Thursday, June 02, 2005

Greetings from the Bell Jar


I offer today's post as a tribute to all the PhD. candidates out there groaning beneath the awesome, shin-splintering burden of their dissertations. You know who you are. As I labor this week to complete the revisions on my book manuscript, a semi-literate work of hackery based on a dissertation I finished writing around this time in 2001, I come with a message from beyond the threshold:

As much as you may hate what you're writing at this exact moment, you will only feel a more precise and exhausted loathing toward it later on. Your prose will seem more lame, your conclusions more uninspiring and aimless, your insights more delusionally smug than you can possibly imagine as you sit there today in your pajamas, choking with writer's block and wondering if you should take a nap, drink yourself sideways, or simply heave yourself beneath the tires of a bus. You will wonder by what miraculous intervention you possibly could have been admitted into the ranks of the accomplished, and you will silently calculate the measure by which your university, by conferring your degree, has cheapened the value of doctoral work across the globe.

But don't think about that right now. As my wife — who at the time was just one more friendly gawker at the train-wreck — used to advise so delicately, "Just climb up on that desk, squat yourself over the computer, and shit that thing out."

I'm going to take that advice now for the second time, and so I will not be blogging again until I have finished revising the manuscript into an undigestible, shapeless mound of gristle that any publishing house in its right mind would quickly regurgitate. If you don't hear from me by Monday, assume that I have packed my nostrils with strychnine and that I am in a far, far better place.

In the meantime — for inspiration — I offer you an excerpt from my dissertation's acknowledgements, the only five pages of the entire project that I enjoyed writing:

A few years back, the notion of starting (to say less of completing) this dissertation was less interesting than figuring out the most extraordinary ways to dodge it. Short of faking my own death (which I discovered after some research seems to present more inconveniences than it solves), the options were rather grim indeed. At various points, and with varying degrees of planning and commitment, I mulled the following alternatives:

(1) Opening a shelter for abused and malformed cats. While this detour would no doubt have cultivated an enduring sense of mission in my life, it might not have done much to blunt the monotonous, staggering despair that had sent me poking about for new activities in the first place.
(2) Joining a law program. Beyond replacing the apparently limitless vistas of dissertation-land with three years of predictable structure, law school offered few additional lures. (See also [1] above re: "monotonous, staggering despair.")
(3) Accepting $10/hour (tax-free) from a friend to "keep tabs" on the drummer of a local rock band with whom she was mildly obsessed. Steady employment notwithstanding, working as a professional stalker would have required too much time sitting alone in my car, were I would likely have snacked compulsively and degraded the circulation in my legs beyond repair.
(4) Astonishing friends and family with a bizarre and unexpected religious conversion. If this plan offered nothing else (and it didn't), it would nonetheless have transformed me in the eyes of former colleagues from "that guy who bailed out of graduate school for no discernible reason" into "that guy who freaked out and joined a cult." Unable to complete the degree, I would at least have been able to modify the narratives that took my place.

Enjoy your weekend.