Thursday, March 5, 2009

Dissertation Redux

This is a long one. Please bear with me....

Welllllllllll, it's been a wild and woolly month in The Chair (see post 7/10/08). I don't remember last winter being so difficult. While the seasons come as predicted each year, the various components of my life always change. So, while EVERY winter in The Buff sucks--the luster of snow and coziness and hunkering down diminishes exponentially through Jan and Feb--this one seems outrageously unbearable. And, I haven't been on my game enough to confront and conquer the antsy-ness, the boredom, the darkness (sunshine-wise), the chill in the air....and these elements seep and crawl into many many many others, at least for me.

I haven't progressed on my Dissertation in any fashion that accounts for how much time I have to work on it. For real. It's a writing project that is different than any other I've undertaken, including my Masters theses (I wrote two). I have many ideas of "books" that I want to write OTHER THAN this one. In a sense, that's what this Diss is, a research-based, academically appropriate 250-page tome that reflects my graduate education in musicology. But I have to get this one done before I gently lift the lid to the Idea Box (see post 2/11/09) and REALLY get going on some good stuff. A Diss is a Diss. It's not fun, but it has to get done.

It's not to say that my Diss won't be good. I think it will, actually, and for the most part I've had faith in myself to make it of good quality, reflective of my character, and a valid contribution to the field of musicology. And sometimes, it has been fun. I like writing. Thinking.

Problem: about two months ago, I lost all interest in it. Actually, I lost interest in A LOT of things. Simultaneously, I could feel something brewing that gave me anxiety---I began thinking and feeling that I was not going to be able to finish The Diss. Like, actually incapable. I couldn't grasp the point of it. It/I had lost focus, had lost interest, had lost that flash of ambition that (in my mind) screams, "hell, yeah. Let's do this." Gone, lost, but not forgotten. Sitting there, in my office filled with books and notes and deadlines. Until this Diss is finished, I have to pay tuition every semester AND I'm in an academic holding pattern--not really hirable at the tenure-track level, destined to remain in Limbo Land hustling part-time goofy jobs, eeking out a living like I have been FOREVER, never getting it done. Quitting. Failing.

So I sat on these feelings for awhile, not really letting on to people around me what was happening, faking it:

"Things are good!" (lie)
"Oh, still workin' on it. Making progress, though."(bigger lie).
"I love having the time at home to write." (biggest lie)
"Everything's great! Just a little tired, that's all." (goin' straight to hell for that one).

It was noticeable, however, but I would just sigh and glibly utter, "Can't wait til spring!" (truth that hides the lies). blah blah blah.

When I was younger, I wouldn't have sat on this kind of uncomfortable, awful, edgy, embarrassed, discombobulated kind of existence for very long, or at least as long as I have so far. I would have said, "well, insert quick and final decision here and that's that." I have had to learn patience---yes, my friends reading this are nodding, yes----and it don't come easy to this lil' Taurus Bull. Instead of snapping my fingers, jutting out my hip (with one hand on) and swaggering toward some "new" plan that was quick and easy, I have--since mid-January--been watching myself, listening to myself, watching the world, listening to the world. And waiting. Waiting.

It's been excruciating.

But, then....something changed...perhaps, along with the sunshine last week. And the Beethoven (see post 2/26/09). And my son's continuous hugs and hopes and dreams. And my mother's unflagging support. And whatever the fuck else. A crack formed in all of this, a crack with some light beyond it. The anxiety began to wither away. I slept better, and not during the day (napping became a regular activity around here). My brain started to focus better. An idea. I had one!

I approached my Dissertation adviser with this "idea" that suddenly HIT me. Like a real hit. I could feel it mentally and physically. It had a voice. IT WOKE ME OUT OF A SOUND SLEEP (which is like waking the dead). And idea. I had been waiting, waiting, waiting for it. It found me, and I heard it.

An aside: there is no "How to Write a Dissertation" manual. Authors have made money selling books with such titles, and while I've actually read them, there is no accounting for each individual's Dissertation process. Period. I've already sold back many of those books.

Anyway, I should really call my Dissertation adviser my adWISEr. She is no joke. She has told me from DAY ONE that this process has no rules (except for getting it done). That I have to know myself better than I ever have (which, of COURSE, I thought I already did). That there will be many lessons learned and unexpected hurdles to leap. There is no mold. No path to take. I have to do it on my terms.

When I told her of my recently-formulated new idea (I called her after writing down my thoughts in a prepared speech-like thing so I could actually make sense....and slamming two beers....see? I do know myself!!!), her comment was, "Congratulations. You did it. You crossed that barrier and you needed to. I could have told you what needed to be fixed, but that wouldn't have been any fun, would it?" I had feared for the worst, of being told I was really destined to simply not be able to do this after all, that I might as well throw in the towel because this idea could never work as a PhD Dissertation in Musicology.

Not in a long time have a felt the simultaneous need to cry, vomit, and belly-laugh as I did after our conversation.

The Idea (in a nutshell):

--my ORIGINAL Diss proposal contains the evidence needed to support a book about three of Buffalo's predominant music cultures as they negotiated the Great Depression and New Deal programs. They are: the symphonic culture (mainly the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra), the Polish community and issues of assimilation/heritage and "Americanization," and the jazz community and issues of travel, cultural space, racism and class. The title is "Performing the Nation: Music Cultures in Buffalo, New York, 1925-1940." This proposal contains grand theories and sweeping ideologies that meld music performance, economics and cultural geography. Five chapters. 300 pages. This is HUGE project working with archival materials, various libraries, people, .....I mean, just huge. The most and best work has been on the BPO chapter and the "Brief History of Music in Buffalo, 1804--1925" chapter. So, still A LOT of work ahead.

--my REVISED Diss proposal contains the evidence needed to support a book about how the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra wrestled its way through the Great Depression and New Deal and emerged successfully (and remains today). The REVISED title is, "Performing the Nation: The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Gets a New Deal." This proposal contains good theories and relevant ideologies that meld music performance, politics, economics, and cultural geography. Five chapters. 200 pages. This is a NARROW project that provides a lens (the BPO) with which to view and blend other passions and interests of mine: archival materials (already secured from the National Archives last November), economics, the Great Depression, cultural theory, and the idiosyncracies of Buffalo's musical past. A specific focus that I AM EXCITED ABOUT. With all of these changes, my Diss is half done. I could finish it this summer. For real.

This may not sound as dramatic of a lesson-learned as I made it out to be. But, it NEVER OCCURRED to me to lop off huge portions of my proposed idea. I mean, I committed to that topic. I had to do it, right?

Nope. The "Judy's Manual for Writing a PhD Dissertation" now contains a valuable lesson that my adWISEr forced me to learn on my own, as painful as it was: stop and listen. Never be afraid of change. Be patient. Never feel like change is a failure of the present. Be passionate. Don't compromise.

The REVISED Diss makes me very happy. Finally.

And, the sun is out.


Jenni VO said...

Congrats Judy!! I can't wait to see you in a few weeks at SAM. I wish you the best with your writing, and I'm looking forward to hearing about it. Love you!!

cara said...

I am so proud of you! The light at the end of the tunnel was dim, but it was always there, just needed a charge to get brighter ... so much for the horrible metaphor.

Miss you much my friend!!!!