Tag Archives: procrastination and writing

Done Is Better Than Perfect: Push Past PhD Perfection Syndrome

5 Nov

DONE IS BETTER

What has The Hacker Way got to do with Higher Education? Why look to Facebook’s internal mantra “Done is better than perfect” and the company’s five core principles (Focus on impact, Move Fast, be Bold, be Open, Build Social Value) as a way to tackle your doctorate?

Because it might just get you past PhD Perfection Syndrome and those other common doctoral P’s – Procrastination and Painful obsession with your research and get you Passed – and Published.

I am a Recovering Perfectionist. I have the Facebook mantra “Done is Better Than Perfect” written on a sticky note on my screen monitor. It reminds me that real artists ship, and to beware of the Curse of Perfect.

Actually, I have to admit, this is a recent addition to my psychological arsenal against my Negative Self (writers all have the Negative Whisperer as the hideous beast twin who shares their lives, doctoral students have one as well. If you are doing a Creative Writing PhD – you need all the self esteem weaponry you can get).

In February 2012 when Facebook filed its Registration Statement in 2012 to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, I was deep in the heart of my doctorate. I was too preoccupied with my research to read Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s statement about the company’s purpose, which in hindsight actually has a lot to say about getting your research done, and believing in your work.

These two things are an issue for many doctoral students, who are at the mercy of supervisor’s dire warnings, their own insecurities, and their swot like perfectionism.

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According to Martin Lindstrom (FastCompany) “Done is better than perfect” is not about coming up with ideas; it’s about believing in them. And having an attitude that compels you to run with the idea before it’s too late.

Isn’t that what finishing the doctorate is all about? Running with your ideas rather than perfecting them? Because you have to continue with that work after you complete your doctorate.

Let’s look more closely at what The Hacker Way has to show doctoral – and postdoc – students. Zuckerberg’s statement about the company’s purpose reveals that hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done.

Which is what a doctorate can be as well – punch out the research and writing in four years, test the boundaries and leave room for continuous improvement after you have completed the task. Your work doesn’t stop once you have graduated. Your research – if it is any good – will continue, and you will continue to grow and develop as a researcher.

A doctorate is just like getting a probationary driving licence – you can drive, but you aren’t out of the woods yet. You are a newbie. I still have my academic P plates on. But that’s better than not having completed the doctorate!

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I had every reason and excuse to take longer than four years full time. I could easily have opted for part time study with two kids and a full time job demanding my time and attention. But remember this – your PhD is not a Nobel Prize body of work. It just has to be Fit For Purpose.

Mack Collier (founder of #blogchat) takes some tips from Zuckerberg’s “Done if Better Than Perfect” mantra in his terrific advice about blogging: “Blogging is like anything else, it’s a learning process.  The more you blog, the easier ideas come to you.  The more chances you have to see how people react to a particular topic you cover, or the tone you use.  As a result, your overall writing becomes better and the entire blogging process becomes easier for you. As a byproduct, your platform expands.  Not only is your blogging improving, but more people are being exposed to your ideas because they are being shared more often.”

Sounds like the process of writing up your doctorate – or completing a Creative Writing PhD. Write, write often and write without fear. Don’t worry about being perfect – Done is better than Perfect. Also – take your research ideas out for a play. Share them. Find friends for them. Go to conferences, submit to journals and learn to accept rejection.

The trouble is, this attitude isn’t what got you to higher level study in the first place. Chances are, like me, you work on getting things done and perfect. You are used to being good – being very, very good, in fact, and hate rejection. That’s all well and good, and perhaps sustainable in certain phases of your life – like when you are “time rich” as a fellow newbie post-doc and mother described a twenty-something.

Time rich is when you don’t have compelling family responsibilities pulling at your coat strings and compelling financial reasons (to support that family) pulling at your purse strings. Time rich is when you can afford to go hard and lean in and not worry about getting home to make the dinner.

I had that life for many years as an undergraduate, in my career and in my first incarnation as a postgraduate student. But I was a mother when I did my MA and my PhD and now I am working full time, juggling my research, fiction writing and blogging after hours, as well as raising two children as a single parent.

Unless I adhered to Done is Better Than Perfect, I would never write – or publish – anything.

Two things I am passionate about are being brave enough to take your research public when you are a student (and post doc) and sharing your research and ideas through publishing via blogs, and other forums (as well as ) academic journals.

This isn’t just something relevant to the Creative Writing PhD or other humanities based doctorates – the HackYourPhD is a community created in France in January 2013 by Célya Gruson-Daniel and Guillaume Dumas. It gathers various profiles (researchers, PhD students and students, entrepreneurs, designers…) around the issue of Open Science.
This movement aims to bring more collaboration, transparency, and openness in the current practices of research.

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Let’s visit Facebook’s five core principles and apply them to your doctorate:

Focus on impact – this is the Class 101 of Why Your Research Matters. What is the point of your work? Why does it matter? Who cares?

Move fast – your ideas won’t be unique forever. If someone else doesn’t jump on the research, they will go stale, so –

Be bold – get out there and publish, present at conferences, show your work. Publish. Don’t be afraid to raise your voice.

Be open – Share, share, share. (See HackYourPhD) It will come back to you bigger than ever. Scared, controlling researchers and writers will never get the same audience as more generous emerging academics

Build social value – well, why not – all research can advance human knowledge just a fraction, right? How can your research be taken into the world to improve things, and if not an answer to humanitarian needs, then what about enhancing the human spirit, or the human existence? Everyone needs entertainment, beauty and wonder in their lives. Even if your work doesn’t challenge, enlighten or provoke, can you see it making people’s lives, at least for some brief time, in some way more enjoyable?

Conference papers: the pleasure & pain of presenting your academic research

8 Jun

stand up blog

It’s that time of the year again – conference time. Sure, it’s exciting to be presenting new work at two overseas conferences, but that also means facing the lengthy plane flight to the other side of the world. And, oh, that other thing – actually writing the papers. 

Yes – presenting your academic research is a fine line between pleasure and pain. As Chrissy Amphlett from the Divinyls sang; “you got me once, you can do it again”. To my mind, the iconic 1985 song Pleasure and Pain is a soundtrack for how I feel right now. Certainly Amphlett’s signature air thumping rage and frustration in the middle of this video feel all too familiar. Who hasn’t experienced it when trying to prod a paper into shape?

I have realised that this annual experience of writing conference papers and getting up in front of your cohort to present is a sort of Groundhog Day for academics. No matter how many times you have done it, the thrill and the chill are the same. But though it feels like we are in the same place again – I have a appear to write! I have a plane to catch! I have to stand up in front of everyone and appear credible! – we are not reliving the same experience…because we are different each time.

Many universities are moving heavily in the direction of journal papers rather than conference presentations, which is certainly cheaper in so many ways, and ruthlessly time efficient. It also rules out that pesky human factor. You don’t get to make connections with people, you don’t get to hear about other people’s research, and you really don’t get to network.

Conferences, done well, are about being exposed to new ideas and getting valuable feedback for yours. They are about linking into a global academic community that no amount of emailing and skyping and journal submissions can do. But – they are also about pleasure and pain. They are about standing up in front of an audience in a way that quietly submitting to a journal is not.

It’s a thrill to be accepted into the conference. It’s a terrifying to stand in front of everyone and talk about new research. It’s exhausting and agonising and oh, so demanding on top of everything else to actually do the work in the first place.

Because writers are life’s great procrastinators. Journalists are worse. We can’t move except when there is a deadline. So, it should come as no surprise that despite carefully plotting my papers, diligently organsing all aspects of my solo trip to Europe for three weeks (including alternative arrangements for the care and feeding of my children and pets), I still find myself faced with the prospect of all nighters as I grimly write the words. Time for another coffee.

coffee hit blog

But first – before writing – some research (or is that procrastination?) Sometimes Australia seems very far away. Not just in terms of the cost and time to get to Europe for the conferences, but in strange ways such as deciding I needed – absolutely had to get – Francois Ozon’s movie Ricky on DVD, as research for a paper I am presenting next week on monstrous motherhood and human animal hybridity.

The synopsis to Ozon’s film “Is the baby who has wings an angel or a monster?” sent shivers of joy up my spine. Oh – come on – I HAD to watch this movie! A baby born with wings! A mother working with noxious chemicals in a factory….not folklore, but a strange merging of science and speculation.

Film still from Francois Ozon's movie 'Ricky' http://www.rickylefilm.com/

Film still from Francois Ozon’s movie ‘Ricky’
http://www.rickylefilm.com/

Problem – the only copy I could get sent to Melbourne at a reasonable cost (Sorry Ozon, but I am loathe to pay $85 for the DVD from Amazon!) came via an eBay seller – in Thailand. And so I watched Ozon’s wonderful French film dubbed in Thai with English subtitles. It’s like eating French food with microwave plastic melted into the top layer – every mouthful is unpalatable, but underneath it sort of tastes like it could be somewhat authentic.

I wouldn’t call it a peak cinema experience, but it is a terrific movie for my research, and I tried to avoid hearing the dubbed Thai by keeping the sound low and focusing on the narrative and visuals – film really is a silent medium, after all. Still, my desire to use the movie and the unfortunate way I had to go about watching it in Melbourne seemed to me a fit metaphor for the relentless pursuit of knowledge – we do it at whatever cost, no matter how unpleasant some parts may be, because we really believe in the final benefits. So – this is where I will be very shortly:

Motherhood and Culture International and Interdisciplinary Conference

15-17 June 2015 Iontas Building, Maynooth University, Co. Kildare, Ireland

Key Note Speakers: Professor Nancy Chodorow (University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance) Professor Andrea O’Reilly (York University, Toronto and Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI))

After the conference in Dublin, I am off to London to the 2015 Great Writing Conference, 18th Anniversary Conference, where I will present a paper on the issues most doctoral students face with the Creative Writing PhD – the exegesis and the creative project and the tension between the two. My way ‘out’ of the problem was to blog about my research, which is a little like what I am doing now – blogging about writing a paper for the conference, rather than writing it.

Now, some – many – would call that procrastination. But they are not writers. Writers of course count vacuuming instead of writing as part of the ‘process’. In fact, I am sure someone has written a PhD in Creative Writing looking at domestic activities and procrastination as apart of the creative process. And if not, I am sure someone will.

I have written many blogs on the similarities between parenting, pregnancy and childbirth and the creative process and the doctoral journey. It occurs to me that the pain of conference presentation is like childbirth – one forgets the reality of the pain until the first contractions are felt. And so it is with conferences.

Getting in the ‘conference way’ is fun – sending off abstracts in the dead of night on a whim – but there comes a time and it’s usually many, many months away (sometimes even 9 months away) when you have to deliver the goods. The discipline needed to produce the goods when you have so many other deadlines, let alone all the travel to arrange to even get to the conference, is akin to being handcuffed to your computer.

blog pleasure pain

Because unlike a baby, a conference paper doesn’t just gestate itself while you are doing other things. You have to sit down and do the work, the thinking work, and that’s the painful part. Yes, it will be great when you have finished the paper, and you are on the plane and at the conference.

In the meantime, you have to push that baby out. Write the paper. I have been presenting at conferences since I was in my first year of my Master of Arts. And let me tell you – it always hurts at this point. I am always regretting my decision to pitch an abstract. I always say I won’t do it again – I’ll take a holiday and sit by the pool and ready trashy novels like everyone else (instead of well, writing them…) or maybe I tell myself, I’ll just stay in Melbourne, sit in my study and submit to journals. I never learn.

Or, should I say – I always learn that I learn so much connecting with others in my field, and I always forge such great networks and learn from other people’s papers, that I am here again, at my desk, wanting to plunge that fork into my eye as I write the paper. But why? When I am excited by the research. I mean, how many people get to talk to others about flying babies, and be taken seriously? Who wouldn’t love my job? Yes, welcome to the world of writing.

Film still from Francois Ozon movie Ricky. http://www.rickylefilm.com/

Film still from Francois Ozon movie Ricky.
http://www.rickylefilm.com/

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than doing a conference paper is not doing one.

The Creative Writing PhD: Why Group Support Really Matters

7 Sep

red typewriter IMG_1049

Just as doctoral study is a mostly solitary activity, so too is writing. But that doesn’t mean you have to go solo. In fact, relying on the comfort of others is one of the things that stops you chucking the whole thing in, especially if you are doing a creative writing doctorate. Trust me on this.

An analogy I like to use is how doctoral study – and post doctoral life – is like motherhood. Desperately lonely in the early days. For someone used to the relentless pace of corporate life or the engagement and demands of academia, being on your own with a baby is a special kind of hell. The only way to survive is to reach out to others in the same boat. No new mother is an island.

Writing groups are like mother’s groups. Initially, it’s clinging to each other like no one else knows your pain. Then – once some confidence sets in, it’s the same bravado and bragging – whose manuscript is having good growth spurts, whose creative ideas are flowing like mother’s milk, whose manuscript got accepted into a prestigious literary agency, not just the local one around the corner.

And then, as you get to know your fellow writers, after a few workshops of thrashing out the manuscript, the truth starts to leak out like a sodden nappy.

Your characters won’t behave. Your narrative arc refuses to comply with your demands. You spent weeks – months – agreeing to the writing changes everyone suggested and then your new mentor, like a rigid maternal health care nurse, demands you start all over again because if you continue the way you are going, you’ll end up with a fat and bloated child, unfit for public consumption.

Just as it takes time to properly bond with women with whom you probably have nothing more in common with than cracked nipples and sleepless nights, so too does it take time to bond with the people in your writing group.

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I know – I am in two writing groups, simultaneously working on two different novels, and I met both groups of these fabulous writers through a writing masterclass. I started this about nine months before handing in my doctorate, when I realized I really, really needed some extra help with my novel.

I was so focused was on academic research that the creative part of my PhD was languishing. The familiar panic – I can’t do this!!! – flooded in. Writing is a mind game, a confidence trick, a will to commit to the page those ferocious ideas swirling around in your mind. You have to believe you can do it, and then you have to have the methodology to see you through. It’s no good running on instinct alone. Instinct will not get you through the tough times any more than it will get you through the hiccups in parenting.

New mothers – and seasoned mothers up against those developmental milestones – turn to experts, parenting books and blogs for advice on everything from lactation to their teenagers learning to drive (I put my hand up here as mother of a 16 year old); so why should writers be immune to structured advice?

Harder for some to accept is the need for extra help in the doctoral journey. But I am proud to say that my masterclass cohort – and the spin off writing group that meets monthly, and another that meets every six weeks – really saved my sanity and ensured I was able to complete my doctorate on time – and keep writing in the postdoc phase. Maybe your university has great writing groups for doctoral students. Maybe not. And even if they have writing groups, maybe they just don’t work too well.

Let’s face it, we don’t get along with everyone, which is why when we do click with someone – when that magic of shared connection is apparent – it’s worth celebrating. If you meet writers at an event, or masterclass or workshop and that magic happens, do everything in your power to hold onto that cohort.

 

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My tips for a good writing workshop are to choose people on a similar trajectory and level of expertise to you. It’s no good meeting up with people who are starting out on the journey if you are a mid career writer. You may not have published a book yet, but if you have been working professionally in the writing sphere for years and have had a play produced, a book of poems, short stories and the like, then you are not going to be on equal footing with someone who has ‘always wanted to write’ and is now only dipping their tentative toe in the water.

The two writing groups I am with feature professional writers with a work ethic to match my ferocious appetite. And we are all parents. With the upcoming school holidays, I knew I found a soul mate when comparing notes with another writer in my group. Are we going to sit on a beach in Bali? I think not. We are both teaching workshops AND plotting how much uninterrupted writing we can get done in two weeks.

It’s sweet indeed to have a group of people who are familiar with the trials of not just the effort and skill needed to write 80,000 words of a novel, but then rewrite, submit, get knocked back, search for an agent, look for a publisher, pitch, pitch and pitch again. Writing a book takes longer than people think. Years longer. It’s hard for those not in the game to appreciate the demanding nature of the business, the roller coaster ride of finding inspiration, crafting characters and dialogue, finessing plot devices and crafting structure – hell, even coming up with a catchy book title is a major effort that can demand group input.

 

In fact, a glistening jar of homemade blueberry jam slid across the table at my writing group today, as a reward to a writer who had come up with a catchy title for another’s manuscript. As it happens, the writer in need of a title travels two hours from country Victoria, where she lives on a blueberry farm – to come to Melbourne to participate in the writing group.

Yes, writing groups can be time consuming, and in order to earn your place at the table, you have to be prepared to commit to other people’s work, put in the time to read their submissions, and really make constructive comments on what they have done. There is no place for those who don’t pull their weight. We are all very busy professional writers, and we come together to really push our work forward.

But – there is also camaraderie, the exchange of ideas, and like in a mother’s group, there is time for laughter and tears, for celebration and sighs, in the ebb and flow of the highs and lows of the writing life.

We break bread as well, and bond. One group meets over sushi and wine, in the evening, once a month, in a writer’s apartment overlooking the city lights. The other meets every six weeks in The Wheeler Centre in the heart of the city of Melbourne, and we go out for lunch after our intensive two hour session.

Like everything, practice makes perfect, and building on our stories – both imaginary, and from our lives, is a process that takes time. But while we do veer into personal territory on occasions, what we mostly talk about as we take a break from analyzing our writing is – our writing lives. The trials of the writing life. We talk about the inspiration and desires for our novels. Just like a mother’s group, we speculate and fantasize about our literary prodigy’s futures. This is an important part of the process. Creative visualization – imagining a future – is essential to making that future happen. Be it with real children or your creative offspring.

Yes, writing is a solitary business, the writer and the page. But just because you work alone, doesn’t mean you have to travel alone. Having a team with you – and seeing what they are going through as well – gives you confidence. I’ve heard that envy kicks in as well – if one gets a book deal it spurs the others to push themselves out there, and try as well.

And just like a mother’s group, no matter how easy it might be for some to naturally birth a manuscript, life and the publishing industry has a way of levelling the playing field. Just as your low birth weight baby may be the high achieving kid at school, so too might the manuscript you have struggled with over the years turn into the star that wins a literary prize, or a commercial best seller. Or – it might just turn out to be the book that is published, while the writer who won a prize might find their manuscript languishes on a literary agent’s table.

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No matter where you are on the journey of the creative writing doctorate, I urge you to find or form a writing group. Whatever you seek, it won’t be found with your academic supervisor – that’s like relying on your midwife to stay with you from pregnancy until your child finishes high school.

Get peer support. Get a writing group. Then you can keep writing – and carry on.  

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