Nobody Wants to Write 50 Pages: A Manifesto
An English major learns to cope with writing her thesis
I’m making a calendar today. A calendar of events, in which I map out my remaining months, weeks, days and hours — time I will spend at the coffee shop or the library or the small wicker desk pushed up against the wall in my oblong bedroom.
I almost had a miniature panic attack last night as I lay in bed thinking about what my calendar would look like, but then I remembered that panic attacks wouldn’t fit into my weekly event lineup, so I quelled the urge to scream.
I’m attempting to write something, during all of these carefully mapped out hours, that — fingers crossed — will end up resembling a thesis by early April. “Thesis” is a loaded word, a scary word, a word that will probably haunt me and hundreds of my peers until the day we graduate.
You hope that as an English major, your minimum 50-page argument will be as solid and convincing as your two-page abstract. You hope that you will be able to tackle a project of this magnitude after three years of facing comparably minute challenges. Mostly, though, you hope it matters.
I talked to a friend and fellow English major last semester about how our literary and scholarly pursuits fit in with the rest of the world’s. We threw around the word “happy” a lot, as in this is what makes us happy, what makes us get up in the morning, what takes us to the fifth floor of Cabell every Tuesday evening for a two-and-a-half-hour thesis workshop. There are 18 of us in my thesis workshop. Last class, we edited each other’s rough drafts, recommended works to read and listened to graduate students’ advice. We all smiled and nodded, made plans with our peers to remind each other to work, and to work well. But by the time my Tuesday evening class came to an end, I did not have any desire to work. Somehow, pint night always tops my list of priorities. I left my thesis sitting, gathering dust, as I went to find out where all the happiness was hiding.
It’s easier to talk in circles around and about happiness than it is to simply be in happiness. Pint night usually makes me happy; sitting dull-eyed, slack-jawed and inspiration-less at my computer at one in the morning usually does not. I could go on for hours, given enough caffeine, explaining why being an English major and graduating and living the life of a starving artist/waitress in Charleston, S.C. will help me achieve happiness. But I couldn’t honestly say that the hours I devote to my thesis make me happy. Because, as someone who is constantly seeking, explaining and believing in happiness, I know that this pursuit leaves me anything but.
In theory, my literary and scholarly pursuits make me happy; I love nothing more than to dissect a beautiful sentence, to paint it on my wall, to quote it to my friends when I’m feeling pretentious or pseudo-poetic. I love words.
But in reality, I know my happiness hinges on more than a love of words. There is the unrealistic part of me that screams, “Words are all you need!” Then there is the other part of me, the part that doesn’t know what to do with a sentence, the part that can’t fathom the work behind creating 50-plus pages of meaningful words. The part that knows sometimes the theoretical happiness cannot match up with the reality.
My junior year of high school, my sister and I joined two of my friends in starting a debate team. We were a powerful foursome, and by the spring of my senior year I was debating at the state level. Looking back now, I think I must have imagined the debater Mary Scott — the girl who was so confident and indefatigable for 45 minutes at a time.
She doesn’t seem real, especially not compared to the collegiate Mary Scott — the uncertain, the fatigued, the hopeless happiness-seeker. But she was very real, and the whole time she was debating she was very scared and very terrified of losing, of falling short. I loathed debating just as much as I loved it. I couldn’t eat the entire day of competition; I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was never happy as I wrote out my case, doing meticulous research, coming up with random, abstract, yet somehow convincing arguments. I was anxious and worried and then, finally, certain. And afterward I was elated.
I’d never worked so hard, thought in so many different ways, as I did those two years of high school debate. And when I returned home with a medal, I felt like I’d just won the whole world.
So it’s time now, I realize, to be honest with myself. I’m not happily tapping away at my keyboard as the clock ticks and the due date for my thesis nears; I’m a nervous wreck. I’m losing sleep, my eating habits are out of whack and I’m missing most of my pint nights. I’m terrified of losing, of falling short. I’ve smashed my rose-colored glasses and replaced them with prescription lenses.
Because this is a different kind of happy. It’s the kind of happy where you work and get confused, then have a breakthrough, then lose 10 pages of work but start over again and figure it out. You empty yourself out and then refuel two days later. You paint sentences on the wall when you’re stressed and quote lines from your first chapter to your sister. And you miss all the things you wish you could fit in on your calendar.
But then you finish, and you embrace this new happy, this elation. Because when you’re through, you’ll feel like you’ve won the whole world.
Mary Scott’s column runs biweekly Wednesdays. She can be contacted at email@example.com.