Motivation and Encouragement for Dissertation Writers Across Disciplines

Guest Post: Writing Rituals

In Uncategorized on June 26, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Authored by: Eventual PhD

In the movie, Shakespeare in Love (Miramax Films, 1998), Joseph Fiennes plays William Shakespeare.  Will has enjoyed some success in his career as a poet and playwright, but when we meet him in the movie he happens to be suffering from a case of writer’s block.  That changes when he meets his muse, the lovely Viola de Lesseps, portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow.  If you have seen the movie, you may remember that when Shakespeare goes home to write, he does four things in succession.  First, he picks up his pen.  Second, he turns around once to the right.  Third, he rolls his pen between his hands quickly several times.   Finally, he spits once over his right shoulder.  Then, and only then, does he sit down and begin.

He performs these steps whether he is out of ideas and forcing himself to work, or so inspired to write that he runs home and bursts through the door.  Even when he can’t wait to get the words onto the page, he stops at his desk and speeds through the movements: pen-turn-roll-spit-WRITE!

Other writers have written about how they prepare themselves to work. Steven Pressfield details his preparatory routine in the first chapter of The War of Art.  It involves a lot of “lucky” stuff: a lucky pair of boots with lucky laces, a lucky hooded sweatshirt, a lucky cannon on his desk and a lucky acorn on his shelf.

At The Simple Dollar, blogger Trent Hamm describes his way of “getting into the zone” (this post was featured in a TD:D blog carnival last winter).  He spends up to an hour doing what does not seem like work: shutting off the internet, turning off the phone, stretching, meditating, making a to-do list.  However, he claims that this sets him up for an efficient work session that would take hours longer without this preparation.

When I was writing my candidacy exam, I had a ritual that worked very well for me. I would sit down at the computer with my stack of journal articles, turn off my e-mail, and play Spider Solitaire or Minesweeper for 20-40 minutes.  Seriously.  I could not sit down and get right to work.  I had to shift mental gears first, and the games did the trick.  Both games were installed on my PC – not by me – but they were there and easy enough to play a couple times.  Playing helped me clear my head of whatever I had been thinking about before I had to immerse myself in research.  An odd thing about this is that I have never been a video or computer game fan.   And I have not played those games since passing my exam.

I am glad that I advanced to candidacy before I read about other preparatory rituals.   I would have felt guilty – how could I be playing minesweeper when cool authors like Pressfield are reciting invocations to muses amongst all their lucky belongings?  I would have talked myself into doing something that worked for someone else.  And it probably would not have worked for me.  So, as I write my dissertation, I may return to minesweeper, a game that I have only limited patience for (so I know I won’t play it for very long).   Or maybe I’ll sing a Gregorian chant or do aerobics for ten minutes.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  It just matters that it works.

How do you get ready to work on your dissertation?  Please tell us in the comments – I would love to hear what works for others!


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