provide another side. You string them one after another. The ideas are broken. So is flow.

Another side of style is the more figurative. One day, perhaps, my writing will leap free of its earthly bonds of logic, and spring high into the air on the wings of metaphor. One day, perhaps, I'll find a metaphor that is not cliche. (incidentally, I presume that there is a way to put the accent over that terminal "e", but I don't know what it is. Anyone?)

Experimentation is probably the only way one can develop command over style. So I've recently decided that I would like to work on some stylistic exercises. I don't really think of myself as a fiction writer, but I do feel like working with to create different effects of tone and voice and style, even forms that I would never use in an academic work, will help me be more sensitive to tonal issues in academic work, too.

In short, I think it worth my effort to work on style. I'd be willing to generalize: if you ever even started a dissertation, chances are you will end up doing something that requires writing--because writing is a generally useful tool. Even if you only use writing for correspondence, you still can benefit from having more skill as a writer. But I'm mostly thinking of writers, especially academic writers; if you're an academic, you can only benefit from improving your writing skills. No matter your brilliance or insight, if you improve your writing skills, it will serve you well.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Escaping apathy

One of the traps of academia is the development of apathy with respect to things that we really care about.

We start studying a subject because it interests us or because we believe that we can benefit from understanding the subject better. We start from a place of caring and belief in the significance of what we study.

But the months and years can be wearing, as can the heavy prose of the academic world--so careful, always, to precisely define exactly what is intended, with careful attention to all the possible variations and strengths and weaknesses of the idea, in order to ensure optimal understanding and to deflect debate.

We see problems where we once saw possibilities. We are deadened, unable to feel the motivation that got us going, and which is probably still present underneath the detritus of academe.

I had a conversation today with a woman who was apathetic about her paper on tone in writing. She disliked the topic, she said. But she was a writer, and by reframing that paper about tone in terms of it serving as a tool by which to work on her own writing, she felt more interest and enthusiasm for the project. Sure, it may not be the written project she finds most exciting, but at least there is an avenue by which the deadening apathy is escaped and a sense of purpose given to the project.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Making change

Ever get stuck in a pattern? I know that I do, far too often. I get attached to what I have been and to what I have done. And this attachment burdens me and holds me back.

This is readily obvious on the level of written work: it is tremendously difficult for me to rewrite and to sacrifice an old draft. And yet those old drafts aren't working for me, which is why I'm rewriting in the first place.

It occurs on many levels, though. All the habits that govern my life carry this weight of consistency.

The thing is, if I'm not getting the results I want--my writing isn't as good as I would like--it makes sense to give up the consistency.

And then there's a battle between desire for security and desire for improvement. The improvement is distant and uncertain: I can't know that a new way of acting will help; I don't know what kind of result I will get unless I try. The security is immediately present, but it's not satisfying.

We can always change our mindset: if we're not satisfied with our situation, we can train ourselves to be more accepting. But will this accomplish what we want? I suppose it depends on what we want. I think there has to be a balance between seeking to accept that which we dislike and seeking to change it. There's no strict rule of what to try to change and what to persist in.

I do want to be able to gain more satisfaction from my current situation; I also would like to create new situations. I want to create positive change in my life. And that means facing the uncertainty of new patterns of behavior.

As long as I can remember that I am working on a process, and not just tied to immediate results it makes the difficulties somewhat more palatable and acceptable.

At present one change I'm trying to make is to increase my written output, especially written output that is formed in a way to present to others. One nice thing about the blog is that it's explicitly intended to be read. Once I press the publish button, people across the world can read what I've written. This provides motivation to frame what I've written as a coherent whole, rather than as a set of notes.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

My 100th post

My previous post was my 100th in this blog.
I know that in blogdom 100 posts is lightweight--some bloggers have been posting multiple times a day for years, piling up thousands of posts.
At the same time, 100 posts also represents a not-inconsiderable output: one doesn't post 100 times without some sort of consistent effort (especially if your posts are more than just a line or two).

When I noticed that I had posted my 100th post, it made me think about the power of just sticking to it. My cumulative efforts with this blog have added up into a substantial collection of little pieces. But the effort expended never seemed particularly onerous at any time, because I was just doing a little bit each day. Sure, there were moments when it was difficult to get going, or to find something interesting to say (and it may be that most of what I wrote isn't interesting to the reader), but for the most part, the effort seemed light.

The same, really, is true of any project: we can stick to our consistent effort and get long-term results but that consistent effort, even if we don't work ourselves into crisis mode. By sticking to the project consistently, we can generate substantial returns over a period of time.


Critique can be taken and used in many different ways. It can also be framed in many different ways.

I'm thinking about this partly because I wrote something critical about a published author on this blog the other day, and I saw that someone had found my post on the basis of searching for the author's name. I looked back at what I had written, and felt like I had come across as ripping an author that I didn't intend to rip. I did intend to say that I saw somethings differently, but that is not a rip, it's just a different perspective.

Personally, I don't like to get locked up in arguments about what is true or not, because what we believe is so wrapped up in a whole interplay of ideas that trying to disentangle one part of the perspective that it seems almost meaningless to try and debate the one part with respect to some abstract "truth". Instead, I like to think about the situation with respect to differing perspectives that we can use to help understand a situation.

When we receive a critique, it can be difficult, because critiques usually rely on a perspective that doesn't match our own, which is their value. That difference of opinion, however, can feel like a disagreement, or an implicit denigration of our position (or sometimes an explicit denigration).

I like to try to separate the critique from myself by thinking about what the interests of the critic are and to try and understand what perspective generated the critique, and what aspects of that perspective are useful for me in developing my work. That ain't easy, though.

Sometimes critique is a personal attack. That's unfortunate. But then many unfortunate situations abound in this world.

But often critique of a work or a set of ideas espoused by a person is not an attack, but is, instead, an attempt to share a new perspective.

In the blog posting where I critiqued the published work, my intention was not at all to critique that work, but rather I was using that critique to help explicate a position I held. It was an attempt to share my perspective. Using the other author as a foil was a stepping stone in that direction because the other author used some ideas that provided a foundation from which I could work.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Listening to yourself and others

The two are not unrelated. I was thinking about these kinds of listening in the academic context of the importance of understanding your own scholarly convictions, so that you can make the greatest use of what you hear/read from others.

The ideas we read in scholarly publications are not meant to be accepted simply because they are in an academic publication. They are meant to be tested in the court of scholarly examination. This is the fundamental view of the progress of science in the model proposed by Sir Karl Popper in "The Logic of Scientific Discovery." The fact that more recent philosophy of knowledge focuses even more heavily on the social aspects of developing knowledge does nothing to weaken that premise (unless you assume that scholarly discourse has no element of contentious debate whatsoever).

We should read academic works with a critical eye: what assumptions and presuppositions are being made? What kinds of logical reasoning are being used, and are they being used carefully? What kind of evidence is presented, and is that evidence convincing? What are the strengths of the argument? Its weaknesses? By understanding our own philosophical positions, we are much better able to read in this way. We should be reading with an open mind, of course: as we test the ideas of others, we should also be testing our own--and we should be open to changing our own ideas in the face of good arguments and evidence.

When I initially wrote the title, I immediately saw that that this is about more general patterns of communication, too.

Or at least, I think of it this way: if we have developed the ability to listen to ourselves, if we have developed some idea of who we are and what we believe, then we have developed a foundation from which we can better listen to others. If we don't know how to listen to ourselves, or if we have not developed a sense of who we are and what we believe, then we're caught in insecurity--worrying about ourselves and therefore unable to hear what others are experiencing.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Style in writing

I want it; it eludes me.
I need more practice. But what to practice? Do I practice the skill I am most familiar with, in order to refine it to a higher level? Or do I try to do completely different things, in order to increase the palette from which I draw?

Diligence says to practice both. Command of tone and style lie in the choice of words, structures, and other aspects of the written work. Command of a greater palette surely relates to command of the finer aspects of that palette. Not that this isn't simplification: the metaphor chosen suggests the possibility that painters use colors in different ways, some achieving their effects through bold colors (Van Gogh?) and others through more subtle use of color (Diebenkorn, maybe?).

Blogging has style--typically self-referential. It's both easy to be self-referential and yet it's not where I want to go. Or at least I hope that what is self-referential is related to some larger point that is worth sharing with others. That statement reveals a bias that self-referential writing is not generally applicable, but that is an assumption of limited value: the personal is generally applicable to other people.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Endless Repetition part 2 (self-help, part 4)

Obviously, you want to choose what you're repeating. While practice is an essential part in making a project go, you don't just want to repeat. You want to learn from what you do, so that each repetition is not a precise repetition, but is some sort of refinement or alteration of the previous iteration: each time through should provide some sort of advancement.

If each iteration does not include some sort of change then there's the obvious problem of getting bored. Writing is not an assembly-line job where one repeats the same action time and time again.

If each iteration is identical, there's also the problem of not actually getting closer to your goal. If you haven't reached a goal and you want to, then something has to change to allow you to reach that goal--your practice has to change in some way--even of the only change is what you focus your attention on.

So the process of writing contains cycles of repetition--for example in terms of writing and then rewriting a draft, or in terms of sitting down each day to spend a certain amount of time writing, or to write a certain amount. It also contains growth: we can try new things, new ways of saying the same thing, new ways of structuring our presentation.

The endless repetition, therefore, is in the process, but with the attitude that we can learn, then we begin to repeat and refine, allowing us to move towards creation of superior products.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Endless Repetition (self-help, part 3)

The main difficulty of self-help practices is that they are just that: practices. They require constant effort of will to continue them. Inertia will tend to carry you away from these practices. But the more you spend your time and effort getting these practices ingrained in your life and in your body, the easier it is to perpetuate them, and the greater the inertia that exists for continuing them.

Exercise is an obvious example of self-help along these lines: the more you work exercise into your life, the more you miss it if you don't get it.

But this is true for other things as well.
All sorts of habits are amenable to work of this sort: if you practice the habit you desire, it becomes part of your life. The word "practice" has, in one sense, a meaning of preparation before the real thing: teams practice before their games. But I like to think about another sense of the word in which "practice" means to perform: doctors, lawyers, architects and others practice in this sense. Actually, I like combining the senses of the words: each act is preparation for the next; we practice both to accomplish our best in the moment and to improve our ability to perform in the future. We are always striving to both act on our abilities, and improve our abilities.

This is the endless repetition: we're always practicing in order to be able to practice better. We're always striving for improvement. You can take that as you will. The pessimist will take that to mean that all life is a burden with no respite. The optimist will take it to mean that we can always hope for better. The two do not appear to be mutually exclusive; they both appear to be true.

I waver between the two points as my confidence rises and falls. Some days the thought of the Sisyphean task is daunting; others the light at the end of the tunnel is appealing. I try to focus on the light because, while I think both perspectives are equally true, I think that the perspective of optimism is a lot easier to carry around from day to day.

When practice--the endless repetition to hone a skill--seems divorced from practice--the performance of the skill at the highest level--you can get into a difficult space. But being open to the endless repetition helps. Repetition need not be a bad thing.

I partly titled this "endless repetition" because I feel like my blog is generally a rehashing of things I've said before--perhaps with a slightly different spin. But also because this endless repetition is part of what makes a successful writing process. Some things have to be repeated. That's a big deal if you look at the act of writing like Sisyphus's boulder. But if you reign yourself to the willingness to rewrite, then you open yourself to a greater ability to put your thoughts on paper.

If you try to get it right the on the first try, then you sit with a blank page trying to make something perfect. And you sit with a blank page for day after day. One of my former clients shared with me a quotation she had found that said something like "you stare at the blank page until your forehead bleeds" or something unpleasant like that. Well, you can try that if you want. I recommend writing whatever you can write--see if you like it, and then try again. If you take the approach of writing as a practice--writing down thoughts and seeing if they came out right, and then trying again--then you can conceivably write several drafts in the time it would take you to write one while trying to get it right on the first try. And is it more work to write and rewrite or to stare at the blank page until your forehead bleeds? I grant the possibility the a draft quickly written will not be as good as one carefully written, but if you go through successive drafts, then it's not unlikely that the last of the sequence will be better than the first.

The more you practice trying to put your ideas down in writing, the easier it becomes, and the greater your chance of getting a good first draft. I believe this because it matches my experience. I can see how my facility with words improves, and how it becomes easier to formulate an essay.

So, the question is: do you look at the endless repetition as a burden or as an opportunity? If both perspectives are true and they are not mutually exclusive, which one do you choose to focus on?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Pollyannaish New-Age Hoohah (self-help, part 2)

I was brought up a New Yorker, in that cynical, hard-headed city. I was also bought up in a time when scientists were valorized for their access to truth, and were lauded for their hard-headed skeptical attitudes towards anything that was not proven. Logically and philosophically I have a strong skeptical streak. If I had to pick one philosopher who influenced me more than any other, it is possible that I would choose David Hume, the renowned Scottish skeptic.

That being said, I am fascinated by the hard-headed logic that suggests reasons to adopt psychological habits that are very much along the lines of those suggested by even the most pollyannaish new age philosophies. I don't necessarily agree with the logic that gets the authors to their points, or agree with the general logic. Often the tone is mawkish and annoying. All the same, I believe the logic that provides the foundation.

Positive thinking, quite simply, appears to be a good thing.

I was reading "Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier" by Robert A. Emmons. It makes suggestions that I think are worth trying to incorporate into my life--mostly the value of gratitude. Emmons, an experimental psychologist at the University of California, Davis, studies the relationship between affect and the practice of gratitude. The general conclusion: people who are more grateful are also more emotionally healthy.

Emmons, as a researcher reporting on empirical studies, has some protection from the dangers of being unduly optimistic--after all the conclusions are supported by "hard-headed" science. Nonetheless, the book often devolves into conclusions that stick in the craw of a hard-headed cynic: like that prayer is good.

Well, I have trouble releasing my skepticism. But I do believe that practicing gratitude and other forms of positive thinking are fundamentally sound practices that can enrich our lives. Even if they may sound pollyannaish.

Sunday, March 2, 2008


I really enjoy self-help books. Sure, they're often hokey, and often little more than reminders about the obvious. I still like them. They remind me that I have some ability to change my life for the better, and all I have to do is to work at it.

It could be argued that one cannot affect long-term psychological change--that one is likely to remain about as happy and healthy as one has always been. I don't believe it.

And even if it were true, would I lose anything by expending my efforts on things that might help me live a better life? Well, that depends on what I give up, but if what I give up is merely a string of entertainments? Or if what I give up is a long career in a job I don't care about, so that I can afford a long string of entertainments at some later date? Don't get me wrong; I'm not opposed to entertainment.

There's plenty of reason to believe that we can change our lives for the better--not the least because believing the opposite--that we can't change our lives for the better--is both a self-fulfilling belief and a sad state of affairs if we can see ways in which we'd like our lives to improve. Given the reciprocal causal relationships between our emotional states and events in the world around us, change in our physical and/or social states in the world can also reflect or lead to change in our psychological states.

Without doubt we are capable of changing our situation by, for example, finishing a dissertation or other project. This change can certainly connect to change (at least temporary) in our psychological states.

Can we, through practice, bring ourselves into more positive mental states that facilitate our ability to finish projects and accomplish other change in the circumstances of our lives? I believe so. I believe that that emphasis must be placed on practice--which, indeed, is not a surprising contention, given that spiritual traditions usually both claim their ability to improve mental states, and the importance of practices in bringing about that change.

Self-help books, I think, get a bad rap for the same reason that people want diet pills: easy answers are being sought. I've never read a self-help book that said that the promised improvement would be effortless. Most self-help books I've read stress the importance of making consistent, long-term alterations of our behavior--in other words, practice.

Having accepted the fundamental role of practice, I can read self-help books not with the expectation that they will deliver some easy panacea, but in the hope that they will suggest to me possibilities for developing my own practice.

Given that practice is also the means to completing a dissertation--by writing every day--and the means to completing most projects in life, developing a self-help practice seems to me a project that can withstand the most skeptical arguments that I can muster. And I am, in many ways, a philosophical/epistemological skeptic.

Saturday, March 1, 2008


Patience is, as has often been said, a virtue.
I was just thinking about patience this way?
What is more important: to get what you want, or to get what you want by some deadline?
Deadlines appear in our lives, both imposed by others and by ourselves. Most deadlines have loopholes. Especially deadlines we set for ourselves.

"I have to finish my chapter by the end of the week." Well, that's a great plan, and I encourage you to try. You have a better chance of accomplishing that goal if you have a more detailed plan than simply to finish. If you have such a plan, it probably breaks the larger project up: "I have to write a section on topic A, and I have to write a section on topic B." Then you have two tasks (that need to be finished by the deadline); each task is less imposing.

But suppose you reach the end of the week without having finished, what do you do then?
It is to be hoped that you keep on writing, and you continue to strive to finish the chapter, even though your deadline has passed.

There is no doubt that there are deadlines in life that are undebatable, unextendable and absolutely final. But most are not--even when imposed by an outside source--like a university. Often deadlines can be appealed for an extension. I'm not here promoting trying to extend your work. I strongly believe in finishing before the deadline, so that it's not even an issue. My point about patience is that it helps us prioritize the ultimate goal (finishing the dissertation, for example) over the lesser goal (e.g., finishing this semester).