Oral exams were a week ago today, and I’m still feeling my way toward a new normal. Part of this processing will be in the forthcoming birthday post, since (like New Years’) I use birthdays for recalibration of hopesdreamsambitions. The rest can go here.
The hard part wasn’t reading, or studying, or drafting. The hard part, which any decent grad school blog or book will tell you, is the bureaucracy. The endless emails. Trying to form psychic links with your committee in the hopes that you can decipher their (competing) expectations. Using your keen powers of critical reading to analyze various department forms, only to still misinterpret shifting deadlines and don’t-do-this warnings and stick-to-this-process-or-we-slay-you timelines. And even this hyperoblique paragraph is probably unduly honest.
What can I actually say about exams in a public forum? Well, mine went well. I chose the perfect committee to both challenge me and get me done, and I’m grateful to each of them (some more than others, of course. A few people really seemed to believe in me, and that made all the difference when the workload overwhelmed). If I could do it all over, I wouldn’t change much — if anything, I’d add more books. I wish I’d been able to do a spec list and/or a lyric I list, but I can still read all those books and visit professors’ office hours with questions; no one’s stopping me, and I still have three years of funding to dissertate.
Behind closed doors, my committee was shockingly generous. I felt that one of my papers was appreciably weaker than the other two, and that did come out during the oral, but no one was unkind about it — it seemed fairly expected, actually. The other two papers I believed in — was all in, in fact, which could have gone very, very badly for me. It didn’t. I had a thrilling, serious conversation with five brilliant scholars (several of whom actively disagreed with me) about issues I care about. The state of nonfiction. Truth and testimony. Conscious and unconscious deception. Aesthetic theory. Economics (neoliberalism, natch). I’ve already started revising these two papers in the hopes of sending them out. The exam process wasn’t some absurd fiery hoop I had to jump through before the “real” work of creative writing could begin — crit’s its own creative act, and I love that my program required me to learn at least its most basic moves.
And yet that idea, that the real work’s ahead…well, there’s some truth there, too. Creative work matters infinitely more than critical work for writers on the academic job market. I do get why so many creative writers power through exams, viewing the creative diss on the other side as the real test.
Here’s why exams weren’t scary:
1) The actual market is so much more terrifying that any insulated ivory tower, it is not even funny. The pile of rejections I’ve accrued since Clarion is buffer and goad against overinvesting in any part of the PhDschool process. I am only as good as my creative work. So…not very good at moment. Gah.
2) Massive personal upheaval shaking up nearly everyone around me occurred concurrently with the month-long exam process. The death of a family friend. Serious illness. A close friend leaving town to help out a family member who’s fighting cancer. Another friend losing his mom. At no point during exams did “will I pass?” even rate as a crisis. There were hard days when I felt an intellectual fraud, days when I was sure I couldn’t crit worth a damn and who was I kidding? And those days paled in comparison to Real Fucking Life, every time.
This is all deep wisdom, I know (hah). This entire blogpost boils down to, keep exams in perspective, and it’ll all go just fine. Pour some love into your critical work, and it’ll go even better. Don’t sweat the bureaucracy; it’s white noise. One or two people who believe in your work can help you persevere.
I’m still reeling. It doesn’t feel real yet. Each day, I read for several hours, whichever book I please — just finished Fudoki, finally, and am about to start in on Drowning Girl. Yesterday I took a suitcase full of books back to the library. Today, I’ll revise some stories, maybe try and get a few things back out into the world. I’m looking into joining up with a couple of writing groups, once I start generating new material in earnest. This new normal, what will it look like? Here’s what it won’t look like anymore: