Sometimes it’s okay to say “Uncle”

Although drafting chapter 6 (the last dissertation chapter) was the primary item on my post-West Point summer to-do list, the other thing I wanted to do was write a rough introduction and conclusion for the dissertation.

This isn’t a new idea. Actually, more than a year ago, I thought I’d rework my dissertation prospectus and get the introduction going that way, but then many other things intervened, and along the way I realized it was not a bad thing to put some more space between me and the prospectus first. Now, however, I’m moving into the final steps of completing the dissertation, and it’s really time to get down to work on it.

In my head, I see the introduction and the conclusion quite clearly. It’s just that I can’t find the words to put on paper yet – almost like I have the concept, but not the execution. So I’ve spent the past week and a half piddling with a number of approaches, never quite realizing the vision.

My first problem was that it felt like cheating to use materials from my 2009-2010 grant application efforts. But then again, one of those grant applications landed me a wonderful source of funding for this final year, so I decided there was really no reason why I shouldn’t at least use that as a starting point.

This turned out to be a wonderful idea. That application had been a variation on my prospectus (IE: a much better version of my very earliest ideas/arguments articulated in the prospectus back in 2008), and when I sat down to use it, I realized that there was a lot of useful stuff in there. I added more ideas, and I ignored the opening phrases of the essay, which I like but don’t find useful for the start of the dissertation.

I finally have something that’s a decent start. I want a decent start like this, because when I finish the first rounds of major revisions in the next two months, I don’t want to start from scratch and have to create an introduction from nothingness. As I’ve learned throughout my dissertation writing – and saw this past week – even having the concept and vision can still mean you face challenges during execution. I’d rather have something which I can revise and tackle that way – and although I’m not terribly thrilled with the draft introduction as it stands, it does accomplish that goal: it gives me a good starting point for the end of September, when I plan to actually give it shape for real.

Part of the problem is structural right now: I desperately want (and need) a good way to open into the dissertation with the introduction. I know this will come, so I’m not hassling over it – I’ll just keep my eyes open and find something that will work. Given my previous experience with writing this dissertation, I’m sure I’ll find something that I like quite a bit – because if there’s anything I can say about this project, it’s that it’s never boring and I have a million and one fascinating stories I can tell.

Then there’s the historiography, which is just being pesky. I need some sort of a literature review in here, but I also have it in each chapter, so the question is: where do I draw the bounds? I think I know – I think that the introduction will just lay down the basic outlines of the historiography of women’s military history, labor history, second wave feminist history, and of course, military history.

The conclusion, on the other hand, isn’t even drafted at this point. I simply typed a few random notes into a word document regarding what I think the shape of it should be and what it should do. I think these are good ideas, and I’ve decided they suffice for now. As I revise the chapters, I’ll add more notes to this document. While I don’t want to start from a blank page with the intro at the end of September, I think that the conclusion can remain in this vague shape for awhile longer. After all, I’m still working on piecing things together with the dissertation as a whole.

This, then, is where the intro and conclusion stand. On the one hand, I’m not happy and have the urge to spend another week and a half tackling these into submission. On the other hand, I told myself these would be “for my eyes only,” and just starting points. I’m not convinced that trying for perfection – or more accurately, at least something that would be “advisor-ready” – is the way to go right now. If I did that, I think that I might get in the way of the larger revision process for the dissertation.

That, of course, would not be good. It’s never good to get in your own way, and when that happens as you’re dissertating, the danger is that it can cause you to stall out of fear and anxiety.

So I’m saying “uncle,” just for the time being, with the knowledge that this is a good decision that will prevent me from obsessing too much. I hope.

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3 thoughts on “Sometimes it’s okay to say “Uncle”

  1. It’s nice to see you posting your writing challenges as well as your triumphs. And it sounds like you’re making the right decision about putting it down, at least for now. As for that historiography your struggling to get out–like the prospectus, this is about the big picture, right? Where do YOU see yourself in these big fields that are military and women’s history? I think this will really fall together during the revisions of your other chapters, when you have a chance to look it all over and see what you wrote.

    I’m so curious to see what you do with the conclusion…conclusions can go in so many different directions in dissertations!

    • Honestly, I would probably say I don’t really have that many writing triumphs. My only real triumph is my ability to produce text, which I think is a big thing – but it’s still a long way from words on the page to the final product. 🙂 I’ll keep posting stuff like this, though – I promise!

  2. Books have a wonderful way of morphing as you write them. While an introduction is an overview and literature review, you won’t really know what you’ve said until you finish writing it. It is natural for conclusions to stay vague.

    This is even true for fiction. With both my novels–Baptism of Fire and Sea Changes–I was absolutely certain I knew the start and finish since both were, after all, traditional sea stories. And yet with both of them, when it came to the last pages, the books surprised me and took off on their own.

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