Dissertation Days (42): Back at It

At long last, I have returned to the Dissertation. The poor thing was languishing, but now that my traveling has abated for a bit, I can now return in full force.

Today was quite a productive day indeed. I even managed to write 1,000 words of the chapter, mostly concerning the general introductory and theoretical sections.  I also wrote a bit in the section about Cleopatra, which is actually coming together quite nicely. Ideally, if I keep on at this pace with that section, it should be fairly ready and polished by the end of next week.

I’ve really determined that this will be the version of the chapter that I submit. I’ve reached the point where I have to make a concerted effort to bring my arguments together and tidy them up. Otherwise, I’m going to run the risk of spinning my wheels and not making any productive headway, and that is not the space that I want to be in again. So, it’s full steam ahead.

As far as research goes, I have begun reading Peter Brooks’ magisterial Reading for the Plot, which is a really interesting piece of literary criticism and theory. I’m hoping to use bits of it to add some layers to my theorization of the tension between spectacle and narrative that I see as a core part of how the epic film negotiates and engages with the terrifying nature of history. I’m not very far into it as of yet, but I’m hoping to finish it up by next week.

Tomorrow, it’s onward into the weeds of Chapter 4. I am hoping to work mostly on the historical context, which is coming together in its broad outlines but needs some more flesh in order to make complete sense. As I continue my work on this chapter, I’m really working on making sure that the various pieces all move together, and that each piece leads to and intertwines with the others. It’s easier said than done.

Starting in August, I am also going to start revising Chapters 1 and 2 in earnest. They are badly needing some tender loving care from me, and the revisions should be fairly minimal, so I’m ready to get started. At long last, I’m beginning to see the finish line. And let me tell you something, dear readers, that is one hell of a good feeling.

So, it’s onward and upward tomorrow.

Dissertation Days (41): No Title Needed

Today was a moderately successful day. I only wrote 500 words, but they were good words (I think), so that means a lot (to me, at least). As I always say, any progress is good progress.

The most noteworthy accomplishment today was that I have finally begun to pull the theoretical context together. For me, this is always both the most fun and the most difficult to write. On the one hand, it allows me to really get into the weeds on the theories that I’m working with–whether it’s narrative theory, color theory, or something else–and show how these theoretical models can help us understand the way that film works. It’s a site of play and opportunity, a means of shedding new light on a very dynamic group of films.

However, it’s also a very challenging section as well, in that it can be a place where my own exuberance gets a bit ahead of itself. As my Adviser once remarked, it’s like I try to cram everything I ever read into this tiny section. Again, that has to do with the fact that so much of theory that I’m bringing to bear is so exciting, and it’s quite easy to let it get ahead of me. So, I have to exercise caution.

The other challenge, of course, is making sure that I show how this section leads naturally and organically into the next. Again, it’s really hard to let it sort of spin out of control, so that it seems to float above the other two sections (the historicizing and the close readings themselves). For someone who loves to write, this can be quite the hurdle to overcome.

I also spent part of today’s session working  on the close reading of Cleopatra. Some bits of genuine light have begun to filter though, so I’m very excited about that. In some part of my mind, I’m still wrangling with the last film in the close reading section, but I’m confident that I will be able to fit it into the whole chapter.

The next few days are going to be a bit touch-and-go with Dissertation stuff. I have a conference paper due next week, and a lot of other stuff going on. Still, I hope to chip away at it and eke out a few words. Once next week is over, though, I’ll be back into full composition mode.

Dissertation Days (40): This is Progress, Right?

Despite the title, today was actually a good day, in terms of progress. As I said I would do yesterday, I switched to a bit of the close readings, focusing today on Cleopatra. I think the bare bones of how that section is going to look are almost there, but it will take another few days of composing to make sure that my close reading is both internally consistent and flows naturally from the contexts.

Speaking of which. I actually wrote at least half of today’s word count (a bit over 1,000, thank you very much), specifically in the theoretical context. To be quite honest, I don’t think this section is as theoretically rich as the earlier ones, but I do think that the sources I’m drawing on–particularly David Quint and his theory of epic narrative and Tom Brown and his theory of the “historical gaze”–are useful for thinking through the tension between spectacle and narrative that exists at the heart of the genre of the historico-biblical epic. Well, perhaps tension isn’t the right word. Perhaps I should say that it helps us to think of the relationship between those two seemingly opposing cinematic principles.

Overall, I’m happy with the progress I’ve made so far on this chapter. I also can’t believe that I’ve already written 40 of these entries! However, I do believe that they have really made this whole progress infinitely less lonely. Just knowing  that there are others out there reading these (or even just skimming them), makes me feel that there just may be an audience for the type of work that we do in academia. As a writer, it’s easy to lose track of that, particularly with everything else going on in the world.

I will, as always, be taking a bit of a break this weekend. I want to focus a bit on the novel, and on cleaning my house. Both of those things take a bit of a backseat when you’re really buried under the chapter that seems to press in on your every waking thoughts. I’ve also got a conference paper set to be delivered in a little under two weeks, so I have to make sure that that is in presentable condition.

Rest assured, though. On Monday I’ll be right back at it, and this time I fully plan on getting back into Chapters 1 and 2.

Don’t quote me on that, though. 😉

Dissertation Days (39): Forward, March!

Today was another good day. I produced 1,000 words of Chapter 4, and I’m actually pretty happy with the form that most of them have taken. I’ve started weaving in some of the research material that I need to set up the context, so that’s a good feeling. I’m really trying to avoid some of the mistakes I made with Chapter 3, and to that end I’m keeping much better tabs on the sources I’m using from the get-go, so I don’t get tripped up when it’s the eve of submission, and I’m scrambling to find citations.

I am hoping that my success of the last few days really does mark a moment when my chapter will take its final form. I don’t want to find myself spinning my wheels with this one the way I did Chapter 3 (which took almost a year to write!) So far, I’m cautiously optimistic, which in academic writing is about as good as it gets sometimes.

Tomorrow, I am aiming to continue working on the historical context, though I might allow myself to wander a bit into the close readings. Though it breaks up the flow my writing process a bit, I do find that it allows me to make sure that I am making connections, both explicit and implicit, between my various sections. Since a critique of the last chapter was that there was frequent disconnects between my close readings and my context, I’m extra close attention to those bits of detail as I make my way through the composition of this one. I’m hoping to get it approved with one round, but we’ll see.

I’m at a little bit of a loss on where to go with my research. I think I’m going to have to dig a little deeper on the historical context, and luckily I have a few places to turn to. Still, I know that it’s far too easy to get so mired in the contextual research that you lose sight of the chapter as a whole. That being said, I do want to make sure that I include as much detail as I can about the geopolitical context of the early and middle 1960s, so that my readings of the films will make sense. I do think that I’ve got enough

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get to revising Chapters 1 and 2 today. Tomorrow, though, I will definitely got on that. Honest!

Dissertation Days (37): Back to Work

After a very rough weekend, I got back into the swing of things today with some decent work on Chapter 4. I only wrote 500 words, but I do see the entire chapter starting to cohere in a way that it didn’t before. I’m still not entirely certain that the pieces are all knitted together as tightly yet as I would like, but that should arrive soon.

Nowadays, I’m not so sure that the version I’ve been writing will be the absolute final version. I think it may take one more to make sure that everything appears as I want it to, and a great deal of how I proceed will stem from how much my adviser likes (or does not like) Chapter 3. Still, I am confident that I can have a draft of this chapter fairly ready for submission by the end of August, though I can also push it off to the end of September if need be.

Overall, the chapter is standing at about 9,500 words, so I would say that it’s about 3/5 done (I’m aiming for a 15,000 word limit). This will be one of my shorter chapters, but I’m happy with that. Sometimes, it really is better to focus on writing concisely rather than expansively.

In terms of what I produced today…well, I sketched in a few blank spaces in the historical context section. It wasn’t anything terribly complicated, to be perfectly honest, but hopefully those sentences will be the seeds for future development. More promising was the material I produced about Cleopatra. The more I reflect on this film–its industrial context, the plot, the formal elements that it mobilizes–the more fascinating it becomes. As I’ve said many times before, it seems to me that this film is critically undervalued, and I hope that my analysis of it helps others to see that, despite its weaknesses, it really tries to engage with the historical questions and pressures of the time.

At some point in the near future, possibly as later this week, I am going to go back and start revisiting my earlier chapters. I honestly haven’t looked at them that much since they were approved, and I want to start the revision process on them before it gets too late.

Given that tomorrow is a holiday, I might take a little time off to clean and work on the Novel. Then on Wednesday it’s back to work.

Dissertation Days (36): DONE

Well, the biggest news of the day is that Chapter 3 is, at last, finished and submitted. I think that it is a much stronger version of the chapter than earlier, so there is that to be proud of. It might be a while before I hear back about it, but I’m okay with that.

Now, on to Chapter 4. Today was one of those great days where the juices just seemed to be flowing in the right amount. I managed to bang out 1,000 words of the chapter (and most of them good ones!) before the rest of my life interrupted me. I’ve gotten into a bit of a flow with this chapter, and that is definitely a blessing. I’d really rather avoid the rut that kept me bogged down in Chapter 3 far longer than I would have liked.

I’m really hoping to rewatch Cleopatra this weekend, as I need the details that such a re-watch will provide me. But, for those of you who have seen it know all too well, it’s an obscenely long movie, and thus quite an investment in a weekend that’s already quite packed. However, even if I just manage to watch a part of it, that will still provide me enough material to work with for next week’s composition.

I also have a pretty extensive research program lined up for the next week. The broad strokes of the historical context is there, but I need to start filling in the details. The hard part will be making sure that it’s clear how this context fits in with the close readings, but I wrote a couple paragraphs devoted to that today. I’m not sure they’ll survive into the final draft in their present form (they’re a bit ham-handed, tbh), but for the moment they are serving their purpose.

Ugh. It’s getting to that point where I can’ just throw words on the page anymore. Now that I’ve reached the 8,000 word mark (a little over half), I’ve got to really start drilling down into precision. That’s always the hardest part for me, because it means that shit is really getting real. At the same time, it’s also the point at which, if you really squint, you can see the finish line of the chapter (and of the project) in the distance.

That’s a good feeling, but also a terrifying one.

But, I march onward.

Good times ahead.

Book Review: “The Black Elfstone”(Book 1 of “The Fall of Shannara”) by Terry Brooks

It’s a rare thing that I finish a book in three days, but that is just what happened with fantasy maestro Terry Brooks’ most recent book The Black Elfstone, the first in a planned tetralogy titled The Fall of Shannara. Set roughly two hundred years after the loosely connected Defenders of Shannara series,  this novel sees the Four Lands under assault from a mysterious invader, one that possesses a form of magic that stymies even the Druids. These mysterious invaders, led by a powerful young woman, overcome anyone who stand in their path, including a Druid delegation. As a result, they threaten the very stability and order of the entire Four Lands.

The exiled Ard Rhys Drisker Arc, one of the story’s four protagonists, gradually finds himself drawn into this conflict. At the same time, he also takes on an apprentice in the form of Tarsha Kaynin, a young woman blessed (or cursed) with the power of the wishsong, who desperately wishes to tame its power so that she can save her afflicted elder brother Tavo. Meanwhile, the High Druid’s Blade Dar Leah has to contend with a Druid order that appears poised on the brink of chaos. All of them, in one way or another, will clearly be drawn into a conflict that might well bring to an end the entire world that they have so far taken for granted.

The pacing in this new novel is as breakneck as anything that Brooks has written, and it’s hard not to be swept up in the pace of the events unfolding. While we are only given tantalizing glimpses of the invaders that seem poised to conquer the entire Four Lands–and while the many schemes and plots, particularly those undertaken by the Druids, are still only half-glimpsed–that only makes the novel that much more tantalizing. Brooks has always been a master at plotting, and this novel proves to be no exception. While some might complain that he always ends his books on a cliffhanger, I personally find that that heightens the anticipation for the next novel (at least we don’t have to wait more than a year for the next installment).

Some have criticized Brooks’ recent work for being repetitive, but I tend to see this as a deliberate attempt on his part to show the ways in which history, and those caught up in it, often can’t help but repeat the mistakes that came before. This is most clear with the Druids, who once again seem so entangled in their internal squabbles and power-plays that they can’t see the larger threat that may sweep them away in its wake until it is too late. The ongoing tale of the Shannara bloodline reveals the brutally cyclical nature of history. Just as humankind seems to have lifted itself out of its own petty squabbles and achieved some measure of stability, its own folly and desire for destruction seems to plunge it right back into its darker nature.

While the Shannara books have always been marked by a fair measure of violence, Brooks looks to be striking out on some new territory here, showing us that the Four Lands have become an increasingly dangerous and unstable place. The Elves have retreated, once again, into their own enclaves, content to let the rest of the world succumb to its own folly. The border city of Varfleet is as seedy as ever, and there are entire guilds devoted to nothing but the taking of human life. This is not a world for the faint of heart.

Given this, it’s hardly surprising that this kind of world produces some very broken and troubled characters, chief among them Tarsha’s brother Tavo. Unlike his sister, for whom the wishsong is a blessing, for him it is a curse, a titanic force that he cannot control and that slowly drives him mad with rage and bloodlust. While they are disturbing, the chapters devoted to his perspective are some of the most compelling in the entire novel. He is a person who is fundamentally shattered in his psychology, misunderstood by his parents and tormented by practically anyone else. Is it any wonder that, in his fractured state, he should see his sister as his enemy? We don’t know yet what his part will be in the climax, but my guess is it won’t be pretty. I do hope, though, that he is offered at least a measure of salvation or redemption.

The writing here is lean, and Brooks tends to not spend too much time describing meals or clothing (a foible that sometimes bogs down otherwise quite compelling works of fantasy). However, no one has quite the ability to describe a landscape as he does, and the Four Lands remains one of the most exquisitely described landscapes in the history of epic fantasy. These are lands that have outlasted many of the characters that we have grown to know and love, and so there is something both comfortingly familiar and yet strange about them.

While I’m sad that Shannara is coming to a chronological end, I’m glad that Brooks is doing it on his own terms, and I am supremely glad that it is off to such a strong and stirring start. As someone who has grown increasingly irritated with George R.R. Martin’s chronic inability to produce a volume in anything resembling a reliable manner (and as someone who has been disappointed with the declining quality), I find Brooks reliability to be a great boon. What’s more, he has also stated that this won’t be the end of Shannara altogether, as there are still several bits of history that he may flesh out. Presumably, this means that we may yet get to see the formation of the First Druid Council under the Elf Galaphile, along with a number of other stories.

Still, I know that I will be shedding more than a few tears as I make my way through this chronological end of one of epic fantasy’s greatest sagas.

Dissertation Days (35): Out, Out, Damn Chapter!

I know I keep saying this, but I think I mean it this time. It looks like Chapter 3 will be sent off tomorrow. I’m finishing a few last-minute things–mostly footnotes and bibliographic entries that eluded me–but I’m so damn close! If I can just push myself over the finish line, and if I can just get this sent in tomorrow, I will feel soooo much better. Then I can take a day to catch my breath and then dive full-on into Chapter 4.

I am very happy to report that that Chapter is really coming along. I’m coming to that part in the process where I’m starting to get into the weeds, drilling down into the details that I really need to make it click. Today, I worked mainly on the section of the chapter dealing with The Bible. For some reason, I really find myself drawn to this film.

Luckily (or perhaps unluckily, depending on how you look at it), there is really only one chapter of a book that I’ve been able to find that discusses it at length. This has caused me to lean rather heavily on that one chapter, which is something of a handicap. On the other hand, it allows me to really negotiate and engage with another scholar’s ideas in great detail, something I haven’t really been able to do.

I also started a new book for research, this one devoted to the icon of Mark Antony. While this particular character is only tangential to my argument, I hope to find a few nuggets in the volume that will help me talk about the politics of the 1963 Cleopatra, particularly the way that it deals with politics, imperial stability, and imperial fall and decline. I hope to have that one finished in the next week or so, and then it’s on to another book that provides some context on the politics of containment.

I’m really hoping that Chapter 4 starts to come along a bit faster. I’ve been making steady progress, but I really want to pick up the pace. I tend to get mired down in chapters if I don’t get them done quickly, so I’m hoping to avoid that. Of course, a lot of that hinges on Chapter 3 and its reception, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed.

Tomorrow may not see a Dissertation Days update, but Friday will be back at it.

Forward, friends. Forward.

Dissertation Days (34): A Glimmer of Light

Well, Chapter 3 is set to be delivered to the adviser on Thursday. I will breathe an enormous sigh of relief once that is finally done. It will feel good just to have it out of my hands. I’m much more confident in this version of the chapter than its previous iterations, so at least there’s that. Now whether it gets approved is another question entirely…

Chapter 4 was in a surprisingly cooperative mood today. I actually spent the entire day working on the section of the chapter dealing with The Bible: In the Beginning. The film has, unfortunately, been largely ignored by both scholars of Huston and biblical film scholars, in large part, I think, because it’s sort of the bastard child for both fields. So, hopefully part of my goal in this chapter is doing justice to a film that has largely been ignored.

I actually managed to produce several paragraphs that I am rather happy with, as they really helped to clarify not only what I think about this film but also how this close reading fits in with both the other readings that I’ve done and with the argument of the chapter as a whole. Still, I’m hopeful.

To that end, I managed to finish 1,000 words in that chapter. At this point, I think I am almost halfway done with this. And, having finished yet another book on research, I do think that the pieces are at last starting to come together. For anyone who has been following this blog, that’s quite the accomplishment. Given these recent breakthroughs, I’m pretty sure that I can get a version of this chapter to the adviser’s desk by the end of August. That might be a bit ambitious, but I do think it’s doable. After all, I do have to keep in mind that this is the year I’m going to finish the diss. Even if it isn’t perfect, there’s no reason that I can’ still defend in the spring.

Tomorrow may not be the most productive day, as I have to get some work done on my car, but I hope to put the final polish on Chapter 3 and maybe even write a bit in Chapter 4. I’ve also begun reading a new volume for research that I hope will add some new layers to the discussion of Cleopatra. We’ll see if I can get that finished by next week.

Onward!

Dissertation Days (33): On the Cusp

Well, today wasn’t a terribly productive day. Had a bit of a gall bladder attack last night that really disturbed my sleep, so I’ve been a bit out of it all day.

However, I did accomplish what I set out to do, which was to read through the whole chapter and make sure that all of the egregious errors were taken care of. I’m happy to say that I excised some extraneous prose and padding, so it is that much leaner. I’m sure there is still much to do, but I’m happy with the way that it stand now.

I also, I think, managed to note all of the sources that I need to complete in my Works Cited. I’ll need to take care of that tomorrow, along with a few footnotes and in-text citations (mostly page numbers). I know those are little things, but I hate doing them. They are always the last thing I do and, to be quite honest, I see them as a huge pain in the ass. But, all the same, I know that they are a necessary part of the whole research process, and so I shall finish them.

All in all, I’m on track to submit it either Wednesday or Thursday. Then it’s onward to Chapter 4.

I think tomorrow I am going to spend mostly researching and possibly doing some free-writing on Chapter 4. I didn’t get around to re-watching Cleopatra as I had hoped, so hopefully I’ll get around to doing that. Once I’m finished with the current research book I’m reading about empire, I hope to move on to one about the role of Antony in popular culture. He is, after all, a key part of the film and of Cleopatra’s iconography more generally, so I’m hoping that it will be useful.

All in all, I still feel pretty good about the project. Things slowed down a bit today, but I just have to remember that I have all of July (though I have a couple of other projects that are clamoring for attention). I may even start my introduction later this week. I’m thinking it will help bring Chapter 4 into closer focus, as well as show how it connects to the other facets of the argument.

Dissertation writing is hard, y’all, but I know that I will get through this process, and one day, hopefully soon, I’ll see it in print.