Joan Bolker ’60 knows how to write. At least, she does now. Co-founder of the Harvard Writing Center, author and practicing psychologist, Bolker spent much of her life learning how to write. Now she spreads her expertise by helping doctoral students get past hurdles in writing their dissertations. While she admits the title of her second book, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, may be an exaggeration, Bolker believes writing every day is essential to performance. So listen up, slackers!
FM: How did you learn to write, and why did that prompt you to help other people learn to write better?
Joan Bolker: I learned to write very slowly and struggled terribly. I can still remember what it felt like to sit in the library for hours and hours and hours when what I was reading sort of passed through my eyes and not my brain. I applied for a dissertation fellowship and started having nightmares that I might actually get it, and I thought that was a sign that I should stop. I went immediately back to the Harvard Ed School where I had gotten a Masters...in teaching several years before. I began writing my thesis in January of my fourth year and got a June degree. But it was still hard. I had figured out that if I was going to write a dissertation, I had to write five pages a day. Fast. This was at a time when people were still teaching writing by saying that first you get an idea, then you do research, then you make an outline. And I kept thinking, “How do you make an outline when you don’t know yet what you’re going to say?” Fortunately, there was a revolution in writing going on at the time. People started talking seriously about process writing, paying lots of attention to the process of writing, something that no one had ever told me. Writing a dissertation was how I finally learned to write.
FM: So how do you help other people write their dissertations?
Bolker: You have to ask them questions and listen carefully, and get them to listen to themselves. When a new person comes to talk to me about a dissertation, one of the first things I ask him or her is: “Where do you work?” The wildest story about this, one I tell every time I do a workshop, is that I had this one guy tell me that he always works at the kitchen table. So I asked him how much he got done there, and he said, “Well, I never get anything done there.” I say to people that they have to figure out what the kitchen table is for them and do something different.
FM: Did you have a kitchen table yourself?
Bolker: I guess what’s come closest to the kitchen table in my life was how many years it took me to learn that I had to write first before I did anything else. I learned that from Ruth Whitman, who was my poetry teacher. She said to me that if I really want to be a writer, I have to write first. So I’ve struggled a lot with writing. I just finished my third book (Revising Ourselves) and it took me three years to write. It was not fun.
FM: How much of your previous book, Writing Your Dissertation, was a reaction to writing your own dissertation?
Bolker: Not much. Actually, I’m a fairly disciplined writer. Most of what’s in that book came in response to the hundreds of doctoral students I’ve talked with and what they’ve told me. All of them are very good at distracting themselves. The hardest part often is just to sit down. When Larry Weinstein and I were at the Writing Center, we used to joke that the single most important implement for a writer was a pot of glue: you paint it on the chair and then you sit down.
FM: You wrote that one should form an addiction to writing to do it better. Would you say that you’re addicted to writing?
Bolker: Absolutely. I get withdrawal symptoms when I don’t do it.
FM: Is there a way that an undergraduate could take the time to form this writing addiction?
Bolker: In my day at Radcliffe, we weren’t permitted in Lamont. They were afraid we would pass out from the smell of the sweat socks or something. On the second or third floor of the Radcliffe library, there were these cushy leather chairs where I would go every day. I’d sit sideways in them and write five pages a day. I did that when I wrote my undergraduate thesis. I did that when I wrote papers. You accumulate a lot of writing that way. Most of it isn’t any good at all, but you can mine it for stuff that is good.
FM: So how would you recommend applying some of your dissertation suggestions to writing shorter papers?
Bolker: I think when writing is a habit, you don’t end up in that 11th-hour reading period bind. Bill Perry, who was the head of the Bureau of Study Counsel, described writing by saying, “First you make a mess and then you clean it up.” Just as you don’t drive your car with the emergency brake on, you don’t mix the creative and the critical parts of writing. First you throw everything at the page and then go back and look with a steely eye to see what makes sense and what you can turn into sense. During the early years of the Writing Center, we had faculty give lectures on writing. B.F. Skinner came and gave an extraordinary talk called “How to Discover What You Have To Say” in which he said in funny behaviorist language—I’ll say it in English—“You don’t think in order to write, you write in order to think.” That’s probably what’s central.
FM: Where did the idea from the Writing Center come from?
Bolker: It began because we had a wonderful boss at Expos, a man named Don Byker. When I was hired, Don said that one of the things he wanted me to do while I was here was to develop a skill I could take with me. “Therefore, you and Larry will design and open a writing center,” Don said. Larry and I and a third person set up office hours and we also ran workshops that were open to anyone in the University. There was a huge range of people, from this first-year woman who said she was there because she was terrified that she wouldn’t be able to continue writing now that she was at college to a priest in his 60s who was a visiting fellow at the Divinity School.
FM: What do you think is the biggest or most common problem you see among your students?
Bolker: There are a few answers. Some people have really un-useful ideas about how to write. They tie themselves in knots that way, and once you do that it’s hard to get out. I’ve had students whose advisers have died, or advisers who don’t return their work for six months—which is almost the same as dying. Also, you have to really want to spend your time working on the material that absolutely fascinates you.
FM: One suggestion you gave was to have fun with your dissertation by coming up with exciting and funny titles that are inappropriate. Did you employ that strategy?
Bolker: Pleasure is maybe more the word than fun. I think there has to be in any good writing an element of play, by which I mean the opposite of constriction. It’s very important to know that you can put things on the paper or computer that will not end up in the final draft.
FM: So about the 11th-hour writers who have to let everything in the first draft go into the final—what would you tell them?
Bolker: Years ago, when my husband and I were grad students, we knew this wonderful guy who had two kids who were 10 months and two years and had another one on the way. He looked up one day and said, “I’ve got to finish,” and he just sequestered himself from the world for six weeks and wrote his dissertation. I understand that there are those people who get off by waiting until that last minute, but I would not recommend it. If you’re writing at the 11th hour, you never have to find out how good you can be.
FM: As a final, practical question, what would you say to someone who had four days to write a 10-page paper on which they were just completely stuck?
Bolker: Sit down and set the alarm for 10 minutes, then write as fast as you can about what you think the paper will be. Given the four-day scenario, I would say find another time that day and do the same thing. If you do it enough times, you’ll get going.