Three years ago, riding that wave of confidence and excitement that only completed writing projects can give, I bolted up four flights of stairs, strode through the isles and isles of books, and arrived at my advisor’s library carrel to turn in my first completed dissertation chapter.
He looked up from his work, raised his eyebrows at me, and accepted the stack of paper I handed to him. Then, he gestured for me to sit down. There were two chairs in his carrel, the wooden desk one upon which he sat, and the sad, sagging, vaguely orange fabric armchair that smacked of Army surplus and that he had to have dragged into there in 1949. This chair was clearly a beloved chair, since it bore the evidence of thirty years of heavy use by a heavy guy, so that when I sat in it, I sank in enough to be able to comfortably rest my chin on my knees and dangle my feet. Once marginally situated with great indignity, I looked up and across the very little room at him, as he asked me about the next steps. I told him what I had planned for the second chapter. He asked a few questions, and then told me to go to it.
As I was struggling to remove myself from the chair, he stopped me and made me promise that I wouldn’t show my dissertation to anyone else until he had approved what I had written. Struggling awkwardly with my tangled legs and elbows, I looked up at him and promised. Of course I wouldn’t show it to committee members until I had received his feedback. I wanted to make sure it would be the best it could be, and I knew that it would only get there with his guidance. This seemed to satisfy him. Finally, having managed to surface from the chair, as I headed for the door I asked him when he thought he’d have his comments to me on the chapter. He then told me that he would not comment on my dissertation until it was complete. That he wanted to see it as an organic whole, before he took me to task for not doing something in the first chapter that I was planning on doing in the last one. Neophyte that I was, having never written a dissertation, this seemed pretty reasonable. I mean, who’d want to be critiqued for something that you planned to do already? So, I said fine, and walked away.
Six months later, depressed, overwhelmed, and struggling with the burden of writing a whole dissertation in one fell swoop and with the directionlessness that I had stumbled into and that he had cultivated, I returned to the carrel to give him a modified version of the same chapter and ask for feedback. I was nervous, but at least this time knew enough not to get sucked into the orange octopus chair. I stood in the doorway (where there was the most space) and asked him for feedback. I told him that I needed help and thought that if he could comment on what I had already written, it would really help me to know where to go next. I admitted weakness, abased myself to a greater authority, and asked for help. He gave me some vague answer, took the chapter, and then turned and dropped it onto a small table stacked 3 foot deep in manuscripts still in their cardboard printer’s boxes and loosely differentiated student papers. As I watched my own paper disappear into the anonymity of the stack, my heart sunk. I would not get his help. I would not get his feedback. I was on my own.
So, I did what I could. I struggled through for another year or so and wrote a pretty crappy whole dissertation. 200-some pages. Without feedback. And, because he had made me promise and because I was crazy enough to keep my word, I didn’t show it to anyone else other than friends and family.
Of course, six weeks later when he sat me down in the library conference room (he seemed to realize that this wasn’t exactly and orange-chair kind of occasion) to tell me what he thought of said complete draft, he had complaint after complaint about how bad it was and how repetitive and how thick and wooden and unclear and how I made the same mistakes over and over from the beginning on. Yeah, no shit, Sherlock. Then, in a total surprise move, he told me he was retiring and that I needed a new advisor and he had found me one in his replacement. (Which, despite the assholishness of this move, was the best thing that has happened to my dissertation.)
But, the point of telling this story is not to grouse about my old advisor. (Although, it is an added bonus) The point is that i think that yesterday, I finally threw off the psychic chains generated by those encounters.
The first sign of this sea change was that yesterday morning, as Spousal Unit slept in, I woke up with dissertation ideas. Nagging little interesting ideas that arrived without agony and that needed to be expressed, recorded, acknowledged. So, I got out of bed and wrote them down. Interesting, I thought.
Then, later that afternoon I talked on the phone for hours to my best friend from grad school about our respective manuscripts. (She’s way ahead of me and is writing a book.) In that conversation, I sorted out this major organizational problem with my introduction that I had been struggling with for a couple of weeks. When we got off the phone, I sat down and started to write.
And the words poured out like water. I couldn’t type fast enough. I crystallized ideas and wove through important connections. I could see patterns emerging and outlines forming. I was swept up. Finally, things slowed down to a trickle, and I realized an hour had passed. I took a deep breath, and stopped to read over what I had written. As I read, I saw that something huge had happened. I found my voice. In all of the new material I had cut all of the bullshit “this dissertation” passive constructions and just said “I.” I did this, I found this, I had these questions. I found the answers. And then, just as suddenly, I felt like the dissertation was mine. My dissertation. Mine.
When I think back on the rules my old advisor imposed on my dissertation — no feedback, no other readers, give me the whole thing all at once — it seems patently clear to me that not only was this abusive, but that he was absolutely trying to control it, make it HIS. And I let him because I believed that whatever I would produce would be such shit that no one would want to see it until he had fixed it. Because of this, the dissertation became something that I was ashamed of, because I thought that he clearly was. So, who was I to argue? He was the freaking expert, after all.
To survive this miasma of badness, I distanced myself from my dissertation, and built up methods of survival that kept it away from me and me away from it. But, Saturday morning when Spousal Unit told me that I was holding back, and that I had to put my whole heart into this or else I would never finish it, I realized he was right. And, so I decided to do it. To give myself over to this. The only explanation I have for Sunday is that In the process of giving myself to the dissertation, I broke my dissertation out of the old advisor’s grasp. It was like that scene in A Wrinkle in Timewhen Meg frees Charles Wallace from IT by loving him. I think that by giving my heart to my dissertation, I broke it away from old advisor and brought it back to me.
In fact, the more I thought about this today the more I think that his attempt to control my dissertation was not a sign that he expected it to be shitty, but that he expected it to be something great. So great that he wanted a part of it, somehow. And, yesterday and today, as I put my whole heart into writing the story that I want to tell, as I want to tell it, I am also starting to think that it could be something great. Something that I like and am proud of. But, regardless, I know that from now on, whatever else this dissertation is, it is mine.