Walking up to the United States customs agent in an airport after a trip out of the country always makes me feel uneasy. Will there be something wrong? Where should I look as the agent flips through my passport?
So I stand there, feeling awkward. Finally, the agent looks at me one more time and then, with what seems like genuine feeling, the agent calls me by name and says, “Welcome Home.”
Whew. I’ve passed muster, but I’m also curiously touched. I know there’s nothing personal in the greeting. It’s predictable that the customs agent welcomes the traveler, but I always feel a bit of emotion rising in my chest.
I guess I belong here after all.
Inception and Leonardo DiCaprio
Have you seen the movie Inception? I got around to seeing it a few weeks ago and was particularly drawn to the ending when the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio shows the same unease I often feel as I wait to see what the U.S. agent may ask me. DiCaprio gives a slight acknowledgment to the agent and then lowers his eyes—how are you supposed to look in this situation? And where should you look? Finally the agent says, “Welcome home, Mr. Cobb.”
And the relieved and happy Cobb/DiCaprio crosses the boundary into the U.S. He’s home. Of course, he had reason to worry. He could have been denied entrance.
But that’s another story.
A customs agent in the role of gatekeeper reminds me of how often we can doubt that we belong in a community or in a situation which formerly had seemed or claimed to be our home.
The notion of home, returning home, and feeling at home in various situations goes beyond familiar settings, sentimental snapshots, or an address on a customs form.
The writer’s home
Most ABD’s come to a graduate program feeling at home, challenged, but nevertheless sure that this is where they will find the opportunity, the collegiality, and the inspiration that will bring out the best in them.
Even if they had felt completely at home as they took classes or as they wrote papers for classes or perhaps even acting as teaching assistants, once the students have moved past their course work or into the dissertation process, they are too often thrown by the process and feel out-of-place as they try to finish their dissertations and earn their degrees.
As I coach writers, I am struck by how frequently brilliant, capable ABD’s become stuck and start to feel incompetent and unworthy.
Incompetent and unworthy
ABD’s know what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to make goals and meet deadlines and just write. But for many ABD’s, deadlines have become counterproductive. The pressure and the isolation of trying to grind out text somehow raise such self-doubt that they start to question whether they belong in this doctoral program.
Some compare themselves unfavorably with others who are further along in the dissertation process. They feel such regret and, worse, they feel such shame for time wasted during the doctoral program that they’re almost paralyzed.
Do they have what it takes to finish this degree? The familiar situations and professors no longer seem reassuring, but rather seem to raise barriers to the extent that ABD’s start to see themselves as frauds or imposters.
Lower the stakes
If this sounds like your situation, you could take a cue from some graduate students who have gone through periods of self-doubt and shame and have rewritten the process to make it work for them.
Instead of focusing on the product or on finishing, focus on the present moment. Determine the block of time that you are setting aside each morning for yourself and decide what your choices will be during that time. You can decide that you will write and that’s all, or you could have a variety of tasks to choose from, as long as you put in the time. What is important is that you step back from the process and lower the stakes from producing something brilliant and perfect to doing something.
Ebb and flow
The writing process will be one of ebb and flow. Some days, the writing will be crappy, and other days you might think the work you did wasn’t half bad. What is important is that you show up each day at the time you have carved out for yourself and write. Do something. And it will be good enough.
The block of time for your daily work is your place and your time. Rewrite the script; redesign the scenery. Make the delivery and the timing your own. This is your home place. And at the beginning of each writing session, greet yourself. I bet you would smile if you greeted yourself each morning with “Welcome Home, Mr. Cobb.”