Brooklyn, New York and Baton Rouge, Louisiana
It is mid-July and I am just sitting down to write the KIS.list for May and June. Motherhood certainly has something to do with it. I am not mentally engaged with writing in the same single-minded manner I had been before my daughter’s birth. Now, I have very limited energy reserves for completing projects. The time and attention I would be using to write the KIS.list has been, over the past two months, dedicated to the completion of a new project: my mother’s dissertation.
My mother has been in school a long time. That’s what happens when you get a Ph.D. You go to school, and you stay… a long time. As a graduate student she’s had to learn not only the canon of her field (curriculum theory), she’s had to learn critical academic thinking, working with other’s ideas about the field, and theorizing. She writes:
When I enrolled as a graduate student at LSU, I had great difficulty reading as well as speaking about our assigned readings from what seemed like a small library of books and journal essays pertaining to curriculum theory. Every curriculum theory professor expected each student in their courses to write a thirty-page, journal-ready essay. Hard as I tried, I did not remember what I read, had little to say in class, and my final papers were less than twenty pages long. Despite my continued efforts, semester after semester went by with what seemed like little improvement. I began to feel like something was wrong with me and worried if I could continue in graduate school.
I cannot imagine how my mother made it through. Knowing how to read, discuss, and write academic responses is like knowing how to speak a foreign language. Once learned, it becomes intrinsic, but before you can speak it, you spend a lot of time frustrated, bewildered, stumped. My mother battled through these tense emotional states throughout her graduate school experience. Her family cheered her on. Her professors fell in love with her honesty, charisma, intelligence, and difference (she is unapologetically black-woman centered). They believed in the fresh perspective she brought to the field. They sometimes overlooked woefully short or unacademically written papers, preferring to usher her forward, gambling that in the end, her writing skills would catch up with her passion and 30 years of experience in education.
Imagine having combated intimidation, struggled to speak the particular language of academia, fought to find a voice in a foreign environment, and completed the rigors of Ph.D. coursework in isolation from friends and family to be faced with this: a dissertation. A document that is required to be 150 pages or more, contain a minimum of five chapters, reference a substantial amount of literature, and be a contribution to the field. No matter how much love they had for my mother, the dissertation committee would not be able to accept anything less than a dissertation. She’d have to cross the t’s, dot the i’s and comply with every requirement. There would be no overlooking anything. These professors were now responsible for approving my mother to become their peer. The university—the institution that would rubber stamp the committee’s approval—sent a representative to sit on the committee to ensure that the decisions were impartial, that the Ph.D. degree was merited by academic achievement, that my mother’s success was earned.
I, along with many of my mother’s friends and colleagues, spent hours on the phone with her discussing her ideas, wading through possible topics, trying to organize theories into one conceptual whole. There were many breakthroughs, and a-ha moments, but somehow, no dissertation was forthcoming. Everyone was wondering: when, when, when is this gonna be done? There was frustration, anguish, uncertainty. And through it all, we were cheerleaders promising my mother it would be well, she would succeed, it would be done.
A year passed and the deadline was closing in. The fast-track deadline had whizzed by. One afternoon my sister and I were on a conference call with my mother and my sister asked a really basic question. Something to the effect of, have you mapped out your dissertation, do you know how the chapters are put together? And I huffed impatiently. I was certain this was the wrong approach, of course she knew how the dissertation fit together, hadn’t we been talking about the chapters for months?
I was shocked by what my mother’s answer revealed. She said she didn’t know how the pieces fit together. In fact, she didn’t know how to pull her ideas together, she had no idea how to tackle so big an endeavor. All this time we had been wrestling with concepts and themes, and the problem was fundamental. She did not know how to write a dissertation. She did not know how to create a large thematic project and break it down into workable chunks. She did not know what she needed to know to succeed.
We were suddenly clear that we needed a different approach. We needed to help her with structure, construction, direction. We had to identify themes, figure out how they fit together, and come up with a formula for the completion of a dissertation.
As a writer, it is easy to take writing for granted. It’s sort of like dancing. For those who know how to do it, it seems so easy, natural, seamless, intuitive. But for those who don’t, it’s a struggle to come up with “moves,” keep the rhythm, and go with the flow. I realized I could talk theory with my mother till the cows came home, but that wasn’t going to get her a Ph.D. My job was to talk writing.
As a writer, my mother had a tendency to hit it and quit it. She’d fit what she had to say in ten pages and be done with the chapter. Then, when her professors wanted more page length, she’d look for more to say. We developed a mantra: no more creating. Every time she started talking about new ideas, I’d ask her “Are you creating?” She’d say, “Oh yeah, oh yeah. Thanks for stopping me.” Instead of trying to create new directions and answers to the professors’ concerns, we focused on deepening and expanding what she already had. We discussed how to expand on an idea. We discussed drawing paragraphs out of two or three isolated sentences by building on a theme. Working with her forced me to examine how I build a sentence, paragraph, chapter, or thought. I had to figure out how to translate what had become instinctual into followable instruction.
Working on the dissertation was tough. The toughness of the job was not limited to the actual writing of the dissertation. The toughness of the job was rooted in my mother’s default belief that she wasn’t going to make it. That she couldn’t write. That her ideas would never be clear. In order to work with my mother and her words, I had to find ways to dismantle the self-defeating thoughts that kept her paralyzed.
Months after we thought we had the problem licked, my mother’s advisor was impressed with my mother’s theorizing and excited about the dissertation. Finally it was time to turn the entire dissertation in to her committee. My mother insisted that she wasn’t ready. Both her advisor and I were supportive. We were sure she was just being dramatic and self-deprecating. Then I got the phone call. “Kiini, I won’t be defending,” my mother said. “My advisor says the dissertation isn’t ready.” When assessing the material my mother had given her chapter by chapter, the advisor insisted that the dissertation content and theorizing was fine. But when the advisor saw all the material together, she saw what was lacking. My mother did not have a dissertation. She had a loosely connected mass of papers that did not meet the length and structural requirements of a dissertation.
A new defense date was scheduled. A new plan of attack was formulated and my mother set about trying to write a dissertation once more. Her phone calls to me became more frequent and more desperate. She was less and less confident in what she was doing. She was lost in the various versions of her work and bewildered by contradicting advice coming from friends, colleagues and advisors. When I and others pressed her, asking, what do YOU want to do? She said she didn’t know. Finally I understood what my mother had been trying to communicate all along. She needed help. Real help. Not a phone call, not cheerleading, some real partnership and direction. “Do you want me to come out there?” I finally asked her. She gratefully said, “Yes.”
Half of my job was convincing her that she was going to succeed. The year she spent working on her dissertation only to be told that the document she produced was insufficient had seriously withered her self-esteem and certainty. I employed whatever I could—sweet words, tough love, encouragement, and praise—to keep her going. We got clarity from her advisor and put together a schedule for completion. We spent days holed up in her tiny campus apartment working out sentences, mining old papers for relevant material, and making connections.
I was not only called to be a writing coach, but to be a cheerleader and a motivational speaker as well. Possibly my most significant task was keeping her writing. I could not let down my negativity radar for a second. Whenever she stopped to think about the endeavor, she easily slipped into tiredness, doubt, exhaustion, and defeatist thinking. Central to our conversations was my insistence that she was doing a great job. I drew on my experiences as a “failed” novelist to convince her that the process she was going through was normal. I drew parallels between learning to write a novel and learning to write a dissertation. I knew the difficulties intimately and was able to commiserate and inspire.
Up until the end, my mother’s exhaustion and frustration made her vulnerable. Yet, little by little, her attitude began to turn around. When she turned in her first few chapters, one of her committee members said, “Looks like she has a dissertation here.” Each positive comment bolstered her confidence. With praise, she began to recover ownership over her project. She mumbled “I don’t know” less and less, revealing her unshakeable awareness of what she wanted to say and how she wanted her thoughts conveyed. The praise encouraged the theorists in her to stand up and take the driver’s seat. When she pushed my ideas to the side in favor of her own, I felt proud and excited. As her backbone emerged, so did her voice. It was a beautiful thing.
I wrote this KIS.list intending to stumble upon some potent message about writing, but I find myself unable to look beyond the irreplaceable value of praise, faith, and support. I myself am floored by the magnitude of the undertaking. Eventually, we gathered together enough words for a 188-page document. The task was downright herculean (or Hannibal-ian). We met it with confidence, creativity, and conviction. We had no choice. Had we employed anything less than the full arsenal of our defense tactics, she would not have completed her dissertation. Praise, I suppose, is not the sole domain of butt-kissers and ego-strokers. It can be an essential tool when hacking through the morass of writer’s block, writer confusion, and writer failure.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==
: : : September 2002 – present : : :
==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==
Last year I applied to two graduate programs and got rejected from both. I put those rejections under Residencies/Workshops. This year I applied to three graduate programs and I was accepted to two and rejected from one. I will be starting a low residency MFA program in December. Low residency means I’ll live at home and work independently for the most part, but twice a year I will attend intensive two-week residencies at the school. It seems reading about the programs and choosing programs that seemed relevant to me and my work helped me apply to programs that were interested in me. The program that rejected me was a very traditional program. This process has taught me that searching for a grad school should be about finding a positive MUTUALLY GRATIFYING relationship. I think publishing works the same way, it’s about finding the right fit between the publication and the author/piece. I add one rejection and two acceptances to the residencies/workshops section of my acceptance/rejection o’meter.
As a follow-up to the chapbook conversation, I am in the process of producing a chapbook of my Single Woman’s Manifesto. If you happen to be in New York, specifically Harlem, on July 19 come to the Exit the Apple table at the Harlem Book Fair on 135th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and Malcolm X Boulevard. I’ll be selling my chapbooks along with the artist/filmmakers/publishers of Exit the Apple who will be selling their book: Bullshit or Fertilizer—Tough Love for Artists on the Fence.
Kiini’s Rate of Acceptance/Rejection
August 2001 – August 2002
Publications: Acceptances = 6; Rejections = 6
Grants/Fellowships: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 1
Residencies/Workshops: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 4
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