by Li Yun Alvarado
“PhD by 33”
Those were the words I scrawled on a yellow post-it note shortly after beginning my doctoral coursework. At the time, the fact that the phrase rhymed felt significant, as if the rhyming meant my five year deadline was somehow meant to be.
I was twenty-eight when I began, and even though five years to complete the coursework, comprehensive exams, a proposal and dissertation was an ambitious goal, I believed it was attainable, so I wrote “PhD by 33” on that post-it and stuck it prominently above my desk. That post-it was only the first of a collection of messages that decorated the area I came to call my “dissertation station.”
“Shitty First Draft!” proclaimed another post-it, making reference to Anne Lamott’s advice that all great writing begins with a shitty first draft.
“What Must Get Done Will Get Done” — a mantra I picked up from a high school friend also made an appearance on my wall. I had used that phrase for over a decade to psyche myself up before long nights of paper writing during high school, college, and graduate school.
After reading Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker, I posted several quotes from that book on my wall as well:
“Living (and writing) well is the best revenge”
“First you make a mess, then you clean it up”
“Not every single word of this can be garbage”
“Writing is probably the best cure for a scared writer”
“Create and Care for Your Writing Addiction”
“Don’t cry over spilt milk, or unwritten pages”
“Write one day at a time”
“The best dissertation is a DONE dissertation”
One of my favorite post-its came from an unexpected source: the last line from Cristina Yang’s final monologue on the TV show Grey’s Anatomy: “Assume it will be Brilliant.”
I’m not unique in my use of post-its to motivate and inspire. On the TV show Being Mary Jane, Gabrielle Union’s character Mary Jane displays meaningful quotes and affirmations on yellow post-its all over her home—even on her head board.
Chicana feminist-poet-scholar Gloria Anzaldúa wrote her ambitions on “candle affirmations,” circular pieces of paper on which she wrote personal, professional, spiritual, and writing aspirations. Presumably after writing these affirmations, she’d place a candle on top of the paper, set her intention, and light the candle. You can find Anzaldúa’s candle affirmations at her archive at UT Austin (Box 5 Folder 5).
Most recently, a page full of affirmations were found in one of novelist Octavia Butler’s notebooks. “I shall be a bestselling writer,” she begins. “This is my life. I write bestselling novels,” she continues. Her aspirations are not limited to her own success either. She affirms, “I will help poor black youngsters broaden their horizons. I will help poor black youngsters go to college.” One powerful phrase that she repeats is: “So be it! See to it!”
News of Butler’s page of affirmations circulated like wildfire among my friends’ FB pages. Her words alongside her successful career acted as an example of the power of clear and precise envisioning. As the title of one Blavity article proclaims, “Octavia Butler’s Personal Journal Shows the Author Literally Wrote Her Life Into Existence.” I think it is that idea of writing oneself into existence that resonated so powerfully with us writers because so many of us are trying to do exactly that.
Butler’s affirmations reminded me of another post-it I stuck on the wall above my desk while dissertating: “Dr. Alvarado.” I wrote the title “Dr.” beside my name long before my dissertation was done as if to say, “So be it! See to it!”
These examples, combined with my own experiences creating vision boards and posting advice and affirmations around my home, have made me a true believer in the power of the post-it, or, more accurately, the power of clearly articulated aspirations, affirmations, and images posted prominently in our living and working spaces. I’ve come to believe that these post-its, lists, candle affirmations, and vision boards can function as powerful aids in attaining our hearts’ deepest desires—as writers, artists, and even as human beings.
So, did I achieve my goal of “PhD by 33”? No. That was a crazy goal!
But by my 34th birthday in October of 2014, my committee and I had agreed that I would be ready to defend my dissertation that spring — the first person in my cohort to do so. Having the “PhD by 33” stretch goal made me stay focused on making steady progress on my doctoral work even when life got in the way (losing a friend and a grandparent; having my brother, sister-in-law, and infant/toddler nephew as roommates; finding a (benign) tumor on my breast; teaching and grading (ugh!); embracing a long distance romance turned cross-country move turned marriage; planning a wedding in Puerto Rico from California; and buying a first home—to name just a few examples). During those six years, I pushed myself and pushed my committee to support me on my forward progress, so that I could not only finish, but finish quickly.
When it became obvious that “PhD by 33” wasn’t going to happen, I let myself off the hook. I crossed out 33 and wrote in 34. Finishing by 33 was never the point; finishing was the point. By pushing myself to make that 33 “deadline,” I was a lot closer to the ultimate goal by my 34th birthday than I might have been otherwise.
Post-PhD, my writing related post-its remain above my desk, along with some new additions, like a picture of Idris Elba asking “Shouldn’t you be writing?” Yes, Idris, yes I should be.
The post-it that replaced “PhD by 33”?
“5 Books & 2 Babies by 45!”
I’m giving myself ten years to focus my efforts on “Books & Babies.” I even created one of my elaborate vision boards filled with cut-outs from Poets and Writers and parenting magazines evoking the parent/writer life.
Will I make these things happen? Sure. Why not? I don’t know. What I do know is that if I don’t try to make them happen, then they most certainly won’t.
A few months after writing “5 Books & 2 Babies by 45!” on a post-it, a poetry manuscript I’ve played around with and submitted in various forms for about nine years was finally picked up. That chapbook, Words or Water, is now available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press (book #1). The summer after I earned that PhD, I wrote a picture book manuscript, submitted it to a contest with Lee & Low Books and won second place. I have faith that it will be published one day (book #2). As we speak, I’m compiling poems for a full-length manuscript I hope to start submitting next fall (book #3). My husband and I are enjoying trying for baby #1. I’d say that’s not too shabby for my first year of “5 Books and 2 Babies by 45.”
In the end, clearly articulating what I really want—in writing— helps keep me focused and striving. I write towards those goals, and I submit towards those hopes, and I think of new projects with those aspirations in mind, and I make love open to those dreams. And I move forward. And I write my life into existence.
Li Yun Alvarado is the author of Words or Water and Nuyorico, CA. A poet and scholar, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education; The Acentos Review; and PMS Poemmemoirstory among others. She recently received the Lee & Low New Voices Honor, and in 2012 she received an honorable mention for The Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize. She is currently the Senior Poetry Editor for Kweli Journal and is an alumna of VONA/Voices Writing Workshop and AROHO. She holds a BA in Spanish and sociology from Yale University and an MA and PhD in English from Fordham University. Li Yun is a native New Yorker living in Long Beach, California who takes frequent trips to Salinas, Puerto Rico to visit la familia. You can order her new book and learn more about Li Yun on Facebook and at www.liyunalvarado.com.