Writing Lessons as I Dissertate

I once thought I was a decent writer. Then I tried to write my dissertation.

While I believe I can adapt to writing a variety of kinds of papers, this is the only kind of dissertation I can imagine writing. You want the work to stand for who you are and what you’ve learned, how you study and what you have to offer the world. I’m drawn to, and now I come from, qualitative research, social research, research into culture and human phenomena, research that attempts to speak alongside people and practitioners, that invites subjects to talk back to the research, that winds down unexpected paths and has to be reined back in. The description is thick, the theory is too, and the ambitions far outpace the funding, let alone the comfortable boundaries of positivist certainty.

Writing this dissertation has been a cruel slicing, again and again. It’s a necessary cutting process, cutting away until I make sense, until the pie is small enough to consume, until the writing is not a firehose that no reader has the patience for. I try to do justice to people I’ve spent hours, days, months with; try to do justice to a diversity that stays animated and irreducible in the varied kids I studied; try to be methodical, and reasoned, and balanced, and curious, and pragmatic. One paper cannot please all of the people all of the time.

Three things I take away as essential to my writing:

1. A community. As much as I want to hole away and face the solitary task, bearing my own cross for the writing choices I make, each time I’ve had a watershed revelation, a point of inflection in my slow toil towards the right decision, it came with an audience of incisive and generous peers. Foremost, my advisors. Sometimes, my wife. Often, my peers in writing and research groups, stretching to think my arcane thoughts with me, offering incisive questions and generous speculation. I still have to face the lonely keyboard myself, but my good ideas have all been birthed (or stolen? borrowed?) from contact with thinking partners, even if they were just a listening forum for me to clarify myself in front of, but often as a fount of fertile ideas and clarion thinking. And when the community motivates you by the intense quality of their own writing and work, it’s possible to get intimidated and feel inadequate, but impossible not to feel wiser for having spent time with them as thought partners.

2. Tools to “Notecard” My Ideas. I recently became a convert to Scrivener.  Before then, I was repeatedly falling apart under the weight of any revision, so that pieces disappeared into the ether or held on stubbornly to their shape and position, refusing to budge from their lodged positions, like recalcitrant homesteaders before my hurricane of rethinking. Now, not only can I not imagine writing without Scrivener, I am excited to create just because of the invitation to architecting ideas and stories that Scrivener’s tools affords me. Moving seamlessly between the “notecard” birds-eye view, where chunks can move as needed among each other, and the lost-in-the-sentences text view… it affords a wonderful executive control. I still have a lot to figure out how to use probably two-thirds of its functions. But even with what I’ve acquired, the tool has reshaped the user.

3. Forget it. I have to be able to forget it. I have to be able to let it go. I have to take naps. I have to walk away. I have to submit pieces, discontented as I might be. There’s always another pass I could do. Always another frontier of improvement. Always a better turn of phrase, a more complete reassessment of structure and rhetorics, of evidence and presentation. But I just have to forget it. I’ve been lost for weeks in paragraphs that ultimately wound up ruthlessly cut– and am still likely bargaining for more of that. I’ve given hours that have no count to analyses that might burn like fire in my mind, but they will bloat the final product, so they’re left in the memo that won’t fit in any chapter, the paper that might one day spin off, the faint hope of a future project or forum to see the light of day.

I’m not done yet, which I’m relieved for, to be honest. As relieved as I’ll feel to finally be done, I just know there are parts of this process that haven’t finished their work on me yet. I feel great insecurity about my writing, and the scary thing is, it’s not just my writing. It’s my voice. It’s my contribution. It’s great insecurity about my belonging in this work that I’ve been doing for years.

But that unbearable hopefulness must succumb as well to the ticking hands of time, and soon my deadlines will defy me and my accumulated wisdom, and I will scamper to submit My “Good Enough” Dissertation, submit it to my mentors who have ridden this writing rollercoaster a million times more than me, who will offer the loving shatterings that will return me gasping to these chapters. Somewhere out the other end, I have faith a better writer waits. He will laugh at my hand-wringing. He will forget that he earned who he is.