My favourite writing quote of all time is by Helene Cixous. It goes like this: “The only book that is worth writing is the one we don’t have the courage or strength to write. The book that hurts us (we who are writing), that makes us tremble, redden, bleed. It is combat against ourselves, the author; one of us must be vanquished or die.” I believe the truth of these words to my very core. Good writing is painful and violent and a battle.
But I never expected my doctoral dissertation to be this kind of writing. I very carefully researched and constructed an academic manuscript that was well written and in good form. A rather nice example of academese, if I do say so myself. And then I was asked for more. I could have added a bit here and there and ended it. But that’s not what needed to be done. I needed to write the book worth writing.
I’m now in the midst of rewriting the dissertation – or rather adding in all the bits I left out on first try. It is an excruciatingly painful process. I’m laying much of my soul to bare in this text – something that rarely happens in academic writing. The re/search is always about ourselves but we are rarely brave enough to admit it.
And my reluctance stems not just from getting it down on paper but also from knowing what will happen to it once it is finished. Every poem, every vignette, every narrative and photograph I add is like ripping off a small piece of my soul and pasting it to the page, blood oozing around the edges and a raw sore space left in me.
When I finish this dissertation, it will be handed in. Six copies will be given to the graduate programs office for people to read. People I know. Strangers I don’t. My CV and an abstract will be circulated. And then six weeks later this dissertation will be judged, not just by a committee, not just by internal and external examiners but by anyone who wants to attend. It will be poked and prodded. I will “defend” it. And then I will either be awarded a PhD … or not.
Despite the years this has been in coming, it is not the fear of failure that makes this writing so painful. It is the fact that I will be giving this piece of writing up to public scrutiny over and over again. That is why it was so much easier to write a cold, lifeless academic piece. Judge it – it can defend itself. But not this, not this slice of myself.
And yet. The teacher in me cries hypocrite! Because is this not what I ask my students to do, albeit to a lesser degree (although an academic paper is much like a doctoral dissertation when you are a first-year student)? Don’t I ask them to dig deep and spill a bit of their soul onto the paper? How can I not do the same?
Write about what you care about! Find yourself in that writing. The sermon I preach in the classroom has to apply to me as well. Otherwise it isn’t real.
When I finished my comprehensive exams, I had lunch with a dear friend who had completed her dissertation last year. She gave me a smooth stone with one word engraved on it. “Courage” It sits on my desk but it wasn’t until I began these final edits that I understood why she gave it to me. I hold it my hands, its cold weight seems to radiate that sentiment. Courage.
What I am doing here is non-traditional. I know this. I’m taking a huge risk. And yet I also know this is the way it has to be done. I feel like I am teetering on the abyss. I will either freefall into its depths or find I actually do have the wings to fly.