The bad news is, I’ve not posted here in a while.
The good news is, that’s because I overcame demons, broke curses, and wrote a new dissertation chapter.
The extra good news is, my advisor loved it. He said it was well-written important work, even.
The terrifying news is, that means my project has taken off at an accelerated pace, with a brand new panel, schedule, and defense date.
Why is that so terrifying?
Well, there’s the obvious reason: I haven’t been producing at a fast pace in quite a while, nor have I had other people depending on my production.
But when I stop and think about that, it’s less scary and more challenging. I like a good challenge. I like seeing my word count rise. Deadlines have always been easiest for me to meet when I have external accountability, people waiting for me.
So, is it the pressure to out-perform myself with each new chapter–to write a chapter even more dazzling than the one before, building to a slam-bang conclusion?
Not really. I want to write a cohesive project that is quietly strong, not some fireworks display with a grand finale.
Is it that I have to give up some creative writing? That I have to spend my hours collating research and selecting sources? That I might have to give up a day off here and there to take trips into Seattle to sit in academic spaces?
Nope. My new schedule makes time for morning creativity with dissertation in the afternoon. I like collating things…no, I know. And Seattle is gorgeous, the bus is cheap, and the libraries are inspiring.
The real reason: I’m terrified to use my voice.
Here’s what I mean…
When I was putting together this new chapter, I flipped back through the notebooks I lugged out here from Chicago, and I found a piece of marginalia that gave me pause. Somewhere around 2014/15, I’d written to myself:
Do not let your dreams die. Necromancers are in short supply.
I sort of blinked at the page and thought, well that’s actually somewhat clever. Then I pulled a sheet of notebook paper out of my desk, wrote the quote at the top, and started make a list of potential characters to hand it off to.
Cael might say something like that, I considered. Arthur maybe…but more likely Ayah or, if I go to my historical fiction, Geoff. He would totally say something like that.
Then I set my pen down, stared at the sheet and thought, well, shit. Why can’t I just say this for myself?
I don’t know if other writers deal with this–the desire to give your best ideas to your characters, and to forget that you ever created them in the first place–but I certainly do. I like to give my opinions away and to watch them move around in people that I admire and trust. Because, when it comes down to it, I often lack the confidence to voice my own opinion. It feels safer to settle it in someone else and let them deal with the consequences.
In a dissertation, though, you cannot give your opinion away. You have to bare it, along with your soul, your words, your research. You have to defend it tirelessly, first to your conference panels, then to your defense committee, and then, hopefully, to your publisher, your audience, your hiring committees. You have to live and breath and own your opinion, fight for it in plain sight.
That’s what’s so terrifying.
The opinions I want to voice in my dissertation are as prescient as they are historical. They will require that I engage with current debates on toxic masculinity, mental health crises, gender non-conformity, medical abuses. They are big and scary and incredibly personal.
And they’re mine.
No characters to act as middle-men. Just me.
If I stop to think much about it, I completely freeze. Or, more accurately, I go into hyper-drive on peripheral activities that feel productive, but actually aren’t. Writing and re-writing my outlines and schedules, taking notes on books I may or may not use, etc.
But I can’t just not think about it. If I create a project in a vacuum, it’ll be even harder to push out into the light of day.
Here’s what I’ve ended up doing:
Every time I write something that looks terrifying on paper–usually something that I feel is deeply true, but that I would have trouble articulating in a public setting–I think about who that opinion benefits.
I think about people I could potentially help, or even just one person.
I think about all the times I’ve mentioned my project to customers, and they’ve had follow up questions, because they know someone who is confronting mental illness and want to learn how to better advocate for them.
I think about the woman who cried when I discussed gendered assumptions in medicine. It took nine doctors before someone believed she wasn’t making shit up, costing her valuable time and resources.
I think about my former students, and how the questions I raised for them taught them that questions are good, that they are complicated when well-formed, that they are unpopular when they challenge the status-quo, and that they are definitely meant to be asked.
And I think about how, in the end, I’m doing something meaningful, even if it’s the hardest fucking thing I’ll ever do.
So, here I am, necromancing my project, building up confidence in my own power, and hoping that by validating myself, I can validate others.