Doubling Back

I emerged from Netheruary break on Monday still in a bit of a haze from the
weekend. Did you see that the Giants won the Superbowl? Enjoyed
every minute of it.

But this is an entry about the diss. I expected that I would bound back
into my daily paces on Monday, resume the 9-noon sessions, aiming for roughly
two pages each day so as to have a draft of Chapter Four by the end of February.
But I fell into a slump. I couldn’t see the chapter. I knew vaguely what I
wanted to do. I had an outliney plan, a few notes, a bottle of Vitamin Water. I had the graphs I
painstakingly built day by day throughout January. And I remain fond of the
graphs. I think they’re quite good for getting at what I take to be the aim of
the chapter. But! I couldn’t grasp the chapter; couldn’t sense it,
couldn’t begin it in a smart-enough place. And, therefore, piling them up 2 p.
by 2 p. by 2 p., I typed nearly seven pages of rubbish between Monday and
Wednesday. I would excerpt some of it to win my point; then again, I would
never subject you to such inhospitable treatment.

Is this self-deprecation? Nah. It’s an acknowledgement that even
at half-way into the project, it has its challenges. Writing a
dissertation is not like climbing a hill for sledding; the burden felt in the
first half does not mean the second half will be a wild and reckless
get-out-of-my-way joy ride with hot cocoa waiting when I’ve had enough. Instead,
because I am so far removed from much of the work I did in the first two
chapters, I struggle against the need to re-explain, re-set-up, re-establish
some of the conceptual bounds I introduced early on. Thank goodness, my
director listened to my dilemma yesterday and told me this: "Give it a clean
break." And so I have. I began again, setting aside the seven
awkward, stilted, unfocused pages I cringed through Mon-Wed. Suddenly, it
is much better (although the sun did not beam through the gray clouds; it is
Syracuse in February). I can sense the chapter, and the opening
gambit is a million times (er, at least 10,000 times) better than what I tried
the first go-round.

What I want to note about this is that I am becoming both more humble and
more mature (i.e., flexible) about my writing. I knew something was wrong;
I knew a conversation in which I could unload a few of my cryptic thoughts would
help. And I didn’t feel so strongly about the seven pages that I was the
least bit sorry about relegating them to the junk heap. I remember a time
when I would have felt so invested in something of that length that I would have
clung desperately to it and finessed it until I believed it was
salvageable–even if it wasn’t. I’m still getting used to the idea of scrapping
large passages–even pages–of whatever I’ve written. I’ve never found the
thought all that appealing. Well-timed, I guess, given that I leafed through
Murray’s The Craft of Revision after the title turned up on the WPA-L the
other day. He begins Chapter One, "Write to Rewrite," with a short
epigraph from Beckett: "Fail. Fail again. Fail better." I suppose it’s
reasonable to say I am failing better today than I was earlier this week.


  1. … and yet you must subject us!! I’m living vicariously through your diss torment. Don’t draw the curtain this close to the final scene.

  2. Don’t worry, Mike. I’m not giving up. Nothing like that. Just wallowing in the small uncertainties along the way.

    With good fortune I’ll have the project more or less in hand by the end of the summer or early fall, just in time to pass my vicarship along to some other enthusiastic Ph.D. student.

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