Shut One Door and Open Another One (Or, Moving Along With My Dissertation)

Finally…I have returned. It’s good to be back!

This Saturday I submitted Chapter 3 of my dissertation. I actually emailed it to my advisor late in the afternoon, and having it done way before midnight is such a great feeling. After weeks of freaking out over how I was going to finish this chapter in time, after tossing out of the window my weekly schedule and forcing myself to just sit down and write, I finally finished.The chapter is done, and I can breathe.

My trusty hard copy MLA Handbook

As I pulled out on Saturday morning  my copy of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (I still rely on the Handbook instead of the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, goes to show you how old school I am), a familiar feeling washed over me: “I am almost done.” Taking out the manual to format my citations and Works Cited list is not just part of the process of scholarly writing; it is a ritual. It is the last step of my writing. Although I am seriously considering using reference management software for my next two chapters (I think I might give Zotero a shot), the MLA Handbook will always be there at that last step.

Before I could pull out my MLA Handbook though, there was a lot of chaos that led up to that moment. My daughter was diagnosed with bronchitis. My laptop went into a coma. I developed a head cold. It seemed like the universe was conspiring against me, pleading me to tae a break, slow things down. Eventually I had to. Once I finished the rough draft last Monday, I had to take a day to rest and relax because I was starting to feel like I was fraying at the edges. Although I knew I would submit the chapter on time, I wondered how I would get it done.

So I had the weekend to chill out. However, the clock is ticking, and I need to get back to work pronto. You see, I spoke to my advisor over a week ago, and she gave me a deadline for finishing the body of the dissertation (chapters). My deadline is November 27. So, when November 27 rolls around, I will have written five (!) dissertation chapters. It took me a year to finally sit down to write my first five dissertation-worthy pages. (I know I wrote five pages because my mentor told me I needed to sit down, write five pages, and stop stalling.) It took me a year to write something that looked like a first chapter. (During that year I had a baby, packed up my apartment to move to Kansas City, started a new job, and took care of a newborn.) In less than a year I will have written four.

Now, how will I write two chapters in three months? I don’t know. All I know is: a) it has been done before by others before me b) it must be done. See, I have been a graduate student for seven years going on eight. But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I reached my breaking point with grad school life when I had to deal with some paperwork drama. So Frazzled Me told my advisor I needed to finish by next Spring because if not I’d walk away from school. My advisor suggested I finish the draft soon so I can revise and defend next semester. That’s where the November deadline came about.

So, starting today, I’m working on chapter 4, a chapter on photography. This is actually a new chapter, something I didn’t have in mind when I first put together my prospectus. I recently read about Frank Espada, a photographer of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Duke University recently received the photographer’s collection, so now I’m on the lookout for more info about Espada. My mentor suggested I look at Espada in comparison with Roy DeCarava. I have a feeling that my approach to this chapter will be different from the other chapters if only because I am less familiar with the subjects of this chapter than I was with the other three. It will be truly a process of discovery, and I’m actually looking forward to it.

At times like this, a song from Cracker comes to mind: “I see the light at the end of the tunnel now. Someone please tell me it’s not a train.” I need more Cracker in my life, seriously.

As I Turn 30

New York by Night by Melbow on Flickr

New York by Night by Melbow on Flickr

This week’s post is a week late, but I have a good excuse: I left for New York City last weekend to celebrate my birthday with my family. It felt so good to be back in New York City, my spiritual home of sorts, the one city on my mind all the time (when your dissertation topic is New York City, you can’t help but think about it ALL THE TIME). And even though toward the end of my sojourn (Miss E in tow) I was looking forward to coming home to my boyfriend and celebrating his birthday, I was sad that I had to leave. I always am a little sad when I leave New York. My boyfriend and I would travel periodically to New York City when we lived in Upstate New York, and I’m almost positive that every time we drove there I told him “we would be so happy in New York.” But my New York City dream home is subject of another post…

So I turned 30. The Big Three-Oh. The Dirty Thirties. I hadn’t really thought about it until a few days before my birthday. (I blame the dissertation. I always blame the dissertation.) I hadn’t even thought about what I wanted to do for my thirtieth birthday. Once I realized I was about to hit a milestone, I was stuck on that track: I’m turning 30. Nothing has changed, of course. My hair’s the same length, my bills still come on the same days of the month. But I still can’t help but reflect upon my life at this point.

I don’t remember much about when I turned 20. I probably didn’t care much for it. But one thing I remember from when I first started college was this: I was determined to get my PhD in English. I had a game plan and I was sticking to it. My goal was to get my PhD by the age of 28. As I saw it, I’d be done with my bachelor’s degree by 22, with my MA by 24, and four years for my PhD. Simple. And after that? New York City, baby.

I was focused. I was determined. I was ready to leave Puerto Rico and come back to the United States for graduate school. But one thing I didn’t prepare for was life. 20-year old me didn’t know about LIFE. First of all, that summer I turned 20 I traveled to Austria for a language course. It changed things right away, for I decided to declare Modern Languages my second major right after we returned. (I also thought I’d move away to Vienna to get my PhD in translation, but that fizzled out quickly.) But I was on track again: BA by 23, MA by 25, PhD by 29. No biggie.

After my bachelor’s degree, I started graduate school in Upstate New York. I was one step closer to my dream. I managed to finish my MA by 25, and felt a great sense of accomplishment to know I was hitting my marks. Soon after commencement I started my PhD and met my current boyfriend.  Two years later I finished coursework. One semester later, I finished my PhD exams and a rough draft of my dissertation prospectus. I had exactly one more semester worth of funding, but no problem! I was on my way to being Dr by the age of 29. It was going to happen.

Except it didn’t.

I sat down, early February, ready to start working on my dissertation. I had written a prospectus (admittedly, I did so hastily, but I had a paper on the topic and I had done plenty of reading). I had also finished a field exam that January. I had ideas, Big Ideas. But nothing came out. I didn’t know where to start, what to do. On top of that I had taken a position as an adjunct (in addition to my regular teaching gig, oops!), and on top of that my personal life underwent a major overhaul–the kind of drama only a handful of couples survive.

I now know there was no way I was going to write my dissertation that semester. I was going about it all wrong! But back then? I thought I knew what I was doing. However, halfway through that spring semester, I gave up, frustrated with my inability to juggle all those balls in the air. My life was a nest of chaos. I’d start over the summer. I knew I had the summer to do it. I can do it, right?

I turned 28 that summer. I could hear the clock ticking as I dove head first into my coordinator job. But I was just postponing the inevitable: revising my dissertation topic and coming up with something more manageable, more COHERENT. I was trying to do too much for one monograph. I figured all I had to do was write,  and I wasn’t writing. I blamed everything around me, including myself.

That fall, in a better position financially and personally, I faced my fears head on. I had to start somewhere. Why couldn’t I start? I wondered. Around the same time, I found out we were expecting. Facing my fears about my dissertation wasn’t so complicated in light of the pregnancy: that changed my life forever. What really affected me about the pregnancy was I had to slow down in my work. God, how frustrating was THAT? As I struggled to continue working backbreaking hours and staying up late, as I fought the sleep and the nausea, as I juggled academic research and teaching and doctor’s appointments, I would get angry at myself.

“Why am I so damn tired? I need to grade because I need to read later because if I don’t read later I have to read tomorrow and I don’t have TIME TOMORROW!”

Ah, Miss E. You had other plans.

After I got over the rollercoaster that was the first trimester of my pregnancy, I wrote a rough draft of Chapter 1 at the end of February the next year (2010, if you’re keeping score at home). I wouldn’t touch that draft again until come October, in Kansas City. I tried to start my research for Chapter 2 after sending off that draft of Chapter 1, but I had two baby showers, a job interview for a teaching position, Spring Break in Kansas City, an advanced pregnancy, and grading grading grading at the end of the semester–a semester I couldn’t finish teaching, by the way. Once the semester was over, my apartment was a revolving door of people until we moved in mid July.

On my 29th birthday, I was hugely pregnant and counting the hours until I would go into labor. As I walked up and down the block and propped my swollen feet on pillows, I thought about my game plan. I thought to myself: I was supposed to be done by now. And for a brief moment, dear reader, I felt I had failed.

Miss E and Me

Now that I look back, I don’t regret a thing. I’m right where I’m supposed to be, I feel. I could look at my story and say. “I am 30, and I only have two chapters of my dissertation written. I quit adjuncting and I don’t have another job lined up. On top of that, the job market is so dismal and depressing for PhDs that I’ve quit reading job market articles.” But instead I look at it this way:

I am 30. I have a beautiful, smart, daughter who’s quite the character at the age of 1. I have an amazing significant other who makes me laugh, who loves to share his reads and his tunes with me, and who treats me like his equal. I live in a wonderful city in the Midwest that I didn’t know existed when I was 20. I had the privilege of going to grad school and getting paid to read and ask questions for five years. I have had the chance to travel to so many different cities and share with audiences my writing: Honolulu, Calgary, San Juan, Scranton… I have engaged hundreds of students semester after semester, and gained a confidence in my teaching I wouldn’t have fathomed years ago. And I write. I write! Oh, and that dissertation? I’m hoping to be done by next spring.  On top of that, I had champagne and cupcakes for my birthday.

I don’t know if I’ll be teaching once I’m PhD, but I’m certainly excited about where my life is going. 20-year old me didn’t know much, didn’t she?

Bonus track: Cracker’s “Happy Birthday To Me”