Friday, January 5, 2007

Dissertation Blues

In all dissertation-writing lore, they tell you to work on it every day. Even if your day is spent shuffling papers around or writing yourself notes. Every day.

I know too well why this is. Because each day a wall begins to build itself between you and your topic. Overnight, the wall built up is pretty flimsy -- ricepaper. You can tear it down with one hand. After a missed day, it turns into particle board. Give it a few days, and you have to center yourself Karate Kid-style before you can bust through the solid pine. But after two weeks, you can't just brace yourself and start running, expecting it to crumble. It's solid granite. You need a chisel.

So today is my third official day of hurling myself at my dissertation, only to end up bruised and achy. Earlier versions of me would've been worked both New Year's Day AND Gerald Ford's official-but-totally-bogus day of mourning. (Personally, I think our flags should be at half-mast for James Brown. He brightened all our lives. Days AND nights.) I schedule the time to work on the diss. But I can't make myself work on it. The first day, scheduling the time was as much as I manage. Yesterday, I actually opened the file of Chapter 2. But everything in the world is more pleasing or important -- especially reading other people's blogs, checking the damn Wiki, watching recorded BBC shows that I've seen a hundred times, daydreaming about totally sailing through a campus visit, daydreaming about totally bombing a campus visit, and fretting. I'm telling you -- these things are full-time gigs! I don't have time to write a dissertation. Today, I managed to work it into a conversation I was having -- you know, as if it were real. I think this is a real step up.

Part of it may be that Senior Scholar said he wanted to see it. Today, one of my interviewers said she was interested in seeing a chapter (though not in a way that made it seem official and part of the hiring process -- don't worry, I'm not fooled -- it all counts). But I think a big part of my block is what I experienced when I was writing the job letters: I'm thinking so much of how I'm crafting my interests for others that I've forgotten how to focus on the work -- mano a mano. I have all these other voices in my head. In order to write my dissertation, I need to get up in the morning and get to the laptop before life has intruded too much, when I'm still wrapped in the cotton-soaked fog of caffeine-withdrawal, but starting to come out of it. Too much coffee, too much conversation -- and that's it. I've blown the entire day. Might as well just go back to bed and start over. And then the rest of the day I try to convince myself that I'm going to be able to sit still and work on the beast, but who am I kidding? I'm just waiting out the rest of the day.

These explanations are all well and good, but the real reason I haven't worked on my dissertation is I've forgotten how to write it. I turned in a chapter to my advisor and then I forgot how to write it. Yes, it's true that Chapter 2 is different from Chapter 1 -- that it may require some different approach, but you know, I worry. Especially in the first-year writing courses we all have to teach at some point, we tell undergrads that what they're learning is transferable -- whether we teach them process techniques, rhetorical triangles, or critical reading and writing habits. What if they're not transferable? What if every time we sit down we have to learn how to write all over again, invent anew a self who can write?

Oh, how depressing. I'm going to go watch a movie and wait for the rest of the day to pass.


Anonymous said...

If it cheers you up at all, I think that the daymare of being terrified that you'll forget how to write is as common for us as the teeth falling out nightmare.

I know that I crippled by it right now as I begin to start my comprehensive exams--a 60 pages in 6 weeks writing process.

It's strange though, because I've never thought of myself as someone with writing anxiety--and all of a sudden here it is.

Earnest English said...

I've had that teeth falling out nightmare many times! In classical Jungian dream analysis, that signals a fear of aging. I wonder if dissertation phobia is fear of professionalism?

Your comp exams sound like my comp exams. I had a goal of a fellowship deadline to help me get things done.

Is it generalized writing anxiety? or is a whole imposter complex thing?

I wish you very good luck!