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4 Nov 2009

Throwing down the gauntlet – This past Saturday was my academic advisor’s birthday, and I was part of a small group of his former students who got together to help him celebrate. There wasn’t much drinking, but there was a little, and one of my seniors decided that he wasn’t quite ready to drive home when everyone decided it was time to go. He said that he was going to wait a little while, and I decided to keep him company. We found a coffee shop and had something to drink.

“I am tired of this, and it’s time it ended. So it’s going to happen. And it starts right now.”

We talked about a number of things, and at one point the conversation invariably turned to that big albatross around my neck—my dissertation. My senior knows that I’d like to finish it next semester, and I said something along the lines of, “I really hope I’ll be able to finish by then.” In reply he got all Yoda on me and said, “One does not hope. One does.” Well, he didn’t actually say that—what he said was that I was going about things the wrong way. Dissertations aren’t written on hopes, after all.

I told him that I had a dissertation day set aside, and even though the day wasn’t entirely devoted to the dissertation, I did manage to do some work each week. This technique was recommended to me by a number of people who have gone through the process, so I was a little surprised when he said, “That’s great, but you’re never going to write your dissertation by working on it once a week.” I was a little surprised, but then again, I wasn’t. I think I already suspected this, and that’s probably why I expressed my rather wishy-washy hope that I would be able to finish by next semester.

I told him that a number of projects would be finished by the end of the year, and I planned to spend the entirety of the winter break pounding out the dissertation. His advice was to just lock myself in my study for twenty days—to not even answer the phone unless it was critical—and just write five pages (we’re talking A4 single-spaced pages, of course) each day. If I’m struggling to write that five pages on a given day, I should just cobble together whatever I can and move on. Five pages a day for twenty days equals a hundred pages, and a hundred pages should be enough for a dissertation.

This won’t be the final version of my dissertation, of course, but he stressed how important it was to write the thing out from start to finish—only then will I really know what I need to do. I know this is true from my experience with other forms of writing. Take Liminality, for example. I often don’t really know what I’m trying to say until I’ve written the entire entry, and then I can go back and tighten things up around what I’ve discovered. I could spend some time each week on my dissertation day hashing out my table of contents, organizing materials, and drawing up tables and charts... and it would probably never end. Don’t get me wrong—hashing out the table of contents and all that other stuff is important (critical, even), but I eventually need to move beyond that. Writing a little bit each week is not going to work because I will be wasting time each time I start trying to get myself back into the groove I was in the week before.

So I’m going to take my senior’s advice and do the twenty day thing during the winter break. It may be longer than twenty days, or shorter, I don’t know. I actually have around thirty pages already written, from my section on prior literature, and that’s not even done yet—I expect it to be at least forty pages by the time I’m finished with it. And if my prior literature section is going to be forty pages or so, I have a feeling the dissertation as a whole is going to be longer than a hundred pages. I’m thinking (and this is just pure guesswork here) that the prior literature will end up being maybe a third of the whole or less. So that may end up leaving me with around a hundred pages left to write.

Of course, I’ve already written a lot that I will be able to incorporate into this, namely two papers that I’ve published in journals, one paper that I presented but didn’t publish, and a chapter that I contributed to a book. It’s not quite as simple as stitching these materials together, because there are big gaps and holes, as well as some things that are in the papers that won’t go into my dissertation, but just having done the research and put the ideas down on paper will help. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that it’s not as bad as I sometimes fear it will be (and, if you haven’t figured this out already, I’m saying this mostly for my own benefit). When the time comes to lock myself in my study for a month, I will have a lot to draw on.

Of course, this means that most of the preliminary work needs to be done before that begins, as I’ll want to spend most of my time writing if I want to crank out five pages a day. I know from experience that producing five pages of Korean text a day is well within my capabilities, especially if it’s a topic with which I am familiar, but it’s not something to take lightly. Of course, there is a good chance that I will think of things in the process of writing that I haven’t thought of before, and I will have to do a little research on the fly, but I’d like to get as much of the foreseeable stuff out of the way as possible.

So, this is it. When people have asked me when I was going to finish my dissertation, I have been reluctant to give them a solid answer. I did that once before, shortly after finishing my coursework, and it didn’t work out. You know what they say: once bitten, twice shy. But the truth is that I wasn’t ready then. That was back before I wrote any of the papers or the book chapter I mentioned above. Now, though, I feel like I’m ready, and it’s just a matter of me buckling down and doing it. I know it’s not going to be easy. It means really cracking down and making sure I use the time remaining in the year well, balancing the other things I need to get done with preparation for winter break. And the writing marathon itself is going to suck something fierce. I will be waking up early in the morning and writing until I’ve gotten my five pages, no matter how long that takes. Hopefully I will have a little breathing room at the end of each day, but I’m fully prepared for days where I will be getting up, writing, stopping to eat on occasion, and then going to bed. I’ve done that before, but never on this scale.

Still, despite the massive amounts of suckitude that will be coming my way, I know I can do this. I know I can do this because I am tired of being in this ABD limbo. I am tired of being stuck at this point in my life and not being able to move on, not being able to make plans or even see beyond this dissertation because it is a huge mountain that blots out everything on the horizon. I am tired of this, and it’s time it ended. So it’s going to happen. And it starts right now. The writing marathon won’t happen for a couple more months, but the beginning of the end starts right now.

Most of this, as I noted above, is being written for my own benefit, kind of like how athletes psyche themselves up before a big game. But it’s also a form of accountability, a way of kicking myself in the pants and setting the wheels in motion (what, you don’t have wheeled pants?). I’ve gone and said it, and I’m going to be saying it to anyone who asks. The first time I tried that I wasn’t ready, and it was just wishful thinking, but now I can see that light at the end of the tunnel, however faint it might be. Hopefully in the dark days ahead—because I know that there are going to be days when I’ll get depressed and everything will seem to go wrong and there’s no way I’ll ever get this done—I will be able to look back at today’s entry and get my pants rolling again.

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