Oh God I Haven’t Finished My Book

When I was in graduate school, I was miserable a lot of the time and so I started sewing. Pretty soon I started sewing for friends, too, and then I started selling what I sewed. I learned how to code and built a website. I had a nice little online shop. It helped me have a sense of starting and finishing things, which was not a feeling I had about my dissertation.

I’ve been revising that dissertation ever since. For 11 years, with breaks–some deliberate, some unintentional. It took me five years to find an angle on the original research that was new and compelling for the field–and I won an award for the article that came out of it. Since then I’ve been working on it, off and on, in fits in spurts.

“I’d write that dissertation but I need to clean this sewing room.” circa 2006

In 2016 I wrote 85 pages. I sent them to a beloved mentor, who took issue with the core of my argument. I went to a conference–the major one in my field–the next summer, only to have women who have long championed what I call the Dominant Narrative literally corner me at dinner and tell me everything I said, including what I won the award for, was wrong (without explanation). I set the project aside then for a year before sending it on to someone else in the field who I know through another mentor, and she agreed that my original take was a solid approach. Thus I was going to work on it this summer, but suddenly it’s August. I don’t think it’s just that the summer got away, but that I didn’t make it a priority. And knowing that means I have to think about why.

Part of what’s going on is classic imposter syndrome: it creeps in, even with outside validation. What am I doing, why am I bothering, who am I to say these things or make these claims, and so on. Imposter syndrome and I are old companions.

But in other ways I think book neglect repeats my grad school experience. I have another, different side business now. I love running small businesses, as it turns out. I love the start and finish of a project, without drowning in it endlessly, which is how book work feels. I love being a detective, and I get to do more of that with my side project than the book.

In addition, truly, I don’t love writing academic stuff all that much. When I get in the zone, I’m good. I wrote most of my dissertation–about 300 pages–in six months while keeping a three-class teaching schedule. I would write five pages every Friday, whether it was good or not, then revise, revise, revise. I haven’t found that cycle with this grand revision, but I don’t think I’ve looked too hard, and not consistently.

I find reasons to not write, a lot of the time, because of these things.

This cinnamon streusel banana bread was ridiculous. One of my many baking-as-distraction projects, 2006

Sometimes it’s personally disappointing to me, my unwillingness, and I get into a lovely shame spiral about it. Other times what bothers me is that it’s the thing that stands between me and any subsequent promotion and substantive raise–and that knowledge isn’t always motivation enough. It should be, I tell myself, but it’s not. The combination of my feelings about those two things then gets me into later shame spirals–I shouldn’t be an academic if I don’t want to do this (and that’s not true); I clearly have no self-motivation and thus don’t deserve good things or money (also not true); I am obviously a self-sabotager of the worst kind and so on.

Maybe this will be the year I finish a draft. I’m turning forty in three+ weeks. Just 26 days. Maybe 40 is the year. I’ve been doing a lot of reflection on who I was ten years ago, when I left all that I’d come to know and we moved for my job, starting an extraordinarily difficult period (hello, world falling apart in 2008, me assuming I’d be fired in the downturn because I didn’t understand how my contract worked, my husband’s job leads fizzling to nothing as a panic became a full-on Lesser Depression, to quote Paul Krugman). I’ve been thinking about how different that woman was, and the things about her that I miss. She was hellbent on finishing that dissertation, she happily cooked and baked and kept a blog (sorta) about it, and she sewed like crazy. She was really into reducing her ecological footprint and she made homemade twinkies. She buried a lot of feelings.

I’m glad she’s grown. Half of what she did, she did to have control because she felt so little of it in other parts of her life. She sought to live “authentically,” but couldn’t figure out what that, exactly, was. Eventually she made peace with that idea, which was probably the most authentic thing she could do.

My 30s have been good to me, and it’s time to look forward.


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11 thoughts on “Oh God I Haven’t Finished My Book

  1. Cool post – I also find when I look back on myself I’ve changed so much in the last few years – I’ve got 2.5 years to go to 40, and a massive list of things to get done by then.

    And I’m amazed you have a phd and then are considering writing an academic book – that sounds to impressive to me. And if you finish it great – if not, something more important came up – and that’s ok too.

    P.S. You baking looks superb!

    1. Thanks, Ms ZiYou 🙂 I didn’t realize we were so close in age. I don’t have a 40-year-must-do list but I think I might start creating a longterm one. And this book may or may not be on it, depending on how things go.

  2. Could you just make a conscious decision to let it go if it isn’t something you want to do? Maybe have a ceremony in which you do something symbolic, like burn the paper that you published?

    I had something similar happen with my fellowship when I did a research study that I was supposed to publish. I finished training before I wrote the paper, and then life as a new attending (stressed, overworked, tired, panicked) got in the way. For years I felt guilty about it and kept saying “this is the week I will write the paper”, but I never did. It finally reached the point where the data were too out of date for me to bother, and somehow that made it easier for me to let it go.

    1. Frugalish! We’ve missed you! Are you having a good time out there?

      Your story resonates, lemme tell you. I don’t think I’m ready yet to let it go, chiefly because I think it’s important AND because I would like that promotion someday. Maybe if another year goes by, tho…

  3. So I never turned my dissertation into a book—there was so much baggage there with the melanoma, etc. that came right at its end. Like you, I got a good article out of it. But when I needed a book for promotion and tenure, I just wrote a different one. I found that a new project was liberating. It had a few strands from the old, but none of the baggage. People thought I was crazy at the time, but for me, it was the only way forward. In the digital age, dissertations are very searchable and accessible; your arguments will live on there, and in the article. Maybe swimming in a new pool will bring you new joy and excitement. Maybe it won’t. But you do great stuff on the side that brings you a lot of fulfillment—that can’t be a bad thing! Xo

  4. This is the thing that has been eating away at my psyche – the non academic version of the book I was supposed to write. A mentor offhandedly mentioned that this generation’s coming of age story still hasn’t been written yet, while discussing my desire to write, and I swear that imposter syndrome clamped down on me like a vise right after he said that. I know he didn’t mean to scare the talent out of the building but in some ways it feels like it did, and in other ways just that it was the thing that pointed the way to the egress. I don’t know if I have a book in me yet, or anymore, or ever will, but I have these feels. <3

    1. I hate that things that should feel empowering seep into our brains and eat at our confidence. It’s so silly, and yet replete–so many women I know and not a few men feel the same way. Maybe we’ll figure the book stuff out. Maybe we won’t.

      In my late teens and 20s the thing that drove me the most crazy was that I had so many existential questions. In my 30s, I came to accept that these questions exist and worried about them less (as well as solved a few). I’m curious to see where this all goes in my next decade, particularly re: questions like this one.

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