The blank page, the biggest obstacle to my success.
I’ve been thinking about this post for 4 years. I’ve reworked what I want to say countless times on my walk to and from the lab and considered ways to tie it all together while laying in bed staring at the ceiling, but, until last week, I didn’t know how, or even when, it would begin.
I’ve put off writing about blank pages and my writing struggles because it so often begins with me staring at, and subsequently backing away from, a blank page. Did I mention I have a problem writing when faced with a blank page?
By late 2010 I had a full molecular DNA dataset prepared and analysed for my Master’s that showed some interesting relationships among the flies I study, and I proceeded to write up the results for my thesis. I moved on to the other major chapter of my thesis, and then defended my work. The whole thing was well received by my committee, and I was granted my degree in 2011 with the expectation that I’d make a few relatively minor changes and then submit the chapters for formal peer-review.
Well, after the final few months of pushing to get my thesis ready to defend, I needed to decompress and had no desire to look at my work for awhile. I figured after a few weeks of doing something — anything — else, I’d be ready to come back and reanalyse the data, rewrite the paper and submit my work to an appropriate journal, and then never have to look at it again. Instead, I got busy working on other projects, writing a book, teaching, and then eventually starting my PhD, all the while having this paper hanging over my head, like a rusty guillotine just waiting to fall.
It wasn’t long until every word I wrote for the blog, for grant applications, or even emails elicited an increasingly larger pang of guilt that those words should be going towards that paper, to the point that nearly every aspect of my life was tainted by anxiety over it.
For nearly 4 years I let it slide while busying myself with other projects and tasks, telling myself that next week will be the week that I look at it again, until this fall when (with a not-so-subtle nudge from my PhD committee) I forced myself to get it done, or perhaps die trying. After all new analyses, totally redrawn figures, and about a dozen written drafts spanning several months, I finally submitted the paper two weeks ago. The feeling of relief when I finally pressed that submit button came immediately, and I finally realized that I hadn’t been devoting my full attention to any of my other projects or responsibilities.
So why bring all this up now when the paper hasn’t even gone out for review, and will undoubtedly require more work post-review before I can finally be done with it? Because I need to get over my hesitancy to put my thoughts on paper (or whatever this digital equivalent of paper should be called), and I suspect I’m not the only one who faces these obstacles.
My qualifying exams are coming up, which means several weeks of intense studying followed by days of writing compelling papers in a set amount of time, on demand. I’ve always approached this blog as a tool for self-improvement, so I plan to continue using it to force myself to write more frequently, to get past my fear of that blank page.
And for anyone out there currently in the midst of graduate work or projects that require writing, don’t let that blank page stand in your way: all it takes is one word scribbled down to defeat it.
September 1, 2012. Can anyone explain to me where the summer has gone? It feels like just yesterday that the snow was melting and I had grand plans of exploration, doable to-do lists to do, and plenty of time to enjoy the summer, but now BugShot is finished, a new crop of undergrads are moving into the University of Guelph residences, and the fall entomology conference circuit is quickly upon us!
Good thing I can bank on the Bug-o-sphere to keep the summer flowing throughout the year.
Exciting news since the last Weekly Flypaper: Piotr Naskrecki, orthopteroid taxonomist, photographer, and author (Relics and The Smaller Majority) has started a new blog — The Smaller Majority. So far Piotr has been killing this whole blogging business, with fascinating posts on tropical entomology and macrophotography tips. I’m pretty sure I bookmarked every post he made for future reference, but here are a few of my favourites:
Carl Zimmer was a plenary speaker at the annual meeting of the Society for the Presevation of Natural History Collections a few weeks ago, and they just posted his talk on YouTube. It’s long (more than an hour), but it’s an interesting talk and well delivered.