Saturday, April 14, 2007

Beginnings

I just sat with a friend, had dinner and a nice glass of wine, and discussed finishing graduate school.

In case you missed it, let me emphasize that I just discussed FINISHING MY PHD.

It's years away, this finishing. It's not even on the horizon. It's a fantasy, a figment, a sci-fi action feature. Scientists must be gathering in labs trying to cook up a finished PhD in little test tubes and frowning and being grateful they're funded for a while yet. It's elusive and fuzzy and I can't quite see what it looks like.

But I've suddenly started letting myself imagine it possible. At this point, the fantasy is all I have, but it's incredibly powerful. For five years, I've worked and taught and researched and studied and read and read and read. I let myself imagine what would happen when it was done and I let myself imagine what would happen if I failed. I sometimes let myself imagine more reading or more researching or more teaching. But I did not let myself imagine an actual finishing, stamped with an expiration date and an "inspected by" sticker. As I start to imagine that I might finish, and when it might finish, finishing starts to feel like something I might do.

What I can't imagine right now is the actual writing. It seems so hard and so big and so impossible. I don't see ever knowing enough to do that with confidence. I cannot close my eyes and see myself writing that final paragraph. Recently, I had a conversation with a very smart friend about the dangers of a failing imagination. How can we fulfill dreams if we can't dream them up to start? Without a bank of images and ideas to pull from, how can we make manifest our deepest desires? How do we know their names? There are so many things we're programmed to imagine wanting: the college graduation, the wedding, the baby, the house. But what happens when we haven't been trained to imagine something possible? What happens when our imagination fails to show us something is possible when we most need that internal roadmap?

I don't know, but the thought scares the hell out of me. Learning to imagine is hard work. When I first came out, I decided that my lesbian imagination was dismal. It's very hard to imagine that you can be competent in love (or in bed) with a woman if you don't have so much as a Hallmark-style image of what it could be like. In my typical fashion (yes, go ahead, laugh), my response to this was to read. A lot. I thought if I just read enough about being a lesbian, I might be able to imagine how to do it. I was right.

I feel incredibly tender towards the girl who didn't know how to imagine what it meant to be gay and had faith some books could solve her problems. I hope that one day I feel just as tenderly towards the woman who cannot, for her life, imagine sitting down and writing page after page until it all added up to done. I'm not sure, though, that books will solve this problem. If nothing else, the plot of a novel about finishing a dissertation would be very slow, indeed. "And then she sat down again and looked at her blank screen. A bird chirped. The wind blew. She decided she needed some tea."

Somehow, though, I need to build the part of my imagination that sees finishing the dissertation as a possible task. I'd like to stop short of some Stuart Smalley-style affirmation, because it would be nice if I could finish the dissertation AND still respect myself. (Though, as my mother very much likes to say, beggars can't be choosers.) I need, instead, pictures of myself writing, I think. Perhaps I'll try to take some. I need pictures of other people writing. I need to know what writing a dissertation looks like. I need to imagine pages filling with words, printers spitting them out. I don't need to imagine being knowledgeable or expert. Even my imagination isn't that good. But if I can just imagine writing this thing, then this finishing business might actually be possible.

Though perhaps I should focus on beginning first.

5 Comments:

Blogger StyleyGeek said...

That was a beautiful, wonderful and, above all, TRUE post. I wish you'd written it in time for me to include in today's carnival.

I think one of the reasons I spend so much time reading academic blogs is similar to the reason you read so much about being a lesbian.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Acre said...

Styley, you're completely right that academic blogs serve a lot of that function. It's good (and occasionally terrifying) to have an idea of what people do, day to day, in this business.

My program is small enough that people rarely finish. There have been two in the five years I've been here. It makes it tough to imagine what finishing is like, and without a blogosphere, it would be even tougher.

Still, it's not that I have problems imagining other people writing. I'm just not sure I can imagine that *I* will write it all. We'll see, I guess.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Kisha said...

It reminds me of when people ask when I'll finish and I stammer, "Not for a long, long time." It as if I don't truly believe I'll ever finish.

I will try to post more descriptions of day-to-day writing. But I feel I haven't done any writing worthy of posting...

We'll see.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Acre said...

Kisha, I think part of the problem is believing that somehow there's a difference between the writing we do and the writing that counts. I am writing, tiny bit by tiny bit, but I can't imagine that can add up to anything worthy of notice. So the problem must be as much about imagining that the writing we do is the writing that gets the job done.

Maybe we need a day to post about what it is like to actually be engaged in writing. Because Styley is right. We're all doing it, and yet it seems impossible to imagine that this is the way to get it done.

3:17 PM  
Blogger Yan said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:37 PM  

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