Have you ever said a word so often that turns to gibberish on your tongue? Linguists call this semantic satiation. It’s good metaphor for a phenomenon that happens in many academic projects—usually close to the end.
Have you ever worked on a manuscript long enough that you begin to wonder: is there a dissertation in here? Do these chapters hang together as a book? Is every word I have written total shite? Were all of these months and years for naught?
In the dark ebb of doubt, I have often left my desk in despair, unable to see meaning in the mess before me, unable to find the thread that pulls the piece together.
It is a terrible time.
The intellectual discomfort feels corporeal. Nothing feels right. Nothing tastes right. I feel like a spectator to my own life, haunted by the unsatisfied ghost of my manuscript.
Eventually, I make my way back to the project—ruefully, resentfully—and begin to re-read my monster. I find myself highlighting ideas, making lists, seeing new ways the material could fit together. At some point, I find a thread, formerly unseen, that pulls the whole thing together. As quickly as I can, I open a new document and begin again with a new frame—cutting and pasting material from the “old” document. The old document becomes source material for the new. Freed from the old structure, not all of the material will make it into the new document, but the piece will be stronger for it.
Out of this mess I often discover the deep structure of the piece, and things…come together.
Over years of working with writers on articles, dissertations, and books, I have seen this moment arise again and again. Ph.D. candidates who are within spitting distance of a defense will suddenly declare that they are quitting grad school, that they are starting their project over from scratch, that they give up, surrender.
If you have experienced this—or next time you do— I say to you, “hold tight, hold tight” as the knight Tam Lin* says to his lover in the Scottish ballad. Enslaved by faerie folk, he tells his pregnant ladylove that if she can hold him in her arms while the enraged Faerie Queen transforms him by turns into a snake, a bear, and a lion, he will emerge once more a human man and she will “love her child” (i.e. he will make an honest woman of her).
When your project begins to twist, turn, and transmogrify in your mind, this is a sign not that you have failed, but that you are close. Take a break, yes, change the channel, yes. But hold tight, hold tight and you will love your project.
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