Saturday, January 14, 2017

When The Boss Says to Put Work on Pause: Pushing Aside the Cloud

When a boss, or in my case, my advisor gives a recommendation, I'm usually quick to take it. Usually this has to do with working on my prose, consulting additional sources, or other pieces of advice designed to further the progress of my project. But a week before I turned in my draft last month, I received a suggestion that was counter to her usually recommendations:
Once you submit this, do not look at it for several weeks. Do not be tempted to go through it, but give yourself permission to set this aside. At this point, you're so close to the project that you now need to create some distance between you and it. Don't think about it over the holidays, and that way, when I give you feedback in January, you're looking at your writing with fresh eyes.
For the past few years, if we've chatted, most likely you've seen me look like this. Bright-eyed, with at least some attempt of looking put-together, and usually with a smile. And usually, in my daily life, that was at least a partially-accurate interpretation. But my interior reaction to the writing process has often felt more like this:

For better or for worse, the dissertation has followed me quite closely for the past few years. I didn't think about it on our wedding day, and there have been a few other days over the years (my brother's wedding too) when it's been pushed aside, but typically for at least part of each day, the dissertation hovers like a cloud. Some of it is nagging guilt (You should be writing), other times it stems from well-meaning questions about my progress (So, how's your thesis? When do you think you'll finish? It sure takes a while, huh?).  I don't know if other people experience a similar feeling, or if people in different lines of work feel the same way, but that inner cloud followed me for a lot of the writing process.
It was only a few months ago that the cloud started to shrink. I think part of it had to do with watching it all come together, part of it was the positive feedback I was receiving, and another part was the realization that the dream was truly en route to becoming a reality.
I didn't touch the dissertation for 22 days. My husband and I went on a lovely vacation to St. Michaels, MD, where for a week, we relaxed, lounged, celebrated, and truly decompressed. No alarm clocks were set, no schedules were made, the only requirement was fun.
It was amazing. I remember even when we went on our honeymoon, there was a little bit of the dissertation cloud (just the tiniest bit), but the cloud finally abandoned its location over my head. If someone (I was at an academic conference during the final days of the 3 week break) asked about my dissertation, an internal knot did not form in my stomach. Nor were my words carefully couched, told with a forced smile and feigned optimism. I could feel the genuine optimism and sincere excitement as I updated any inquirers, "Yes, I turned in the full thing!" "It looks like if everything goes right, I'll defend in the spring!"
And when the first round of feedback came in this past Monday morning, I tackled it with excitement. To clarify, it's not like I was sitting there grinning as I waded through the necessary corrections - that would be slightly insane. But there was an enthusiastic intensity to my work, and yes, a degree of excitement as I pursued through some articles and book chapters, finally having the time to dive into some of the broader issues surrounding my project.
There will still be moments of doubt and anxiety in the coming months - I'm pretty sure about that. However, that larger cloud has been pushed aside, and I'm looking forward to taking on these final busy months like this.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Putting Operation Endgame into Action

I can point to one simple reason why my blogging fell by the wayside, yet again, in the final months of 2016. I had written a very exuberant blog post about how Operation Endgame was in motion, and then proceeded to focus on reaching the first milestone in that part of the dissertation marathon.
Then, I was in the middle of writing my final body chapter of the dissertation, and in an effort to relieve my brain from the single focus of that chapter (which felt so tedious to write – it was the chapter about which I was the least confident), I started to tackle the introduction and conclusion as well. To me, one benefit of the nature of the dissertation is that different components of it require different aspects of your brain. On the surface, it is a day-in, day-out grind, but truly, as one part overtaxes your mind, you can relieve some of the pressure by turning to a different section, until your brain has recovered enough to return to that previous roadblock.
Mid-November, I submitted that final chapter, and with just over a month to go, took to revising the old chapters and bringing together the big ideas into the project’s beginning and ending chapters. I had received enough encouraging feedback to feel galvanized and energized for this homestretch of 2016. All of the thoughts that had been swirling around in my head about the project as a whole, which previously were relegated to an ongoing Word document, finally had a proper place in the wrapping and packaging of the project. And with the exception of Thanksgiving break, during which I happily set my writing aside to be home with my family, I wrote, revised, and threw myself into getting the full draft ready for submission.
There have been times when the writing process has brought me to my knees. Sometimes in prayer, sometimes in tears, sometimes in frustration, but it has been an endeavor that I’ve participated in my whole body. There have been physical pains, emotional highs and lows, spiritual moments (almost a given as a Catholic writing about devotion to the Virgin Mary), mental anguish and intellectual triumphs, but it’s been a labor of love, full stop. But it was also my hope that as I raced toward the finish line, the memories I would carry with me of those final months would be filled with mental stimulation and motivation.
And during that monster month, that’s exactly what happened. I worked every weekend (save Thanksgiving), and many evenings were editing, and although it was exhausting, and sometimes filled with moments of uncertainty about reaching the deadline, it was also exciting too. For finally, as those questions swirled around, from classmates and professors, to well-meaning family and friends, the question “so, how are things with the dissertation?” was met with, “I’m getting close to submitting a complete version,” said not with a grimace, but with at least a modicum of optimism.
And on December 20th, I submitted a complete draft of my dissertation. To see the whole process come together, to print out and bind a full draft that could be read from cover to cover, brought back the feeling of satisfaction that came with doing the first (of what would become many) 20 mile run that was one of the final benchmarks of practice before the marathon. Yes, it was met with a familiar feeling of fatigue, but a tiredness that comes an intense, passionate effort.

I was under strict orders from my advisor to take a break and not think about it until the new semester. I was more than happy to oblige, and just as whole-heartily as I entered into the monster month, I stepped away, happy to step off the train until the conductor summoned me to board again.