There is a seeming contradiction in Boice’s advice for writers. It’s hard to figure out how to wait and start early. I mean, I read what he says and it all seems to make sense, but figuring out how that is going to look in my own writing practice is a bit difficult. And I realized the other day that, done a certain way, free writing could end up adding a lot of slightly random notes to the already huge pile of same generated by fieldwork. Daunting!!
But today I had a pretty successful experience with waiting and starting early, so I thought I’d recount it for any out there who are wondering about Boice’s techniques (or for those of you who are specifically and utterly interested by my writing practice. There’s hundreds, nay, thousands of you aren’t there?).
I got up early and did a little bit of stretchy/breathy stuff to get the blood flowing. Then I plopped myself in front of the laptop to try to focus on a free writing session. I’ve been working on a proposal-style thesis outline that my advisor has set as a task for me, but I was not really able to get going this morning. I felt frustrated. I felt dubious that squeezing these words out of myself when I don’t know what to say is a worthwhile exercise.
So I decided to take a step back from the more linear prose thing I was trying to do, and just set myself to a task that isn’t exactly writing: I sat down on my reading chair with my notebook and just started making notes about what authors I plan to cite in which chapters. Now, this is already something I have a fairly clear idea of, and I wasn’t making any notes about how I was going to cite them. The notes look like this:
Ch. 1 -not much need. Maybe find some cross-cult. anth.
Ch. 2 -Fortes. McCaskie. Oppong. Clark. Maybe more general kinship
Ch. 3. -Rattray, Fortes, McCaskie, Wilks. GLR (Ghana Law Review). Law writers.
Ch. 4 (Funerals) DeWitt. Fortes. Some ritual-related stuff. Inheritance: more Fortes.
My general thinking in doing this was a) at least I’m doing something and b) this will help me make a library list.
But then something neat happened. I had a thought, a pretty simple thought: in order to get a handle on my book proposal, I have to answer a simple question: Why is inheritance an important and interesting thing to look at?
I started making notes on this question, and there it was, my freewriting. Then I had an idea about how to approach the answer in a way that links what I’m writing about to what my potential non-specialist audience and I almost rushed back to my computer to start writing it with the snappy first sentence I had in my head. I could feel the shape of what I wanted to say, and I was eager to begin getting it out.
But then I decided to employ the “wait” part of writing. Instead of trying to spell everything out linearly, I made a few structural notes, first this point then that point stuff. Then I took a break, during which time I told some friends (B. and R.) about it on gchat. B. asked a question that prompted a pretty linear response, so when I was done with my break, I took my outline and my gchat conversation and started writing something linear.
On my next break I showed the rough draft to B. and an anthro friend A. They gave me some feedback that showed where I could fill in some more detail. I was going to rewrite immediately, but I noticed two things that made me reassess:
First, I had been happy and mildly excited throughout the initial two writing sessions, but I was getting much more attached and heading into the euphoric writing state that Boice argues (convincingly) for avoiding. I was also having a harder time focusing, concentrating, and figuring out what I was going to say. Diminishing returns were about to set in!
So, instead of writing, I summarized my two friends’ suggestions in my notebook with a note to make those the subject of tomorrow’s freewrite. Then I finished up my work day by transcribing an interview (which gave me more to think about for tomorrow’s work).
Today I managed to employ several of Boice’s suggestions: wait, start early, monitor attachments, and stop. Oh, and “let others do some of the work” (in this case by getting really early feedback). I’m quite satisfied with what I’ve accomplished today, and I’ve left myself with a clear starting point for tomorrow. I’m happily (and mostly calmly) anticipating tomorrow’s writing session, which is maybe the biggest boon of all.
Filed under: Boice thesis
20 August 2009, 08:32
So today is the language test. I have to prove my chops in Twi, otherwise no registration, no PhD! But I’m sure I’ll do fine.
Wish me luck anyway :)
Filed under: thesis academics
14 August 2009, 11:38
Yesterday I went to visit my advisor, and she was really positive about my draft and where I’m at. She likes the direction I’m going and has set me the task of writing 5 concise single-spaced pages on what my central themes are and a chapter-by-chapter summary. A little daunting, given that I still feel like I don’t know nearly enough about what I can write (both in terms of what my research supports and in terms of the literature that goes with it), but on the other hand, probably a good exercise given where I’m at and my goal of having a competitive book proposal by October 1st. Plus, I get the impression from talking to people who’ve written books and thesises that you never really feel like you have a full handle on everything that you can and/or should do. You just have to get started with it and figure it out along the way.
So, now the plan really focuses on getting ready for the book proposal. This week’s* goals are to hammer out these five pages, develop a good “hook” for the book, and do a little market/proposal research. Plus, of course, ongoing transcribing and note reading/organizing.
*(that is, the seven following days. I don’t really bother with starting weeks on Mondays)
Today I have:
- read two book proposals to get an idea of what they should look like
- made brainstormy notes on my “hook”
- done a short freewrite on the thesis summary based on the “hook”
- do another brainstorm/freewrite on the overarching themes and description of my thesis.
- reread notes I’ve written about previous thesis drafts
- 2 freewrites/brainstorms
- note reviewing
- market research
Filed under: writing thesis
6 August 2009, 15:14
My office is in a converted attic loft. My roof is being reshingled. Mmmmmm.
But, no excuses not to write, right? I’m sorta working up to some kind of early morning routine, because between parasites and medicine, and not being a particularly early morning person anyway, I haven’t been that keen about leaping out of bed every morning for an hour of writing first thing. But I’m going to start working on it as of next week (because Saturday I’m heading off to a cottage for four days, so of course I should wait until I get back).
So the work schedule for August is going to go something like this: get up and write from 8-9:30. Exercise, eat, and get dinner started from 9:30 to 12ish. Work from 12:30 to 5:30.
I’ve been reviewing the “mindful waiting” and the “starting early” that Boice advocates (I’ve skimmed the book, now I’m starting back at the beginning of the writing section with more detail). One of the things that I think is not well discussed in his book is the relationship between research/data accumulation, prewriting, and writing. I am not sure how much note reviewing, for instance, should happen in “writing sessions” and whether writing a lot of notes during other types of work is likely to count as a brief daily session (BDS) in terms of one’s own relationship with one’s process.
I think I’m going to have to do more writing than he seems to advocate in order to get my research in order. So, I’m going to interpret BDS and one of his other important points (stopping in time) as being a useful way of dividing up extended work periods. That is, my morning session will be focused on prewriting and conceptual outlining, whereas I will break up my afternoon work into different sections where the focus is more on note-reviewing (but of course allowing note writing and editing), and on specific analysis tasks related to my field data (again, potentially with writing, but where the focus is on the data, not on producing prose or even necessarily outlining how the analysis fits into the bigger projects). Probably there will also be some reading at some point.
I’m hoping that by breaking these tasks up, and by focusing on writing for only part of the day, I will avoid burn out and what I am now calling the multiple personality thesis sock puppets (more on those later. Can’t wait, can you?).
Filed under: writing thesis