Too Many Roads Diverged

It has been a while since I’ve written on this blog–partially because I’ve been ill and partially because I have been stuck in my own head. I had a difficult fall semester, and I spent much of the spring dealing with “symptoms of treatment.”

I feel like I’m at a crossroads in my dissertation writing process. It’s not that I haven’t been writing in general. I have been working with my various research teams to write up analyses of our data. In fact, as of next month, we’ll have two forthcoming pieces and two under review. This work feels very exciting to me and has touched on many of my areas of interest, including health and medical rhetoric, under-explored archives like Pinterest, genre studies, and writing in the disciplines. Although we each tend to bring separate chunks of writing together (i.e. we’re not writing in the same room very often, or even at the same time), writing collaboratively–even in this way–energizes me. Whenever I have a question or problem, I bounce it to one of my team members, who is excited to take on the challenge. My team members are brilliant and innovative; they enhance my seedling ideas and figure out how to say things I can’t yet articulate. I am so, so lucky to be working with them. 

However, in my single-authored writing (i.e. my dissertation), I am stuck at the level of analysis. Or is it the level of brainstorming? My process seems to go like this: I mull over an idea, figure out that it doesn’t work by researching it, come up with something else that works, figure out that that doesn’t work…and it goes on. I have materials to study, but I feel paralyzed when I can’t figure out how to use them to join conversations in my field(s). There are so many possible conversations to join, and I’m not sure which ones are the right ones. I research, jot down ideas, and research more…only to discover, time and time again, that my ideas are not cohering. Sometimes, my “intervention” seems so obvious that I can’t fathom how it will be an intervention at all. 

This terrible, self-hating process makes me feel like my dissertation isn’t “working” or worth writing. If there is no clear exigency, why take the time, physical energy, and emotional stamina to write? 

I keep rehashing all of the dissertation truisms in my head, but I’ve been picking them apart over and over again. For example: 

  • The dissertation is a marathon, so don’t try to sprint or make sense of everything before the time is right. And yet I’ve been looking at some of these materials for two years already. Why don’t I know what they mean? Why don’t I know what to say about them?
  • You don’t know what the dissertation is going to be about until you finish writing it. BUT I HAVE BEEN MULLING OVER IT AND TRYING TO WRITE IT FOR SO LONG ALREADY! WHY HAVEN’T I FIGURED IT OUT?

The irony, of course, is that right now my body is cooperating. I am feeling relatively stable and comfortable. The act of writing isn’t causing me physical pain like it does most of the time. So why can’t I write? Why can’t I think? Why aren’t things coming together?

Contemplating these esoteric questions probably isn’t helpful, but maybe I’ll feel better if I attempt to name the problems I’m encountering?

Problem #1: Critical Distance

Because I am (or once was–prior to beginning this dissertation…) so passionate about the rhetorics of Lyme Disease, it is difficult for me to analyze my archive of materials. As an ill person, I’ve often felt alone and silenced, and working on this project is one way of speaking back to that experience and, I hope, doing some good. However, I keep having experiences where I ask for a colleague’s perspective on something and they see something so obvious–and so critical–that I’ve completely missed. I am thankful every day for all of the brilliant people in my life, but sometimes when others point out the puzzle pieces which are “hidden” in plain sight, I feel humiliated. How could I have missed this? Why didn’t I notice this before? Why couldn’t I have come up with this frame? 

To use another idiom, I feel stupid when I can’t see the forest through the trees–my trees, trees that am supposed to know better than anyone else. Worse yet, I worry that writing this publicly suggests that I don’t appreciate all of the love and labor my colleagues, mentors, and partner have put into helping me with my dissertation. I do. I am so grateful for their support. But it seems like “real” scholars do it on their own. I know this isn’t really true and that I need to tell myself a different (and truer) story. (In general, I’ve found worrying to be an unproductive practice that I want to acknowledge but not engage constantly). Somehow, I think this is worsened by the fact that I’d like to consider myself a sort of expert on Lyme Disease, due to both my research and personal experiences. And yet these experiences with my colleagues suggest that I am far from an expert, and worse yet, that my expertise may be blinding me to what is obvious to everyone else. I’ve tried to put different pieces of the project on hold, buying myself time to mull over the materials and process my thoughts. But this percolating has taken me down what feels like many dead ends. As Robert Frost so famously wrote, “I took the [road] less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.” I guess he wasn’t talking about research?

Problem #2: Boundless (Yet Time Sensitive) Archives

I am researching Lyme Disease, which means that some of my research is nearly historical but most of it is happening right now and evolving as I type! Although it’s great that there are always new materials coming out, it’s also terrifying. Maybe someone will have already published on it before I finish. Maybe my materials will be too dated by the time they get published. Maybe they only matter in this moment. It’s hard to focus when I am constantly seeing new work on Lyme Disease. I should probably just stop looking–that would be one way to solve this problem. But that feels wrong, too. 

I need to make decisions–however arbitrary–to create a bounded project. For whatever reason, I find this to be an agonizing process. (Perhaps it has something to do with my think-research-reject problem described earlier). 

Problem #3: Failed Routines

I have read most of the main books about writing dissertations, and I feel like they haven’t worked for me. Specifically, none of them have adequately addressed how to write a dissertation and live with chronic illness at the same time. I was probably expecting too much–maybe that’s the book I should write! (JK NO NEW PROJECTS UNTIL THIS DISSERTATION CHAPTER IS DONE). In my experience, chronic illness amplifies many of the issues people tend to have with dissertation writing. It’s hard to set goals. Sometimes even writing for fifteen minutes a day is impossible because I’m in too much pain and need to conserve my energy for teaching. I’m very conscious of not prioritizing teaching over research, but on days when I’m feeling especially unwell and have little energy, I’m forced to make a choice about what must get done that day. If it’s a teaching day, that means my energy must be channeled toward teaching. I feel like a failure if I don’t meet goals I set for page lengths or progress–so I’ve stopped setting them. Well, I guess that’s not entirely true. I set goals with my accountability group most weeks, but they don’t always have to do with writing (i.e. check in with advisor A about XYZ, send an email about getting some kind of information, etc.). Even my typical process of free-writing until something good comes up is producing more anxiety instead of soothing it. SIGH.

In the end, it’s probably better that I learn this lesson early: write as often as I can, wherever I am. Strangely, I’ve made good progress on my project during bus rides to campus and while sitting in doctor’s offices. But it doesn’t feel like enough. It’s better than nothing, of course, but I still need to produce more text so, if nothing else, I’ll have something to edit. As I tell my students, you can’t revise a blank page!

Problem #4: Scholarly Identity

Recently, I realized that I’m not who I thought I would be as a scholar. As an undergraduate, I learned about rhetoric through feminist rhetorical historiographers, so I imagined that my work would always be grounded in that tradition. My training at UNC-CH has been fantastic, but it wasn’t in feminist historiography. I’ve become a rhetoric of health and medicine scholar with investments in feminist rhetorical theory, disability studies, genre theory, life writing, and writing in the disciplines. My publications reflect these investments. Although I sometimes use historical research for context, I’m not a historian. For whatever reason, this makes me kind of sad. Maybe it’s not unusual, since the culture of imitation in academia is strong, but in any case, it’s not helping me move my dissertation forward. 

Okay, enough self-deprecation. Onward! 

 

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