The end…always the end…

August 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Excuse me while I go a little…melancholy? I’ve got Gotye stuck in my head for some reason. Melanie went to bed a few hours ago. Robert, a couple of hours ago. And me? Well, I have insomnia. I received my final comments for my conclusion, and I thought I would work on them while I struggled to find sleep. And instead? Hello, WordPress.

There’s this folder in my hard drive. And it is called “Graduate School.”

In this folder is another folder labeled PhD, and in PhD (among all sorts of other things) is a folder labeled “Dissertation–hard drive.”

I go through phases, opening and closing all the folders you see in this image. Opening and closing all the files within those folders. Each chapter in its fourth (and final?) draft, excepting the conclusion…of course. Sigh.

I look at these icons, these reminders of a program I can’t seem to shake, and I feel. I feel so many things that I stay awake at night, feeling. It’s annoying. I sound like a hormonal high schooler. (And I should know…I was one once…half a lifetime ago. And that’s no exaggeration.)

I am so eager never to open those folders again, never to stare down “Socio-Religious Commentaries–full draft 4” or “Shakespeare Chapter–full draft 4,” dreading what I might find when I open them. Will it be as bad as I remember? Will I want to move forward, knowing that in the year since I last looked at those files my ideas have morphed and shifted in such stunning ways that I can’t even remember my central argument anymore?

There is another folder on my computer. One labeled “Melanie Lynn.” It contains the hundreds (nigh-on thousands) of photos I have taken of her since February 16th. This is the folder I instinctively open when I open my laptop–this is the one I could get lost in for hours.

I resent the one labeled “Graduate School.” It gets in the way of “Melanie Lynn.” Why isn’t “Graduate School” a distant, if it can’t be a fond, memory? I feel like a junkie hooked on a habit she desperately wants to kick…but depends on. When I think about no longer opening “Graduate School,” no longer needing to, my mind goes blank. What will that be like? Will I miss it? Will I forget that folder existed? Will I feel the urge to drag it to the trash bin, do away with it in one fell swoop?

No…I’m not that dramatic. There’s a spark of ego in me yet. There’s a bit of pride in all those drafts, all that work, all that quantifiable effort.

I’ve said it before, so believe what you’d like, but I think this is the semester. In a few months’ time, I may never open “Graduate School” again.

…never say never, though, right?

The Rogue (W)riter (plans to) Returneth

August 31, 2011 § 6 Comments

That, friends, is an example of a deeply desired (but masterfully failed) attempt at alliteration where alliteration has no business. Ah well. Them’s the breaks, as they say.

So, yes, I am (planning to) return to my writerly ways. (Visual alliteration but not auditory…damn you, English language.) I admit to taking a lengthy reprieve from writing on my dissertation, but I don’t feel guilty about it. I needed the time off. I needed the time to refocus, to reconnect, to recommit. I can see now how other ABDs* before me have gotten so near the defense and petered out. I would be willing to bet that their lack of motivation was more than likely externally imposed. I doubt, for instance, that someone whose writing fires had been previously stoked suddenly and without any warning whatsoever saw those same fires extinguish into barely smoldering ashes.

It may be difficult for those who have never taken this particular journey to understand how a student (an adult, grown-up, ready-to-move-on student) could put several years toward a program only to turn tail and run the other direction right before the last big push.

If you are such a person who has difficulty understanding this phenomenon, please allow me to offer my take on it.

The stamina required to keep pushing is unlike any other I have ever known. This is not just “finish the work.” This is not “keep your nose to the grindstone.”

It’s torture yourself despite your better judgment not to.

You may think I’m overdramatizing the writing process. I can promise you that, for my particular situation at least, I am not. In fact, I may not be “dramatizing” it enough.

Remember way back in May, when I had my embarrassing gynecological exam?

My blood pressure registered as “prehypertensive,” according to the new measurements. It rang in at 130/80. At the time, I attributed the pre-high BP to an uncomfortable conversation about my weight. While that is a possibility, here’s a stunning fact. Two months later, when I went to my first prenatal exam (at the same doctor’s office), my blood pressure registered at 114/76. Way normal. About as normal as you could want. I had also apparently lost 11 pounds since getting pregnant. At my second prenatal appointment, my blood pressure was 126/70. Still normal. (I gained 9 pounds–normal!–but I blame that entirely on all the carbs I ate in order to control my “morning” sickness…I feel like my eating habits are a little more on track now. We’ll see at the next appointment on Tuesday.)

What was the one thing that changed between May 19th and July 12th? What can really be attributed to the sudden drop from 130/80 to 114/76?

I decided to postpone graduation by four months.

This meant that I could take my time on the last chapter and the revisions. It meant I didn’t have to kill myself to try to meet ridiculous self-imposed deadlines. It meant I could actually take some time to focus on myself as my body experienced something entirely new.

Attempting to meet the August deadline, writing as quickly as I did, was physically harming me. If you can look at those numbers and not agree with me, then I must suggest that you’re simply refusing to see the point.

This process has taken a toll on many of us. And it will continue to take its toll as long as students voluntarily (that’s the worst part) submit themselves to the torture. I have not decided yet if the payoff is worth the risk–I’m still involved with the risk, you see. Ask me again in five years. As of today, my answer would be a strong no: no, I would not pursue a PhD directly after my Master’s, given the opportunity for a do-over.

So, what does all of this have to do with the Rogue (W)riter Returnething? Well, probably not much. Except to say that I have recovered, and I finally feel ready to reenter the writer’s wrestling ring. (Much better alliteration…strange image, though.)

So, what does this mean for the rest of my progress? Just how far behind am I? Are we looking at a future modeled on the break-neck pace of January through May?

Hell no!

Friends, I’m probably about 20-25 pages away from completing my dissertation. I have three pieces of literature to analyze in this final chapter, and I’ve analyzed one. So I’ve got two left. And I know what I want to say about them…I have just been waiting for the motivation to sit down and say it.

Do I care if nobody understands why I needed the break? Not really.

Do I care if nobody appreciates that I am confident in meeting this new December-graduation-deadline? Nope.

Do I care if somebody chooses to judge my process and condemn me for slamming on the brakes in July? Not even a little bit.

So, what’s the point of this entire tirade if I just don’t seem to care?

It’s to say this: I’ve been there. If you are struggling through a difficult Master’s or PhD program, I’ve been there. If you have lost all motivation to finish your dissertation or thesis, despite being mere months away from graduation, I’ve been there. If you feel as though you have been chewed up, swallowed, regurgitated, spat out, stomped on, and chewed up again by your program, I’ve been there.

Much like Dan and Terry Savage’s** campaign to end suicides in response to anti-gay bullying: It. Gets. Better. Promise.

Hang in there until you either feel that you have accomplished what you have set out to accomplish, or hang in there until you work up enough gumption to say that you refuse to take the abuse any more and will pursue other dreams. Hang in there while you allow yourself to reevaluate your priorities–and reevaluate them frequently. Check your blood pressure and weight, your lifestyle, your friendships. Choose what matters in life and hang in there until you can confidently focus on them.

So, yes, I have been hanging in there. And my dissertation has taken a new priority. Rather than being at the top of the list, it’s toward the top of the middle of the list. Still important, but not my everything.

And I’m much happier that way.

* Refresher time: ABD stands for “All But Dissertation,” meaning that all other requirements have been completed satisfactorily except for the dissertation. I am currently ABD. If I were to bow out of my program now, I would forever be an ABD.

** I am blanking now on whether or not Terry has taken Dan’s last name…. I made an editorial judgment call for the sake of completing a blog post. If I’m wrong, please feel free to correct me, but don’t be offended if I smile, shrug, and say “that’s nice.” (Point is this: it doesn’t matter, does it?)

Unexcused absence

June 6, 2011 § 4 Comments

Well, my faithful daily readers, you must have noticed a dearth in updates Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. There’s a reason:

I purposefully took three unexcused absences from my blog this weekend.

After a whirlwind week of intense proofing, editing, and revising, Robert and I went to my parents’ home to celebrate his real birthday (today! :D). At first, I had every intention of blogging those days. “The people will want to know my thoughts, surely,” I convinced myself on the two-and-a-half-hour drive on Friday afternoon. But after we settled in, I pulled out my laptop to finish making those last-minute revisions that I had previously run out of time to do (there’s a reason, but I can’t go into it right now–maybe later). I also e-mailed copies to my committee members of the introduction, chapter one, and chapter two. This week will be devoted to drafting chapter four and starting revisions on chapter three. For some reason, I feel like I’m way behind. Anyway. Just as I was hitting “send” on the e-mail to my committee, my mom and dad made it home (the former from work, the latter from a haircut). After that moment, I just wanted to be back in my parents’ home, relaxing and with as few responsibilities as possible.

So, I played blog hookie.

I figured you’d understand.

I accepted the Post-a-Day challenge because I wanted to make sure that I was composing something every single day. And I will still live up to that. As of now, I am four days down from being able to say that I wrote every single day of the year. But, to be perfectly honest, there have been (and surely will be in the future) days when I wrote multiple entries so that I could take a couple of days off; I merely set those posts to automatically publish on particular days. Even though my blog appeared to be participating in the Post-a-Day challenge (there was a post for each day, you know), I myself was still writing when I felt like it and not writing when I didn’t feel like it.

I am not giving up on this project, however. It has served a purpose and keeps me motivated.

I will still claim that I am a member of the Post-a-Day challenge, and I will not feel even one single trace of Catholic guilt over that.

In the meantime, you, my faithful readers, may be in for a load of boring posts. Life is about to go into hyperdrive for ol’ A.Hab. as she races toward graduate school deadlines in order to graduate on August 6th. If you don’t want to read boring posts, you have two options. The first, of course, is not to read them. 😉 The second, and certainly my preferred option if I were given a preference in the matter, is that you will consider making a post request at “Help A.Hab. Win the Post-A-Day Challenge!” Think of me as improv funny man Ryan Stiles and yourselves as the Whose Line audience. Shout out the scene you’d like to see A.Hab. perform for you, and she will do her best to delight! 🙂

In the meantime: let’s all wish Robert a super-duper HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!

Revisions: In Memoriam

May 30, 2011 § 8 Comments

On this Memorial Day, I am not sitting by the lake eating a hot dog. Nor am I throwing a frisbee around in the park with my dogs. Nor am I swimming off the coast of a white sandy beach.

No, my friends, on this Memorial Day, I am ensconced in my home office, work work working. I’m not looking for sympathy, really. It’s okay. I’ve observed the “holiday” in my own way. (It’s always bothered me that Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day are referred to as “holidays.” These are not exactly happy occasions. Not to my mind anyway.) I have shed a few tears to some rather poignant Memorial Day commercials, and I perused the ads for some great sales I wish I could indulge on, and I did spend my lunch stuffing my eye sockets with Bravo TV.

But mostly, I’ve spent my day paying tribute to the paragraphs, style choices, and quotes that just didn’t quite make the cut. Maybe they failed to make my point. Maybe they distracted from my goal. Maybe they only afforded me the opportunity to sound like a moron. Whatever the reason for their inadequacy, over the past couple of days, those instances have been meticulously excised from chapter drafts.

So, here’s to you, Personification: instead of using the word “I” and wearing my Big Girl Panties to argue with a critic, I relied upon you, Personification, to do the heavy lifting for me. Well, no more. No more shall I say “my dissertation argues that” and “the point argues against his thesis.” You are hereby banished.

Here’s to you, “Qtd. In”: only a marker for laziness, you lured me with the sweet promise that you would sufficiently cover my ass, and you tempted me away from doing my own research for myself. You are a seductress and a siren. But now I am a Greek soldier. Sing all you want, for I have stuffed cotton into my ears. I will forevermore rely on the original text itself.

Here’s to you, Generalization: when I was ashamed of my lack of knowledge, you whispered in my ear, “just say ‘most’ instead.” Little did either of us know, Generalization, employing the word “most” merely begs the questions “who” and “which.” Much like your twin sister “Qtd. In,” you reassured me that I would not need to do additional research. You have likewise been banished from the text. Most of the time.

Here’s to you, Lexical Errors: you shrink away from my eagle eye when I edit, convincing me with your pound puppy whimpers, “but I know what you meant to say….” Allow me to correct your shy attempt at misapprehension: meaning to say and saying are two very different ideas. I will find you, no matter where you hide. And I will eradicate you with proper sentence structure and concision, in spite of your pitiful pouting.

Hand me my screwdriver. I’m in the business of tightening this project.

Battling the I Don’t Wanna’s, part two: giving in

May 28, 2011 § 9 Comments

Yesterday, I lowered my sword Steel Will, fatigued and drained. I stared up at the Dragon “I Would But” and croaked, “You win.” I fell to my knees, too exhausted to hold up my own body. “I Would But” spewed black bile of guilt, shame, and humiliation over my head, drenching me until I became invisible.

I met V at our coffee shop for our weekly debriefing meetings. In these meetings, we give each other progress reports, offer support and encouragement when it’s needed (and wag our fingers on occasion). Twice while we talked, I felt close to tears. But we were in public, and I had to gain some control over myself. Today, I don’t remember what brought me to tears. It could only have been utter emotional exhaustion.

V left to meet a friend for lunch, and I called Robert. “I don’t think I can do it today, honey,” I murmured over the phone. The shame I felt giving in overpowered my ability to speak at a normal volume. With nary a negative word, Robert agreed. “You have to listen to your body, Amanda,” he consoled me. I went home to my husband and ate lunch. We went to the movies (Hangover 2, which is a must see if you enjoyed the first). We had dinner and caught up on our TiVo recordings. I forgot to write a post.

I rested.

Today I will dig my way through the mire of guilt and humiliation. I will draw up Steel Will once more and climb to my feet. I will engage the idle Dragon in battle. And I will win.

What approval means to an approval-seeking people-pleaser

May 20, 2011 § 3 Comments

I thrive on being patted on the head. As someone who pats her own back so infrequently and rarely without a derisive back-handed remark, I practically need approval from others in order to breathe.

This began when I was told in kindergarten that I had behaved well enough to earn the prestigious privilege of first-choice when picking my sleeping mat for nap time. “Amanda,” I remember Ms. B saying so sweetly, “I have been very impressed with your good behavior. Today, you get to pick the first sleeping mat.” I popped out of my seat as fast as I could and practically raced the sorry chumps who were much worse behaved than I. Grabbing the most desirable mat (the one that was still a little bit fluffy and had fewer rips), I taunted the rest of the class with my trophy. I was a better student, a better example, a more-favoritest-favorite.

And now I’m 29 years old. And today, folks, today was an “Amanda gets the first mat” kind of day.

I met with my dissertation director this morning, and we discussed the three latest chapters I’ve given her. She said a few times throughout our two-hour meeting that she thought the writing was working, that I was really on track, and that she was impressed with the rate at which I was producing.

I am glowing, my friends! 🙂 Literally glowing. I have been all day long!

Approval from my director means approval from someone whose opinion I hold in extremely high regard. Approval from her means that I have pleased one of the most important people in my life. Approval from her means that it’s okay to give myself approval.

I do know this is backwards…but I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who seeks self-approval from the approval of others.

Today has been a wonderful day. I am making progress; she’s noticing; we’re both happy with the shape the project is taking.

What do you want to read?

May 15, 2011 § 8 Comments

Last week I announced that I had made some changes to the blog. One of those changes was adding a new page where you, my incredibly brilliant and fun readers, can submit ideas for topics. (Just visit this page here: Help A.Hab. Win the Post-A-Day Challenge.)

I’m starting to lose my steam. I want to do this challenge not just for the sake of doing the challenge, but also so that I can be constantly writing. Doing these posts every day helps me to stay active in my writing exercises and keep me from only writing in Academese on a fairly esoteric subject.

So, seriously, help a girl out, will ya? 😉 Any topic will do, really. And it can be as simple as a single word. I’m sure I can spin a topic off a single word. I’m pretty good at that sort of thing. 😉

But today I’m just sort of creatively dried-up. We’ve had a relaxing day; so relaxing, in fact, that I very nearly forgot to write anything today. And, in my book, that’s actually a pretty good day!

Battling the I Don’t Wanna’s

May 11, 2011 § 7 Comments

Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where A-Ha moments happen every second of the day?

Why, it would take virtually no effort whatsoever to be motivated! Sure, it might be mentally taxing to have an inspirational thought every time you think, but still. At least then, you wouldn’t be faced with the I Don’t Wanna’s.

The I Don’t Wanna’s: a tough little army of reasons, excuses, justifications, and plain ol’ not-wanting-to’s whose prime objective is to keep you from your work. Like facing a moat or a fire-breathing dragon, you (brave knight) must face this barrier in order to rescue your work (sweet princess) from her assured demise.

My I Don’t Wanna’s come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes, they are as feeble as a mere “but I just don’t want to.” Easily hammered down and defeated. “But I have to,” comes my battle-axe response. Done. “But I just don’t want to” is no more.

Sometimes they are massive, scaly, venomous dragons with wings that beat deafening thunder. The Dragon “I Would But This Other Thing Takes Priority” buffets me with fiery guilt, shame, and regret. I am pelted by hailstones of “remember how you ignored this friend or that activity,” and I am almost always brought to my knees. Weakened. Humbled. Humiliated.

But, if we really are the brave knights we think we are, if we really do intend to accomplish the goals we ourselves set before us to accomplish, then we have no choice but to take to our feet again. Hoist that shield up. Draw the sword.

Our battle cry changes. “But I have to” becomes a mighty yawp of “I will because I want to!”

We charge the Dragon “I Would But,” raise the sword overhead, and push through until Steel Will slices through fleshy idleness.

We will be victorious.

The A-Ha Moment: dissertation edition

May 4, 2011 § 7 Comments

Alias: the eureka effect.

You know that moment in older cartoons when the mad scientist would stare contemplatively at his experiment and suddenly holler, “Eureka!” Typically much to the chagrin of a mild-mannered someone or something who inevitably jumps to the ceiling and hangs there by claws or fingernails until such time as the heart rate has been restored to normal.

Dissertation writers (hell, all writers really) experience the “a-ha” moment in fascinating moments.

In the shower.
Something about hot water, steam, and delicious-smelling soap allows seemingly incongruous thoughts to slip and slide inside the brain until: a-ha! They interlock.

Enthralled by television or engaged in a conversation.
Much like Dr. Gregory House, the stuck dissertator will hear that one right phrase uttered innocently by a New Jersey housewife or a dear friend, and all of a sudden: a-ha! The once occluded argument becomes not only clear but obviously so.

Over coffee, tea, or liquor.
The dissertator might whine and bemoan the project, distracted by her own monologue-turned-soliloquy, entirely ignorant of her miserable audience who foolishly asked, “how are you?” And then: a-ha! Twisting in circuitous and disjointed paths, the dissertator discovers her lost little point in the Forest of Angst.

In bed. Asleep…or otherwise.
Finally lulled to a state of ease, comfort, peace, and rest, dissembling barriers disassemble and tumble down to reveal a shimmering truth. Suddenly sitting up (perhaps to the disappointment of her sleeping…or otherwise…spouse), the dissertator exclaims: a-ha! Despite the inconvenience, she conceives the argument in perfect perfection.

Although Oprah, mistress of momentous moments, might pooh-pooh my single-minded construct of the “a-ha” moment, correcting my mistakes and warning me never again to err, perhaps she’s the limited one. Could an “a-ha” moment stretch beyond the sphere of self-actualizing psychological development? I believe so, yes. You see, friends, the dissertator’s “a-ha” moment is a precious commodity; infrequent, sparse, and rare, it lives at the threshold of insecurity and pride. Seek it too doggedly, and it will shrink into fear and doubt, the best cloaks of invisibility this side of Hogwarts. But ignore it, heed it no mind, hell even forget about it, and it will crash into you at full force.

I had an “a-ha” moment yesterday morning while reading, again, Twelfth Night. And, for fear of frightening it, I have only shared the revelation with a few trusted friends. I will attempt to “raise it,” as one of my committee members put it today at lunch. For, she told me, nobody else will do it for me.

In the meantime, if you and I are in a conversation, please disregard any future exclamations of “eureka!” that may issue forth from my entire being. Revel in them with me, won’t you?

Meditation on the Writing Process and Dissertations: Time for a wee break

May 3, 2011 § 4 Comments

I’ve been feeling a lot like a loser lately. And that’s only in the sense that in the wake of an uber-productive weekend (including two revised and polished chapter drafts sent back to my dissertation director), I have been extraordinarily unproductive. Sunday, I chose to rest after grading without feeling guilty about it. And I did rest. And I did not feel guilty. Monday, I did major domestic chores, which included paying bills for a couple of hours and filling out a job application for the Princeton Review so that I can proctor an LSAT exam in a few weeks. I didn’t expect either of those tasks to take as long as they did, but the Internet was acting rather slow for me…I imagine it’s because of Osama Bin Laden’s death, honestly. I think people were clogging up the Interwebs, if such a thing can happen.

Today, though.

Today I have been productive. I’ve read Twelfth Night, which I’ve been trying to do (according to my schedule on iProcrastinate) since last Wednesday. I’ve dog-eared the passages that will be particularly useful to my argument in Chapter Three. And now I’ve chosen to take a little break, not a nap, before plugging away at the segment on Twelfth Night.

As much as I fight it and struggle with guilt, breaks are important. They afford us an opportunity to take a breath, to walk away from the project, to gain some perspective. They might even allow us to recharge our batteries, reignite our motivation to work, offer us the chance to talk to someone else. As I write this massive project, the largest project I have ever worked on, I have had to reevaluate my writing process, my research process, even my very thinking process. How I create ideas, cultivate them, and rework them until they’re cogent has been entirely different from any other project I’ve worked on. No, not even seminar papers (those little conference-papers-to-be or wanna-be-publications) in all their 20-to-25-page glory are developed in quite the same way as a dissertation. I was once told, and I once naively believed, that writing a dissertation is doable simply because, in theory, it’s five or six seminar papers smushed together.

For those who have wisely avoided graduate school (I kid, but only a little), a seminar paper is the end-of-semester culmination of theory and application for a single course that tends to take an overwhelming majority of the total course percentage. If you bomb your seminar paper, you’re in a pretty bad place. Seminar papers can range in required page counts, but most fall between a requisite 20-30 pages minimum. In my line of experience, most professors ask for a 20-25 page paper.

Theoretically, a dissertation chapter would fall on the high-end of a seminar paper page range. But, no, dissertations are not five or six seminar papers smushed together. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a bold-faced liar and you should call them so to their face.

The difference is fairly stark:

1. Dissertations require you to maintain a single theoretical argument from page 1 to page 250. You have to span chapters with this single argument. The success of your dissertation can hinge a great deal on how well you articulate and consistently discuss that argument. It’s all about the follow-through. A 20-25 page paper, though long and daunting in its own way, simply doesn’t have the same requirement about it.

2. Although most PhD candidates will have written more than five or six seminar papers in their entire graduate careers, they likely will not have consistently written on the exact same topic from paper to paper. Frankly, doing so is improbable because of the very nature of graduate work. If a student has had the opportunity to take several graduate-level classes that have curricula identical enough to warrant repeat topics, then that student has been done a vast disservice. Although I haven’t had a graduate-level American lit. course, a fact that I would correct given the opportunity to, the British lit. courses I’ve taken at the graduate level simply did not make it possible for me to write on the same topic consistently.

3. The composition of a dissertation is less about the writing and more about the pre-writing. Yes, pages are what matter. If you have not written a page, then you have not really begun “writing” your dissertation. However. More often than not, the conceptualization of a dissertation takes a long time. (The amount of time differs on an individual basis, but for me, it was two years.) During this time, the candidate is conducting research, asking questions, coming to conclusions, and assessing other writers’ arguments in order to make their own. If a dissertation-writer failed to take the time (however long that is for their own purposes) to do the research and ask the questions and come to the conclusions, then that student’s own argument simply cannot be taken seriously. (How can one claim expertise on a subject, claim even a convincing opinion, when the proper steps have not been taken first?)

Because I am still learning the intricacies of dissertation-writing, I’ll leave my list there for now. But I will clarify this point once more: the dissertation is unlike any writing project I have ever undertaken before. That alone requires me to rework my writing process until it is something that I can sustain over the course of a years-long writing project.

Break’s over. On to Chapter Three.

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