On trying to get some research done, or, Revenge of the zombies

Every research project I’ve ever undertaken (of the kind intended to lead to something publishable, anyway) has tended to fall into a distinct series of stages. It goes more or less like this:

1) Initial idea, followed by exhilaration as several interesting data points and/or previous ideas and/or previous research
investigations dovetail in an unexpected way. Glee. Maybe even some jumping up and down.

2) Initial research. Hey, not too many people have written about this already! Maybe I’ve got a shot!

3) Oh no. Someone else has already written the exact thing I wanted to write. Well, bugger.

4) Renewed determination. Surely I can contribute something to the discussion? Renewed research along previously uninvestigated avenues.

5) Discovery of less obvious questions still worth asking. Cautious optimism.

6) Masses of further research.

7) Writing.

8) Procrastination.

9 through 11) Repeat 6 through 8, in whatever order, as necessary. Somewhere in there, discovery that there really is an argument to be made, after all.

12) Finishing the thing and sending it off.

I’m working on a conference paper proposal due at the end of next month, and I’m still at 4, which bugs me because I was hoping to be at least at 5 or 6 by now. On the other hand, I’m off to Providence this weekend to do some digging in the special collections library at Brown, which I’m hoping will at least start to get me there. In the meantime, I’m fighting off a particularly fierce attack of impostor syndrome. (“It’s not your field!” says my brain. “What makes you think that a bit of library school coursework in book history and a Ph.D in the literature of a different country and time period make you qualified to talk about 19th-century American poetry anthology publishing? Even if it’s accepted, you’ll be unmasked as soon as the Q&A starts!” “Shut up,” I say to my brain. “I’m trying to figure something out here, and you’re
not helping
.” “But it’s not your field!” my brain shrieks again. Repeat several times over. Stupid brain.)

I used to feel like this when I writing my dissertation. The difference between then and now is that now, my future livelihood and professional identity don’t depend on my pulling this project together. The only things at stake now are an interesting conference travel opportunity, a nice extra line on my CV, and, even if the conference opportunity doesn’t work out, a fun side project to work on, which in turn means less sitting around wondering vaguely whether I shouldn’t be doing something more interesting with my spare time.

So why is the zombified corpse of my grad-school-era neurosis still staggering around? Do I have to break out the flamethrowers and chainsaws to make it stop, or what? Any suggestions on zombie-slaying would be greatly appreciated, from those of you who’ve tackled this type of zombie before.

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