Thursday, 15 November 2012

Diary of a Wimpy Wordsmith

Posted by Steph Clutterbuck

I can’t write. Not this blog post, I have no difficulty waffling on, verbally or otherwise, about trivial things to anyone in the general vicinity willing to listen (just ask my fiancĂ©! *Ba doom ching!*). Rather, I can’t write my thesis.

This poses a bit of a problem to someone trying to successfully complete her Ph.D. I don’t think it is an issue of being lazy as I had no problem getting stuck into all the other areas of my research, i.e. the ethics, the recruiting participants, the running experiments, the sorting the data, the analysing the data. Nope all of these tasks I took on with enthusiasm, gusto even. But now it’s time to write and I am stuck. Luckily, I know I am not alone. Inevitably postgrad student small talk at conferences or in lunchrooms will at some point turn to the reluctance/inability to write. It is the most daunting part of the wild ride that is the postgraduate degree. But why is it so daunting? Why does something that we are clearly capable of doing and exercise hundreds of times each day by way of emails, texts, various research related documents and reports, suddenly seem so impossible?

Well, since you asked, the following is my sage opinion: There is no place for hiding anymore.

Canadian women’s 2012 Olympic soccer team. Our valiant warriors of the Great White North! (Photo by: Toru Hanai/Reuters)
When I was growing up I played a lot of soccer. Apologies, but I am Canadian with a die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan for a father. Football to me will forever be synonymous with giant muscle laden men wearing very tight stretchy pants and overhyped million dollar Superbowl commercials. 

Anyway, sometimes when playing a particularly good team our coach could be heard screaming from the sidelines, ‘Clutterbuck! Stop hiding out there and get in the bleeping game!!’. Coaches aren’t always known for their diplomacy skills. What I imagine he was attempting to communicate, if he had taken a moment to compose himself was, ‘Stephanie, please refrain from shying away from your responsibilities on the field as a defensive midfielder. Your teammates would appreciate it if you would mark your opponent properly and stop cowering behind the keeper.’ 

Now I loved playing soccer, I loved my teammates and I was generally able to hold my own, so to speak, on the field. So why was I hiding? I was hiding because the girl I was meant to be marking was stronger or faster or more skilled than me. Sometimes she was all three of these things at once. The dreaded triple whammy. Quite simply she was a challenge and a challenge can be terrifying. Don’t get me wrong when you think you stand a chance challenges are exciting and even energizing. However, when you think you won’t quite cut the mustard a challenge can be paralyzing. And at those times it always seems easier to hide. If you hide then no one finds out you are actually a crummy soccer player and your spot in the starting line up must have been a fluke. Likewise, if you never get down to writing your thesis no one realizes that you actually know nothing, are in fact a fraud and your supervisor(s) have made a massive mistake in giving you the Ph.D. post.

So how did I manage to stop hiding on the field when my opponent threatened to damage my pride? Well, to unabashedly steal and conjugate a catch phrase, I just did it. I did it to stop my coach yelling at me. I did it to avoid being benched for the rest of the season. I did it because I loved the game and I knew it wasn’t always going to be easy but that’s what I signed up for. 

As for writing my thesis, again, I will just do it. I will do it to stop my supervisors yelling at me (they don’t actually yell but disapproving silences are somehow worse). I will do it because I don’t want to be kicked out of grad school. And I will do it because I love the game (i.e. research) and I know it isn’t always going to be easy, but that’s what I signed up for.


  1. I feel your pain. Do you use Twitter? It's Academic Writing Month #AcWriMo - I've found this really motivating and inspiring to write.

    1. thanks for this, just what I need

  2. steph clutterbuck15 November 2012 at 14:16

    I do use twitter and I did notice someone using that hash tag the other day and wondered what it meant. Thanks for the info I will check it out and hopefully feel the motivation! And thank you for your commiserations- always nice to know i am not alone :)

  3. I agree. Writing is the tough part. Only yesterday I finished a draft of a chapter that has been plaguing me for months. It still isn't very good, but I just wrote something (anything) in order to move on from the blank page. Then, bit by bit, I built it up to a full draft. After that, I hammered away at it, edit by edit, until eventually it wasn't complete gibberish. Don’t be disheartened. I don’t think the fact that you are struggling to get writing reveals anything about your level of knowledge. It is likely that you know too much. My problem with drafting my chapter was actually that much of my understanding of the literature was intuitive. That is, I had unexpressed representations of some really complicated concepts swirling around in my brain. Until I was forced to try to express them, I didn’t realise quite how complex they were, or how hard I would have to work to make them clear for my readers. I’m still doing battle with that particular problem…

    1. steph clutterbuck22 November 2012 at 14:34

      Hi Gillian- sorry I just saw your comment now. I know what you mean. There is an excerpt from this book I have on procrastination (and yes I do understand that books on procrastination are somewhat paradoxical) which says that any task is just a series of little starts and to worry about the 'finishing' of that task is impractical. The point being that when we fixate on the enormity of the completed piece of writing (no matter how big or small) the task seems insurmountable. I believe the author is telling us to keep 'living in the moment' in a sense (in a writing sense that is). Thanks for your words of encouragement!

  4. Great post, I understand completely. Your 'just do it' slogan rang true for me this morning, when I went to my first departmental research meeting. I was worried about what I would be able to contribute, given as I am six weeks into my PhD, but I believe the journey is as important as the destination, and I want to make the most of it, so I 'just did it' too. No hiding for me either! By the way, I am Canadian too, get in touch if you want to talk 'Canuck'

  5. steph clutterbuck22 November 2012 at 15:07

    Yitka I am glad to see that I have recruited someone to the 'no more hiding' team! :) Good job on 'just doing it' in your meeting. I think these things are scarier in theory than in practice. From my experience even the most knowledgeable researchers are very congenial, especially to us young guns. I am also glad see there is another Canuck living amongst us! I am always available for chats regarding all things Canadian including (but not exclusive to): maple syrup, Molson, moose, poutine, French/English instructions on all products, Bob and Doug McKenzie, toques, tobbogans, Tragically Hip, Loonies, Toonies, butter tarts, beaver tails and of course the good ol' hockey game (it's the best game you can name...).

  6. I have crowned you the Susan Jeffers of the Fuse World, with your 'Feel the fear and do it anyway' je ne sais quoi! I too am feeling a nice sense of camaraderie amongst the research community, and the more experienced researchers have all been so generous with their time, expertise and support, which does make you want to come out of hiding.

    I'm craving a lean, thinly shaved pastrami on dark rye, no butter and lots of mustard with a dill pickle on the side now. I'm just going to slip on my Roots sweatshirt, take off (eh?) and hit the books again. Thanks for a great post and getting intouch, see you soon xx