Thanks all so much for the wonderful comments and support. I particularly loved Scrivener’s “Hi, I’m Stewgad and I’m addicted to my dissertation.” And, hey, I got quoted to myself! That was really cool. Thanks, Weezy! Anyway, thanks to my blogofamily for the encouragement. It totally helps.
Today, I’m back in the Cage again. I had a very L.A. Story moment in the elevator on the way up — it wasn’t exactly talking to me, but damn near enough that it made me wonder if I was in a movie or on Punk’d or something.
There I was, feeling a little grumpy about coming to work on the fucking dissertation on a sunny, cool Saturday, with only a yogurt and a can of V8 for lunch because I need to lose 5 lbs. And, to add insult to injury, I’m coffeeless because I’ve given it up (again) after 2 migraines this last week. So, needless to say, I’m pissed. As I push the elevator button for my floor, I notice right underneath it a button that says, I kid you not, “Help is on the way.”
This made me wonder. For what purpose is this button? Do you push it when you need help in the elevator? Or does it just light up automatically when the elevator repair guy is leaving the Dunkin’ Donuts with his bucket of tools to come fix the thing? And, then, I got to wondering if it worked in all situations. Could I get into the elevator and push it when I’m stuck with the dissertation and then down would rappel a team of helpers in their S.W.A.T. team gear and kevlar and teflon and shit with shirts that said “D.O.D.A.” (Department of Dissertation Assistance) and utility vests chock full of the perfect tools to clear out clogged writing arteries, or to help tweak a frustrating clause ? I came awfully close to pushing the thing, just because it was so tempting to see what would happen — just in case it really was an all-purpose help function that is now standard at major research libraries to help poor dissertators like me.
It is probably instead an example of the inflated prose that runs so rampant today — the kind of prose that William Zissner lambasts in On Writing Well. Instead of saying “Help” on that damned button, they squeezed in “Help is on the way.” Maybe it was to reassure the poor slob stuck in the damned elevator. But it just seemed ridiculous to me, unless it could live up to its implied promise at all times and could really deliver the guys from D.O.D.A.
I mooched my mom’s copy of Zissner a few weeks ago when I visited her, but I only picked it up yesterday when I was stuck with the significance section at one point. It was amazingly helpful and reassuring. In the first few pages I read yesterday he said something that really moved me. He said “Some people write by day, others by night. Some people need silence, others turn on the radio. Some write by hand, some by typewriter, some by talking into a tape recorder. Some people write their first draft in one long burst and then revise; others can’t write the second paragraph until they have fiddled endlessly with the first. But all of them are vulnerable and all of them are tense.” (5) All writers are vulnerable and all are tense. This really resonated. Damn straight, we’re tense!
Which, of course, Spousal Unit has noticed. This morning, he decided again to weigh in on the state of my dissertation. (Man, that guy is on a roll — it’s like the floodgates have opened and I can’t stuff all that well-intentioned criticism and insight back into that emotional levee.) After he got done interrogating me about why I was doing what I was doing and why it wasn’t working for me, he said something amazingly insightful. He told me that every dissertation writer he knew went into a period as they were finishing it where it was all they did and all that they thought about — that they gave themselves wholly to it. He said that he thought I wasn’t giving my whole self to it because I was afraid of getting hurt. (Added bonus that this conversation took place while I was in the shower, and so truly naked as well as emotionally laid bare. The man’s got great timing.)
But, what he seemed to be saying, in Zissner’s terms, was that I had the tense part down cold with this process, but I wasn’t making myself vulnerable in it. I wasn’t giving myself to it completely.
And, dammit, I know he’s right. And I know exactly why I’m not. When I started grad school at this institution, I was thrilled. I felt like I’d made it into the Major Leagues. It was beyond wonderful. I came in confident, excited, and completely passionate about my project. I threw myself into it whole-heartedly. I was in my twenties. I did everything with my whole heart then. I whole-heartedly enjoyed my seminars, I whole-heartedly prepared for my exams, I whole-heartedly wrote what I thought was adequate, while undoubtedly flawed, answers to exam questions. I whole-heartedly went into my oral exams expecting the kind of critique that you would give to someone that you cared about, but could see is misguided. Gentle, respectful, yet firm. I thought I was going to get guidance and help. God help my poor little innocent self, I really did.
As I’m sure I’ve told you by now, I was eviscerated. Or maybe, more accurately, shot through that whole heart that I had laid open for the committee to see.
Absofukinlutely, I haven’t given myself over to the dissertation process. My whole heart isn’t in it because it took me three years at least to stop bleeding from that wound. And, frankly, I don’t know if that poor stitched up little thing can take it again. In fact, I’ve spent years and years building up resistance to giving my whole heart to this — creating defenses and sneaky strategies to protect myself from them, and from myself — from my own inclination to be open and passionate and wholly invested. In fact, for a few years after the exam whenever I had to meet with my advisor, I’d spend a moment beforehand visualizing a suit of armor for myself. You know, those huge metal ones for knights. I’d put it on and walk into his office clunking so loudly I was always a bit surprised that he didn’t hear it. Of course, so many things have changed since then — my committee, my advisor, my status as a professor, my perspective on my project. But, still, I have this fear.
Spousal Unit is SO so right. I’m terrified of becoming vulnerable to the project again. Maybe it is enough to know it, and to recognize it. Or maybe if I get back into that elevator and press the magic button, help will arrive and teach me how to let go of my defenses, how to trust myself and my project and my ideas, and to forgive myself enough for being open at that moment in the past that I can relearn how to do it again, only this time with a little more wisdom and a little more strength.