First Chapter

It was lunchtime on a snowy March afternoon in Montréal. I was running on a stomach that was becoming more and more agitated that I hadn’t had a substantial enough breakfast. Instead, I had nourished my mind by scanning archival documents for several hours. I was planning my escape at some point. Just a couple more pages.

Snow crunched under my boots as I trekked from the Grande Bibliothèque down rue St-Denis, trying to avoid indulging in another generic coffee at Second Cup or at Tim Horton’s. (I’d eventually turn back and give in, anyway.) My brain was full, my face was cold, my notebook was filled with scribbles.

Hopelessly lured in by warm coffee, I climbed Second Cup café’s stairwell on rue St-Denis and placed an order. In the shadow of passerby walking near the café’s semi-foggy windows, I opened a blank word document and started typing:

Outline for the Dissertation.

A small bullet point list started accumulating random ideas. My mentor calls it working in the sandbox. I’d call this working in the caffeine-fuelled icebox.

Fast forward several days.

I was seated at a charging station at LaGuardia (in great proximity to a potted plant that could be about as old as I am) when I heard my flight was cancelled. Some weary travellers joined me as I rented a car and drove nine hours. No sleep that night.

Strangely enough, these seemingly incongruous events have provided me with much clarity as I’ve been drafting a semi-coherent first chapter this term. The crunch of the snow reminds me that my subject has long been dormant, cocooned in the halls of memory of archives. Will this work reactivate long lost collective memories, or will my narrative give voice to what has been forgotten? It gives me inspiration.

As for that long drive? It reminds me of the moments that don’t seem straightforward. I thought that by going from point A, I would arrive at point C by way of point B. Instead, I had to react quickly and adapt when everything fell through. Though it’s not as drastic, writing can be isolating. It can feel like you’re driving through the night. You have to adapt when paragraph A doesn’t quite join with all the rest.

Whenever I do drive long distances, I tend to do a long haul. I like seeing the sun rise over the freeway as I reach my destination, and my night owl tendencies make it much more enjoyable. Writing this dissertation, I feel like I’m behind the wheel of a very different vehicle. Instead of gasoline, I need facts and supporting evidence to fuel the drive forward. It’s exhilarating, but it’s only about 5pm, and I still have 12 hours of driving to go.

Some people train for marathons. Others challenge themselves to be a better self through travel, prayer, education, or whatever makes sense. For me, the dissertation allows me to give voice to narratives that are underrepresented. In doing so, I’m challenging myself not only to train for that long haul intellectual pursuit; I’m also discovering a lot about the geospatial reality of Québec’s past and how it converges with my present.

While taking a break from research, I came across a thread posted somewhere online. “Doing a dissertation is the most selfish thing you can do,” asserted a comment, while others called the pursuit a “pedantic” act that resonated strictly in the halls of the Ivory Tower. It’s fine and dandy if that’s your view of this whole thing. Some people might think running a marathon is pointless, too. But why are we so impressed at the final achievement? It’s not a selfish act. It shows us humanity’s potential, and more often than not, athletes are a part of immensely supportive communities. I’m not doing this for myself at all. If I were trying to do a selfish act, it would be a hell of a lot easier.

It’s almost November. I’ll be turning in a draft of the first chapter. It’s nowhere near being perfect, nor complete, nor anything anyone would ever publish (just yet), but through the snow on St-Denis to the halls of The University of Virginia, I’ve begun to chart that long journey through the night. The ultimate academic marathon.

Wish me well.

Claire-Marie Brisson