Near Sunset, Facing Southeast

Near Dusk


Today I am finally able to scoff at the “All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide” newsletter in my inbox. A big, fat checkmark and a command to delete is all the attention I need to give that one. But I still open it.

I love this type of literature that psychologize the process of writing, completing a long project, and getting yourself to the degree. They will often propose that you conduct an intriguing personal alchemy. They show you that you can trick your mind into greater productivity and avoid procrastination by being mindful of what it is that you really desire out of your project. Also, of course, there is the importance of maintaining the “other” non-dissertation parts of your life.

For many ABDers these other parts are simple necessities, like sleep, food, exercise, phone calls to friends on the outside. I gave myself a lot more leverage than that — which I can admit now because I am no longer ABD. My outside included travel, time with family, long lunches with my husband, walks, marathon training, moving and settling into a new home, and gardening. But mostly I spent my time caring for my little daughter from her early stay in my belly through her first year of life. With all of that going on, my dissertation was a lot more “on the outside,” than the rest of my life, which was always happening right now and usually right in my lap.

Sometimes I struggled and felt guilty about that, as though I should have been burning the midnight oil at my desk. I had to ask myself if I was selling myself, my advisors, and my fellowship coordinators short by doing anything else. But of all the lessons that I’ve learned about writing maybe the most important was that for me to do the job and do it well, it had to exist alongside my world and not be the whole of it.

I’m sure not everyone is like me in this respect, but for as much as I can get drawn into a specific question and spend hours of research, reading and writing where I ponder multiple answers, I like to have my hand in several pots at once. That way when I hit a breaking point (or a burnout) in one area, I can step right into something else and usually come back with a clearer head for insight.

So what do I step off into now that my degree is finished?

My greatest joys in graduate school were tied to that time I spent with my writing, spinning out a line of thought into a whole that could change the way something, a piece of art, a book, a film, had originally appeared to me, or articulating some kind of ambivalence that I sensed pulsing beneath its surface. And isn’t that the same thing that drives my creative writing?

I also liked the practice of dissertating: getting up early in the morning, every morning, sitting with my creative self, and getting lost in the work before my “real” day with Junie started. I’ll keep doing that, just like I keep going out for fresh air and movement everyday even though I’m not running any marathons this year.

But no matter what thing I “do” next, I know it will only be one thing — not everything that defines my life and how I spend the short course of hours I’m given each day.

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