Guest post: Beyond treading water

As September approaches, I look back to the work I did this summer and wish I had made more progress on my thesis. Unfortunately, this past month, I found myself experiencing not so much writer’s block as writing resistance. My thesis proposal was comprehensive, and a good blueprint and a springboard for what I need to do. However, I still found myself reluctant to dive deeply into the greater task of writing each chapter. There was always something else that I needed to do instead, such as catching up on my long neglected leisure reading, or organizing my daughter’s move to an out-of-province University. I told myself life was too hectic to leave me much time for writing. But, the truth is these are excuses. Life was and will always be busy, and I wrote my MA thesis with more demanding things demanding my time and attention.

After finishing courses and candidacy exams, this summer shouldhave been the time to speed up my thesis work, but instead I found myself slowing down. Guilt was my companion these past two months, even as I got some work done, presented at a conference, and continued with academic reading. By my standards and expectations though, I didn’t produce enough writing. So, the issue became how to overcome this sudden resistance to writing, this desire to do anything else but sit in front of my laptop to write?

Because I am in academia – and let’s face it because it’s a great way to procrastinate even more – I decided to do some research on my writing inertia. I spent hours trolling the internet looking for other writers or grad students who had similar symptoms. Every time I found a kindred soul and read his or her story, I felt like an invisible participant in an online support group. I read about these writers’ struggles with the writing life where each one described the act of writing as a confrontation. For some it was like going into a cave to battle the dragon, like fighting a war, like running a marathon, etc. While there is no denying that writing is hard work, I also find it exhilarating, rewarding, and the main reason I am following this career path. I am passionate about writing, and that’s why I wallowed in guilt this summer when I lost some of that momentum and energy that had carried me through exams, courses, and teaching all these years.

Following the online research, I read writing manuals like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and decided to put some of her great suggestions in practice. She recommends facing writing by working on one paragraph at a time, one line at a time. Lamott basically advocates old-fashioned discipline and constancy. At this time in my career, her advice resonated with me in a very personal way helping me break out of this stillness.

My grandfather was a farmer who after working the fields would head to the shore and swim five hundred meters out to the sea, every single day. He didn’t do it to look better, to train for a race, or because he wanted to set a good example of physical fitness. He did it because he loved swimming, and loved swimming in the ocean with its shifting currents, its uncertain waves, and its daily challenges. Summer or winter, rain or shine, calm or turbulent waters, he would wade into that ocean, and swim for an hour to gather his thoughts at the end of the working day.

When I was eleven years old, he would sometimes take me with him. I always complained at the start of the swim arguing that the water was too cold, too choppy, or that I was too tired. He would ignore my comments, and as we dove in he would encourage me to go further each time. Try to make it to the end of the pier, to the next buoy, to that fisherman’s boat, he would say, as we swam side by side, matching his stroke to mine. For me, it was both scary and exciting to know that the ocean floor was so far beneath my feet, and to know that I couldn’t stand still nor rest for long. I would vary my strokes using the breaststroke and the backstroke when I felt tired. Sometimes, I would tread water for a few seconds, but that used up more energy than stroking, and it didn’t move me closer to that day’s goal. I quickly realized that remaining in one place was more tiring than moving forward.

The most exciting part was swimming back to shore to finally feel my feet touch the sand. I would stand up, turn around, and look with satisfaction at how far I had gone that day. I had managed to reach that point which looked so far and daunting from the shore, and knew that I could, and would, go further the next day.

Remembering this time in my life so many years ago, gave me the confidence to wade once again into the vast academic ocean. Now, when I sit down in front of my computer, I remember to keep moving, to pace myself, and to breathe, as I write my thesis stroke by stroke by stroke.

Lourdes Arciniega
           PhD Candidate, University of Calgary 

5 thoughts on “Guest post: Beyond treading water

  1. A very useful post. We've all been there, probably more than once. Writing stroke by stroke (or bird by bird) can be a helpful way to approach a writing project that seems overwhelming. But what I really like about this post is that the idea that we can look back with satisfaction at how far we've come. We tend to live for the future and don't celebrate the past. Oh yes, we celebrate the really big events, like passing our candidacy exams, defending our thesis, getting tenure, etc. But then we move on. There's always something more to do. Our academic system is based on external validation, and, while toiling under its requirements, we need to ensure that we have a system for internal validation, as well. It's very significant that in the second to last paragraph Lourdes expresses her own satisfaction with her accomplishment, rather than expressing satisfaction at making her grandfather proud.


  2. Lourdes – what a great way to put this into perspective! This can be translated into other careers and jobs – in my case as an event organizer, sometimes the tasks seem overwhelming – but if you tackle one at a time, you end up completing the project – and boy – does one feel complete satisfaction after the event is done!!


  3. Lourdes, this is–if I may say so–a really beautifully written post. Thank you for bringing your 'A' Game to Hook and Eye!

    This is also very useful. God, writing is HARD, and the psychological games (coping strategies …) we devise to keep ourselves from having to do it seem to use up all our energy. Today, I promise, I'll be writing for half an hour. I can do that, right? Anyone can find half an hour?


  4. A great post! I faced this resistance to writing on the Research Leave I just completed. It's so tough and so hard to understand, given how much we otherwise love to write in other circumstances. I find it gruelling and vulnerable-making and just damned uncomfortable, and the only solution I've found is the one you articulate so well. I promise myself that I only have to do fifteen minutes, or one paragraph, or whatever I think I can manage. And step by step, or stroke by stroke, or bird by bird, or word by word, we do get there. Won't be long before you're defending that diss., looking back to shore and marvelling at how far you've swum.


  5. Thank you everyone for your great comments. As I mentioned in my post, knowing that this resistance to writing is a common experience to everyone in academia, and elsewhere, makes it more bearable and less frightening.

    @Aimee and materfamilias in particular, your words and support made by day. I am looking forward to that moment when I make the last revision on the dissertation, put the last period, add the last comma, and then move on to the next writing project…


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