Flourish March 2005
vol. 1, no. 2
I’ve been thinking about guilt this month. It seems that whenever I open my email inbox I find at least one email that starts, “I’m so sorry that I haven’t…” or “I feel terrible that I still haven’t …” or “Please forgive me for not …” Feeling guilty about everything we have not done is the main mode of academic life. Which always makes me wonder. How useful is it? Does it really help us get more done?
What are you currently feeling guilty about not doing? Perhaps you are reading another book when you feel you should be writing. Perhaps you received a revise and resubmit notice from a journal months ago and haven’t started the revision. Perhaps you watched television last night instead of writing as you had planned.
I’d be interested in hearing from readers about how they cope with feelings of guilt about writing. My thinking today is that perhaps the solution is to just accept: yep, I didn’t do the writing I wanted to do. Just accept, gulp, that you failed. When it comes to writing it is impossible not to fail. Every day we fail to write as much or as well as we want or hope. Every hour.
But, maybe if you accept that failure as the unremarkable sign of your human limitations, you may find yourself feeling a bit better. And then, maybe you will find that you get more done. When it comes to writing, more people are paralyzed by guilt than by laziness.
Stories from the Writing Life
Getting started on a new writing project can be excruciating. This is a story that Robert L. Peters tells about how not to embark on a book.
“My friend Mary started out looking for a topic [for her dissertation] the wrong way. Her primary technique was to worry a lot, mulling over one poorly researched possibility after another. This is a technique that I also used unsuccessfully for more than a year [when I was a graduate student]. Roy Martin has called this common search method ‘dreaming in a vacuum.’ He points out that those who search for topics by backpacking through the mountains or sitting on park benches in quiet contemplation of their topics are likely to learn a lot about mountains and parks but little else. Superficial thinking about a variety of possible topics won’t get you anywhere.
“Mary began to believe that her only hope was a sudden burst of magical insight. Her student friends couldn’t help much; either they were also waiting for a topic to mystically appear or they belonged to that discouraging minority who seem to know exactly what they want to do from the moment they arrive at graduate school. Finally, she realized the secret of finding a topic: ideas are generated by intellectual cross-fertilization and the process of problem solving. To find a topic you must dive into research, write about the subjects as much as you can.” It is only through the active intellectual exploration of reading, talking, and writing that large projects get underway.
From Robert L. Peters, Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D. Rev. ed. (New York: Noonday Press, 1997), 175-76. He cites Roy Martin, Writing and Defending a Thesis or Dissertation in Psychology and Education (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1980).
Got a good story? Send it and I’ll post it.
The academic humor magazine, Annals of Improbable Research, published an astronomer’s ranking of the academic disciplines that suggests how scholars in one discipline may “covet” another. “Politicians think they are Economists. Economists think they are Social Scientists. Social Scientists think they are Psychologists. Psychologists think they are Biologists. Biologists think they are Organic Chemists. Organic Chemists think they are Physical Chemists. Physical Chemists think they are Physicists. Physicists think they are Mathematicians. Mathematicians think they are God. God …. ummm … it so happens that God is an Astronomer.”
Cited in Garber, Marjorie. 2001. “Coveting Your Neighbor’s Discipline.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 12): B7-9.
Got a good story? Send it and I’ll post it.
News from the Editor
If you are a UCLA graduate student who has not advanced to candidacy and wants to take my writing course, now is the time to apply for the UCLA Graduate Summer Research Mentorship Program, deadline April 4. Over a third of those who apply to this program get summer money and the chance to take various workshops, including my “Writing and Publishing the Academic Article.” Receiving this award is the only way you can take my workshop at UCLA. If you get the award, be sure that you respond the second you get my email about enrolling. The class almost always fills up within several hours of my sending the announcement, since the class is extremely popular and I can only enroll forty students. To learn more about the class, see the Ten-Week Course page at my website. To learn more about the award program, see the GSRMP website.
If you are not a UCLA graduate student, you can read about my independent writing workshops.