Some years ago I had a mentor who would say all people have at least one book in them. He probably would not have said that to me, but at the time I was trying to get that book out of me. After a little more than five chapters I found myself at a standstill. Those five-plus chapters are still there, languishing in my computer’s archives, and they have been joined by a handful of other attempts to get that book out of me. So far I’ve only hit dead-ends. At present, I have two, maybe three books floating around in my head. There was one more, one that was actually at the top of my priority list, one that would have to be written before anything else could. It is a book with a very specific designation and designed to accomplish a very concrete goal. That book was going to be my dissertation.
Past tense? Yes, past tense – “was,” not “is.” Of course, the decision not to write my dissertation necessarily includes the decision not to finish my Ph.D. While I am not blazing any sort of new ground in languishing in ABD (“all but dissertation”) land – many have taken the very same route through grad school – it still took a great deal of soul-searching to conclude my graduate career. Some will say and have said things like “why give up when all you have left is just a dissertation.” I have reasoned the same thing, many times, but those two words “all” and “just” significantly minimize what a dissertation actually is. It is a book and in the world of books it is an exceptionally difficult one to write. Although the type of work is not beyond my capability, it is patently obvious that it is beyond my willingness. After recommitting more times than I can remember – with nothing to show for it – I can no longer con myself into thinking that this project is one I am going to finish.
So what does all that mean. Let us recap: After numerous attempts at college since 1981, each with slowly and gradually better results, I returned once again in the fall of 2003. I was 40 years old with a total of about two years of college credits scattered all over the place, both geographically and academically. The upshot was that while I had enough credits to be a junior, they did not meet all of the requirements. This was neither surprising nor important, I had a specific vocational target in 2003 and planned to obtain an AA degree and start a new career as a counselor. That was it - an AA degree and go to work.
For reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay, I never got that AA degree. I transferred to California State University, Sacramento in the fall of 2005, this time with the credits where I needed them to be a junior. And my grades, almost 25 years after graduating from high school, were better than they ever were in my entire life up until that point. I graduated from Sac State magna cum laude in 2007 with a BA in journalism and government, worked briefly as a journalist and went back to school in the fall of 2008 fro an MA in communication studies. That foray into grad school (and the subsequent master’s degree) led me to Louisiana State University in the fall of 2011 to begin work on that Ph.D. All of the work I have done at LSU, without a dissertation, is not worth nothing, however. I have completed enough (actually, more than enough) to be awarded a Master of Arts degree from LSU as well. The total then is one BA and two MAs, not too bad for someone who flunked out of San Diego State University in 1985.
But still, the idea of “just” a dissertation haunts me a little bit. Another mentor of mine who is also a very good friend is concerned that I will regret this decision later in life. I cannot say he will be right or wrong, I honestly don’t know. I can say that whether I regret it or not, I will survive and I will quite likely have something to say (write, share… something) about that experience as well. Because that is what all this is – experience. It is also why I do not regret making the attempt. It was definitely not a waste of time or money. The experience of going so far away in pursuit of such a lofty and elusive goal – a goal I really have no business being so close to in the first place – is an accomplishment in and of itself. I left SDSU 21 years ago with a 0.7 GPA and today I have not one, but two master’s degrees, both from very highly regarded schools. The “failure” in getting my Ph.D. is still success by any objective measure.
So, back to those books. Now that the mental strain of writing something I could not bring myself to write is relieved, I can put effort into doing what is calling me. In the meantime, I have a job teaching that rewards me in ways money cannot, but it is also sufficiently financially rewarding (barely, a rant for another time) so that I can pursue my other interests, namely getting those books out of my head. One of them, a compilation of many of these blog posts, is largely already written, but there is still a science-fiction apocalyptic novel and a memoir that are trying to free themselves. It’s time I gave them a way out.