On Writing a Dissertation: All Beginnings are Hard

In The Man without Qualities Robert Musil compares solving an intellectual problem to a dog with stick in his mouth trying to get through a narrow door: he turns and turns, and eventually the dog finds the right angle and manages to get the stick through. Trying to start a dissertation can feel very much like this, especially since for most people it is their first major academic undertaking.

The comparison may be cynical, but I found it relaxing, especially when I began the dissertation. In the weeks after I advanced to candidacy, I faced a period of uncertainty over how to approach the texts I wanted to write about. I was unsure of whether the topic I ended up writing about, realism and ecology, would be sustainable (so to speak). I tried getting around my doubts by first making the topic impossibly abstract, then coming up with a different topic altogether. I lost interest in that alternate topic halfway through writing the prospectus, had I tried to turn it into a dissertation the project surely would have fallen apart.

Reading more widely in ecocriticism gave me the confidence that I could talk about what I was planning to talk about, but getting started was as simple as putting my conceptual doubt aside for the moment and pushing the pen across the page. I started with the novel I had thought the most about up until that point, and began writing about the environment in that text. I had written almost half the dissertation before I began to have a sense of both the arguments and the stakes of the project, and much of what I wrote up until then looked something like the dog with the stick, turning this way and that in search of an angle. And that is how it should be. While it can be hard trying to pin a project down as one is generating the material, it was also gratifying to see a form finally emerge, and one that was, in fact, distinct from the hundred years of criticism that had accrued around my authors.

Note: This is the second in a series of reflections on my recently completed dissertation. The first is here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *