Milestones and Turning Points: The Moments that Change Our Lives

The day I defended my dissertation, I woke up with a steely, nervous calm. It was like the energy that had been circling throughout my body the entire four years I'd been working on the novel had suddenly risen up through my pores. It stayed there, dancing among the goosebumps, flirting with my hair. Mark (my husband) asked if I wanted anything to eat. "No," I said. "I couldn't possibly." He decided not to eat anything either--he was defending his own master's thesis in computer science later that day. So we drove, empty and charged, to the campus together.

I can't really say what happened next, except that it was sort of like our wedding. All these months and months--years--of preparation, and it all came down to less than two hours. I remember sucking in a breath and feeling it go down through my empty body. I remember putting my palm over my navel and feeling the rise and fall. I remember my second and third readers (bless them!) going out into the hall for extra chairs, so that there were enough seats and so that I wouldn't have to. I remember talking through the outline I'd prepared and feeling fairly confident about what I was saying. I remember the questions, questions, questions, and then the answers, answers, answers. And I remember at some point relaxing, then feeling a strange disorientation, as if instead of talking with a roomful of professors, I was suddenly seated among my peers.

Then I had to step outside, so they could deliberate before the moment of truth. To be honest, I had no doubt I had passed. I knew they were going to welcome me back into the room as doctor. But what unsettled me, what caused all that energy to sweep out and around and almost vacate, was the realization that I suddenly no longer cared. Yes, I wanted to be Dr. Paterson, wanted that very badly, but if the choice was between that and seeing my book succeed in the world, I'd have walked out of that building and never looked back. At that point, all I cared about was the snippets of feedback I had just received, and how they made me completely re-envision my novel. At that point, all I wanted to do was grab my novel and hold it tightly, say "Where are you not working? Where? I want to make you work, damn it; I want to make you work more than I want my life."

Then, of course, my dissertation director came out and got me, and everyone clapped, in the lukewarm, self-conscious way that only academics can clap, and my third reader gave me a thumbs up and said "You did it!"

But I wanted to say, "No, I didn't." "No, I haven't." I haven't done it until it works. And that's where I am now, getting back into the book, trying to rethink how to make it work--not just parts of it--but all of it. I hope I can. I know I can. I will will this into being.


First of all, CONGRATULATIONS on the doctorate. That is a big honking deal, young lady, and you need to honor that.

Congratulations, too, for discovering an important writing truth, that wherever you set the bar of success, you'll find another, even higher one behind it. If you're all about the milestones, you'll be forever discontented. So as you continue pressing forward, try relishing the scenery and the people along the way.

Hang in there and keep at it!
Ha, you sound like my second reader. I followed him into his office after the defense to press him to define something he said wasn't working, and he said "KATHRYN! You have just earned a doctorate! We did not just hand it to you. Relax. You deserve to rest on your laurels, at least for a little bit."

Sigh. But it's just so not about the result for me. It's about getting the work to where I want it to be, where I know it can be. It's hard to explain. But I know you're right, and "relishing the scenery and the people" is something I really have to remind myself to do. And I have to learn to enjoy this new found freedom from the program, rather than be disconcerted by it. Now I no longer have to listen to those voices that said I was "too commercial" or "not literary enough." I can just go out and do my own thing.

But why is that so scary?
Maybe it's scary because this is one journey with no set path, no core curriculum. And you aren't even sure exactly what it is you're pursuing, only that you're hungrier for it than anything you've ever gone after.

It's touch to keep it in perspective, and maybe you shouldn't because your drive and dissatisfaction are the very things that get you across the finish line.

Contented people give up long before that point. But that doesn't mean you still can't look out the windows at the gorgeous scenery passing by you.
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Nancy J. Parra said…
Congrats on your doctorate. That is fabulous! lol- I understand exactly how you feel when it comes to your work. I want more than anything to be able to make the book the best it can be. But I agree with Colleen-"try relishing the scenery and the people along the way." I've found doing that helps the work improve as well. Cheers~
Mylène said…
Congrats and I second Colleen--we aren't driving toward an endpoint but leaping every day, and each leap, each discovery in and of itself, is its own finished arc.

First there is the writing degree. Then there is the writing life. No one waiting outside the door to applaud, but oh, what wonderful tapping of the keys, what wonderful daily effort, what daily, private applause: tac tac tac look at me go go go go go go go.
The thing is, I've been living "the writing life." I don't see it as a first "the writing degree" kind of thing AT ALL. I fought hard to do the kind of writing I wanted to do within the parameters of the University setting. In fact, I almost didn't go back and finish, because I felt like I'd found my life's work writing the novel ON MY OWN.

I guess it's hard to explain, but I really do see myself already as a professional. I am acting "as if," and will continue to do so until it happens. Even when I was a student, I did not see myself as a student. I saw myself as a writer--a writer who could learn things, sure, but not really a student. And partly because of that, the program was a little (okay, a lot) lonely for me.

When everyone else was talking about wine and cheese parties and going out to play naked soccer (yes, it happened), I was sitting in my apartment WRITING. Perhaps I prevented myself from having the community I could have had, but on the other hand, I felt like I learned more about the craft and the business from all that self-education.

On the other hand, maybe I should have gone to play the naked soccer. It would have been something else to write about. ;)
Nina C said…
I love the way you describe the feeling of becoming a peer after years of being a student. Many people had encouraged me to think of myself as my profs' peer (indeed, the expert on my diss topic) while writing the diss, but it wasn't until the defense that I realized, "wow, I really have thought about this stuff a LOT more than anyone else in this room. At this point I'm teaching THEM."

It has always been YOUR novel, Kathryn, and now you are free to make it work the way you want, and to ignore any feedback that doesn't fit your vision.

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