I’ve done something highly uncharacteristic this week: I quit! I gave notice that this is my last year in Comp Lit at UC Davis, and instead of taking a PhD qualifying exam this Spring, I am taking an exam that will grant me a Master’s. A Master’s and then… Terrifying, dizzying, absolute freedom!
I say “uncharacteristic” because I am not a quitter. I don’t necessarily say this with great pride; I simply don’t have the mental apparatus that allows me to let go of things. In life so far, I’ve been tested in ways that have developed my blind tenacity–to the point where it can be an impediment. So this quitting thing is new and alarming. But holy mackerel is it ever the right decision! The sudden evaporation of my dissertation feels like such a blessing, like a burst of air and light. Like the gnawing on my brain has mercifully stopped.
I simply do not have what it takes to produce two totally different kinds of books on two parallel tracks for the rest of my life. If I were to keep writing academic criticism it would severely limit my fiction output. I was okay with this waning process when my investment in fiction was strictly personal. Now that the layout of my life has changed so dramatically, I will not spend the energy I would have spent on novels writing scholarly works. Hell no.
When I got the book deal last June, I tried to talk myself into staying on the academic track by telling myself that dissertating (and writing critically presumably for the rest of my life) would provide me with a needful framework of discipline. After all, I had been investing myself in this career for a few years and it wasn’t going to simply explode out of existence. Still, I’ve been haunted for months by this “needful discipline,” and its blood-draining effects… “Discipline,” definitely–”needful?” I no longer think so. These days I need vitality and passion more than I need structure. The tamer may have a stage, a stool, a whip–yet he has nothing but a hollow pantomime if he doesn’t have the goddamn lion.
Besides, when the well runs dry and things are going badly, I don’t think I can handle the terrible weight of being utterly impotent at two kinds of writing. I will fail at just the one, thank you. I am not Giles Corey! I do not want more weight.
So, I’ve been giving notice to the professors in my department. Some are disappointed, some are fly free, little bird! I am now reading for my MA examination in the Spring instead of my PhD quals, and I like the sound of “MA.” It sounds so wonderfully… finite. Still, only in academia can you tell everyone that you quit and still have 5 months of work to do.
So, I will have plenty time to practice and get used to this thrilling new quitting thing–for instance, on Monday I will go on an ecstatic orgy of returning no-longer-necessary dissertation-related books to the library. (And it will be a fine orgy indeed; I have enough in my piles here to fill up a fairly sizable wheeled suitcase.) Oh, those thick critical volumes written in ice-pick-to-the-soul prose will make such a sweet melodious sound on the way down the chute… It will feel so good I will have to make it last; I will feed the books to the library’s gaping metal maw