Journaling and My Dissertation

If you follow me on twitter, you’ve probably seen me talk about how much I love the concept of journaling as a way to nurture my creativity, as well as to process and work through self doubt. Indeed, I journal almost daily, usually in the morning with a coffee – and in these cooler and darker mornings here in Portland – under a blanket on my couch. This is a practice that became part of my regular routine back in 2015 when I was in the last stages of my graduate school.  I began that year with two big New Year’s resolutions: I would keep a regular journal, and I would finish a dissertation that I had been writing for some time and finally receive my PhD. While I suspected the first goal would help to achieve the second one, I didn’t anticipate how important that journaling process would be. In fact, in those last few months before I defended my dissertation that spring, the journal became one of the main tools for success.

Anyone who has gone through the process of a PhD knows how emotionally taxing writing a dissertation can be. Whether its the daily grind of working on a large project, the agony of writing blocks, the frustration of potential conflicts with your committee, or the seeming impossibility balancing work with other aspects in life – dissertation is extraordinarily stressful work. The journal helped make this process manageable because it gave me a space to step back and reflect on this process, and either let my frustrations out or separate myself from the stressful process.

One of my favorite things about the journal was that it was a space for me and only me. When so much of a dissertation was riding on a committee’s approval, I needed a private space away from the social networks. I needed to be candid with someone somewhere – and that somewhere became the notebook I kept for myself.

While I know friends and colleagues who process the challenges through an anonymous blog or twitter account, I cannot imagine sharing some of the things I wrote in the journal in those last months.  In the journal I didn’t have to pretend like things were going smoothly. I didn’t have think about how to communicate conflicting thoughts. More fundamentally, I didn’t even have to write sentences that made sense. Curse words that I couldn’t send emails had a home. I didn’t have to please two diverse opinions on my committee. No coded language needed. When my husband got tired of my ramblings (as he surely did, even if he wouldn’t have admitted it), I could continue to vent in the journal before I went to bed.

And vent I did, often that spring, especially in those last moments when I was scrambling to herd a committee to read and sign the various paperwork. Yet I think that if I had only used the journal for venting it wouldn’t have been such a useful tool. Far more often, I used the pages to act as my own cheerleader. Dissertation writing is such an isolating experience; I came to realize that the only person who could nudge me through it was the most optimistic version of myself.  I used the space to remind myself that it was just a dissertation (even if I knew this from the beginning, it’s easy to forget this). I reminded myself that I was more than a dissertation, and that each silly thing I had to do was just par for the course.

As I’ll discuss in a future post (you can now find it here), I now journal in a more formalized way, always in the morning, using Julia Cameron’s concept of the “morning pages” as my guide. Had I known of Cameron’s concept back in grad school, it would have been a useful tool throughout the dissertation. But then again, sometimes all I needed were a few affirmative sentences at night to settle my brain, so I could sleep and start back over again the next day.

Now I like to look back at my scribblings from that period for another reason – because they remind me that a project of that magnitude takes grueling emotional work.  It is always work, isn’t it? Even if we can forget that when the polished product sits before us.

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Author’s note: This essay is edited from a version of this post that was published at a personal blog in fall 2015.

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