When I completed my dissertation in 2013, I felt a genuine sense of accomplishment. I was proud of what it represented – not just the work I had put in, but the period of my life it captured.
But it never felt like my magnum opus. I felt adamant that it was not. The subject was never my passion, after all, only the career path that circumstance had dictated. I felt insistent – contrary to what Rachel Dawes believed – that there was something underneath me that defined me more than what I had done (or in this case, written).
Prior to writing the acknowledgments section of my dissertation, I consulted those from colleagues and other alumni. By and large, people wrote a ton. They wrote about the labor of love that had been their dissertations, or they wrote about being Sisyphus pushing the giant boulder uphill. They wrote in great detail about what others had meant to them in the process.
Their acknowledgements sections suggested a sense of finality. Obviously for their graduate careers, but beyond that too. I didn’t have a desire to offer the same. The dissertation was a milestone, but nothing that defined me. Accordingly, my acknowledgements section was short, direct. I thanked who I wanted to thank. I didn’t feel compelled to discuss my journey.
Mine was a conscious, stubborn move. It was symbolic – the equivalent (if a slightly less arrogant version) of an NBA team skipping a conference final trophy ceremony because there remained work to be done.* I wasn’t sure what remained on the horizon, but felt confident that there was indeed something else there.
*The vivid example of this is the 2003-2004 Los Angeles Lakers, who naturally then got demolished by the Detroit Pistons in the Finals. Sometimes life doesn’t quite work out.
It has been five years, and as has been discussed many times in this space, I remain unsure that I will ever find what that something else might be. I have tried my hand at an open-mic night, I wrote a fairly forgettable screenplay, I got used to a normal job environment, I somehow developed a sense of purpose in my work. Still, I remain restless.
In the meantime though, my first book comes out in a month. I use “first” by design. The book, after all, resides in the same field as my dissertation work.* It is an academic piece, and as such, does not reflect my creative interest or ambition. I hold back still – maintaining my unfound and unknown passion, or dream, or delusion – and continue to look towards the horizon.
* The manuscript is decidedly not a conversion; the process one I gave up on soon after graduation.
At the same time, I recognize the book is – if not quite another class – then another order of product from the dissertation. It was not mandated by academic or professional obligation but a product that stands almost entirely on its own (with the immense help of three postdoctoral years), and begun almost entirely from scratch (with dissertation work useful for maybe one chapter).
I wrote two chapters, produced a project proposal, cold e-mailed dozens of presses, continued work for months, and cold e-mailed dozens of presses more before I received actual interest. Then I had to respond to proposal feedback, sign an advance contract with no guarantee of publishing, complete my manuscript, receive extensive feedback, and submit a revised, acceptable, manuscript.
I had no “ins,” no connections, no shortcuts. My first proposal was sent out in October 2015; my first successful proposal dated 7 June 2016. My completed manuscript was sent 11 November. I offered a revision plan 17 May 2017, and the second draft 20 June, with a tweaked third version 20 July. I turned in my index (which I did myself) 20 February 2018, and returned corrected proofs 6 March.
It has been two and a half years. My book comes out 15 June 2018.
Naturally, my publisher never asked for an acknowledgements section. I broached the topic – among others – before I submitted my first manuscript, but they never responded to that particular question. So I wrote one on my own instead. I turned it in with the second draft. The copyeditor eventually took a look and fortunately left it almost entirely untouched.
Unlike with my dissertation, I spent quite a bit of time on this one. In fact, I had started thinking about it before I even completed my manuscript. I suppose this was because of the reasons cited above. It was a work that stood on its own, begun almost entirely from scratch. It somehow felt more tangible as an achievement, something I recognized even as it was in progress.
“This book stands at the intersection of many of my recent lives,” I began.* Its foundation from my graduate school years in Irvine and my fellowship years in Boston. Its content during my postdoctoral years in Tokyo. Its final touches as I worked in Geneva. All of that time, and all of the people from those lives, are intimately connected to the project.
*…don’t worry, I won’t cut and paste the whole thing here.
But the book is not my magnum opus either. It does not represent my life’s work; rather, it is a significant portion of my work from a particular period of my life. Of course, this was true of the dissertation too. But I suppose I was too young to have that sense of perspective then, too stubborn to understand that putting my gratefulness down on paper did not necessarily signify complacency.
I still look towards the horizon. I remain restless. I continue to feel that there is something underneath me that defines me more than what I have done. But as for what I have indeed done… well, I wrote a book that comes out in a month. And in finally and extensively acknowledging the role that others have played its creation, I suppose I’m allowing that the work itself is worth acknowledging.
(Photo courtesy of Matl, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)