Hey, Bartender: Dissertation Actualities and Atrocity Stories, Part 1
Guest contributor Steve Davenport, Associate Director of the Creative Writing Program at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, counts the ways he and his dissertation got to know each other.
Part 1 of an essay by guest writer Steve Davenport
A man walks into a bar with a dissertation on his shoulder. The bartender asks, "Isn't that supposed to be a parrot?" The man says, "You mean it's not?" A second man walks into the same bar with a dissertation on his back. A third man sitting on a stool is talking to the bartender and getting his dissertation off his chest. The wise bartender knows these are all the same man.
Under hypnosis, I descended into the blue-black pool at the base of my brain to fish something up, some clues about the years I lost to my dissertation. Here's what I found. First, illnesses and afflictions, nervous prostration, sympathetic areunia, xanthoerythrodermia perstans, the common cold an uncommon number of times, dyspnea, dysphoria, dysstasia. I apparently suffered for an entire month from a nasty case of the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine. Close friends recently admitted that all they had to do was clap their hands or poke me with a baguette and I'd jerk and yelp out whatever was on my mind. Then there were the operations.
Hobbies? Running and drinking. (I could have told the hypnotist that.) Achievements? Completing a ten-mile run after hyperextending a chronically bad knee at the five-mile mark. One-hundred-and-six straight weeks of wallyball. Learning to take the legs and lyre off a nine-foot Steinway, put it on a skid and a dolly, roll it up a ramp and into a truck, strap it to a wall, reverse the process somewhere else. During the lost years, I moved pianos around Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Missouri. Fragments of a memory suggest one fell on me. How many people--cartoon penguins and coyotes don’t count--can claim that? And what about the pain of love? Court records dredged from my blue-black pool say I was married (and, yes, divorced) something like twenty-three times during the five-year period I can't completely account for. Imagine my surprise.
Here's a dissertation story. A friend found herself one day, her apartment clean as a new penny, hunched over her keyboard, cotton swab in one hand, window cleaner in the other. Having already vacuumed between the keys, she caught her reflection in the dark screen. What she saw was a desperate woman. Cleanliness may be, as John Wesley said, next to godliness, but God had nothing to do with it. Having just secured a tenure-track job, she saw a picture of herself that could have gone either way. Had she not then decided things were clean enough, her story might have ended badly. That she did finish her dissertation and went on to become Director of Graduate Studies makes it a happy anecdote.
According to an unreliable dream I had last year, 96% of my twenty-three failed marriages were the result of similar procrastination. Actualities? Or are my lost years resurfacing and reassembling in a set of stories that may very well be nothing but a pack of lies? How did I write my dissertation? I can't know for sure, but right now, as I tell these stories, I'm feeling performance anxiety. In "Soldier's Home," Hemingway writes, "At first Krebs, who had been at Belleau Wood, Soissons, the Champagne, St. Mihiel and in the Argonne did not want to talk about the war at all. Later he felt the need to talk but no one wanted to hear about it. His town had heard too many atrocity stories to be thrilled by actualities." It takes only a couple of lies, claiming for himself the experiences of other soldiers, before he feels dirty and lapses into periodic silences. "Soldier's Home" begins with a series of actualities, one of which is a photograph of Krebs "on the Rhine with two German girls and another corporal. Krebs and the corporal look too big for their uniforms. The German girls are not beautiful. The Rhine does not show in the picture." The actualities--the plain young women, the ill-fitting uniforms and therefore the plain young men, the absence of the beautiful Rhine--are not the stuff of movies that will be made about the war. The photograph tells no story that people want to hear.
If my dissertation story is a picture of a plain guy at a beautiful table that’s out of the frame, is it worth looking at? If I admit that I never stood toe-to-toe with my director, fighting for this or that point, charging her with war crimes and demanding reparations that would repair all the damage done to me, if I admit that my dissertation story is short on wounds and long on admirations and actualities and alcohol, is it worth reading?
A couple of years after depositing my dissertation, I went public with the name of my director, Nina Baym, in an academic journal. Pretend you’re thinking of doing something similar. Wise move? If what you have to say is positive, yes. If your motives are complex, your feelings unresolved, I suggest you listen to the voice coming from your good shoulder, the one intermittently drowned out by that other voice, the one jumping up and down on your bad shoulder, the one saying “Go for it.” Remember the law of the paper jungle: revenge in print begets revenge in print. Consider the possibilities. Sentences from your dissertation appearing in workbooks for prominent rhetoric texts. Notes advising your students to peek under the dinged hood of your dissertation, which is now available on reserve in your campus library. An article by your director in Lingua Franca, the title scarring the cover in electric lavender: "How I Let That Awful, Awful Dissertation Get By Me."
I defended and deposited my dissertation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1992. The date is important because, as a departmental document explains, "Candidates who enter with the M.A. degree earned elsewhere must finish in six years after their first registration in the Graduate College." Start with 1984, the year I entered the program, M.A. in hand. Add six years. Write zero. Carry the one. 1990. Subtract 1990 from 1992, and it's just as I recall: I crossed the finish line two years late.
Here's a scary thought. Had more than five years passed between my Special Field Exam and my Dissertation Defense, I might have been required "to demonstrate currency of knowledge in the field by passing a second Special Field Examination." In my case, four had elapsed. My academic-biological clock was ticking, and I'm not sure I knew it. Looking back, I see a dumb guy who gets where he's going because his momentum is just steady enough to get him there: not so fast you'd notice it, not so slow he quits moving. I watch him now and he makes me nervous. How did the dumb guy write his dissertation? One brick at a time.
One of the things I did that used up time I might have given to my dissertation was sandlot baseball. A buddy of mine, a PhD candidate in physical chemistry, was the organizer. All I had to do was show up Sunday mornings at a local diamond, and there I’d find a dozen or more people, grad students mostly, assembling for a double-header. At some point I brought along a new hire in English, a young assistant professor named Michael Bérubé. Neither of us played every weekend, and he may have played more often than I did. I didn't give it or him much thought then except that it was fun and he was amiable and clever and a pretty good glove.
Only later when one of my readers left UIUC did I ask him to serve on my dissertation committee. Looking back on those sandlot days, I see Michael sitting on the grass near the fence. Our team’s batting and he's working on a thick manuscript. I now know what it was. He was rewriting his dissertation while I was very specifically not writing mine at all. His first of many books, published the same year I finally deposited my dissertation, would become my lost years. Let's put it this way. By the time I returned in 1996 from a temporary position an hour down the road, he was in the Full-Professor Penthouse and I was a couple of floors below, gratefully signing on to play myself in the Post-Doc Poophouse.
If anything good came of baseball, it was softball. At a practice, when I might have been writing, I threw a ball from the outfield and hit one of our writers between the shoulder blades while he was rounding second base. Never mind the submerged feelings that might have come into play with that throw -- Dissertator kills living writer! A member of the faculty! -- I entered with one throw that writer's imagination and apparently his novel-in-progress. Today that novel’s in his agent’s hands. Look for me as the left fielder who, with a mighty throw, knocks the wind out of his main character: "Murphy found himself reassessing the arm and motive of the man who'd gunned him down." More people will read that sentence than will ever read my dissertation or this essay about it. How did I write my dissertation? While becoming a character in a novel.
A quick word about the Post-Doc Poophouse. I don't want to sound ungrateful. Good people in the UIUC Department of English made it possible for folks like me to continue teaching as we searched for our tenure-track home. I got to teach upper-level courses in my specialty, I shared a better office than I did in my pre-doc days, I made enough money to make ends almost meet, and I received the benefits that make us responsible adults. In many ways, as Poophouses go, mine was a pretty good one. Still it was temporary, and I wanted what everyone I know wants. Modern plumbing. August of 2000, I got just that when the department made me an academic professional (read: full-time undergraduate academic adviser, occasional teacher, zero-time assistant professor in a room of his own).
Despite the increase in privilege, I still can’t write at work. I wrote my dissertation at home after midnight, over coffee and before liquor, the site of my labor an old kitchen table given to me by my mother, who'd inherited it from the grandmother who helped raise her. After I deposited my dissertation, a woodworker told me the table was made in Chicago early in the twentieth century. Beautiful but too heavy, he said. The double leaves on each end, the ones I enjoyed pulling up and into place, put too much pressure on the legs. He pointed out the bow in the table's top and the crack, and he told me the name of the table, which I've since forgotten. The name I use is the Grandma Dorie Table. How I wrote my dissertation is a family story.
Someone read the article in which I named Nina Baym and remarked that he had never considered the category of director-as-mother before. Mother? It had never occurred to me to think of her as my mother. I already had one. Then the memory came hurtling back, that day I went by Baym's office and stood just inside her door, expressing guilt or remorse about not having finished a chapter after all the time that had passed, expecting, I suppose, absolution or a secular version of it, when she said, and I will never forget it, "I already have a son. I don't need another." She may have said "want." She didn't want another. I still don’t know what I wanted.
In Writing in Disguise, Terry Caesar writes, "It has long been a fancy of mine that every dissertation is an autobiographical act, especially the longer one waits to write it." I was thirty-four years old in 1988 when I realized I wanted to write about the alcohol-laden absent-father-son narrative embedded in Kerouac's fiction. I don't think I stopped to ask myself why. My father did not drink, never had, and had never been absent physically or emotionally from my life.
My own fancy about my dissertation is that it stands as a record of my largely self-directed education. Nina Baym mentored (never mothered) me as I went through the process, but I was the one choosing the books, crafting the approach, making the contacts within the Kerouac community. Despite her well-deserved reputation, despite the essay "Melodramas of Beset Manhood" that influenced my work, she was no Kerouac scholar. Ultimately, I had to find my own way.
If Caesar's right, I wrote my dissertation at one remove. My father's father died when my father was eleven years old. My mother's father abandoned her repeatedly through alcoholism, divorce, and two prison terms. Kerouac's father died too soon. Kerouac, the son, was an alcoholic father who publicly denied his only child, a daughter. Could it be? In writing my dissertation I was rewriting my parents' lives? I do know I was making alcohol a central part of my life, doing with drink what my jailbird grandpa couldn't, or didn't, do. I was drinking without becoming an alcoholic. I was testing my limits, ending most evenings, which became, in my case, early mornings, in solitary communion with the stuff Jack London calls "the White Logic." Though I may have been more productive had I stuck to mineral water, how I wrote my dissertation and what I wrote it about are inseparable.
Writing a dissertation involves a good deal of parroting, of giving up ownership, of losing what you assume, rightly or wrongly, to be your original voice. The voice you adopt in the real or imagined presence of your director can feel like a straitjacket. I wrote much of my dissertation in a voice that wasn't mine. I did it because I didn't know how not to do it. I did it because the process, like it or not, is about influence, about imitating the voices of others in a way that makes sense to your director and to your committee and, if you're fortunate, to you. It's about tradition, about being monitored and mentored, about joining a community that has voice standards even if they can't be defined except in the way pornographic music is: you know it when you hear it.
How did I write my dissertation? In a voice that was and wasn't mine. Still it was the process of reading for my dissertation, of preparing to teach the classes that supported me while I wrote it, that taught me in turn, that fine-tuned my understanding of resistance as motion: what and how to resist or reshape, what voice standards to reject, which ones to use, to adapt for my own purposes, even if only later, as in right now, right here, in these words about my dissertation.
A fellow dissertator -- call him Guthrie -- and I learned in graduate school that we had a number of things in common: family in the South (his in Oklahoma, mine in southern Missouri and then southern Illinois), preachers for relatives (his Church of Christ, mine Baptist and Pentecostal), fathers who practiced trades (his sheet metal, mine pipefitting), and a family fondness for white gravy and the occasional extravagance of Ponderosa. Guthrie and I agreed that graduate education came at some cost to family voice. The word "guitar" became a joke we shared, a symbol of the things we were losing. We imagined distant relatives emphasizing the first syllable instead of the second (GIT-tar instead of guh-TAR). If they called it "GIT-tar," who were we to call it something else?
Now I find myself asking why not. Why not call it something else? Did I really feel I was being colonized? With every draft of a dissertation chapter, there went another bit of me? Literary theory erased the way home? Maybe GIT-tar was just another way of saying we needed the friendship, the solidarity a shared past would give us as we made our respective ways through our dissertations. Maybe what we really needed from each other was family, the promise of Ponderosa and white gravy our occasional reminder.
Early in grad school, I was initiated by an officemate's story about a previous officemate who had abandoned her dissertation one chapter short of completion to enroll in a prestigious law school. How could she throw away the years, I asked? Why not just finish? Her story got even better. After completing her law degree, she entered--how could I be prepared for this?--medical school. My brain shut down. Hers was a horror story that might, if I stared into it too long, become mine: endless, extravagant deferral of closure, a self-willed Sisyphean loop, no exit. Around this time I was told another, this one about a guy who was running out of time in the program and devised a plan that forced him to get his dissertation done. His miracle cure? Every day he shut himself up in a large walk-in closet, where he kept his books, papers, a desk, and his computer, and worked six hours in silence. No horror story, this one. Theater of Comic Asceticism is more like it.
Here's one that ends happily, though the prospects that evening seemed dim. I was to meet Guthrie and another buddy—let’s call him Gordie--at a bar. Gordie, I had heard, was angry. His recent MLA job-search experience had made him that way. If there were no jobs, why should he finish his dissertation? Why not, in fact, stop right there, ten pages short of the finish line? He was merely loosening a valve to release some steam, but I didn't see it that way. I saw a problem I thought I could and should solve. Looking back, I see "should" as evidence of my concern. "Could," on the other hand, reads like a Psych 101 flashcard: Ego. What I saw was the likelihood of meltdown, cessation of operations, a factory closing, my buddy letting himself, the only employee, go. What I should have seen were the shoulders I was measuring for a hero cape. I'd deposited my dissertation the year before. I had the shoulders for the job.
Here's one of two things I remember. Gordie asked me a number of times, once or twice with heat, if we couldn't maybe think of something else to talk about. Here's the better thing I remember, an exchange that has everything to do with differences in our family stories. (If I pretended to be Missouri hill poor, to be GIT-tar, Gordie didn't have to. His credentials were authentic because more immediate, more recent.) When I tossed on the table, right between his rum and my bourbon, the idea that his decision might rob his parents of significant, enduring joy, that this one action would keep them from spending his advanced degree around the neighborhood like cultural capital ("yes, our son, the doctor"), he looked at me as if I'd just been birthed on The Donna Reed Show by Ward and June Cleaver. "My mom said I should tell them all to fuck off."
Gordie did finish. He got his tenure-track job and, with his wife's help, a baby daughter, a first house, and a small second-hand sailing boat. What's the difference between dissertation stories I can't verify and those I can? Not much.
Come back tomorrow for Part II....
Steve Davenport is Associate Director of the Creative Writing Program at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the author of two books of poetry: Uncontainable Noise (2006) and Overpass (2012). A recent story of his, originally published in The Southern Review, received Special Mention in the 2011 Pushcart Prize anthology. His Murder on Gasoline Lake, published first in Black Warrior Review (and later packaged as a New American Press chapbook), is listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2007. His scholarship includes an essay about Kerouac and work in Boys Don't Cry?: Rethinking Narratives of Masculinity and Emotion in the U.S. (Columbia UP) and one about Richard Hugo’s poetry in All Our Stories Are Here: Critical Perspectives on Montana Literature (U. of Nebraska Pr.). Davenport is co-author with wife Lynn of four daughters, ages 14, 12, 10, and 6 (their names, One, Two, That’s It, and This Isn’t Funny Anymore). He likes his coffee black and his George Dickel (Old No. 8) poured hard over chipped ice in the glass he tries never to wash.This essay was originally published in Bayou 40 (2003) and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
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