First You Clean It Up, Then You Make a Mess

For years now, I’ve had a yellow sticky post-it above my desk in the Cage with a great piece of advice from one of the umpteen books I’ve consulted on how to write, how to write well, how to write analytically, how to write a dissertation, how to finish a dissertation, how to survive a dissertation, how to live a real life while doing a dissertation, how not to kill yourself while writing a dissertation, etc…. I’m sure they’re all the same books that you all have read. Anyway, this sticky note tells me loud and clear:

“First you make a mess, then you clean it up.”

I honestly can’t remember which brilliant advice book it came from, but I put it up there to remind me not to worry about perfection the first time around when writing — to just put shit down on the page and move on. I can always fix it, clean it up later, revise, amend, repair.

As a fierce perfectionist, this is almost always advice I need to remember. I should probably have it tattooed somewhere obscene just so it becomes a permanent component of my personhood. I have a VERY hard time doing this. Almost the minute I write something down, I go back and look at it, chop it up, move it around, rearrange it, change it. At times it works well — it means that when I have a draft, I generally have a pretty good draft. Other times, however, this mode of production gets me into big trouble. I’ll end a day having produced nothing more than a sentence or two, at best.

For the past two weeks, though, I’ve been following a slightly different pattern. Still struggling with transitioning from the narrative section of my introduction to my analytical section of my introduction, it seems like every day I have at it anew, write myself into a complicated little knot, manage to get myself out of it, and then break for lunch. After lunch, I come back, read what I wrote before lunch, and then completely bugger the whole thing up again by rethinking the solution that I had just found.

Essentially, I’ve been inverting my handy little post-it’s advice — I’ve been cleaning up, and then messing it all back up again. Needless to say, this means that I have been ending each day frustrated, angry, unhappy, and discouraged. Not a great space to be in.

So yesterday, I tried something new. I woke up, I read some stuff, I had lunch with a friend, then I went to the local mall to sit at the chain bookstore’s coffee shop to write. (While I was there, the power went out at in the whole mall during a thunderstorm — very exciting. And shockingly, while there was minimal power routed to lighting, the cash registers still functioned normally. Imagine that.) Anyway, once the lights went back on, I started to grapple with one of the problems I had gotten myself into yesterday. I found my way out if it, closed my computer and walked away.

For the rest of the night, I worked on other things. It was great. I stopped myself before I could mess up the solution I had just found to a tricky problem. It may not be the perfect solution, nor even the best, clearest, or final one. But, it left me today starting in a much better space emotionally. I feel like SuperDissertator — Hey, I Solved a Problem! Rather than SuperScrewUp, where I’ve been living most of the time these days.

So that’s my new goal for each day — not to make a mess out of the cleaning up I have just done. I think it’s a pretty solid goal. I’ll still try to hold on to the notion that my writing can be messy, that it doesn’t have to be perfect. But, more important at this stage is, I think, to not self-sabotage in the interests of perfectionism.

_______________________

Pact Update:

DBG (Dissertating Bug Guy) and I have been really good at checking in AM and PM to make sure that 1. We’re working, and 2. that we’ve accomplished something. It has been a good motivator to have SOMETHING done, because of the shame factor. Don’t want to shame oneself in front of one’s friends! It’s also nice not to feel so alone in this miserable dissertation wasteland of doom. (just a little ray of sunshine, aren’t I?) Anyway, so far, I’d really recommend it.

Advertisements

6 responses to “First You Clean It Up, Then You Make a Mess

  1. New Kid on the Hallway

    Oh, this makes so much sense. It’s so interesting to see the different ways that people work – personally, I’ve always been able to shovel shit on the page and then work with it, because that’s just the way my mind works, but the perfectionists who get it all right before they put it on the page (or when they put it on the page) still seem like “better” writers to me.

    Anyway, glad that you found a solution, and glad that the pact has been working so well! Wish I knew someone in the same position I’m in with whom I could make such a pact…

  2. Good for you! I know it is difficult at times to write something and leave it be.

    Wonderful that the accountability exercise is working for you.

  3. ‘Superdissertator’ is an empowering label, that’s for sure. 🙂

    I feel paralysed by messiness and would rather not write sometimes. Self-defeating, I know, so I’m glad I read your post today.

  4. Wow! Great progess!

  5. Go SuperDissertator Go!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s