Sunday, January 09, 2005

Academia: Part IV

Well, I won the essay prize, graduated summa cum laude, and started graduate school. It was pretty much all downhill from there.

I decided to pursue a Master's degree in music, my other Grand Passion (tm). This was a sensible move in most respects, except it meant that I would not work with Professor Davies again. I’ve never been sure how much I should regret this decision, as Davies died of a stroke soon afterward – while snorkelling in Cuba, God love him – which would have left me mourning and advisorless mid-thesis. Then again, I would have had that last breath of time with him, to learn, to hear a few more stories, and to come that much closer to finding my voice. And just maybe, though I’ll never know, the next few years would have been different.

The music program was fine, and the people there really were very nice, but I realize now that I was already too much of a cultural theorist to quite fit in. I worsened the problem by inviting a communications scholar to sit on my thesis committee, who, in addition to having considerably less knowledge of music than originally claimed, was at least halfway to a nervous breakdown and very nearly forgot to show up at my defense. (He may as well not have since he didn’t bother to read the damn thing, but that is another story.) Also, no one in the music department smoked or drank or read poetry; nor, in fact, did they play very much music, although occasionally the Schaferites in the group would head off to the country to compose soundscapes that set off my inner cultural theorist in the worst way.

At the end of my first year, as comment on a seminar paper I had written for her class, one of my professors asked me if I understood the difference between academic writing and journalism. I was instantly and furiously offended by the question, but it had the intended effect: I began removing myself from my words, and writing from what I surmised was an appropriate scholarly distance. I stopped working through theory in narrative form; I excised all metaphor or allusion. In more rebellious moments, I parodied the omniscient scholarly narrator, but no one seemed to notice when I did.

Meanwhile, the Ex, Phil, began falling apart. At first he would just freeze up, usually at night, and I would quietly hold him until he came back to himself. Then he started going AWOL, wandering the city for hours as I waited for him to return safely home. Then he became suicidal, and I didn’t know what to do except brace myself for abandonment.

Writing became slower, harder. I would spend hours alone in my office staring at a blank computer screen, wondering if I still cared enough to bother. When I did manage to produce a string of words, I felt completely alienated from the results. It was like reading another language, or hearing one’s speaking voice on tape: unnerving, strange. Inevitably, the thesis spilled over into a second year, so I brought it, Phil, and a growing sense of dread with me to Montreal. It was, unquestionably, the worst year of my life.

I forced myself to keep writing, as Phil went AWOL again; as my father announced he had cancer; as my extended family was bombed from the air for seventy-eight days; as my brother slowly, agonizingly, became a schizophrenic; as my cat died. I kept writing as the distance between myself and my partner grew larger, and as I tried to hold my fucked-up, disease-ridden family together, and as I feared for my father’s life. I kept writing through the first numb semester of my PhD program and through the summer that followed, a beautiful, Montreal summer that passed outside my office window. I kept writing, even though I hated every moment of it and every word I wrote was dead and my heart was breaking the whole time. I kept writing until I had 145 double-spaced pages plus notes to submit to the music department, thereby fulfilling the requirements of the course of study appointed by the statutes of the university.

And then I stopped writing completely.

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