Why I Quit Writing My Dissertation And Became A Model On The Home Shopping Network, Or, Writing Anxiety Rears Its Ugly Head

31Oct06

I am editing the dissertation of a student in education who took her candidacy exam at about the same time I did and started writing around the time I was supposed to begin. Last Friday, she sent me 34 pages. I’ve got about 10, and they’re more mess (more mass) than anything. They’re not ready for my own eyes, let alone an outside reader’s, and try as I do, I just can’t seem to get into my usual groove.

I am having two problems.

The first trouble is organization. I am, it won’t surprise you, an organized writer. Perhaps because my first major academic work was an honors thesis at Cornell in communication, a social science whose writing conventions include the structured Introduction-Lit Review-Research Questions-Research Methodologies-Analysis-Conclusion format that I now find so dry and uninteresting. Still, I tend to be the kind of writer who begins with a clear path through, a partial outline or a little sketch, perhaps. I’m usually not ready to start writing unless I can make those. My thoughts come out jumbled and my sentences even more jumbled. I have a lot of capitalized notes to myself mixed in like SUPPORT THIS CLAIM or WHY NOT? This time, the project is obviously much bigger than anything I have ever taken on, probably by about a factor of five. I feel so uncomfortable writing without knowing my way through. Writing before I have my theory sketched out seems like it wastes time — not only am I jumbled now and thus the going is slower but I will also have to rewrite more later. And yet, I feel really guilty not writing. I also feel like I need to do some writing to see where I stand.

The second problem is that in contrast to my organized ways, I am also a very rhetorical writer. I need to know my purpose and my audience before I can figure out how to write. Am I trying to persuade? To correct a misperception? To explain? Is my audience familiar with narrative theory? With mimesis? With the terms I am using? Does my reader inherently care about place or do I need to convince her that place is a worthy and indeed a key element of narrative?

It doesn’t help that I am consciously trying to bring a LOT of threads together in my dissertation project. Not only do I want to incorporate cognitive, rhetorical, linguistic, and narratological approaches, I also want to talk about both place-as-character AND setting in general. I also want to bring in discussions of description and mimesis (**mimesis means imitation, translated literally from the greek; it refers to literature, in this case, that mimics the real world in some way). I thought it would help to just break off small pieces and work on those. Write about description. Write about mimesis. Write about place-as-character. But that’s not working. I feel like I don’t know where I’m heading so I don’t know what to include and what not to. I know I am making this more difficult than it needs to be. But I don’t know how to simplify.

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One Response to “Why I Quit Writing My Dissertation And Became A Model On The Home Shopping Network, Or, Writing Anxiety Rears Its Ugly Head”

  1. 1 eric

    Very sorry to hear about your situation, but glad, too, because i suddenly find the problem does not belong to me alone.
    The way out, i guess, is just to write whatever you can. In the process of writing, your ideas will become clearer. If you get stuck there, you can never find the way out.


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