Anyone who happens to have been close or interested enough to follow me on Twitter will also have seen that something else monumental happened in the past year besides the arrival of my twin children: in June 2021, more than eight academic years after I was initially accepted and enrolled in graduate school, I completed and defended my PhD in early modern European history.
Looking back from even the short-term distance of three months or so, it’s genuinely hard for me to understand when, and how, the dissertation got itself written. I have pictures of myself typing on my laptop at my desk, sixteenth-century documents splayed in closeup on another computer monitor nearby, while also rocking one of my twin babies’ chairs with one foot (the second twin was sitting right next to the first, and I have surprisingly vague muscle-memories of switching constantly back and forth between them as I wrote). At the start of this calendar year, it would have been generous to say that I had, at most, one and a half chapters drafted out of the six the work would eventually contain. I must have typed in the mornings, in the evenings, when sleepless at night; I definitely typed for many hours with a baby strapped to my chest, either sleeping or resolutely wriggling. My writing process is one which looks inefficient and frustrating from the outside: I cogitate and mull for months, even years, over short, single moments of narrative or analysis and then wait, often impatiently (and often reluctantly, given that I am an inveterate procrastinator) for the perfect storm of time, energy, and inspiration to strike.
None of these details sound conducive to finishing a blog post, let alone many thousands of words of scholarly writing. (For the record – I am writing this reflection itself on my knees, on a train, as it wends its gloomy, rainy way towards New York. It’s the only time I’ve had in which the circumstances have been right, lately, to organize my thoughts in peace. The babies are weeks away, if that, from walking!) I am a fast writer when the opportunity arises – up to a thousand words in half an hour depending on the complexity of the piece – and long years of practice with fiction of all lengths and types has instilled in me a desire to get things right at the first or hopefully no more than the second try; these are the skills which must, in retrospect, have gotten me to this unlikely outcome.
But there were also words of wisdom floating in my head which I starkly remember being said by a cohort-mate of mine in the history department at Columbia, Alma Igra, which I have repeated to many people since. After the birth of her own first child a few years ago, I vividly remember how she responded to the usual probing graduate student question of ‘So how are you doing’ (how are you coping, how on earth are you going to cope) with something along the lines of: ‘well, it’s actually easier to work, now, because once you are a mother the dissertation is no longer the most important thing (the most important “child”) in your life.’ The pressure vanishes, melts away to the point that you wonder why on earth you ever worried about it so much in the first place.
Graduate school can break a person, in so many different and unexpected ways. For many, myself included, the perhaps lifelong desire to write something that is not only yours but that means something, that adds to the world, and that can then be let out into the world (I still smile to myself whenever I remember that I am an author, now, officially, of a book manuscript-length work) spurs us on while, at the same time, threatening to crush us. It is rare, even in the best institutions, to come across mentors who can teach you, really teach you, step by step, how to construct, complete, and then (of course) radically rework, rework, and rework again the ideas you have been carrying with you for huge proportions of your life. It has been 9 years, now, officially, since I submitted the graduate school application essays which hinted at the nexuses of scholarship I wanted to dedicate the next decade of my life to. I have emerged with a piece of paper that says I am a Doctor, several years of invaluable teaching experience, and, most preciously, 390 meticulously-formatted pages of double-spaced creation.
A lot of those pages are an appendix, detailing just some of the close to a thousand items of evidence I collected on two continents and in several different countries and archives. Some had been through multiple rounds of workshops and drafting; many were brand-spanking new and will no doubt require much more attention in future if I ever find the time to submit them, orphaned, to peer-reviewed journals or as excerpts with a book proposal. Whatever paths they take in the coming years, though, they reached this milestone; they reached this stopping point at which they were considered adequate, even promising, by a committee of scholars whom I trust, respect, and admire. (This acknowledgment within myself that these pages, these words, are ‘good enough’ is a big deal. Trust me. My therapist knows better than anyone how much this means to me.)
They are mine, and I rather like them. Collectively they are no child – but they are no small feat, either. I am satisfied with them as the result of my long years of labor, and that is no small thing.