Today, we’re returning to the Writer’s Lab. Tamara Girardi shares with us how she managed to finish her dissertation, with a baby in her arms. Tamara holds a PhD in English from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation, It Can Be Acquired and Learned: Building a Writer-Centered Pedagogical Approach to Creative Writing focuses on the field of creative writing studies. She studied creative writing at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and writes young adult fiction. She’s a member of the English faculty for Virtual Learning at Harrisburg Area Community College and primarily works from home with her colleagues: a computer-programming husband, a three-year old son, and an 18-month old daughter. Follow her on Twitter @TamaraGirardi.
The thought of writing a dissertation spikes my heart rate, which is saying something since I’ve already written, defended, and earned a degree for one. The task – choosing a focus, developing the idea, reading the literature that never ends, formulating quality research questions, theorizing appropriate methods for addressing the questions, executing the study, and finally determining what is worth saying about the results – is, needless to say, daunting.
Additionally, when I was finishing my doctoral coursework in the Composition and TESOL Program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, my husband and I decided we should start a family. After all, my coursework would be well behind me by the time the baby was born. Nine months was a long time to prepare. And that was true, but then there was the dissertation. Our son was born in September. In November, I began reading for my literature review. With my infant in his bouncy chair, I piled books all around us and read, earmarked, annotated them. To ensure he was stimulated, I often read aloud. He often fell asleep. I don’t blame him. I would have fallen asleep too if I could have.
Around this time, I shared a progress update with my dissertation advisor. Although I didn’t reveal my apprehensions directly, he must have noticed certain cues. Or perhaps he has advised enough students to anticipate apprehension as a general rule. His advice was not ground-breaking, but it was perfect. He said, “Just sit down and do a bit every day, and one day, it will be done.” Of course, I thought! Theoretically, and theory was part of my every thought, one day it would have to end. I needn’t think of that last day or every day. Just one day. Today.
The advice is similar to Anne Lamott’s ever popular text on writing, Bird by Bird. She tells the story of her brother who procrastinated a research essay on birds one year. She recalls her father sitting down with him at the kitchen table the night before the essay was due telling him, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
As is often the case with simple advice, the recommendation is certainly wise. Investing time every day in the dissertation kept my mind focused on the topic and the unique challenges that developed throughout my study. Even when I wasn’t reading or writing, I was simmering the ideas from my last reading or writing session. Daily connections propelled my work forward. Sometimes, I read or wrote for only an hour a day, but over time, I came to believe that an hour per day was more effective for my thought processes than seven hours every Saturday or Sunday. I notice a similar experience with my fiction writing. If I write for even 15 minutes daily I’m able to follow my own story and innovate with unique setting, character, and plot details. If I write weekly or monthly, I spend much of my time reading my previous work to remind myself of my decisions from the last writing session.
Although I’m advocating for daily connections to doctoral candidates’ dissertations, I realize schedules vary. That said, I believe in this approach. If you can read one chapter or one article, if you can write a few pages or brainstorm ideas, you are connected to your work. Writing process theorist and Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Donald Murray believed that rehearsal, or the time writers spend thinking about writing, is a valuable part of the writing process. In a way, that’s what the daily connection to writing suggests. Being connected to your focus, idea, literature review, research questions, research methods, and study results could spark new ideas as your mind “rehearses.” In addition to the fact that if you invest a little time each day, one day, the dissertation will be done, daily progress could enrich your research project in ways you never imagined.
So when your heart rate spikes and the task seems daunting, disempower the overwhelming pile of books and the blank word processing page and follow some good advice: do a bit every day, and one day, it will be done.