By Nora Nunn
Ph.D. Candidate in English
For many doctoral students—especially in the humanities—solitude is an occupational hazard.
Each passing year increases the physical distance from other people. For those of us who write or study away from campus, random interactions with living, breathing people can feel like a rarity. If I’ve been alone for long enough with only my books, a simple human interaction—say, a wave from the postman—can seem absolutely wondrous, like the chance sighting of a rainbow.
This scholastic solitude is messy, confusing, and complex. To borrow a literary term, it’s sublime, provoking both pleasure and terror. It’s not really an either/or situation as much as a both/and phenomenon. Solitude has what psychologist Thomas Moore might call a light side and a shadow side.
On the light side, this progressive shift toward a more monastic mode of scholarship seems freeing. The time away from required coursework feels luxurious. It means more hours in the archives, more minutes to brush up on theory, and more days to finally craft that first chapter. Intellectually, it’s positively radiant.
And yet, there’s a shadow side, too. Solitude can sanction procrastination—because let’s face it: No one’s really checking how much you wrote this morning. The earth won’t stop spinning if you don’t write a page, or even a paragraph. Plus, you can always make up for it tomorrow, right? And come to think of it, the floor really needs to be Swiffered ….
Even for introverts like me, the solitude is slippery. It can quickly slide down the seclusion spectrum into murky territory: isolation. Isolation can quickly morph into loneliness. Loneliness, in turn, can shapeshift into anxiety. Anxiety, of course, is a close cousin to depression—something that we don’t openly talk enough about in the university at large.
In the blink of an eye, there’s a debilitating echo chamber in your head. The undertow of self-doubt pulls you down. The work feels meaningless, the writing garbage, and the project ridiculous. Maybe this ambiguous this (this dissertation, this Ph.D., this abstract?) is all a big mistake. Writing a paragraph, let alone a sentence, certainly won’t make anything better. In fact, it may be better not to write at all because you have nothing meaningful to say because you’re an imposter who was let in by mistake.
And so on and so forth.
And so the screen (or the page) stays menacingly white.
Running Partners for the Dissertation Marathon
I’m certainly not the first to observe that writing has a lot in common with the practice of running. Still, at the risk of stating the obvious, it’s an especially helpful analogy. Like running, writing can be done either alone or with others. In the end, both activities are solitary: Only you can propel your feet across the finish line, and only you can put pen to paper (or type words on a screen). When it’s drizzling rain on a chilly Saturday morning, the last thing you want to do is get out of bed to train for a half-marathon. Still, knowing that your friend is waiting for you at East Duke makes you accountable. The camaraderie of the shared experience somehow forces you to tie your running shoes, to leave the house, and to ultimately go the 13.1 miles—be the weather fair or foul. In the presence of a friend (or a pack of strangers), running is still lonely, but a little less so. In fact, you are together in your aloneness—connected to something bigger than yourselves. Plus, usually there are doughnuts afterwards.
So, facing the daunting prospect of drafting my first dissertation chapter, I figured that what’s true of running might be true of writing.
With this weary sense of optimism, I showed up to the two-day Versatile Humanist Summer Writing Kickoff. It was early May, and I had scrambled to come up with the required four-page writing sample for the mini writing workshops. In small groups, each facilitated by a graduate student trained by the Thompson Writing Program, we read each other’s work and offered commentary. The writing samples crisscrossed disciplines: My three-person group discussed style, tone, and central claims about Paul, Chinese science fiction, and the Belgian Congo. The whole thing felt a bit like academic truth or dare—simultaneously exposing yet exhilarating. Lo and behold, the concrete feedback, given in the spirit of generosity, helped. A lot. In fact, the specific suggestions from my peers inspired me to revise my draft the next morning.
On the second day of the kickoff, representatives from the Thompson Writing Program oriented us to three types of writing groups: traditional writing groups, writing accountability groups, and write-on-site groups. Each has its pros and cons. TWP staff then facilitated the formation of groups for everyone in attendance.
Inspired by my positive experience during the mini-workshop, I signed up for a biweekly writing group. The four members of my group—all at different stages of our doctoral degrees—share work, provide feedback, and set individual goals. Given that we come from different disciplines—English, philosophy, and religious studies—I am forced to make my work legible to broader audiences. I’m writing for myself (and yes, for my committee), but I’m also writing for my peers. We analyze each other’s writing, but we also learn from each other’s eclectic interests: 18th-century medical literary theory, implicit bias, human rights discourse, and Syriac poetry. In such a setting, none of us can take things for granted—such as that everyone will know the definition of transactive memory, paralipsis, or thanatopolitics. The spirit is collaborative, not Darwinian. We’ve only had one meeting so far, and I’m looking forward to our next.
Writing as Soliloquy
Writing groups, of course, are no panacea for some of the mental health challenges faced by a disproportionate number of graduate students, but in this ongoing liminal space of a doctoral degree—one that requires and rewards work done primarily in isolation—writing communities may at least be a protective factor. Not only does communal writing foster accountability, but it also cultivates connection with other humans.
During one of the panel discussions during the VH@Duke Summer Writing Kickoff, Professor Sarah Beckwith, chair of the English department, advocated that we consider the practice of writing as an act of address to our imagined reader(s). Drawing from the work of Verlyn Klinkenbourg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing, she expanded upon the metaphor of the stage in her talk: “Writing is always a gesture requiring your dramatic / presence, no matter how subtle— / a presence made of up rhetorical choices: / Choices about who you are in relation to your subject and your reader …” (81-82).
In this Klinkenbourgian light, the writing process feels less like an echo chamber, and more like a soliloquy, performed for an audience of peers. When each sentence takes the stage, you know that there are audience members—your fellow writers—listening, reading, and responding.
And if you plan accordingly, there may be doughnuts afterwards.