What a weird writing day this has been. I was all set to type up a blog post (one I’ve been planning for a while) about my philosophy of reading and the “Precious Seconds Rule”–the empowering guideline I formulated for myself at my lowest possible moment, the standard by which I’ve been judging so many pieces for Good Writing Breaks, the tenet that shapes my brand-spanking-new consciousness of what it means to be a reader and a writer, the credo I should have written months ago but have put off in favor of quick commentary and instant gratification. (Dinty! Dinty! Dinty! Make my stats go up another hundred views and I’ll add a page to my web site called Dinty W. Moore Is Creative Nonfiction’s All-Father! I am not a stalker!!!)
So today I thought, Gotta get this done, and decided to go for a fine summer walk and stir the creative brainwaves. Suddenly, like a buskin-clad meteorite bent on destruction, what should slam back into my mind but the problem that consumed my life for a solid six years! Yes, indeed, it was the return of My Dissertation. My confused, vague, messy dissertation, all the ideas I tried to figure out a place for, all the logical problems I discovered at every turn, all the rabbit holes I yearned to investigate, all of it, roiling and churning, sticking and crumbling and recombining like some massive lump of food my body couldn’t ever seem to digest. It came back in all its malignant intellectual glory, and I, tragically, succumbed. Instead of banging out my Fickle Reader Manifesto (which I will never label as such again, as I hate hate HATE the word “manifesto”), I worked over and worried some of the old concepts, tried to see them in new ways–like I always did when I was “writing my dissertation”–and then ran home and put down all of my thoughts before they could disappear back into the mental soup.
Talk about your bizarre reenactments. I have no idea why I did this. Well, no, I have a smidge of an idea. See, all my life, I’ve been a terribly stubborn individual. When I set out to do something, I would sit down and by God I’d steamroll my way forward until everything was done. I couldn’t stand not finishing things, especially pieces of writing. I was little miss all-nighter supreme in both high school and college. Then I went to grad school and continued to forge ahead because, by gum, there weren’t nothin’ I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it. I would ride the intellectual ski-lift up to the top of Mt. St. Enlightenment, and everyone would know what a great and glorious Thinker and Writer I was. Nothing could de-rail such an awesome uphill ride! Yee-haw!!!
Well, you can guess where this story is headed. (Hint: it’s in the title of this post.) Right at the end of my Master’s program, I was diagnosed with lupus and a blood disorder that makes your blood clot too much. It’s a long, long story, and one that I’ve told many times, but for my purposes here, I’ll just say that the diagnosis took me out of commission for quite a while. I had to jump off that long ski-lift (you can jump off, right?) and worked in medical editing for three years. Then I decided I was bored and that I must, MUST!, become an academic again. And so I enrolled in a literature PhD program, which is what my area schools offered at the time–no nearby MFAs and no creative writing PhDs, which I would have preferred. Still I plowed through the program, always optimistic that if I just Believed I Could, I would finish in no time, receive my accolades for Getting a PhD, and start the rest of my magical life.
Of course, right now everyone in academia is laughing at me for being such a naive little twit. Because, you see, PhDs aren’t things you plow through till you finish them. Possibly you can take that approach to the first part of your program, when you’re doing coursework, taking qualifying exams, and generally learning everything you can before the serious shit sets in. But serious shit does indeed finally happen, and when it does, if you’re still in Hold My Breath and Write It the Night Before mode, you ain’t gonna get very far.
Somehow, I missed the discussion on what writing a dissertation consists of, which is: original research, analysis, and argumentation about literary questions that either NO ONE has posited before OR that no one has ever answered in the WAY you’re answering them. Why I never seemed to have learned this definition–if I missed a class or just wasn’t listening when the material was covered–is lost to the mists of time. BUT it DOES go a long way to explain why I decided, hey, I know what I want to study for an enormous chunk of my life! The only author in the world who’s been studied by everyone for the past four hundred years–Shakespeare!
Yes, that was perhaps the single dumbest decision I’ve ever made in my life. Yet the stupid tenacity of my stubborn, stubborn brain is such that, as I waded into the morass of learning and could see how difficult my brilliant plan was turning out to be, instead of giving up and moving in a different direction I doubled down and plunged in. Nothing was to difficult for me! I was back on that friggin’ ski lift, and I wasn’t getting off until I was at the pinnacle of Academic Awesomeness. As the years bled into another, I kept telling myself I was gonna make it, I was going to figure something out about Shakespeare that NO ONE ELSE had figured out before, yessirree bob I was! And I kept pushing and pushing and pushing that rock up the hill until I had a single chapter (out of five, maybe? Plus an introduction and an afterword?) that was ready to be looked at by the rest of my dissertation committee, and guess what? It still needed work.
At that point, my brain broke. I gave up, or so I thought.
Nope, today showed me that some little part of me is still, in fact, clinging to the hope that I can do something–anything–with the information that took so many years of my life to collect. At the same time, I think the sense that today I was going to plunge into a topic I’d been putting off for a Better Day, a day when I’d have More Time and could compose with a Clear Head, brought back those old terrible anxieties and the rituals that went with them, the I’ll Just Read One More Article, Do One More Google Search, Play One More Stupid Computer Game, Go for One More Walk, approach to procrastination, or as it’s also known, Not Writing.
It sorta makes me want to cry that I could derail myself this badly. I tell myself that anything written down is usable material, that even getting random, disconnected thoughts down on a page is a productive use of my time. But then I worry, worry, worry about my mind cruising off into Bizarre Idea Land, into the Oceans of the Unreadable, and so on and so forth and I feel like I’m wasting my life on something that no one cares about but me.
That, I guess, is the risk that every writer takes when he or she starts throwing words down and daring the world to read them. Are you producing something of value, or are you tilting at windmills?
Cross your fingers that tomorrow brings something better.