Theses, writing, weight-loss, and sweet metaphors

Today in class, my new American Studies thesis students were challenged to answer this question, how will doing a thesis change me as a person and affect my life?

They came up with a  lot of good answers. They talked about confidence, work ethic, intellectual achievement, playing to their strengths, and managing their time. When it came to me to tell them what I believe the answer is, I told them something like this:

The thesis is a learning experience on a large scale. It’s yours, you own it entirely. You are the captain of your own ship, and as a result your successes will be yours and so will your failures. The way the thesis will change you is that when you are presented with a seemingly insurmountable task, whether it’s related to career, personal life, family life, romance, projects, or journeys, you will be able to look at it as a whole and know that you are capable of doing the work to get where you need to be. You won’t doubt yourself. When you’re presented with something that, at the outset, seems near impossible, you will push forward. You will know to break it into manageable pieces, work on it everyday, slowly and steadily. Even when you’re tired, and fed up, you will always see the forest beyond the trees and you will always trust that you will get there. The thesis will teach you that you have every bit of will, and grit, and motivation you need to do whatever you set out to do.

Large scale research and writing is very difficult. There’s a reason why not a lot of students sign up for majors that require work of this nature when they’re undergraduates, and there’s a reason why the students who do are exceptional. There’s a reason why when they write this thesis, which is, for many, their first major research and writing project, that they work closely with TAs, professors, advisors, and each other. Part of what makes this a valuable experience is knowing that they can fall, they usually don’t. But if they get lost, or need a hand – one will be there. We joke about this – “help will always be given in thesis class to those who ask for it.”

I did my first large scale (or it looked large at the time) writing project in IB2 (12th grade). It was called an Extended Essay and it’s basically a miniature version of an undergraduate thesis. I then wrote an undergraduate thesis, and capped it off with a master’s thesis. While I was doing that I started helping other people write. I love helping other people write.

Research driven academic writing might seem dry and sad to a lot of people, but I believe it provides one of the most poignant, useful metaphors for getting through life I have ever encountered, which brings me to my point.

As of today I have lost 80lbs. When I started losing weight the idea that I would ever get to 80lbs down seemed impossible. Even from my current vantage point, there is still so far to go. Starting a weight loss project where I decided to set about losing 200lbs (half my starting weight) was scary, it was scary because I didn’t know if I could do it. I didn’t know if I had the physical capacity or, perhaps more importantly, the emotional and psychological wherewithal. I knew all the data about dieting and about massive weight loss, that it often doesn’t work, and many dieters don’t make it past 10%, many people never reach their goal, and many people end up gaining to weigh more than they did at the beginning. Losing weight is socially, emotionally, and culturally stressful. At the outset, in the first 20lbs (which came off quick, but were invisible) I interrogated my choices a lot, I questioned whether my motivation was good enough, whether my choices were noble rather than being selfish or, perhaps, not even mine.

However, in the last 60lbs, I’ve learned so much about myself, and my motivations. I’ve learned that my motivations are complicated and are in a perpetual flux. I’ve learned that this is a project, it is a large, seemingly daunting project, and I’ve learned that in order to get where I want, and achieve what I set out for I have to be committed. While there are days were I don’t count calories so closely (or count them but don’t worry about them) every day is in service of the larger project. Not only the physical elements of weight loss (the eating, the working out) but the emotional and psychological parts. In order to get up everyday and want to keep doing this, I have to know that I am capable.

Losing large amounts of weight is so much like writing. It’s so much like writing that everyday gets easier because I realize more and more that this difficult thing is just like the difficult things I’ve done before. The difference between success and failure is patience, commitment, grit, and knowing that no matter what happens as you go, it is the process that is valuable. When you’ve finished a thesis, and smack it down with the familiar thump of a 100 pages, when you hold it for the first time as it finishes printing and it’s warm and smells like toner, it’s finished and and while it still needs to be graded, and (you hope) read – your relationship with it is finished. Everyday, every mile, every pound I lose feels like a page of a thesis. Meeting a micro-goal is like finding that book you really need, or writing a literature review that you don’t fucking hate.* Weight loss for me is a writing process, it’s a story about my body that I am wholly in control of, it requires my dedication and motivation, and requires that I not let other people derail my ideas, or hijack my work. This isn’t about other people’s ideas, this is my project and I’m writing it with my body. Every success is my success and while I undeniably have excellent people around me to support me, when it comes down to it, it’s mine. When my feet hurt so much I can barely walk, when I’m so bored of eating the same weird foods, and when all I want is just not think about it, I’m the person who has to. And I do because I’ve written, I’ve written long, complicated things, I’ve watched students follow wild trains of thought to magnificent conclusions, and because the body follows the brain.

Writing a thesis changes you in that you learn that if you need to write, if you want to write, you sit down and you write.
It affects your life because you learn that if you want to do something, you look at it as a whole, you think about what’s it’s really made of; the research, the skills, the time, the process, and you make a plan and you follow through with that plan.

*Unclear that this is even possible.

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Magic Tricks

This semester, I find myself being a TA. Overall, I would describe it as a partially mysterious, though overall throughly enjoyable way to occupy my time. The class is an American Studies undergrad senior seminar, in which they write theses, all year. I have very little exposure to American Studies (though, I feel ever more comfortable with it) and have, or so I hope, thesis writing skills – but needless to say, it is amazingly working out.

Today the topic of method was being addressed (much of the time I spend thinking about this topic results in feeling mildly nauseated by own trepidation regarding methodology.) and in amongst the material of the class, New Criticism came up. I don’t really think about New Criticism very much, because I don’t really do it now. However, when I learnt to read closely it was through New Criticism and I loved it. I loved it deeply.

I remember the sheet of paper my class was given in the 9th grade that described the elements of New Critical formal readings. It was as if I had been taught a magic trick. A trick I had watched my English teachers perform and never knew where the meaning came from, where in poem did they see these things, all this meaning? All of sudden, I had the trick. I remember practicing it, and getting really good. I remember the first poems I read that way, Sylvia Plath, Lady Lazarus and Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, which is probably still my favorite poem.

The charm of being able to look at any piece of writing, with no context, and just make something from it was not lost on my teenage self. It was, and still is a marriage of my favorite possible things – neat, well-ordered thinking, systematic ways of understanding complex things, a way of organizing my thoughts just like everything else. It was like organizing, tidying and literature rolled up together. Delightful.

Thinking about how much New Critical reading had meant to me today, I realized how I attached I’ve been to English and to literature. I spent all my time thinking about literature when I was in high school, and all of college (up until the very end). It was all I wanted to do, was read, and analyse. The first theory class I ever took, which was my junior year of college, was horrifying. It was all this other stuff which was not the text, it was beyond the text and it made me very uncomfortable. It took me a long time to start to feel right about other ways of thinking about texts, and to be honest, when I find myself confused I revert back to my old standard (when in doubt, talk form). The habit and the knowledge of the magic trick, I suspect, ruined me as a creative writer. It’s hard to write creatively when you’re very aware of how the form, tone, style, structure, word choice must work. It stops being organic.

Even now, over two years since I finished my undergrad degree I can’t separate myself from my comforting ways of thinking about poetry. I still read a lot of poetry, it seems very natural to do so with a pen, and I love it when I encounter a poem, formatted all alone on a sheet of white paper, with lots of space around it for me to write notes.