The comment from my professor and the chair of my dissertation committee, scrawled at the bottom of a section titled “Baking Banana Bread,” and barely legible said:
“I think this section needs to do more.”
But WHAT? I wanted to scream.
Instead, I pondered, I mulled, I percolated, I discussed with friends. Did I need this section at all? Was it repeating something I’d already expressed in the section on making Mom’s Chicken Divan? Could I make it say something different?
Could I, should I “kill my darlings?”
The hardest part of revising is knowing when to let it go, and knowing when to keep pushing through, moving blocks of text around, re-writing, adding and removing words, deepening and broadening the ideas. And of course, knowing when it’s done.
But is it ever done? Over burgers and beer the other night with my friend Samantha Tetangco we spent a good amount of time talking about The Dissertation. Sam finished hers last year; this year she’s been teaching English at UNM. She is still working on what was her dissertation, and is now her novel-in-progress. She’s working on it diligently.
We talked about a panel we’d both attended at the 2010 AWP conference: a group of writers talking about AFTER the MFA. It was eye-opening. They’d all spent a few more more years revising their work before getting their books published.
A few more years? I thought then. I’ve already been working on this damn book since 2005. It was discouraging.
But now, as I think about the most immediate deadline in my future– the dissertation defense–it is encouraging to think that my dissertation does not need to be ready to run to a publisher or an agent. Sure, I want my dissertation to be the best it can be. Yes, I want to present good work to my committee. Of course I will spend hours each day preparing for my defense (which means writing). But it doesn’t have to be perfect.
What I do need to work on is making sure that I don’t quit after the dissertation, that I find a way, even if like Sam I only write an hour a day, to keep moving forward, keep pushing, revising, revisiting, rewriting until I’ve made something I could take to a publisher or an agent…. at which point he or she will probably want me to revise and rewrite once again, maybe twice.
It always comes back to this: that writing is a lot like life, we’re always revising. If not, we might as well give up all together.