The Dissertation and the Flare

Perhaps once I finish this dissertation I can publish a picture book for other chronically ill dissertation writers. Like The Tortoise and the Hare, but funnier? The irony, of course, is that the lesson at the end is the same: slow and steady wins in (pretty much) every case. Or in the case of the dissertation, at least allows you to complete it and move on with your life.

I haven’t written on this research blog in almost four months because I spent the summer and the first month of the fall in a horrible flare. As I’m writing this, I am experiencing a stinging sensation from the sole of my foot to my calf and in the palm of my left hand through my thumb and am frantically scratching at them, hoping they’ll go away. I exhausted myself in the spring by taking my exams, defending my prospectus, and traveling to five states in five months. At first, I imagined that I was going to gain some sort of academic capital from being this worn out, but I assure you that I suffered instead. When I wasn’t working a few hours per day as a graduate research consultant for a summer course, I slept. I think I slept for most of the month of July and the first two weeks of August. Besides frantically submitting final versions of a few projects in progress, I went to the doctor, took photos of my cat, and laid on the couch or in bed. Things got worse when I stopped sleeping except during the accidental naps I caught each afternoon. School restarted and everything got worse. I was furious, frustrated, and ashamed. Small tasks like shopping for groceries and proofreading the last pieces of a manuscript felt overwhelming. It seemed like my body got in the way of any pleasure I pursued except for eating ice-cream.

Almost four months later, it seems like writing–the practice, craft, and skill that was most compromised by the flare–has become a mode of coping with the flare. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but I’m still in the midst of Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis and just got to the part about dissertation writing and pleasure. When I worked as a graduate research assistant in July, I began to rethink my relationship with writing. Each day, the students began class by writing for five or ten minutes in response to a particular concept or question. I participated in these activities too, mostly to prove that I was engaged despite looking and feeling like an inflammation zombie. I wrote by hand most days, even though I rarely do so except to sign papers or write a note in the margin of a book. My hand cramps after a short time, which is physically painful, and remembering the joy of writing by hand sometimes upsets me. After a few days of this, however, I realized I had produced more words on a page than I had since revising my prospectus at the beginning of April. Even though I wasn’t writing about an academic project, I was still writing…and somehow that generated ideas about my academic projects, which I worked on occasionally but only in the absence of nausea, slight pain relief, etc…which was perhaps once a week for one hour. I attended class most days and read and learned along with the students. We discussed organizational strategies, word choice, wordiness, and other concepts I’d forgotten about. But mostly I’d forgotten that writing can be intensely joyful–even healing. James Pennebaker and his research teams have studied this phenomenon, but they are mostly interested in the act of writing as healing, whereas for me the craft of writing, revising, reorganizing, rethinking, and reexamining felt somehow restorative.

For most graduate students and professional writers, it seems like writing is a necessity and a source of insomnia-inducing, binge-eating stress. For me, the writing stress comes from an inability to maintain a routine due to chronic illness issues in addition to all of the typical writing issues people encounter: tangled ideas, murky arguments, persistent phone and Facebook checking, and the like. It is difficult to think and compose text when you are fighting a headache from the computer screen, can’t stop the shooting pains going from your knee to your right big toe, etc. I couldn’t even focus enough to read the highly recommended books about writing I’d checked out from the library. But somehow, in the creative nonfiction undergraduate writing classroom, I could write for five or ten minutes at a time. And in a time of terrible distress, it gave me hope. Perhaps most importantly, it reminded me that I am writing a dissertation because there are stories that I–as a researcher and in-group member–am able to access, interpret, and share with the larger public based on my status as a chronically-ill-and-medically-literate-and-rhetorically-attuned-scholar-in-training. With this realization, I reimagined my project to integrate research methods from the two subfields in which I have scholarly training: feminist rhetorical historiography (undergraduate) and rhetoric of health and medicine (graduate). This might seem like an insignificant step, since most dissertation writers must completely reframe their work for publication in peer-reviewed journal articles or single-authored monographs because no one wants anything directly from anyone’s dissertation. However, it made a huge difference for me because it made me feel like I could move forward. It somehow made (what felt like) an enormous project with completely new research methods routinized… I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. But it made me more comfortable with the project I proposed and helped me figure out a new framework, and I’m one of those people who hates writing without a framework….

It didn’t happen one day and most of it wasn’t magical, but these short, in-class writing exercises helped me believe Joan Bolker’s argument that you have to write your way into your dissertation–well, enough to start doing it. They helped me remember that writing about what I’m thinking is powerful but doesn’t have to be high-stakes. They helped me remember the sound of my own voice, which is something I took pride in and thought I’d lost along with my health. I am slowly realizing that I do know myself as a writer, a researcher, and an ill person. Some days are better than others. I’ve been trying to get up early and write three pages over a two-hour period since September 16th. This morning, I wrote six pages and finished a “zero draft” of my first dissertation chapter. Two days ago, I wrote three sentences and spent most of my session bargaining with my impatient cat and lower back pain. This schedule is intense, and I’m napping most afternoons to compensate and have been putting off grading papers because I’m exhausted by 3:00pm. But something is happening, and since there’s no predicting or changing my health, I guess that’s all I can hope for?

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