In my last post, I wrote that I reread part of my dissertation and it shocked me with its shocking awfulness. It’s hard to tell whether I felt this way when reading because it really is a terrible document or whether the memory of researching, writing, and defending it is just too depressing to bear. Nevertheless, time to let it go, I told myself.
Then I got some comments on the post that made me rethink my decision. And the person I live with reminded me that he read my diss two years ago. He wondered if I might be overstating its general and overall badness.
I started thinking: what is the smallest unit of meaning I could pull out of that text and do something with? I realized that, unless I plan to resign myself to letting it rot, I am going to have to find some decent sentences in that dissertation somewhere.
Not ideas or pages or paragraphs. Just individual sentences.
So that is what I did. I went back to a chapter about a topic that I like, and I began copying and pasting individual sentences that don’t suck into a blank Word file. I decided it didn’t matter if these sentences made sense on their own or not. I would simply create a new document with only the good sentences from a single chapter.
What this looked like after I was done was a kind of prose poem: random lines about vaguely related topics, non sequitors, weird outlier sentences that didn’t go with anything.
Then I started writing.
I started with one of the not-shitty sentences. Next to it was another not-shitty sentence. Something needed to go in the gap of meaning between them. I started filling in the gap with new sentences, which eventually turned into paragraphs. Slowly, I was connecting disparate lines from my diss and creating something other than what it had been before.
This process, which took a few days, was like a revision high-wire act. The old sentences were like the swings of a trapeze. I swung off of one into the air before grabbing the next (hopefully) sturdy sentence and landing safely on the other side of a freshly written paragraph.
Now, I’m not saying this new-ish text is any good. In fact, I think it might be pretty bad, as first drafts usually are. Nor was this an easy thing to do. But I just don’t give a damn right now. Perhaps the key to reclaiming a bad piece of writing composed under duress (composed, as it were, to fulfill another kind of sentence) is to smash it to bits, to remake it from the bottom up, to get back to the bones of a few not-shitty sentences, and begin.