Novel vs. Dissertation, Round 2 (Revision bonus!)

I’m doing “Camp” NaNoWriMo this month, working hard on revisions to my 2013 NaNo project Ghosts of the Old City. The first full draft of that novel was completed in 2014 the weekend before I started my first full-time teaching job. Since then, I’ve drafted two other novels—Spires of Trayan (my 2015 NaNo project, a sequel to Ghosts that wants another 20-30,000 words and some research) and The Space Between Notes (my 2016 NaNo project, which is a thin sci-fi novel or fat novella that only wants another 7-10,000 words). I’ve made several stabs at revising Ghosts, enough to have a few colors of ink on the manuscript that I printed out way back when.

By now, “finishing” the novel is in the ballpark of how long it took me to finish my dissertation…although I wasn’t drafting a sequel dissertation while ostensibly finishing the first, nor was I branching out into dissertating on, say, literature. This month is the first time I’ve really dug into making changes (rather than just suggesting them to myself in margins or identifying problems). It’s gotten me thinking about the how revising a novel is and isn’t like revising a dissertation. (For a comparison of NaNoWriMo versus writing a dissertation, see my old post here.)


While dissertations are contributions to scholarship and (in a tiny way) to human knowledge, the audience for the document itself boils down to your advisor and committee. Turning the dissertation into a proper monograph is a different step, with different needs, than figuring out which references you need to include to help ensure that Dr. ______ signs off on it. Dr. X expects to see a careful, critical-theory heavy definition of “new music.” Professor Y wants more engagement with existing research. Dr. Z wants your footnotes to do some specific thing, and will throw a small but enthusiastic fit if you don’t.

(There is always a Dr. Z. Sometimes I wonder if professors draw straws to decide who will play that part.)

The revision process for the dissertation becomes, depending on how involved committee members are, a process of juggling occasionally competing needs, a delicate attempt to balance what you want to say with how you need to say it to get some more letters after your name. You pick your battles. For my master’s thesis, my advisor wielded a mechanical pencil of doom, marking all sorts of things. Some of them, I thought, were actually good. Good enough that I’d leave them alone and only change them if she marked them a second time. (I never attempted to go for a third.)

With the novel? Well, the audience at this stage in the process is me. I am writing a story I would like to read. I’m beholden to myself and myself alone. I can pick as many battles as I want, and feel responsible to pick all of the ones I can find. Once the draft goes to beta readers (in a month or so—drop me a line if you’re interested), the calculus will change. It will change again when agents or editors get involved.

Right now, though, revisions are thoroughly in the “author knows best” stage, which is certainly more fun than trying to suss out what a committee wants.

Staggered Starts

Dissertations are not novels, and they’re not, as mentioned earlier, scholarly monographs. Even with a plan for the whole thing, dissertations tend to be written one chapter at a time. This alters the revision process and hockets it with drafting. I was revising my first chapter while I was drafting my third (and revising it again when I was finishing my seventh). Finish a chapter, send it to the advisor, get feedback, use revision as a break from drafting (and vice versa). This process results in a dissertation that is much closer to being “finished,” usually, at the end of the drafting process than a novel is.

The NaNo process amplifies this difference: the whole point is to shut off your inner editor and get words onto the page. Most people, if they have a better idea for a scene they’ve already written, either take some notes or re-write it. Nothing gets sorted until later. When you do get around to sorting it, there’s invariably material you never want to see again. You do rewrites, but you’re rarely trying to alternate between drafting and revising. I didn’t really start making headway on my revisions for Ghosts until I read through the whole draft several times and went to work right at the beginning, a very un-NaNo process. No staggered starts.

Digging in the Guts

I tell my students that the purpose of revision is to help a piece be its best self. I also tell them that this means getting rid of parts that aren’t working. (High school seniors who freak out about needing to write a 5-8 page paper really freak out when you suggest that the paper would be better if they cut out a page and a half in the middle.)

With Ghosts, I threw away big chunks of text even before the first complete draft was finished. Of the 52000 I wrote during November of 2013, I threw out something like 10,000 almost immediately. They didn’t fit the way the story had grown. And now? I am still digging out the most “NaNo-y” passages and replacing them. I understand so much better what the story is, who the characters are, what needs to happen. There’s a lot of work I’m still doing to make the novel its best self, even before I get to the stage where other people start poking it in my blind spots.

The dissertation didn’t require throwing so much writing away, though there were equally painful cuts involving interesting research that proved to be tangential. I would have loved to follow up on some of the new music/pop crossover that appeared around the edges of my research, but that would have taken me out of my carefully-determined (and painstakingly-justified) timeframe, as well as away from my thesis. It would have changed the dissertation’s self.

I did change a few things substantially in the dissertation, particularly in the early chapters as I refined my argument and its scope. That’s probably the closest confluence of novel-revising and dissertation-revising: the writing and revising both refine your understanding of what the text’s “best self” is. Digging around in the guts of the work is about discovery as much as it is about doctoring. And it’s just as visceral as it sounds. There is a story you want to tell, and you evaluate whether you’re telling it, whether the story you think you’re telling is the story you are actually telling. Sometimes, the story your draft really tells is more interesting than the one you had in your head. Sometimes, the story your draft tells is just kinda dumb. Reconciling either can be messy and painful, but making things better often is.

Boulez, Looking Back, Looking Forward

I woke up yesterday morning to early posts of Pierre Boulez obituaries. He was nearly 91, a venerable master of his craft and a giant of 20th-century music. Boulez was brilliant—I think it’s hard to argue otherwise. Still, I’ve never cared much for his music. For a time, pieces like Le marteau sans maître represented everything I disliked about being a graduate student in composition. (I appreciate the music better these days, but it’s not something I go out of my way to hear.) I dismissed Boulez as a polemicist, both in the music he wrote and what he wrote about music (in part because as a composition student you don’t hear much about it beyond the infamous “Schoenberg is dead”).

That began to change when it became clear Boulez’s work as music director of the New York Philharmonic would need to feature prominently in my dissertation. He was the counterbalance to “Downtown” composers going “Uptown”—his Prospective Encounters series did something of the opposite. The geographical and musical tension—and the power dynamics that lay beneath it—were the foundation for my research. Without Boulez, my dissertation might have been just another ramble through the youth of minimalism.

It’s been odd to read and hear Boulez stories in the last few days. He eventually made peace with parts of the establishment that he had spent his youth railing against. Especially as a conductor, his reputation blossomed after 1977, the year he left New York (and my dissertation). The remembrances I’ve seen today are colored by his years at IRCAM and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Journalists and friends alike have written about his warmth, his humor, his willingness to take time to talk about his craft.

That’s a mighty contrast to the image of Boulez painted on his arrival in New York. Then, he was the chilly demagogue arriving suddenly from France (only months after saying he would not take the New York Philharmonic job if it was offered), a man who inspired angry letters to the Times, some of them from American composers he’d directly or indirectly insulted. The New York Times published a long piece in 1973 titled “The Iceberg Conducteth.” Philharmonic players spoke anonymously to reporters about how Boulez couldn’t “perform.” (He had the misfortune to succeed the often lax, grandiose Leonard Bernstein at the Phil.) When he departed for IRCAM in 1977, critics tended to damn with faint praise, with Harold Schonberg’s complaint typical: “Going to his concerts was like taking a pill. It was good for you, but not an event you looked forward to with great anticipation.”

On the same occasion, the Village Voice’s Leighton Kerner wrote: “They blew it. The New York Philharmonic blew it. The audiences blew it. The critics blew it. The musicians’ union blew it. And Pierre Boulez blew it.” The title of that piece, though, was “Boulez, the Philharmonic, and What Might Have Been.” Kerner recognized what I eventually came to understand over the course of my research: that Boulez had tried to make a real change in what the Philharmonic meant, what new music meant to New York audiences (and American audiences more generally). I remember being shocked, a year or so into the project, finding myself defending Boulez (whose music I’ve never liked) over Bernstein (who wrote some of my favorite works) in casual conversation. I was defending him not in terms of composition or conducting, but in terms of what he had done to make new music matter to people. Bernstein’s goals always seemed more general to me, more content to leverage existing institutions and practices in the same way that systems had always been worked.

Pierre Boulez tried to change that…and did. The programming changes he made in New York didn’t really survive his departure, but that doesn’t make them meaningless. (It also says nothing about his subsequent work at IRCAM and elsewhere.) I can’t agree with all of his ideas about music, but I admire the conviction with which he pursued putting them into practice.

This all happened the week I bring in the hard copy of my dissertation to wave at my English IV classes. We’re doing research projects and some of my seniors are freaking out because five to eight pages is the most they’ve ever been asked to write. When I show them 392 pages of body text, a nine-page bibliography, and another 20-ish pages of appendices and front material, they look at me like I’m showing them a picture of myself on the moon or riding a narwhal or BASE-jumping off an erupting volcano. It just doesn’t compute. (Incidentally, they did not have nearly the same freak out about my NaNo victory.) With the dissertation at my desk, I was able to reread work that seems surprisingly distant just three years after I finished it.

Skimming through it and reading what I had written about Boulez, I realized something: I want students to share the experience I had with him. It’s not that I want them to go look at 40-year-old newspaper articles or read obituaries about a Frenchman whose music they’re unlikely ever to hear. I want them to have that experience of learning something that changes their thinking. Those old newspapers and concert programs and interviews changed the way I thought about Boulez. Writing a dissertation changed the way I thought about a lot of things. Research matters.

That, I think, is an opinion I can happily share with the late maestro.

A Year After Horns and Horses

December 7. Pearl Harbor Day. In 2012, it was also the first day since September when I could get all of my dissertation committee into the same room so I could defend.

That morning, I posted this clip to Facebook:

There were a lot of reasons to pick it. First and foremost, I’m a geek. I grew up on this stuff. When I got older I became a bit of a geek about language, too, and developed an enthusiasm for Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. When I am psyching myself up for a challenge, Theoden’s speeches (this and the one from Helm’s Deep) are part of my repertoire (along with the “March to the Scaffold” from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and the James Bond theme). As done in the movie, the scene has just about everything you could ask for: an excellent little speech, delivered well; the right hits in the score with horns and the Rohirrim theme; dramatic lighting; panoramic shots of the whole battlefield to give a sense of scope. The score cuts out at the right moment and sneaks back in wonderfully.

In hindsight, this was a terrible choice. The Rohirrim fully expect to die on their charge. You do not get quite as much sense of it in the movie, but those guys on horses are outnumbered more than 5-to-1. The bad guys have war elephants and Nazgûl. The Rohirrim end up losing their king, and would surely have lost their whole paltry army if Aragorn hadn’t shown up with Rangers and (in the movie) ghosts. I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was just psyching myself up and killing time on a day I’d spent years preparing for. Posting a video, like making cookies for the public portion of the defense, was a nice diversion.

Were I having a glass half-empty day, I could easily push the comparison with the Rohirrim’s charge further. The horde of orcs could be, say, the job market. The gloomy bravado of Theoden could easily be any grad student’s conviction that the market might be bad, but we can take arms against the sea of troubles. There aren’t any Rangers of the North coming to save us. Und so weiter.

Even if the doom and gloom are true, I don’t want to spend more time on them today. It has been a year since I defended my dissertation, and nearly that since I completed the final round of edits and submitted it, eventually resulting in this:

Bound Copy of the Dissertation

408 pages, appendices included

The past year has been the most unsettled one of my life. I’ve been up and down. I’ve applied for jobs, not gotten them, dramatically switched up the kinds of jobs I’m applying for, and not gotten those either (yet). My family moved 1200 miles from a place where the temperature hasn’t gotten above 0 degrees Fahrenheit for a few days to a place where people are freaking out because it’s 25. For nearly half of the year, there hasn’t been a “normal.” There has been so much waiting, so much anticipation and hope and sometimes hopelessness.

It isn’t all better, but a year out, I feel like I’ve got better perspective on both that video clip and that UMI-bound black book. Defending my dissertation was not a life and death conflict. (If there was one of those, it came after, and there was nothing so tangible as orcs to fight.) Literature is not feeding me poetic lines to spout at neat points in a structured narrative, nor is Hollywood supplying a dramatic score to remind me what I should feel at important moments. I wrote a book. It has some good bits and some bad bits, with enough insights to convince a collection of professors of my worthiness to share a rank with them. That’s cool. It hasn’t made the last year any better. That’s also cool.

Now, anyway. I don’t think I was cool with that six months ago. I certainly wasn’t cool with it ten months ago, when the cold and dark of northern winter were far too apt a metaphor for my life.

We often overplay the importance of finishing things. We wrap stories around our lives because we hope to make sense of them. We want the happily ever after, or the brilliant last stand that proves to be the tide-turning sacrifice. If we carve our lives into a series, we want each volume to come to a tidy caesura. Defending a dissertation could have been one of those caesuras. I could have my victory, walk across campus to turn in my paperwork in wonderfully picturesque snow, and then…we skip to the next book, where I am busily occupied with whatever the author wants me to be doing when she throws the next plot arc at me.

In life we cannot—to steal a line from Elmore Leonard—leave out the parts people skip. I have had a year I wouldn’t mind skipping (or at least reducing to a kick-ass training montage). I still get to cook dinner and do laundry and write blog posts. I’ve got a good chunk of a novel that I am working on turning into something the non-rhetorical you can read. I just watched my daughter just fall asleep on the couch with a book in her lap.

What have I learned, a year out from my personal Pelennor Fields? That the parts that people skip are not always bad, even if they don’t come with horns, horses and dramatic speeches.