Ambition

So I am doing quite poorly at this getting back into a regular pattern of work thing. I’ve been trying to push myself, but realizing more and more that my old strategies for getting things done just don’t work. And the longer it takes, the more frustrated I get. I feel like if I just had tasks to get done I could do them. Easily. Not only could I do them, but they really might help the days to go by faster, and when it comes to the end of the day, I might actually feel I’ve accomplished something. If writing a dissertation were anything like the other forms of “school” I completed (even grad school before reaching candidacy or even the research phase where I had to abide by the archives’ operating hours) and I had exams or reading assignments or papers to write, I could do it. External deadlines, external pressure, that would help. I tried thinking about my chapters as individual papers and I tried setting my own deadlines. But the only real due date I have is next summer, as in 14 months or so from now. That’s a hell of a big due date since I have to turn in a book-length manuscript but somehow it seems so remote.

These complaints might sound like normal ones for a dissertator, but the thing is, I know that if Natan had lived, I might be struggling, but at least I’d be doing so happily. I thrive when I’m too busy. If I’m otherwise content, I thrive on little sleep. I was incredibly productive in the fall, completing a chapter, planning for the next one, reading through all my notes, making plans, constructing arguments. I sat down one afternoon in late December, with my computer on, my notes around me, my file boxes open, ready to write. I worked for a couple of hours, sitting in my chair, when suddenly our cat, Tom, got stuck in the blinds and broke them. I shot off an annoyed email to Josh in complaint, and stood up to check the damage. That’s when I felt a gush, and when I checked it was blood. And since then, I haven’t been able to get back to that moment before – to that morning when I felt really good about what I was doing, the progress I was making. Honestly, I can’t even remember anything I accomplished in the weeks before I went into labor, or any of the preparations I made for this chapter. It’s the most important chapter of my dissertation, the one with the most innovative and new material, so I knew it was going to be a dog to organize. I realized yesterday that I had started a system of highlighting important things in my notes and then logging that information onto a spreadsheet. I’d done the same thing for historical newspaper articles. I had a solid plan. I’m not disorganized, or at least I wasn’t disorganized, so you’d think I should be able to pick up where I left off. But I didn’t even remember that I had been doing it, so I didn’t know to look for it.

I might be making excuses. I can’t just pick up where I left off, because I’m not really sure where I was. And I’m acutely aware of having lost five months, so it kills me to have to go backwards. The problem isn’t just files, the problem is I lost the momentum, I lost the creative process that was pushing me forward.

I’m not sure any of this post is making sense. Grieving is so hard, for more reasons than the sadness. I can’t depend on any of my feelings, any of my thoughts, any of my reactions to even normal daily events to be what they were before. I can’t count on any of my tactics of self-motivation to work, on any efforts at self-control that would have worked before to be effective. Not only is working harder, but everything is harder.

I’m trying not to be hard on myself, but the thing is all I want right now is to feel like I’m accomplishing something on a daily basis, but I can’t seem to figure out how to make that happen. And it annoys the hell out of me when people ask how my work is going because even as I think about it constantly, right now it’s the last thing I want to talk about. And it only adds to the pressure I feel, but unlike before, the pressure doesn’t help.

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8 responses to “Ambition

  1. I don’t have mcuh in the way of useful thoughts on how you might motivate yourself, because I’m acutely aware that, without the external and fairly rigid deadlines I face every day (or at least every week), I’d be unlikely to accomplish much myself.

    But I am sympathetic. I look back at things I wrote when I had just come back to work and it’s as though someone else had written them. I just don’t remember anything about them.

    One idea that might or might not be useful — is your relationship with your advisor good enough that you could enlist him/her to help you set up deadlines to hand in chapters or smaller subsections? (you might have discussed this before, but if so, I’ve completely supressed it).

  2. Can I first give a selfish cry of, “Yay, you’re back!!” I have missed reading your posts this past week. 🙂

    However, I can feel your frustration in these words. I can’t pretend to relate to your specific situation, but I have certainly been faced with things while in the midst of grief that just felt so, so daunting. When I am deeply grieving I have learned I become a complete slug. The simplest tasks feel monumental.

    It’s been interesting to watch my mother these past two years as she seems to have been propelled by her grief into the Energizer Bunny. She is constantly on the go, accomplishing things, and creating new projects. On the one hand her energy is admirable. But on the other hand, I have also recognized many times she clearly needed to slow down and yet was unable to.

    I guess that is what is really challenging in the midst of grief. Finding any sort of balance or center. So many of us seem to fall to one extreme or the other, and extremes are rarely good for any of us.

    I wish I could help.

  3. Having been there, I can say that it is normal for a dissertator, and also that when you are confronted with a diss everything else in your life gets magnified.

    I wasn’t grieving during my final struggle with my diss (now abandoned), but I was in crisis about my future and it was not fun. I can only imagine that combining grief, diss, and subsequent pregnancy would be an even more potent recipe for morass.

    I wish I had more than sympathy to offer. I do know that all of my friends who felt positive about their diss experiences had either a diss group that met in person regularly, or a routine that involved removing themselves from home to a writing space every day, or both. (I use “positive” here to mean that they felt productively engaged, rather than that they enjoyed the process.)

  4. Dissertations I cannot speak to, but grief…yeah it is a bit of a fog, isn’t it?

    So hard to get through, to get back to where you started.

  5. LeRoy Dissing

    Sara…considering where you are personally at the moment (and I only know a bit), I am not surprised that you have taken a hiadis from your dissertation. At some point, I think you will take into another gear. For me it is when I am pushed by deadlines. It amazes me how creative one can be when under tremendous pressure!! I have done some of my best when up against the wall and my guess is, you can/will too.

    Your post makes sense. This seems to be very much a period of transition for you and one I hope goes well. Give yourself the time you need. Its probably the best thing you can do right now for YOU :))

  6. Thanks all – I don’t want to respond with specific details about my relationship with my advisers now that I realize how many lurkers there are out there from my university, but I’ll think about taking some of these suggestions.

    I’ve heard that other people turn in chapters in smaller chunks and less of a finished fashion than I’m used to, but before this point my advisers had asked that I keep to my pattern of more complete work. Maybe now that I really need help they won’t resent being given something less than polished.

    Lori, thanks so much for your sweet words. The visits were fun, but exhausting. I don’t know if I wish I were a grieving Energizer bunny or not – it might help for the moment but I’d worry about what would happen when the battery ran out. At least right now people somewhat understand why I’m a slug.

    LeRoy, you’re obviously right that I should take the time that I need, but I do wish that time wasn’t taken to read internet crap or lament the lack of anything interesting on TV!

    S., thanks. I’ve been thinking about groups and such, but I feel so undependable & lethargic – I wish someone else would organize one I could just join! (Lurkers, do you hear me?)

  7. Considering what you’ve been through, I think the fact that you are trying to get back into the swing of things is a major accomplishment. There are so many ABD people out there who abandon their dissertations completely for a lot less.

    It is really too bad our society thinks that we can just recover right away and go on as if nothing happened when we major traumatic events in our lives like the death of a child. I don’t have any personal experience with loosing a child, but my parents and grandmothers have told me it is a pain you never really get over. This American society today does not have ant understanding of that lingering pain. In talking to my family members, there seemed to be more of a community effort in the past to help the parents cope (not get over) the loss of their child than there is now.

    I am not sure if this will help with your writing, but what helped me write a Master’s thesis was to set firm deadlines for myself for the completion of each chapter. I put in my head that these deadlines were the same as the ones that were set by the department and the university. I also had a lot of support from the people around me to get my chapters done by the deadlines I set. They got on my case to keep the deadlines. More than myself, my support system (parents, brother, friends, therapist) was what got me through the writing. Maybe you can ask your friends and family to work with you on setting reasonable deadlines and then get on your case to keep them. There is a dissertation group through the counseling center at the University that may also help.

    It was especially important in my case to set deadlines for myself because my advisor at the time had no sense of deadlines. (He actually took so long to read my thesis that I ran out of funding time in that program.) Even though I did not get a chance to defend that thesis, I learned a lot about how to keep myself working and was glad that I did have a complete draft in the end. I don’t think what kept me going was so much motivation as momentum. Most of the time I “just” needed someone to tell me to start working and the work flowed as best it could.

    Good luck!

  8. I have no good advice since i totally failed at this myself (i was just lucky i had already finished & had a job set up when Nicolas died!). So i will just say good luck, and let us know how you figure it out (because i certainly believe you will…)

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