On Starting Reflection
When I first received my copy of the Rooted Reflections Journal, I sat down with enthusiasm and committed to writing an entry every day. I loved the cover, the design of each 2-page entry, and found all of the prompts to be thought-provoking, exactly as intended! I started carrying it around with me with every intention of writing in it every day. I promised myself I would be unflinchingly truthful in my responses to the prompts, even if it meant wrangling some difficult memories and facing even more unpleasant scenarios that are conjured up by my imagination to harness the power of my personal agency.
Naturally, as is always the case when I commit to doing something exactly right, it then becomes impossible. You would think someone who was struggling to write a dissertation would have figured this out by now. But I thought blog posts would be less demanding than academic writing, and that journaling would be even easier (nobody’s even going to read it!) but I had totally mischaracterized my audience. My most immediate audience being, of course, myself.
I can’t imagine an assignment with lower stakes than filling out about thirty lines with the first words that floated into my consciousness upon reading the prompt. I could have used a pencil if a pen felt like too much of a commitment. I could even use that old grade school trick of making my handwriting really large and leaving lots of spaces!
I wrote the first journal entry, and then a second a couple of days later, and then a third after a few days, and then weeks passed before I returned to it. I’ve journaled before, and I’m very familiar with that soggy sense of embarrassment that curdles in the gut when you read something that was written by your younger self. In case you’re not familiar with this sensation, just think back to the last time you wet yourself unintentionally. Regardless of the circumstances, or the age you were when it happened, I’ll bet that thinking about it makes you cringe hard.
For me, that sensation was so immediate and overwhelming that it invariably made me pause just long enough that “suddenly” something else would “need” to be done “right away” instead. When it comes to meditation, yoga, and apparently, journaling, it’s sometimes said that when you just don’t feel like doing it, it is exactly when it is most needed. And so, I decided to do what I needed to do, even if it was not what I wanted to do.
Returning To Reflection
Earlier last week, I decided to re-start the practice, this time committing to writing an entry as soon as I sat at my desk with my coffee. This strategy was inspired by the book Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Dr. Joan Bolker, a book I wish I’d read years ago.
In all my years in graduate school, I’ve never once thought about how to cultivate a writing practice. In fact, I’ve heard a lot about the difficulty of academic writing. My experience working on a co-authored paper that morphed dramatically from draft to draft well after version 10 only served to scar(e) me even more. I wish articles published in academic journals were required to disclose in the first footnote (the one with the disclaimers and acknowledgments) which version of the paper had been published.
Of course, I didn’t think papers got published after just three rounds of substantial re-writes, but the possibility of a version 10 of my own paper does not inspire courage. That’s why there is no version 1, only a collection of introductions, tentative models, and summary statistics that raise more questions than they answer.
But I digress. And it feels wonderful to digress and return. It feels like a privilege to pick up a thread of my own thoughts after a digression that was of my own choosing. Perhaps this is what it means to own a project?
I’ve had research-related tasks delegated to me and been instructed to “own it” only to have (micro)managers come swooping down to “check on it,” ‘confirm it,” or “take it over” at the first hint of a problem, even in the absence of an actual problem. I suspect many people have had similar experiences even outside of the academic context. To have “ownership” conferred to you and then revoked is like pouring gasoline over whatever perfectionist tendencies you may have had. (What is a micromanager if not a perfectionist personified?)
Keep On Starting
I know now that ownership cannot be delegated, nor is it something one can be promoted to. Agency, ownership, voice – these are just things one has to lay claim to. Only I can choose to pick up the thread of my thoughts over and over. Only I can tweak the design of this experiment in which I am the observer as well as the observed. Only I can decide whether the outcome of my experiments with my writing process is satisfactory or not because the goal of the process is to meet my needs.
If I could go back to the self I was ten years ago and offer advice, it would not be about courses, research, or even writing per se. It would just be this: it is not your job to pre-empt, manage, or accommodate the feelings of others and more than your own. You are not required to anticipate their needs or reactions any more than your own. If putting your needs first and advocating for your own best interest burns some bridges, then so be it! The smoke will clear away the trolls that hide beneath.
A journaling practice, a free writing practice, a research writing practice, an artistic practice, a self-care practice, the practice of a ritual, of yoga and meditation – none of these are about perfect performance. All of these are about wholeheartedly accepting that failures and lapses are inevitable, and still starting afresh. It’s called a practice for a reason – it just requires a sincere effort. If you’re not sure where to start, get the journal! I couldn’t recommend it more.
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