Help is on the Way

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.


At 4:06 PM Suz said...

I have been thinking about skiing again. Once a guy took me to a high slope at the top of Mammoth that was seriously beyond my skill level. And there was no way out, except of course down. I had never seen a slope so steep; you could see it curve but could not see it end. No mountain below it -- it just kept going, steeply forever. I was sure there was absolutely no way I could ski it.

And it was covered with snow like I have never seen before or since: a field of snow/ice in rough irregular chuncks, about basketball size. It looked like the riprap rocks that line a steep bank for erosion control.. No path, no mogols, no treeline, nothing in sight but the sky and these white chuncks and steepness.

I absolutely knew I could not do it. I was scared to death. Of course there were no other skiers in sight -- who would go to that place? Good ole Will grinned and shot off in front of me and didn't look back. I waited just a moment before I decided I did not want to be stuck there alone so I just took off. I knew I could not dare think. And if I slowed down or heaven forbid, stopped, I would freeze with fear and never move again.

I went faster than I have ever gone because if you tried to turn to slow down, these rock/snows would surely make you fall. I just shot nearly straight down in what was probably a controlled fall. I did not stop or slow down until I reached normal snow. I was as focused as I have ever been --and fully committed. I never gained trust that I could do it until I had. And was it a thrill to make it down!

I think this is what your partner is saying?

You are going to be so thrilled to make it down this slope and you will never have to do it again!

At 9:15 AM Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I completely understand your grad school experience... I went, worked hard, was crushed, finished my courses and left town. Before I left I set up a committee -- but could sense that none of them really thought I'd be finishing... and, in truth, neither did I. That was four years ago.

I've been playing at writing it for a while now -- but didn't get serious until hubby got a job offer in a smaller job market where it was very clear that I'd need it to get a job and join him....

This summer I've been doing the Area Papers (paper comps... only perhaps more evil as their standard of writing is to write a paper suitable for publication in a minor journal... ). --- which is much to the surprise of my supervisor. I've also written what could end up to be most of my first chapter this summer...

In many ways I envy the science PhDs -- gathering the data is a pretty concrete process. You design the project, do the project and then write it up. The project itself has a start and end and makes sense in the middle.... writing our dissertations just isn't like that.

At 5:52 PM Scrivener said...

Have I told you recently how totally brilliant you are? This post is so, so smart.

I've got a few self-analytical reasons why I haven't finished mine too. I was not eviscerated in my orals--no one was exactly blown away by me, but I passed. (As the very patriarchal senior member of my orals committee told me, I had "proved myself minimally competent at discussing literature." Gee thanks.) I think my defensiveness is a less professional one--I made it through childhood with some very strong defense mechanisms, which are making it very difficult to put all my self-worth eggs in the one basket of my dissertation. There's also the issue of writing the diss as a father: I will never manage to put my whole self into some thing for work, because a huge chunk of myself belongs to being a good father.

All those differences enumerated, this post still strikes a real chord with me. Thanks for the analysis.

At 4:34 PM Stewgad said...

Thanks Suz, I think it is exactly what Spousal Unit is saying -- that I have to be completely committed. Hopefully, as I become so, I won't konk my head on any huge boulders of ice, but like you will focus and fly!

Inside P.P. Great news on the paper -- and on the process that is bringing you to your dissertation work. Good luck!

Scriv, I'm blushing -- I think that's one of the nicest things anyone's said to me. Hugs to you.

As for divided loyalties -- it's so true. I told Spousal Unit yesterday that I was afraid that if I gave everything to my Dissertation, then I wouldn't have enough left over to give to him. He told me that doing my dissertation was the same thing as giving to him, and that he'd take care of everything else. Which was great -- and the benefit of being grown up. You just can't explain to kids that you don't have the emotional energy to give to them for the next six months, and so they'll have to give to themselves and to you instead. (Well, one probably could, but they shouldn't. And I know that YOU wouldn't!) I don't envy the juggling act that you'll have to do there -- but hopefully your little bobbins will energize as well as drain as they bang away on the drums and guitar and leap fearlessly into wading pools.


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