I’m not writing a dissertation, so you might wonder why I recently picked up a book called Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker at the library. Of course it was the word “writing” that drew me. What kept me interested was its intriguing, fresh writing tips.
A few months ago I had the marvelous opportunity to teach a writing class at my church. When I surveyed the participants, I discovered they were there for many different reasons. “That’s okay — writing is writing, in many respects,” I said. Reading this book confirms this for me, because Bolker’s tips ring true to me, even though I am primarily a fiction writer.
May I recommend chapter six, “Interruptions from Outside and Inside”? Here she asks the reader to take a hard look at what is really outside of our control when it comes to writing. We all know about those “interruptions” such as social media and those fascinating, emailed newsletters that we just have to read right now. And don’t get me started on Pinterest!
She references an essay by Anne Tyler that I’d like to hunt down called “Still Just Writing.” Even though I haven’t read it, I can imagine (because I adore Tyler’s writing) what it says. I wonder if she’s been questioned about the legitimacy of her work as I currently have. I’ve been accused of being unemployed because I made the leap to full-time writing. Yesterday I ended up working thirteen hours with only a brief break or two. Unemployed? Hardly.
That is not to say that I don’t fall prey to those interruptions that others do: mail (I love all mail, email or snail), a phone call (although I try not to answer the phone while I’m working), and emails. So many wonderful emails to answer!
If you need a kick in the rear, Bolker will do that. She recounts the story of an advisee she had who was 8 1/2 months pregnant. Bolker told her that was no excuse for not finishing her dissertation, and the woman did! Tough love, but someone’s got to do it.
While it’s not the same, my last semester in the MFA program I attended I had the opportunity to present a novel for a novel-writing workshop led by an idol of mine. I quickly signed up for it, only to realize that the “novel” I had been working on was not what I wanted to present to her. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and I didn’t want to waste it on something that was not the best, the truest writing I had in me. So.
So I decided that I would write a first draft of this newest novel (thankfully the subject of the novel called to me at this very time…not sure I believe in coincidence) in, oh, less than eight months.
I wrote in a dreamlike state, writing until my wrists ached. I think my maximum page count FOR ONE DAY was twenty three pages. This novel burned in me; this opportunity was truly that special to me.
I lost weight. I taught in a trance. I quit going places or hanging out much with friends. Our house became, shall we say, pleasantly cluttered as I struggled to do the most important things — dishes, laundry, cooking. My husband helped out as much as he could, but he was working long hours too.
The only thing I didn’t let go was my exercise regime. Most days. But that’s because that’s brain fuel for me. Yeah, yeah, I’ve told this before, but I just can’t believe I did it. I finished that draft. And a second. I am currently on the third draft and am still as excited about it as I was when I began.
I think Bolker would approve.
For me, perhaps the most meaningful section of Bolker’s book comes in her utter acceptance of an individual’s writing process. She suggests not fighting the monkey mind that wanders off, but to work with it. To either keep a list of those “I should” tasks that pop up, or to write what you’re thinking, no matter how off target it seems to be, and you might be surprised to see the connections your mind is trying to make.
What a relief! So my mind (which ping pongs) is okay? In fact, those thoughts that seem wildly out of line with my writing might actually be my mind’s way of trying to classify its thoughts? Monumental! I can’t tell you how freeing that validation is. She’s saying we should trust our minds! Yes, even our monkey minds.
She suggests “…instead of trying to push it out of your mind, try writing whatever is in your head”. She believes if you do this enough, useful patterns will emerge and themes. I love the idea that everything about us is connected and helpful. (I’d like to believe that my irrational fondness for Reese’s peanut butter hearts — or Reese’s pb anything — is not a weakness but helps make my writing better. Wait. I think we call that rationalization.)
Bolker teasingly jokes that the best equipment for a writer is a bucket of glue and a chair. Many others agree that all you have to do is show up. Regularly. (I’m ripping someone off, but who?)
If you’re not writing a dissertation, there are chapters such as “Your Advisor” that you can safely skip. I confess to doing just that. But if you need to feel better about yourself and your unique writing process, give this book a read. Who knows — maybe you’ll end up wanting to write a dissertation, even if you never do.