Does it ever happen to you that you spend months, sometimes years, listening to people giving you the same weary piece of painfully simple advice that seems so ridiculously underthought or simplistic that it can’t possibly work, for example, if you want to have a good marriage “you need to communicate.”
People say that like it’s the easiest thing in the world and yet, it seems, very few of us can do it. It’s not that it’s not true, almost every relationship whether it be with a martial partner or not could be greatly improved with communication. And it’s not even that communicating is really that hard, most of us manage it to some extent throughout our lives. The real issue is that when you say “just” communicate, what you really mean is, “overcome all your family of origin issues, achieve a substantial level of personal maturity, develop resilience and learn to be silent when the cupboard door is left open for the nth time.” It’s just not that simple.
I think the PhD equivalent of this is “just write your thesis.” It seems like everyone is saying this, from the PhD bloggers I trusted to have my back with these kinds of things, to my supervisor, whose response to a question of how do I start was something along the lines of, you just start.
Of course, having all kinds of perfectionist limitations and insecurities, it’s not so simple. What if the words don’t come out……..better than anything that has been thought by humankind since time immemorial? What if I don’t have evidence for these claims? (insert a million other potential, terrifying, what-if scenarios).
It’ll probably be fine. At the end of the day, I have enough experience in the writing process to know that its rare indeed that a whole unaltered paragraph – even sentence – will ever survive each stage of the cutting and editing process.
So I started writing. And all those PhD bloggers were right. Making a daily writing goal, five days a week has been incredible. Even apart from the fact that I have now got some text in front of me that I can work with, evaluate and even – shock – send to my supervisor, the feeling of productivity has really altered my mood throughout the whole week. I feel a lot more confident and that gives me a lot more impetus to actually work harder on other projects and aspects of the thesis.
In order to start writing I had to let go of a lot of my perfectionism and accept that this work I am doing now might not be perfect and it might not be my best work. But it is certainly a lot closer to my best work than a blinking cursor on a blank page.
I think there is a real lesson in this. If you are a PhD student and you haven’t started writing, maybe try it for a while. Our Rabbi is constantly giving the advice “experiment and experience.” Even if it’s just once or twice that you set the clock and give yourself time to do nothing but write and give yourself permission to be perfectly imperfect, at least in my experience so far it is really liberating, and once the perfectionism is chased away, it really is as simple as it sounds. Just write.