My Sense of Having
Been Required to
Present Myself in a
That sense is back. I don’t like having to get what I’m writing in my dissertation, of having to conform myself, into dissertation form. Not two years ago, after the three days of all-day writing for my qualifying exams, the committee met with me for the orals. And each professor told me it was my best writing. By my standards it was my worst. What they meant was I had been clear, less playful with the words as when I had written for them in their courses, now more conscious of them for the exams’ sake. One bright spot, for me, was that Dr. Hogg had given a question in which she asked me to critique Nancy Mairs’ assertion that males tend to write and to live in a binary dimorphic way, while the world in which women speak and live and write is in many respects rather polymorphic. So I told a story for that last, final exam, hoping not to undo what my professors later told me I had done in those first five exams. I wrote a biography that was an ethnography that was a Ph.D. exam. And Nancy Mairs, in my memory of one of her best lines by my standards, the one below which ends a story with a beginning, appeared in the epigraph. She writes as most academics don’t or won’t and therefore can’t,
___ I remember walking out of my oral prelims to find my husband waiting, a bottle of Drambuie hidden in a paper bag for a toast.
___ “How did it go?” he asked.
___ “I passed!” I told him, and burst into tears. As a younger woman, I’d believed that opening oneself up to experience—all experience—offered the greatest opportunity for intellectual and spiritual growth. Now, suddenly, I saw that there are some experiences one simply ought never to have, and prelims constituted such an experience for me. Over time, my humiliation—my sense of having been required to present myself in a compromised light I would never have chosen, any more than I’d have chosen to strip my misshapen body to its skin, even less—faded, of course. But a sliver of grief remains lodged near my heart.
___ I was surprised, then, rereading years later the essays written for the exam, that their tone hardly sounds bleak or distressed. On the contrary, the voice is breathless with excitement, with exertion, with laughter, but not with anxiety. This woman sounds like she’s having as good a time as I always do when the world drops away and I am left alone with language. Listening to her, I am carried back to a little room with one high window where I hunch intently at a grey metal desk under fluorescent flicker, sucking at cigarettes and red cans of Coke, pushing my fountain pen across sheet after sheet of yellow legal-size paper . . . and sure enough, I’m having a wonderful time.
___ “Self. Life. Writing. Self-life-writing. Selflifewriting,” the first essay of my prelims began.