See, for my particular program, I spent a long, long time taking coursework because I was a part-time student and a full-time employee. This meant I took only one class at a time and the prospect of completing oral and written doctoral exams, completing a dissertation, and graduating were so far in the distant future as to warrant no actual concern on my part.
I just went along taking classes and reading books not realizing how close I was getting to actually being face to face with a set of exams that would literally take more time than anything else I had ever done.
So there I was with a list of 100 books, only 20 of which I'd read before, that had to be finished before I could start the exams.
That included reading some heavily philosophical texts that left me wondering about the meaning of life and the nature of reality.
And then I read some things (cough, Kenneth Burke, cough) that left me wondering if I actually knew what words meant.
But I also read a lot of things that were amazing and made everything click into place--if only for a moment.
Once that task was complete, I started the written exam. I was given a question to answer in a 25-page paper that was due in exactly one week using as many of those aforementioned books as possible.
Not only did I have to face this stressful mental task, I had to balance it with the responsibilities of being a wife, mother, and full-time college instructor. The sheer chaos of this was enough to make me question why I'd ever entered graduate school to begin with.
But I buckled down and decided to throw myself into the task, using my husband's accrued hotel points from work travel to rent a room for the weekend and write ferociously.
So I packed up about 40 of my 100 books into suitcases and locked myself into a room, full of energy and optimism but also the constant nagging reminder in the back of the mind that this meant I was abandoning all other responsibilities like grading papers. And washing dishes. And walking the dog. And parenting. And talking to other human beings.
But then an even greater dread settled upon me as I realized that I actually had to write this thing. The best way to write is to just write, so I did that. It was a mess.
And after about hour twelve, I started to panic and called home for support.
Eventually, things started to fall into place, and I was fairly confident that it would actually be a draft of something coherent . . . maybe.
I left the hotel room with a fairly solid draft, fixed it up between grading papers over the next few days, and turned it in a full day early, feeling really good about myself and life and whatnot.
But then I had to sit and wait to hear if I passed or not. This is a stressful time. You have to find ways to cope.
When word came that I passed, I was ecstatic . . . for about fifteen seconds because the same email also contained the plans to schedule my oral exam: a two-hour task in which I would be drilled on the paper I'd just written as well as any of the books I hadn't mentioned in it.
But I took some deep breaths, and decided to just dive in and get it over with. I bugged my friends and family to reassure me it would be okay.
But their kind words didn't stop the horrendous nightmares of me getting in front of the panel and being unable to form sentences.
But that didn't happen! I formed words. I said things. I passed. I immediately thought of ways to celebrate.
And I left that day feeling like a superhero, fully capable of conquering the world.
But that exam isn't actually the end. In fact, it's really not even close. Even though I had spent hours and hours and hours preparing for it over several months, the buzz from passing was an incredibly brief one as I stared down the prospect of writing a book-length dissertation in the midst of full-time teaching, parenting a preschooler, and trying to keep at least a little sanity.
And since I have very few uninterrupted hours in the day that I can devote to brainstorming and writing, I have to send myself texts and emails whenever an idea strikes me.
I'd be lying if I said I never thought about just giving up on this Sisyphian task.
I may have once or twice (or six times) thrown a book across the table and declared that I will never read anything ever again.
Because, really, getting comments back on a chapter draft that tells you to cut a fourth of the material can be a little demoralizing.
And the stress can make you get a little testy with the innocent people around you who are only trying to interact with you like a normal human being.
But, I'm going to keep pushing through because I know that my hero Leslie Knope would never let little things like sleep deprivation, humiliation, and despair stop her from her dreams, so neither will I.