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Emerging, dishevelled, from the groves of academe

Do you know what THIS is?

THIS, my friends, is a DISSERTATION. “The Art of the Public Grovel: Public Confession and Scandal Management in the Twentieth Century.” From Aimee Semple McPherson and Father Divine through Jimmy Carter (remember the lust in his heart?), Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Edward Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Cardinal Bernard Law.

230 pages of text, 75 pages of appendices, 20 pages of works cited. I have been working on this almost non-stop since I got the last revisions of the History of the Ancient World off. This past week my kind husband took the children off for several days of outings so that I could finish the thing off. I missed Pirates of the Caribbean Two, but I’ve got a dissertation draft. I took it into Williamsburg this afternoon and turned it in to my director’s mailbox.

Pete, happy that I am returning to the land of the living.

This has been more difficult than any writing project I’ve done, including the eight-hundred-thousand-word first draft of the History of the Ancient World. For one thing, the Ph.D. program in American Studies has been like a Flannery O’Connor story crossed with Gaudy Night with a soupcon of I Know What You Did Last Summer. When I am well out of the department, I may spill a bean or two, sans names and identifying details that might get me sued. Anyway, working on any kind of scholarly project with a soap opera boiling along in the background is…distracting.

Mostly, though, I find academic writing of this kind grueling because it requires me to keep on listening to the editorial voice while I’m getting words down on paper. Most writers will tell you that, in order to avoid panic and brain freeze, they have to learn to “turn off” the critical voice which keeps whispering, “That’s not really very good. How boring. No one’s going to read that. Is that the best word you can come up with?” Instead, writers have to block that “editorial voice” out, get a first draft down on paper in the faith that an audience somewhere will find it interesting, and THEN go back and read through with the editorial voice unmuted. The problem with a dissertation is that you’re not actually writing it for an audience. You’re writing it for four people whose job it is to criticize what you’ve done. The editorial voice is impossible to silence. Writing a dissertation is not only horrendously difficult, but just plain no fun.

Which is sad. The last few months, and the last four weeks in particular, have been a misery, because I’ve been sitting down at my table with gritted teeth and promising myself all sorts of rewards, from another episode of Pride & Prejudice to a Reese’s Peanutbutter Cup, just to make myself DO it.

And normally I love my work. I can’t wait to get to it.

This has been quite different. I’ve been dreading walking down to the Chicken Shed and opening the door. And I’ve gained four pounds. But there it is. The First Draft. Revisions are peachy by comparison.

Now the draft is in, the kids are in bed, and I’m going to watch What About Bob? and collapse, get up in the morning and have a nice long run and a hot bath and then spend the day with the kids. Thursday morning I’m off to speak at a convention in Modesto, so my next update will be from the West Coast.