Friday, January 08, 2010

But surely I can fail again!

Since returning home from MLA and my holiday travels, I've been working fitfully on my manuscript. I'm revising the fourth of my five chapters, which needs a fair amount of cosmetic and organizational work, but very little in the way of substantive changes--in terms of research and argument, it's probably my strongest chapter.

But the other night, slogging through a round of changes, I found myself seized by the heart-clutching, tear-welling sense of hopelessness, panic, and despair that I hadn't felt in a long time. It's a un- or pre-rational feeling, pure emotion and physicality, like I'm going to expire on the spot. And though I hadn't felt it in a while, I remembered, more or less, how I used to pull myself out of it: by probing patiently, like a shrink or a father confessor, until I got to the heart of the crisis.
What is it? I asked myself. Is it this chapter?

No. The chapter is going slower than I'd like, and it's frustrating, but it'll be fine.

Is it the next chapter?

No. That chapter's a mess, but it's my last one, and even if I only make cosmetic changes now, with a good intro I can still send the manuscript out for review.

So is it the intro?

I don't think so. That will be hard. But I got a good start on reframing the project this fall, and it'll get written.

Are you worried about finding a publisher?

Not really. It may take longer than I'm hoping--but it will get published. And I can get tenure on the strength of my other publications.

Is it about all the stuff that has to be got done between now and April?

Hmm. Maybe a little? But every semester is like this, and I always get through it.

Is it--


Wait, your second book? You've got to finish this one. And then you have a whole damn edition, whose 2014 deadline you'll be lucky if you can meet.


Hold up there. You're seriously freaking out about a second book?

And yes, it appears that I was, at least on some level--and when I realized it, I started to laugh. It seems that even after the real hurdles are past or are within comfortable reach (finishing the dissertation; getting a job; finishing the book; getting tenure), the need to freak out, to panic and despair, is still a live one. Surely there must be something for me to fail at! Or to send me into a hysterical paralysis of self-doubt!

The next time someone asks what I got out of grad school, that's what I'll tell 'em: the belief that there are always more things to fail at.


Sharon said...

This is one of the truest things I have ever heard. That's exactly what I learned in graduate school

A White Bear said...

Oh Flavia! You are worth more than one book, easy.

During my first year in my program, a girlfriend and I were talking about the pain of gradually abandoning our non-primary interests as coursework went on, and she came up with the great idea of calling all non-dissertation-directed activity "working on my second book." If I spend all weekend watching David Lynch movies or cooking Sichuan, I'm just "working on my second book." It'll fit in there somehow.

The funny thing was, both of us really did come up with real "second book" projects long before we decided on dissertation topics. The second book is my carrot for getting through this goddamn first one. Arg.

Just think! When you're tenured you can write about whatever you want! It sounds fun, from my distant viewpoint.

Flavia said...

AWB: Ha! I love it. Henceforth, when I waste time on the internets, I am "working on my second book."

I actually do have a semi-coherent idea for a possible second book, and have done a small amount of thinking/research toward it. . . but this diss-into-book process is so goddamn long, and I still feel so invested in it, that it's hard not to wonder how one detaches and moves on--and whether/how it's possible to have a scholarly life that isn't about that one thing you've been working on for, effectively, your entire career.

(But wasting time on such a distant fear is also, clearly, a kind of procrastination device--a way of avoiding working on the thing that CAN get done and/but NEEDS to get done!)

Earnest English said...

Flavia, you are so smart and wise. I love how you calmly and rationally talk yourself down from the roof.

And I love the "working on the second book" ideas of others. But I have a weird suggestion: maybe our bodies need to panic occasionally and there is NO mental causal reason. Here's why I say this: my midwife said that oftentimes people experience low-level pain in their bodies but because it's so low-level that they can't really locate it, they ascribe it to a psychological source, thinking that something is really wrong and making them feel crummy. Maybe the same is true here. Your body needs some panic - and you (and we) are ascribing it to a psychological source.

It's worth a thought. Now I'm going to go and "work on the second book." ;)

Sisyphus said...

This is brilliant! I love how you can present the eternal possibility of failure with such joy de vivre.

And working myself up, then talking myself down from the edge, is pretty much my every day. Chocolate and yoga (picking up on EE's point) always helps.

Renaissance Girl said...


Bavardess said...

As a relatively new grad student, this made me laugh and freak out all at the same time. Oh, what I have to look forward to!