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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive A Brewing Thought, a Spot of Tea: Scholarly Writing as Adventure

Writing tends to be the bane of existence for many teachers and students in higher education. Put simply, writing is often a necessary, but neither a sufficient nor a satisfying burden. Publish or perish is an academic requirement, but publications alone do not insure tenure. I realized this fact during my seminary training, and thought, then as now, how tragic it is that there is so much sturm-und-drang around a creative process that is so crucial to the enterprise of education, the venue of the academy, and the product of research. I promised myself that if I ever had an opportunity to change such a melancholic perspective to one of pleasurable anticipation, I would. While writing my own dissertation and drinking lots of tea (strong black tea is the means by which health conscious vegetarian/scholars obtain their ritualized caffeine "fixes"), I nurtured an attitude that now makes writing a spiritual experience and I have refined a metaphorical strategy for writing that has allowed me to avoid writer's block. I have succeeded in "blocking" out memories of when I had my own "writer's blocks" [plural]! The writing process, from the less than immaculate conception of an initial idea through the morning sickness attendant upon research to birthing pangs of the completed document, has become an adventure of discovery and fulfillment. How did this metaphorical strategy for writing come to be? This essay considers some of my rubrics of writing in general, and writing a thesis/dissertation in particular, as a creative, fulfilling adventure.

Writing as a creative, aesthetic experience is central to my pedagogy and sense of vocation in the academy and the world. Teaching about writing is like a total baby-making process: the more babies one births, the more understandable becomes the process. Similarly, with teaching any given subject, the more you teach that same subject, the more you can learn about the subject, if you remain open, where all participants are teacher/learners. The research and writing process affords one a greater depth of knowledge about the material and about oneself. In the words of writer, teacher, and activist, Parker Palmer, the process of writing is a way to "Let Your Life Speak": "we have an opportunity to listen to our inner selves, to our inner teacher toward a sense of purpose and meaning. We are able to be ourselves, not falling prey to how our ego will want to identify ourselves; instead, we can acknowledge the "deeper and truer life . . . listening for guidance . . . from within." [1] Over the last several years of teaching others about writing, I have listened to myself and others and discerned four steps important for moving one from burden to adventure about the writing process: (1) have an attitude of affirmation; (2) have a metaphorical writing strategy; (3) have an awareness of balance and brain function; and (4) have a customized research methodology.


First, realize that you have something important to say. It must be of importance, or you would not wish to commit to writing IT!

"It would be wonderful [Mma. Potokwane] thought to write a book which would help other people. In her case, she would never have the time to do it, and even if she had the time, then she very much doubted whether she would have the necessary ability. But if she were to write a book, then the title would undoubtedly be How to Run an Orphan Farm." [p.15]

"It had just occurred to [Mma. Makutsi] that she might write a book herself, if Mma. Potokwane, of all people was considering doing so. The Principles of Typing, perhaps, although that was not perhaps the most exciting title one might imagine. How to Get Ninety-Seven Per Cent. Now that was much, much better, and would be bought by all those many, many people who would love to get ninety-seven per cent in whatever it was that they were doing and who knew that perhaps they never would." [p. 164] Alexander McCall, The Full Cupboard of Life, (NY: Pantheon, 2003), 198 pp. That someone will read it, and that he or she will benefit from what you have to say—this is an attitude of affirmation. Self-doubt and low self-esteem in the author makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the writing to be enjoyable and fulfilling. A positive attitude embraces the reality of working hard through many revisions, and of asking others to review your tentative incomplete and fumbling drafts. This state of mind does not honor arrogance or denial, but affirms the value of your gifts and of your inner creativity.

For those at the dissertation writing stage, you have already made it through course work, comps, and your proposal. There are several unique advantages to writing at this stage. As you are researching your topic, no one else will know all that you know or discover. You are the expert on the particular nexus of issues that you have amassed to include in the thesis you are researching for your dissertation. Your committee will have experts in the particular fields or disciplines involved, but know that you are the expert in answering your particular questions. You might never have the same opportunity to rely on such experts as mentors and have such support for contributing to your field(s).

For the faint at heart, if that is possible for one who has traversed the rigors of a doctorate, such an attitude celebrates writing as vocation and establishes a kind of certainty that you will complete your adventure. Some of the hurdles within the academy and life itself may seem insurmountable, but by building on the certainty that you have a contribution to make, you can build an experience of joy and have fun in the process.


Second, engage in a metaphorical strategy for writing your dissertation, realizing from the beginning that it is not your magnum opus, and you will write other works. That is, I invite you to find a metaphor for writing, something that you enjoy doing for yourself and for others without needing anyone's approval. A few years ago, a friend was over half way done writing his dissertation but could not get any further. He was distraught. I asked him what was his metaphor for writing, and he recounted, "St. George and the Dragon." I chuckled and with feigned incredulity stated, "And you're surprised you are stuck, given that you are envisioning writing as fire and arrows and pain?" I then asked him what he liked to do with people, that was fun and completely void of uncertainty or need for approval from others to legitimate his actions. He said, "I like to bake bread for people." Then he said, "No, I really like to make soup." When he mentioned soup, his entire countenance, body language and attitude all changed at once. He became animated, his posture improved. He had a surge of energy and became excited and buoyant. He explained the process of making soup, and I countered with, "Isn't that like writing a dissertation?"

You need to narrow your focus when exploring all of your interests when pondering your dissertation topic, just like you have to decide what kind of soup you will make. Purchasing the ingredients, preparing them for cooking, and making the stock parallels the process of researching, selecting and gathering sources and then reading, making notes, and building and creating the argument. My friend embraced this way of thinking, completed his dissertation, and graduated. Writing ceased to be a cumbersome burden and became fun and enjoyable, since it was a bouillabaisse and he was the chef.

Part of listening to yourself and your surroundings is realizing what things you can change, what things are beyond your control, and knowing how to manage the process. There are many things about the dissertation process that one cannot control: for example, access to committee members, required format [2] and deadlines for filing. You can be savvy in selecting a topic and exploring it earlier during your course work. You have choices about committee members and you want to select people who will hold you to a high standard in a respectful manner. Learn how to work with them, what points are worth pushing, and when you need to go with the will of the committee. Hopefully, you will be able to set up a calendar for completion that will work in your favor. Where possible, it is helpful not to accept employment until you have finished your dissertation and defended. You may not have the luxury of waiting to work. Where possible, it is helpful not to accept scholarly employment until you have finished your dissertation and defended. The saddest words in academia are ABD [What might have been]! You may not have the luxury of waiting to work, but you can control your working priorities, always putting your dissertation in the number one slot. You can control your attitude about the process and make it more enjoyable.

For example, writing for me is "laughing and dancing with God." When I worked on my dissertation over a decade ago, I had the grace that writing the dissertation was my full-time job. I wrote my metaphor for writing on a post-it note and attached it to the corner of my computer monitor. If I got antsy or stressed, the note was there to remind me that writing for me was a spiritual discipline. No one was demanding that I get a doctorate or write the dissertation. While I remembered that I had a "call," a higher divine purpose for getting a Ph.D., and writing the dissertation was one part of that process, I was always at choice. You are at choice. There is a lot of freedom and a lot of responsibility in making choices. What choices are before you?


Third, I work for balance in my day and in my writing with a respect for how the human brain functions. I listen for where I am in the day. This awareness allowed me to complete my dissertation in a limited amount of time and I continue to use the same indicators today. If I am tired or overwhelmed, I need to take care of myself. Fatigue does not allow my best work. If I have to press the fatigue factor, I do so but only in the rarest of circumstances. We have to take care of our total selves. Exhaustion can take its toll. One of the realities to be aware of in self-care is how the brain operates. The brain has three functions, particularly when it comes to research and writing: take in information, sort and process information, retrieve and draw conclusions from information processed. If I had an inclination of the process not working for me while writing, that meant I needed to take a mini-break: a cup of tea, since coffee is not for me; ten minutes of exercise; make a phone call; meditate or relax; play a computer game; or turn on a favorite CD. Those few minutes would refresh me and make it easier to move along in the research process.


Fourth, everyone needs to figure out their style of work and test out various options. How do you work best? How can you be more efficient in your research and writing? My methodological framework for researching and writing is three fold: (1) analytical, critical thinking; (2) work smart and efficiently, not harder; and (3) thinking outside of the box. Analytical, critical thinking gives me the freedom to embrace interdisciplinary research, asking questions of everything: the what, why, how, and so what questions. Before doing any research, I create an abstract. I begin by doing free association related to my topic. From those terms, I develop four to five questions. Once I decide which question holds the most interest for me, I change the question into a declarative statement that focuses on what I will analyze, critique, investigate, or posit. Having now established my thesis statement, I work to create a methodology that will provide the information I need to prove my case. With a brief introduction to set out a general context, thesis statement, and methodology, my abstract is complete.

After creating my abstract I develop a working bibliography. I skim through all books (table of contents, index, perhaps preface) to determine if the texts I retrieved from the on-line catalog will actually support my project. This eliminates bringing unnecessary sources home. When I create my bibliography, I sort the books and articles based upon call number, making my time in the library for retrieving materials more efficient. By taking notes on the computer in a table format, I work efficiently; no underlining or post-it notes. By setting up the categories of content, citation, page numbers and quote/paraphrase, I can manage large amounts of material in a creative, cohesive manner. I can sort all entries by content, and then cut and paste my information into my working document, which allows me an ease of flexibility.

Writing can be enjoyable and fulfilling. By getting to know yourself better, from the inside out, you will become a better writer. You can come from the space of choice and creativity. Dissertations require a lot of work, compromise, and listening. What a gift that you have chosen to pursue an advanced degree that builds into the process a completed manuscript. Tea, anyone?

Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan will join the faculty of Shaw University Divinity School in July 2004 as Professor of Theology and Women's Studies. Her latest book is Pregnant Passion: Gender, Sex, & Violence in the Bible (2003), which she edited for the SBL Semeia Studies series.

[1] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2000), 4-5.

[2] Consider the best stylebook ever written: William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, (Needham Heights, Mass: Allyn & Bacon, 2000), 105 pp. Another worthwhile text with which to confront one's committee is: Lynne Truss, [A Panda] Eats, Shoots, & Leaves, The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, with a foreword by Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes, (NY: Gotham Books, 2004), 209 pp.

Citation: Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, " A Brewing Thought, a Spot of Tea: Scholarly Writing as Adventure," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2004]. Online:


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