Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Turning to Some Self-Help

There comes a time in every thesis when you simply must turn to some self-help books.

I had resisted for ages - not (solely) out of snobbery, but because they appeared to be time-wasters, excuses for not getting on with the job (said with gruff Aussie accent).

I have relented, first with Authoring a PhD by Patrick Dunleavy, and now with Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker, and, a little off topic, Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity by Hugh MacLeod.

The first book is highly technical and written in a slightly smug, 'You silly little novice' style. But it's a solid attempt at boiling down each of the components of thesis writing. If you're up for having your structure divided into proportions and number of words, this is for you. The second is more emotionally trustworthy - don't let the business speak title throw you! It follows the 'I will first come right down into your steaming mess of a mindset and only then will I help drag you out' approach, one which allows you to feel relaxed about accepting the advice (which is, essentially, how to become addicted to writing and to recognise psychological traps that stop you from finishing). The last is a bunch of swiftly dealt creativity tips from a cartoonist-blogger.

Here are some of the many tips from them (two each) that have stuck with me:

  1. See the literature review as context not conflict - new writers often feel they need to prove that other researchers got it wrong.

  2. Manage the readers' expectations with regular chapter and paragraph length and by watching the conceptual weighting throughout a chapter and then the whole thesis. Well-organized writers signal to readers what a chapter and a thesis will do. They make promises and keep them. You need to give equal weight to each issue if you say you will give equal weight.

  3. When you're stagnating, try writing about what might be troubling you: Are you worried your supervisor might not like it? Are you uncertain if you believe what you've argued? Or is there something in the material itself that disturbs you?

  4. Try to summarize each of your paragraphs in a single sentence - find out whether your paragraph has a central idea or too many ideas. This then serves as a chapter outline.

  5. Don't worry about finding inspiration. It comes eventually. Inspiration precedes the desire to create, not the other way around.

  6. The best way to get approval is not to need it.
Feel free to share any writing or motivational tips that have made things easier for you. Good luck (to me if no one else)!

Friday, 14 August 2009

Some Funny for the Weekend

I saw Bill Bailey, one of my favourite comedians, in Oxford last night. I was starstruck for most of his show - I am so used to seeing him on British TV (or iplayer, to be precise) that it took a fair old while for my wee brain to adjust. He describes himself as part-troll, 1985 Meatloaf lookalike finalist, and juggling multiple personalities: shamer, child, philosopher, rocker, and conspiracy theorist. He's unreal.

One of his gags that just about killed me dealt with his extreme embarrassment about the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. He envisions the following:

An inflated Churchill (with peace sign and cigar) on the Thames accompanied by the song, Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler? and a crew of London hip hop dancers.

Then a huge Yorkshire pudding will appear. The top will unfold and out will jump a bunch of dancers representing gravy and mushy peas.

Then we will see a giant, mechanical bulldog with Tesco [Supermarket] Proud Olympic Sponsor shaved into its scrotum.

The dog will open its mouth and the Queen will roll down its tongue on a Stannah stairlift.

A laser will beam from her crown to light the torch.

Then her head will flip back like a Pez and a corgy will shoot out with Union Jacks coming out its arse.

Comic gold. Hope you have a happy weekend.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Things Brought into My Life....

...which I want to pass on to you.

I have been receiving some incredibly considerate emails lately. Most are simply words of encouragement or quick reality checks, some set forth life lessons, while others are solid attacks on the enemy, as if it were shared. All to get me through the next little bit. I think you need all of these at various points along the way, occasionally all in one day.

I have also been given some lovely things from people who get to see me in real life (the lucky few!). I wanted to pass these on, not least because I have noticed a hefty measure of burnout in blogland at the moment - in both hemispheres. Hoping they will help a little.
This exact mug and Happiness tea were given to me by a friend, Emily. Pretend to warm your hands on it and take a sip. It's a very large mug:

The boyfriend set me up with the best, chunky (organic) vegetable soup to watch a handful of TED talks. (If you're not all over these by now, sort it out!). Here is one we watched given by (pop) philosophy essayist Alain de Botton, on a kinder, gentler philosophy of success. Some twitchy eye moments particularly when he makes his conclusions, but certainly some helpful tools to manage the Sunday (status anxiety) blues. (The comments are also worth a browse).

We also watched some oldies. Probably the most thought-provoking of this oldies lot (and certainly the most kooky) was Amy Tan's talk, Creativity:

And, finally, The Journey, a poem by Mary Oliver (not easy to find without a photograph of a sunset or waterfall), sent to me by a friend whose pretty name is so distinctive that I can't name her here:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Thanks to my supporters and as the Brits say: Chin up, tigers!

The Quick Brown Fox...

Last night, I was so angry at my thesis that I wanted to snap my DVDs from my pretty excellent collection. I didn't, but, somewhat disturbingly, it crossed my mind as a helpful option. They were the first things I spotted that were (a) fairly precious to me and (b) capable of being hurled about the room. The urge reminded me of a friend who told me that, as a child, he smashed his trophies in a tantrum and then realised for the first time that he was the one who would have to glue them back together. It's brutal. My (informal) mentor said that empirical data outfox us all from time to time. Mine are reclining in a spa bath on a three-storey appartment overlooking the ocean, sucking fat cigars, barely looking down at me on the street below.

I feel far less aggravated this morning, and less alone in it after receiving an email from a good friend and fellow PhD sucker that included this by chance:

I feel quite strong these days but I'm just a bit fed up, tired and yet still terrified of not getting it finished in time. An interesting mixture of exhaustion and panic-stricken hysteria amidst a more general attitude of stoic pragmatism. It's an interesting emotional storm!

How well-expressed! But, like her, I feel bad about whingey rants so I will stop here. I am off to start a brawl with the fox.

(I intentionally included a picture of paper fox to remind myself who's boss.)