I was rereading my journal a few weeks ago, when I came across the following line:
I’m so tired and scared that I literally can’t think straight
When I wrote those words, I was at the end of a long stretch in which I’d uncharacteristically overworked myself. I’d consciously chosen to work every day, for too many hours, for several weeks in a row, but was resentful about it. Having to do so was unexpected, undesired, and—as my journal entries repeatedly insisted at a nearly audible whine—Not. My. Fault. I can’t believe that [expletive] [expletive]. If that [expletive] hadn’t [expletive] done what they did, I [expletive] wouldn’t have to be…you get the point.
I used to feel, when I was a graduate student, that working on my dissertation was like being in love. It was the first thing I thought of when I woke up in the morning, and the last thing I thought about before falling asleep at night. I spent long, empty hours in between dreaming of its shape: who it really was, what it meant when it said this or that, whether or not our ideas were compatible. Whether it would leave me for someone else.
During my first meeting with the man who would become my dissertation advisor, I told him, with complete sincerity, “If I'm not done with this program in four years, I want you to kick me out.”
I should say that my program required two years of coursework. We had to take written and oral prelims. Not the kind of prelims with a reading list built around your dissertation proposal, oh no. These prelims were in three distinct subfields for which the department may or may not have offered coursework. I also planned on doing a qualitative study. More precisely, an ethnography.
You don’t need me to do the math, but I feel duty bound to lay it out anyway: Even if I’d zipped through all the steps of becoming ABD in the first three years (I didn’t), there was no way I was going to enter and exit the field, code and analyze my data, write the diss, get feedback from my committee, and revise to their satisfaction—all within the fourth year of my program. To say nothing of depositing it, a poorly explained process with the grad school that required submitting the proper paperwork months ahead of time and enduring an in-person, page-by-page formatting review that reduced the heartiest of grad students to a jellied bundle of tears.
In other words, there was no frickin’ way I was going to finish the program in four years.
“I did not think I was an atrocious writer,” my friend Ashani texted me a few months ago, “until a prestigious journal told me in two rounds of reviews that my writing is unclear. Argghh!”
The next day, I got an urgent message from a former coaching client that began, “I know you’re busy but…” When I got him on the phone later that afternoon, he said he’d just gotten some discouraging feedback about an article he’d thought was ready to send out for review. By the time we spoke, he was thinking of giving up on the piece entirely.
A few hours later, I talked with a current client, a junior faculty member who was presenting and publishing at a steady rate, but nevertheless felt worried about her tenure file. An article she thought was a perfect fit for a special issue had been rejected and she was pretty disappointed. After talking about it for a while, she finally voiced the fear that lay beneath her disappointment:
“Maybe,” she said slowly, “I’m just not cut out for this job.”
So I roll into my office Monday morning, just itching to sit down and write. I’d had plenty of sleep over the weekend, and my head was buzzing with ideas about the book I’m working on—so many, in fact, that I had a mass of Post-It notes plastered to my hand. Some of the notes weren’t even legible. But a few said “Idea!” on them, followed by at least one juicy phrase. I knew I could make something out of them, I just needed a little time to sit, to sift. To think.
But when I opened the door to my office, my book’s Writing Beast wasn’t there. (You know the Beast I mean--whatever idea it is that you’re struggling to express in your writing.) Instead there were these…interlopers lounging around our cage.
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Michelle Boyd. Writer, Scholar, Coach