When I started my doctorate I was given two bad pieces of advice. First, check the job market to be sure you can find work. Second, focus and finish the damn thing before it finishes you. The only good dissertation, is a finished dissertation.
This is probably good advice for someone. It was bad advice for me. First, I have a job. Second, the concern about getting bogged down in a PhD for years doesn't apply to me. I grew up in a post-war Dutch immigrant home: missing deadlines is a sin second only to consumer debt.
What both pieces of advice have in common is this: doctoral study is an unpleasant hazing ritual which you should finish as efficiently as possible. This is a common assumption about any kind of education; no time to dither, no time to revise. Finish the task at hand, and move on with your life.
These assumptions came into focus when I was speaking with Sara Zarr at the Glen workshops last week. She told me that revision was her favourite part of the writing process.
I stared at her blankly in disbelief.
I do not like revision. Neither do my students, I notice. I often read papers that struggle to make an argument until they finally stumble into one in the conclusion. The difference between undergrads and graduates, I hypocritically chide, is revision.
My inclination—just like my students'—is to do something quickly and move onto the next thing. Is it consumerism meets vocation? Or is it something less sexy? Perhaps it is the lazy satisfaction that comes from a shallow generalism that tickles the pleasure of curiosity without deepening into the hard work of mastery?
Whatever it is, I have it.
In grade school, I would often get half marks in mathematics because I wouldn't show the math. My doctoral supervisors say the same thing: show the math on your arguments. Show every small logical move. It still bothers me. I know the final answer is right.
Getting to the answer turns out to matter, though.
Artistic people talk a lot about the journey versus the destination, perhaps it's because they understand that art is as much about process as product—even for those who encounter it.
This makes me impatient and annoyed. The first night I was at the Glen, Robert Cording talked about the inside of a stone. Minutes before I was reading a story about the Syrian siege of Hama. I could not conceive, in that moment, of the patient audacity of imagining a stone's entrails.
Maranatha, says the Christian tradition. I've prayed it enough stewing over this doctorate, and I'll probably pray it again. But if Robert Cording can talk about meditating on stones while the Syrians light up their air force and thugs smash in London shops, maybe I can slow down enough to focus on a few revisions. Maybe, audaciously, I can even learn to be grateful for them.