Wednesday, August 25, 2004


Dissertation horticulture

In the past two weeks I've been wrangling with Chapter 1 of my dissertation. I have had fragments of this chapter written for over a year, but the last two weeks convinced me that this has been a hindrance rather than a help.

The first seeds of this chapter were written for a conference paper in the summer of 2003. I signed up for the conference thinking that it would provide me with an early deadline for completing part of the dissertation. Reasonable enough, you might say. But here's what happened: the conference paper took on a life of its own. It shot roots down into the small patch of ground enclosed by my panel's subject. Then, it sprouted wild branches that sprawled off in unplanned directions. Finally, these adventitious branches blossomed, producing exotic fruits to which I became attached--the kinds of little rhetorical flourishes that all writers vainly admire behind the walls of their secret gardens.

I gave the paper at the conference and put it into hibernation. Then came the season that has tried my soul. This summer, I tried to take the conference paper and transplant it into Chapter 2. The effect was somewhat like attempting to graft a bonzai tree onto a grapevine. It became a huge and unwieldy hybrid. Sometime in June, I decided that the conference paper had to be pruned away; it would have to become its own separate chapter. This decision worked out well for Chapter 2. With its roots no longer being choked by the conference paper, Chapter 2 took on a life of its own.

So now I had an aging bonzai that needed to fill the hole dug for a larger tree. I tried for a couple of months to nurture it, to encourage its growth. But it never did take. I finally realized that it was simply unnatural to force the conference paper into the dissertation narrative. The lives of the two works were different. To breed them would have required genetic modification that might, for all I know, have made my readers sick. So early this week, I decided to lay the ax to the root. My little conference paper had become a weed, and the only thing to do it was pull it out and start again.

You'll pardon my extended metaphor, I hope, because this whole experience has made me realize how biological and organic writing is. When we are taught to write, our teachers misleadingly use modular and linear metaphors for the structure of a piece: they say it has an intro, a body, a conclusion--paragraphs that can be cast, picked up and put back like so many blocks of pig iron. Then, as we grow into older writers, we hear academics speak of their writings like alchemists, blithely talking of turning a chapter into an article, a conference paper into a chapter, a dissertation into a book, as though these transformations were not dark arts.

Essays, I've found, do have bodies, but they are more like human bodies than solid masses. Paragraphs are more like organs than building blocks. To transplant them into other bodies is a delicate procedure; the new host might well reject them. And always, vestiges of the old body remain, eager at any time to be inflamed in spontaneous but urgent attacks of appendicitis.

Revision by alchemy or engineering are superstitious fantasies. Revision is more like surgery or horticulture. Sometimes, it requires realizing that even a beloved, manicured plant--a conference paper, if you will--is better off as compost for a new beginning. Other times, natural selection takes its course. The mutations are not pretty at first, but they are often for the best.

Collective Improvisation:

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