Dissertation Boot Camp

Boot CampThis summer I’m teaching a new class, the aptly named Dissertation Boot Camp.  I’d like to think I’m nicer than a stereotypical drill sergeant but my role is similar, I suppose:  to motivate students to engage in a regular writing practice so they can complete their dissertations.  The students are great.  They’re eager.  And like  many writers, they feel challenged by the prospect of writing.  I love leading this class because it brings out my best talents: coaching others, helping people solve problems, and helping people see their strengths.  As might be typical in boot camp, some students are making more progress than others, but it’s clear that students enjoy the structure and accountability — something students usually miss when classes end and they’re on their own for writing.  One thing that we still need to work on is fear … writers face a lot of fears.  What if I have nothing to say? What if nobody cares about my research?  What if I don’t write it perfectly?  What if I really can’t write after all?  The trouble is the only way to address those fears is to start writing … we just need to sit in the chair and write.  There are tons of strategies to help writers but I believe it was Anne Lamott who said something like the only way to write is to, well, write.  So we have to face our fears, put our butts in the chair, and start writing.  Anne Lamott also reminds us that it’s okay to write terrible first drafts.  She admitted on KQED’s show, Forum, “I write really awful first drafts.”  That’s a lesson for all writers.  We need just start; we need to let our thoughts spill out of our heads, and we need to get something on paper.  It’s much easier to revise a draft than to try to make the first effort perfect.

A side benefit of the boot camps is that I’ve improved my writing practice.  If I’m going to ask students to write at least 30 minutes every day (Monday – Friday, with weekends off), then I really need to walk the walk.  I report my progress, my challenges, my fears, and my resistance in regular pep talks to students.  In exposing my own challenges, vulnerabilities, and successes, I hope that students become inspired to try even just a little writing every day.  A little writing, even 15 minutes, is better than no writing.  Some days I can only manage the 30 minutes; many days the 30 minutes magically becomes 60 minutes.  A first draft becomes a second draft becomes a third draft and then, ta-dah, it’s ready to go to an editor and a colleague for feedback.

If you’re a writing and are feeling stuck, see if you can squeeze in just 15 minutes today.  Begin with a realistic goal; something like:  I’m going to work on the paragraph about X.  Then turn off all distractions, move that Smart Phone out of view, turn off social media, open up your word processor (or go old school: grab a pen & paper), and just focus on that paragraph.  Let’s see what happens!