Sunday, March 2, 2008

Dissertation Simultenaeity

I'm trying to edit a different section of my chapter while balancing cats, a clipboard, and a computer in my lap. (Side note: I think I could complete my dissertation much faster if I only had telekinesis, as very often I am unable to dislodge the cats and get up to check a different book or get more caffeine or snacks. Being able to float my laptop or a new can of diet coke over here without getting up would help immensely.)

Unfortunately, I am stuck on a problem that I think most writers struggle with: writing is linear, and some of my concepts are not. I have a couple different passages, all of which need to be given as background to the others, which means, logically, all of them have to go first in the chapter --- like an Escher drawing or the layout of Derrida's Glas.

Unfortunately us mere cogs are not allowed to write our dissertations nonlinearly, in hypertext, multiple columns, visual productions or interpretive dance, and so therefore I need to make some choices about what comes first in my chapter. As I return to the opening section and am fixing phrases, I have an uneasy sense of deja vu: I keep moving these sections and writing next to other sections "is it clear how this passage is going back to my main argument?" with the sinking feeling that I have shuffled these same paragraphs back and forth into the same positions long before, back when I was originally sketching it out. Like trying to put magnets with the same pole together, none of these passages will let the others come before it, and their constant motion suggests that, if one could hook them up to a machine, their constant rotation would produce enough energy to heat one's home or power one's computer. But, alas, I can't get that worked out either.

(My other major problem is that I have a recurring freak-out that none of this is in any way original or worthy of being called an argument and that perhaps the whole chapter needs to be scrapped or rethought, a traumatic idea which drives me to immediately repress it and turn to fixing flow and grammar at the micro level ---- mechanical problems which can be solved but which may be rendered completely moot if said paragraph gets moved or scrapped. So you can see that the churning paragraph process within the chapter is paralleled by a churning thought movement in my brain ---- a movement that does not produce energy but instead threatens to cause my head to explode.)

Likewise, I keep highlighting, on different printouts of the same chapter, the same passages that I need to check against some historical sources, none of which are here with me (see why I need telekinesis?) and all of which, I suspect, I don't really need to check but that I can't just force myself to definitively assert that something happened one way or another, and so I can't take out the little (????) marks and italicizations that are mucking up the sentence flow.

Of course, the truly sad bit is that I can write a long blog post about the whole process (though not edit it) in a fraction of the time it takes me to dither about on this revision shit.

I know, I know, I should just shit or get off the pot ---- unbold things, slap sentences together, cut what I haven't sourced or answered and emphatically decide the direction of my argument rather than let it slap me around like this, and just hand it in to let my advisor deal with, have her say what should stay and what should go, since she's going to want me to rewrite things anyway. But I'm just not able to.

Who knew that the perfect perpetual motion machine would produce only levitation and stasis?


kermitthefrog said...

I had the same problem with the chapter I just finished (and may yet reorganize the sections). While this isn't what I ended up doing, have you thought about starting with the most fun part? That's often at or near the crux of the argument anyway.

Also, not to presume, but if you're at the stage when having an external reader would be helpful, for writing/organizational things like how the argument flows, I'd be happy to take a look and let you know where the Mobius strip curls. If not, no big deal.

Dr. Crazy said...

I was going to suggest having somebody else read what you've got as well. Sometimes somebody who's not so close to the project can see what is salient and essential and can help you weed out the stuff that in your too-close-to-the-dissertation place you think can't be abandoned or truncated.

Also, while you can't write a hypertext dissertation, when drafting it can help to use notes to take care of things that just don't fit. When you go back through the draft, you'll either realize that you don't need the note (a), realize that the note could be more brief - like a few sentences or just one sentence instead of a few paragraphs (b), or realize that something really does need to be a paragraph in the text (c). In my experience with doing this, stuff that I originally thought needed to be 3 paragraphs or so in the actual text then became a one-paragraph content-rich note in the draft, and then in most cases in the final version became a "for more on x, see y" sort of note in the final estimation. (Though don't look at my actual dissertation online, as if you do what you will find is that I ended up having LENGTHY notes in which I picked fights with people that were ultimately distractions from what I was trying to say. This was the weirdest part of turning the thing into a book: seeing all of that and then just deleting all of it because it was INSANE.)

azoresdog said...

What's important here is that you are turning potential into kinetic energy and, in the process, spinning off engineering techno-analogies.

Loose Baggy Monster said...

Oooh, when you figure out the telekinesis angle, do share! I too have trouble managing the cat/laptop/coffee balancing act, but I am also crippled by a debilitating case of laziness (what do you mean Murder She Wrote reruns are not part of my research?).

I'm sending good revision thoughts your way!

Maude said...

you have read my mind!

thanks for writing this entry because now i don't have to.


gwoertendyke said...

i never thought of writing as linear....perhaps this is one of my problems. i've always imagined it both as stacking up and linking out, as in hypertext. but then, i think dissertations are allowed to be slightly more creative than say books.

who knows but i thought your comment interesting, is making me wonder.

Quiche said...

clearly, you already know all you need to know.

also, have somebody read it who you can trust will only tell you what you need to know. meaning they'll say: "this is what you need to do to clean it up and get it done." (ideally not in your field but smart)

and they won't say: "here is an idea you should explore. and in fact, the thing *I've* been researching/theorizing on/thinking about would work perfect here."

Unknown said...

mmmm.... so my question would be why not use hypertext? it's the route I decided to take: (it has been a slow process for me, but this is because of the rest of life - not a factor inherent in writing hypertext! and I have to admit that it hasn't been defended yet, but I do have support for the idea...) I also used multiple columns in my comp exam! ( - the Grad admin contacted me the day after I handed it in because she was worried I had had problems with my printer and didn't notice it... :) I have also heard of other creative approaches to dissertations, but you might have to be in fine arts...

I understand the coggish nature of the process, but I think there is some need for change in the system. I wonder about how this happens. I tend to think that a cog actually has influence in its very turning...

but to the practical side:
both of the works I mention deal explicitly with the challenge of which piece to cover first. however, given that you are not likely to decide to change your mind and write a hypertext after all(!!), perhaps I can offer two thoughts that arise from a different angle on the writing process. (I'm sure there are more, but these are the two that come to mind in reading your post...)

one, is to be explicit about the complications and recursiveness. one of my reasons for doing hypertext is to be able to use the medium to give this message, however, in writing it seems only fair to offer the reader some signposts and to lay bare the complications. I think sometimes we feel we have to make it all flow wonderfully well and smoothly; that if something seems terribly complicated and twisted it is our fault as authors for not making it clear and simple. well, really!! are you writing about something clear and simple?! or is it actually quite complicated and, as such, deserving of being explicitly identified so? if all of the points depend on each other, then perhaps the thing to start with is the very notion of their interdependence...

two, I have found one of the biggest challenges to be the very fact that the text is not linear; that you cannot rely on people having already read something. (I know you can't necessarily rely on this in linear text either - people will skip about when reading, but then it's on their heads. i.e. they know they're taking chances.) from one who occasionally craves linearity, I say: use it to your advantage. it may sometimes be frustrating, but there is also a certain predictability and tidiness (even comfort) to it...