In Matt Haig’s 2020 novel The Midnight Library, protagonist Nora Seed receives an opportunity to address decades of regrets, from quitting her band to letting her cat outdoors. This opportunity comes as Nora hovers between life and death, at a point in time and space where she is able to experience what “could have been” via a library of infinite books, each containing a possible variation of her life. Reflecting on Nora’s choices has led me to consider my own “what ifs,” particularly in regard to my relationship with writing during my time as a graduate student. Because I am currently without access to a magical library (let alone a real one), what follows is instead a message from me, now, to my self of a few years ago.
Dear Graduate Student Self,
Greetings from afar. Don’t worry, I know you’re not a fan of direct messages from past or future selves. Me neither, but this is an exception brought about by circumstance and literature and a deadline. It might actually be quite nice to state a few things for the record, particularly in regard to writing. I hear it’s been slow going recently. But remember how you used to love to write?
This writing thing was a hobby—and in various ways, a passion—until it was your job. Think back to days in which organizing words could prompt joy, not frustration (or, not only frustration). Right now—just for an hour—tap into that joy. Start again with a blank doc that you know is full of possibility, not aggravation. As you sit arranging words into tidy rows, always look for a truly fitting way of saying what you think. This will not, I’m sorry to say, occur on your first try. Just for fun, pick a writing task that might look straightforward but will grow a bit tricky, and allow your brain to toil and squirm. (As in this unavoidably short and difficult paragraph, you could try to form sound thoughts without using an “e.”)
Recalling how you once loved to write should help, I think. Of course, there will still be sticky spots. Bad days. Occasional woe. You might get frustrated that another day has gone by in which you didn’t write your entire dissertation, however impractical that goal is. But try to remember what Professor Shelley once told you, that every day, you simply need to move that project of yours three inches forward. Sounds manageable, does it not? Make more outlines, and more detailed outlines. It’s easier to accomplish dozens of small tasks when you have identified them first. Join a writing group, read more fiction, go for walks: try all the things they say could make a difference. Then keep writing. By hook or by crook, you will get there.
I would be remiss if I failed to thank you for the work you have done. So many words and pages and ideas. And some days I find a folder already labeled, the PDFs already downloaded, or bullet points already waiting in a Word document. Those are wonderful days, when I find a gift you sent along to me. Never underestimate the power of giving yourself a head start.
Remember to back up your files often, have others read your work (however horrible you think it is), and wear your sunscreen.
Your Future Self, PhD