In Austin Kleon’s paid newsletter post today, he asked his readers, to share how we begin.

I opened by saying, “I don’t know how I begin.” Then I proceeded to describe how I begin.

Because the biggest projects in my life have been scholarly writing projects, I thought about those. I thought about the most recent one, my dissertation, and the oldest one, my Master’s paper.

I realized that for both of these, I had a sunshine-soaked AHA! moment when I knew: this was the topic I was going to write about, this was the research I was going to do.

But then I thought about it, and that wasn’t the beginning for the dissertation. (It may have been for the Master’s paper. I don’t remember.)

In my PhD program, writing a comprehensive literature review that demonstrated our familiarity with the state of our research area was a major milestone. I went into this process with no clear research question or idea, just a set of topics that interested me. I don’t remember all of them, but they included makerspaces in libraries, gaming in libraries, and connected learning, among other things. I wrote two or three chapters of this lit review (one for each topic), flailing about, no research plan in mind, just getting familiar with the literature.

But this flailing was part of my process! I arrived at my dissertation topic by reading someone else’s dissertation and deciding to answer one of the questions she posed as a possibility for future research!

And yet, I had read her dissertation before that sun-soaked day.

What was different upon this reading?

What was different was that I had been living the night before, not working. (Work is a part of life but you know how it’s easy to forget to do all the parts of life that aren’t work? Or at least to berate yourself for not focusing on work all the time? If you’ve ever been a grad student, you know what I’m talking about.)

The night before my sun-soaked AHA!, I had gone to a concert. A video game concert. Where I saw cosplayers who inspired me. And it was putting together the dissertation I read with the inspiration I felt at that concert that led me to my dissertation topic: how cosplayers find, evaluate, use, and share information.

So these are the ingredients in my process:

  1. Read what other people have written, especially keeping an eye out for interesting questions that I might want to anwer. What do I read? Whatever seems interesting.
  2. Do interesting things that aren’t work.
  3. Sit in the sun and think.

If I skip any of these three steps, I struggle to begin.