It’s 3:17pm, and I’m looking at what used to be “Document 1,” now spanning almost sixty pages. It’s now saved as “Working Dissertation.” I’m nestled in a wooden sack-back Windsor armchair – the kind that you’d imagine to have been ubiquitous in the late-18th century. It’s comfortable and worn, much more preferable than the stark green plastic modernist chairs that sometimes find their way into the graduate lounge on the third floor of Alderman Library. It’s sunny outside, and I have the soft sounds of Beethoven playing in borrowed Sennheiser headphones.
Every time I go to a social gathering, friends and new acquaintances ask: “so tell me about your dissertation topic. What’s it like, you know, writing something like that?” I try to maintain a cheerful attitude, so I tend to reply that despite its challenges, it’s a fun process. This is true, but there should be much more nuance to my answer. It’s usually not the time to go into detail when you’re clinking wine glasses and eating hors-d’oeuvres.
Writing and speaking like a budding academic place many other ideas, feelings, and sentiments of mine into the margins, particularly with those I meet for the first time. There’s a pretention that comes with this line of work that is arbitrarily constructed by society. It makes people I meet for the first time fairly distant with me. I wish this were not the case as much.
As for the dissertation, it has been a constant companion since March 2018. The first time I created “Document 1,” I was in Montréal on rue Saint-Denis, drinking a latte and people-watching. I’ll never forget that the moment I started writing the title of my topic into the document, I was watching a very happy couple having a debate about Montréal city politics and urban planning. It made me smile. I, too, was beginning to make a roadmap for another lieu – hopefully one with fewer potholes.
The second, the third, the fourth, the seemingly endless times I’ve opened the document (no matter where I am, geographically-speaking), I’ve discovered that reading the words put on the page is like looking into the mind’s mirror. I like to escape from it to remain conscious of a present time that is made more relevant by “the Other” – the people, places, and experiences that make life so enriching. Looking too long in the mirror can have negative consequences. My surroundings and the people who share their time with me contribute so much to the thoughts that inspire my writing. It could not be achieved in isolation.
When I am face-to-face with my writing, I sometimes laugh at how futile my attempts were to describe something, other times I ask myself: “did I actually write that?” The strangest thing about returning to your own writing is that, in a sense, a future version of your self has returned to a past version to have a discussion and clean up thoughts that just didn’t make that much sense.
From time to time, my ‘future’ self feels proud of what I have written. Those are the good days.
There is nothing more daunting than confronting yourself and your own thoughts on a matter. I think that’s why writing as a process is so complicated. There is an intimacy that emerges, a delicacy of thought that is wrestled by reason and supporting evidence. Each word is a choice, each sentence is a manifesto.
Often the sentences clash, and the discordant clang of paragraphs pushes you to highlight great chunks of text and want to delete them. I don’t. I have a separate document called the “Great Dissertation Garbage Heap” stored in a folder called “Erroneous Nonsense.” It saves me from the pain of parting with ideas for too long. The titles of the documents make me actually want to open them. Here’s my supporting evidence:
Humour teaches me humility. One can never be too proud when writing, particularly since there is never a final “perfect” work. Everything is a work-in-progress. Always. Even once it’s been submitted. Even if the author lived three-hundred years ago.
Writing the dissertation reminds me just how much I do not know. Many people would argue that I know much more in my position as a graduate student, and on certain niche subjects, maybe I do. But in the grander scheme of things, when I walk through the aisles of shelves, looking for the right book to support my claims, I realize that I really don’t know much. My voice on the digital pages reverberates quietly alongside the thousands of brilliant minds I encounter in print. For some reason, that to me is comforting and exciting. I am contributing, albeit in my small way.
My favourite part of writing is researching. I love encountering new ideas and authors – particularly ones I disagree with wholeheartedly. I like being challenged. It makes me realize what I do believe in firmly… but it also makes me appreciate perspectives that my biases miss. Quoting and citing other authors has helped my ideas to mature in unprecedented ways, though I still know I am only at the tip of the iceberg and likely will only make a dent of a few ice cubes in my lifetime.
What remains unwritten in those nearly sixty pages of my dissertation is how much gratitude I have for the people and ideas I am encountering along the way. I love learning from and sharing thoughts with others. I have found that the more I step back from the mirror-like nature of writing, the better I am able to return to it with fresh perspectives and encouragement.
What has not made it to the pages of the dissertation has made it here, where the unvoiced feelings of thankfulness are muted no more.
Thanks for stopping by.
3:37pm, Alderman Library (The University of Virginia), 3rd floor.