Dissertation Days (Days 1–7)

So, over on my regular blog, I’ve been keeping a daily tab of my progress on my dissertation and the writing process in general. Over here, I’m going to collate those into weeks, so that I can get a sense of how the process looks in the aggregate. With that said, here is the collated version of the last 7 entries.

Day One

Since I’m a fan of new initiatives, I’ve decided to start keeping a semi-daily record of my progress on my dissertation, in order to keep myself accountable and to help me keep track of my progress. And, since I love being publicly visible, I’m going to do so here.

Each post will be strictly limited to 400 words. I have a tendency to get wordy, so this will help me learn to be concise.

As some of you know, I’m currently in the process of writing my third chapter, which argues that colour in the midcentury historico-biblical epic expresses a desire to escape from modernity and its associated pressures (the atomic bomb, the dreariness of labour, the irrevocability of time) into the world of antiquity, flush with desire and visual/sensory plenitude. At the same time, these films also force an encounter with history’s terror through the spectacle of destruction.

So, the feedback from my adviser on the first draft called for some deep revisions, and I’ve been hard at work on that for the last two weeks. I’m now almost halfway done with the draft that I think I will resubmit, and that feels pretty gratifying.

The historical context is a lot more coherent, and I think I’ve managed to curtail my typical “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach,” in which I basically toss together all of my research and hope for coherence (it usually isn’t very coherent). Even now, even after all I’ve written and all the progress I’ve made, it’s surprisingly difficult

However, as I’ve made my way through this version, I’m happy to say that I’ve managed to find my own voice and to articulate my own arguments, rather than having them drowned out by the cacophony of competing voices that I tend to rely on overmuch.

So, when tomorrow dawns, I plan on continuing the progress that I’ve made so far. As of now, I’ve been doing a lot of cannibalizing of early drafts, drawing in the more coherent parts. I’ve got a pretty strong grasp of the broad contours of the argument, so now I have to do the hard part and start filling in the gaps in the piece. It’s always the hardest part of the process, to figure out what exactly it is that I am trying to do and say in each part of the chapter.Ugh.

Dissertation writing is hard, but here’s to a productive day tomorrow.

Day 2

I’m a little all over the map today. Got some strong work done this afternoon, and I think the early bits of contextualization are coming together somewhat coherently. I wrote some new material in those early sections, primarily about the postwar desire for children as a bulwark against the terrors of the atomic age and some stuff about the ambiguity of the postwar figuring of the atomic bomb as explicitly female (it’s weird, believe me). So, that felt good.

This evening…well, I’ve cannibalized a lot from an earlier draft, which isn’t a bad thing, but it rather makes me feel like I’m cheating when I tell people I’ve written 2,000 words today. But still, it’s not entirely cheating if you also do some revision on those bits that you’re copying and pasting from that earlier draft, right?

I feel like the three close readings that I offer are coming together. It would probably help if I wasn’t so scattershot in my composition process, bouncing from one section to another with basically no rhyme or reason, but that’s basically my writing process, as weird as that sounds. It sometimes does a number on my productivity, but I think at this point I’ve actually managed to harness it into a force for productivity.

I’m going to take the weekend off, as is my usual practice. I’ll probably still be thinking over the project the whole time, mulling over ideas, trying to think if there is a better, more concise, more accurate way of representing the chaos of jumbled ideas in my head on the actual page. That’s always the hardest part for me. I know that I’m onto something important and that I have a contribution to make; it’s just getting it into written words that’s always the hard part.

I suppose I should also keep a record of my word count. It’s currently sitting at a little over 9,000 words. The upper limit of this chapter is 18,000, so I’m basically halfway there. At this rate, I should be ready to submit a revised draft to my adviser by the second week of May. That will mark roughly a month and a half of revision time which, for me, isn’t so bad.

Well, I’m almost at my 400-word limit. TLDR version: I wrote some stuff today, some of it coherent. Monday, I’m going to make sure 5 pages are ready.

I can do this.

Day 3

Today I set out to write some more of the contextual sections of the third chapter, but unfortunately I ended up writing the sections that deal with the readings of the individual films.

Fortunately, however, it turns out that both of those close readings are coming together much more coherently than they have until now. I’ve taken my adviser’s advice to excise most of the references to “spectator,” as that ends up being very limiting. And you know what? That actually helped to clarify some of what I want to say. It turns out you can still talk about the haptic allure of the epic film without foregrounding the spectator’s experience with the cinematic image.

As it stands now, I’ve managed to write two fairly coherent close readings, one of the disruptive desire, chromatic eros, and the loss of historical subjectivity in Samson and Delilah (sexy stuff, huh?) and one on the registering of dangerous desire in David and Bathsheba. Much as this project frustrates me sometimes, it’s also really exciting to engage with the epic film and to really try to understand how it attempts to convey an experience of the dark, ineffable, terrifying nature of modern history.

Today was one of those really good writing days, when you seem to finally hit that sweet spot of caffeination and inspiration, where the clarity of the ideas in your head finally makes its way onto the page. It’s really hard–impossible, really–to predict when those moments are going to arrive or what is going to precipitate them, but when they come…wow. You really do feel like you’ve accomplished something when the day’s writing is done.

At some point, of course, I’ll have to return to Chapter 4, but time enough to think of that when Chapter 3 is sent in (and hopefully, in short order, approved).

Now, I would like to go on record as saying that I fully intend to write 1,000 words tomorrow, only in the contextual or theoretical sections. Those are always the hardest parts to write, as you have to somehow straddle the line of conveying actual historical/theoretical information while also showing how they connect to your argument without, of course, becoming too repetitive.

Word total is now standing at 11,000, so we have about 7/8,000 more to go. Tomorrow is going to be a good writing day. I can feel it.

Onward and upward, friends. Onward and upward.

Day 4

So, for every chapter of my Diss so far, I’ve followed this basic model: Intro →Historical Context →Theory →Close Reading →Conclusion. I’m always pretty good at the close readings, but the other two…well, they sometimes get a bit unwieldy and lose contact with what’s coming after.

That was definitely the case with my first chapter, and it was the case with the first draft of my third chapter. It becomes, shall we say, a bit heavy, and the whole thing feels crammed and rudderless.

Now, though, I think I have a firmer hand on both the history and the theory. In essence, I’m trying to situate three films (Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, and Quo Vadis) in that nebulous period between 1945 and 1951, when the postwar consensus hadn’t yet fully achieved its (admittedly unsteady and tense) hegemony. Through a careful understanding of desire and color, I think we get a better grasp of the vision of history expressed by the historico-biblical epic.

So, I’ve slowly been sketching out a historical context that shows the contradictory impulses that women encountered, between the injunction to be passive housewives yet also sexually reproductive beings, to be consumers of household goods yet not to indulge too much in frippery and luxury. Gay men also encountered a competing set of discourses, between one that suggested they were an invisible threat and one that heightened their visibility.

This, as I show, is reflected in the disordered and chaotically rich colour palettes of the three films I talk about. As I was working on the context today (in both the history and the theory), I became more convinced that I was onto something with the way I’ve framed my argument.

I’m still struggling to make sure that the context sections don’t get out of hand. There’s just so much rich historical and theoretical material, but I have to remind myself that it’s more important to maintain focus on the absolutely essential parts than to wander all over the place and allow the piece to lose focus. In particular, I find myself getting carried away with the discussion of colour.

Tomorrow, I’d really like to have the entire colour section figured out and completed, some more historical context, and a bit of close reading. I’m expecting you all to hold me to it.

The word count is up to 12,000. 7,000 (or so) to go.

I can do it.

Day 5

Today was what I would like to call a successful writing day. I not only met my word goal (2000 words!) but also started to achieve that elusive goal of every chapter: intellectual clarity. I know it may not seem like much to some, but man, if you’ve ever written a book-length scholarly treatment, you know that’s no small feat.

I managed to get some important context written today, focusing especially on the postwar consumption boom. I really found the book As Seen on TV to be particularly helpful, as it gave me the theoretical understanding I needed to make the point about the connection between tactile images and erotic desire. If you’ve ever seen Samson and Delilah or Quo Vadis, you know that there are a number of spectacular fabrics on display, and I can’t help but think that they register to a degree the importance and presence of both female and queer male desire.

The most frustrating thing I’ve found about this chapter is how slippery it is. I’m really trying to tease out the essential contradictions of the epic, to find in those contradictions the systems of power and representational systems that render the terrors of history, its utter unknowability and ineffability, experiential and, just possibly, comprehensible.

I’m…not sure to what extent this draft of the chapter is doing that, but I think it is holding together in ways that definitely weren’t true of its earlier iteration. There definitely seems to be a stronger, more organic connection between the historical and theoretical context and the close textual readings. I just have to find a way to make sure that I make those connections explicit, without getting repetitive or clumsy about it.

As Sophia Petrillo once said: “presentation is very important.”

Also, incidentally, I also began a new draft of Chapter 4. Still not quite sure what form this final one is going to take but…there’s a glimmer of illumination ahead.

Tomorrow’s goal: more close textual analysis and a bit more context. Goal: 1000 words.

If I keep up at this pace, I might even be able to get a draft of this chapter back to my adviser by middle of May. Regardless of whether it’s approved this time around or not, I really do feel like I’ve made vast improvement.

That improvement, ultimately, gives me the courage and enthusiasm to face the glowing computer screen tomorrow morning.

Day 6

So, I have to fess up to something. I didn’t, in fact, end up writing anything at all of Chapter 4 last night, and I don’t think I will today either. I was being a little overly optimistic in my estimation of how much I would end up getting done.

However, I did make some solid progress on Chapter 3. Met the word count for today, and I’m pretty happy with the way that the writing turned out. I made some important points about understanding Delilah as an inheritor of the tradition of the vamp, thus working around the critical impasse that sees her as little more than a femme fatale, a projection of male desires and fantasies. I tend to see as more of a vamp, a potential site of resistance to heteronormative closure, the color schemes associated with her registering an embrace of the emotions, the self, and desire rather than the burdens of history. If you’ve seen the almost lurid Technicolor design of the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

I have noticed a pesky habit, though. Since I’m so scattered in my composition process, often bouncing from one paragraph to another without finishing a full thought sometimes, I end up repeating something that I forgot that I already wrote. This can be quite the pain in the ass, particularly since it’s very wrenching to delete words of any sort.

Still,, sometimes you just have to accept your writing process, even if it isn’t always the most productive way of getting things done.

Well, tomorrow I’m going to aim for another 1,000. I think I can do this, and I also want to begin sculpting the raw material that I have into what will be the final form. Some of the paragraphs are mostly done, but there are also several that need some finessing in order to reach their final form. Getting those tidied up will definitely be the major writing agenda item from here on in. Going to scale back on new material and focus on strong and focused revision.

I really want to get this submitted by the middle of May (end of May at the latest). I just…need to get this version approved as soon as possible so I can resume my intensive work on Chapter 4.

Speaking of. I am definitely going to work on Chapter 4. Need to keep actual forward momentum going.

Let’s go!

Day 7

Given that I’m utterly exhausted this evening, I doubt I’ll say much.

I did, however, meet my word goal for today. It was a modest 1,000 words, but I’m happy to say that I have almost finished the contextual and theoretical sections. What’s more, I don’t think I’ll have to do a lot of editing/revising to get those 1K I wrote today in submittable shape. I say that now, but who knows what I’ll think when I look at them again.

I finally found a way of making a reference to the fact that statues from antiquity always appear to us as blank white marble rather than in the garish colours they once appeared in. I do think it says something about how we understand our cultural heritage that we quite literally project whiteness and all of its connotations onto everything. Which, to my mind, makes it all the more extraordinary that the epics of the postwar period were so consistently shown in lurid Technicolor (or a related process).

I did some drawing in some stuff from this absolutely batshit book called Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, from 1947. If you ever want to get a glimpse of what nutjobbery women of the postwar period had to put up with, look no further than this book. Seriously. Check it out sometime.

I’ll be taking the weekend off of Dissertation writing, so don’t expect any updates until Monday. I make a firm point of giving myself the weekend to work on other projects, i.e. my novel, non-writing related blog posts, watching films, taking hikes, etc. It keeps me sane (no small task, I assure you).

When I return, though, I really am going to start working on Chapter 4 again. I promise. I really want to feel like I’m making progress on that front again. I think it’s going to be a chapter about…something about imperialism, utopian narratives and spectacle, and the impossibility of political stability. I’ve already written a ton of stuff; I just need to get it into something coherent and cohesive.

When I get back to work on Monday, I also need to start moving into the direction of submission. I’m aiming for mid-May (end of May at the absolute latest), which I think is doable. I just have to stay focused.

Stay focused.

It’s one of the hardest things to do, but…I can do this.

I have to.