Friday, March 1, 2013

On Writing Community (Part I): Rescued!

I spent all of last Friday stuck in a bog; a bog of my own making. No, that’s not quite it. I did not create the bog, but I allowed myself to wander into it. Instead of paying attention to the ground immediately in front of my feet, my eyes were focused far ahead, trying to discern my path. I was looking for assurance that my current road would indeed take me to my destination, and not to a dead end, or to somewhere I did not wish to go. I was so busy looking for distant dangers that I missed the danger at hand. Before I knew what had happened, I was stuck. Like Bunyan’s famous pilgrim in the Slough of Despond, I struggled to move forward, then sank into darkness and discouragement.

I did not intend for this blog post to become an allegory. But since it seems to be heading that way, I might as well give my bog a name — I’ll call it the Swamp of Statistics Fear. Now, please let me clarify… I am not one of those many graduate students who are terrified of statistics. I enjoyed my statistics classes, and I think I am perfectly capable of grasping statistical concepts. But my analysis requires some advanced techniques, combined in an unusual way, and I’m not sure exactly how to go about it.

My perfectionism affliction affects all areas of my life, including my quantitative analysis. I want to thoroughly understand my statistical procedures, so I can write intelligently about them. More importantly, I want to avoid making mistakes and drawing wrong conclusions. In hopes of understanding exactly how to proceed, I have spent many hours reading, learning, and writing about what I’ve learned. Still, I am in a fog. I understand far more than I once did, but crucial connections are missing. And time is slipping away. Every day is precious, and I can’t afford to spend them floundering in the dark. I must get started, or I will never finish.

When I fell into the bog Friday, I knew exactly what had happened. My fear of flubbing my analysis had paralyzed me. Immobilized by Fear, I couldn’t move forward, and not just on my statistics. I didn’t work on other parts of my paper, because I knew that my writing would serve as a statistics avoidance mechanism. I didn’t go for a run, because I hadn’t been productive and didn’t deserve recreation. My day degenerated into a total loss.

Fortunately, as for Bunyan’s pilgrim, Help arrived. A friend, seeing me flailing to get free, offered to meet me at a coffee shop Saturday and talk through my statistics. Now, let me be clear — he was not there as a statistics tutor. He did not tell me how to do my statistical analysis. Though he has far more statistical knowledge than I have, he was not an expert in the particular techniques I was using. But he had something more important — a clear mind, a mind not hampered by personal investment in the project. He gave me sound advice, pointed me to some useful online resources, and reminded me to keep everything as simple as possible. Together we mapped out my next few steps, and decided at what point in the process I should call in a true expert (the statistics professor on my committee). My friend reminded me that although I could not yet see a clear path all the way through the analysis, I had sufficient light for the next few steps.

Finally, I was free. Right there in Sweet Eugene’s House of Java, I started to work, putting together my data set. But I was still on the edge of the swamp, and could easily have slid back in. Fortunately, my statistics friend had brought reinforcements, in the form of another friend. We wrote together for a while, and talked about our journeys, our fears, and our futures. Then the three of us went for a jog in the park. Not wanting to leave me until they were sure I was safe on solid ground, they handed me off to another pair of friends (yep, same coffee shop…we wrote together all evening.)

I once thought writing was a solitary endeavor. Now I know better.

Along this writing journey, I have been blessed with cheerleaders — friends who applaud my efforts, downplay my deficiencies, and celebrate my victories, however tiny. I cannot describe how much their encouragement means to me.

But when you are truly stuck, a cheerleader on the sideline is not enough. You need fellow travelers who are willing to lay down their own burdens for a while, climb into the muck with you, get their clothes dirty, and drag you out.

Thank you, my writing friends.