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 (38): A New Beginning

Well, I finally had to break down and start a new draft of Chapter 4. The one that I was working on, that I ambitiously thought was the final version, was getting a bit unwieldy, and I could tell that I was started to repeat myself. Once it gets to that point in my composition, I usually find that it’s a little easier to start a clean draft, while leaving open the possibility that I can import bits from the earlier ones.

Fortunately, the one I produced today was one of the most clear-headed that I’ve made so far, largely because I really forced myself to write in a mostly linear fashion. I’m getting to the point where I need to do this in order for the whole thing to make sense, and it actually proved a good thing. It really forced me to drill down into the nitty-gritty, that part of the chapter process that I have always found to be the most forbidding and the most difficult.

I’m really, really hoping that this version of the Chapter will indeed be the one that I end up submitting. I’m going to hold myself accountable to the 1,000 words a day maxim, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that they are 1,000 good words. If it all possible, I’d like to avoid the type of deep revisions that I encountered with Chapter 4. I think, if I really hold myself accountable, that I can do that.

Incidentally, I’m also working on a few other side projects, notably a conference paper about the role of women’s historical fiction in shaping contemporary understandings of antiquity. It’s not directly dissertation-related, but it’s adjacent (and I’m thinking that it might even be the makings of a second book project).

Tomorrow, I hope to finally take a deep breath and start the revision of the first two chapters. They probably won’t be that deep, as my committee seems to think they’re in good enough shape to pass muster, but I want to make sure that they are as polished as they can possibly be.

Finally, I wanted to note that I finished one of my research books today (the one on Mark Antony). I don’t know that I’ll use it, but it was a good read nonetheless. I’m thinking I might read Peter Brooks’ Reading for the Plot next.

Well, onward we go.

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 (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.

Dissertation Days (32): Increments

So, the pendulum has swung back the other way and, having taken another look at Chapter 3, I’m actually pretty happy with how it’s turned out. I’ve tweaked and tightened up some of the prose. It always feels good to see that something you’ve laboured on for so long isn’t as horrible as you’d been dreading. Of course, the adviser hasn’t seen it yet…

Today, I focused mainly on doing a verbal read-through of the chapter. I often find that forcing myself to read things aloud allows me to hear mistakes and awkwardness that my mind would automatically correct if I were reading it silently. It’s quite time-consuming, but overall I find it a very useful exercise, I have noticed that it really does help smooth out the prose problems that repeatedly crop up. It’s amazing how those tics continue to creep in despite your best efforts.

I’ve also been doing some compiling of the bibliography. While it’s always satisfying to see the number of sources you use (a big bibliography, in my mind, suggests the heft of your research), it’s also something of a pain in the ass to compile it, especially when you never seem to learn the value of keeping track of your sources as you are composing the chapter.

In terms of Chapter 4, most of today was spent doing some research. Sometimes, when I find myself running up against conceptual walls, I find it very helpful to take a breath and just do some research. This not only takes me away from the writing for a while–which can be very helpful–but also gives me more substance on which to base the composition of the chapter itself.

I did, however, manage to write some parts of the historical context section. A lot of this new material came out of this book I’m reading that compares the imperial programs of the American and British Empires. Once I return to working on this chapter exclusively, I’m going to ramp up the schedule so that I’m writing 1,500 words a day. That’s quite a lofty goal for me, but I really do want to bang this sucker out as soon as possible (without sacrificing quality, of course).

This weekend, I’m going to be taking a bit of a break, working mostly on the read-through of Chapter 3, re-watching Cleopatra and, believe it or not, the Novel. I’ll return to Dissertation Days on Monday.

Dissertation Days (28): Chipping Away

Today was a remarkably productive day, considering the fact that I just got back from traveling and that I had to take Beast for a vet visit. I managed to chip away at Chapter 3, getting rid of some extraneous sentences and other bits of fluff that were clogging up the works. I am still not as happy with the prose as I would like to be at this stage, but I’m also realistic enough to know that at some point you just have to move on. As one of my committee members always says, the best dissertation is a finished one.

Fortunately, I’ve been in an editing frame of mind lately–thanks to an editorial project I’m still interning for–so that has really helped to hone my instincts in terms of chopping out bits of Chapter 3 that aren’t necessary and finessing some of the clunkier bits of prose. Despite the challenges, it actually feels good to be at the point where taking stuff out is actually a good thing rather than an absolute pain.

Chapter 4 is also coming along much better than I had expected it would, given that I have a few key concepts that are forming the core of the chapter. The historical gaze has actually proven to be more central than I had realized, and it fits in pretty seamlessly with my dissertation’s emphasis on the unknowable and inexorable power of history. I’m still fleshing out the links between the various parts of the chapter and how they work together, but today for the first time it felt like I was really making some genuine progress.

To that end, I focused most of my writing energies today on the close reading portions. I’ll get back to the historical context soon, and I still have to figure out how exactly I’m going to work in a theoretical context, but it’ll get there.

Tomorrow, I need to make sure that I stay a little more focused than I did today. I sort of was writing all over the place, but I want to start writing enough in each section that it begins to fill out. That way, I’ll have a stronger sense of how each part will look when it’s fully developed. Now that it’s the final draft (hopefully), it’s time to get really serious about this.

Onward and upward friends. As the lady says, tomorrow is another day.

Dissertation Days (26): Labour Day

At long last, I’m settled down for a bit and back into something like a normal working schedule. As a result, today I managed to write 1000 (a grand!) words in Chapter 4, which is quite an accomplishment in my humble opinion.

Chapter 4 has, finally, begun to crystallize and become more focused. As those of you who have been following this account no doubt know, this is no small thing. It’s always frustrating when you feel like you know what you want to argue, but the actual articulation of those ideas in writing ends up eluding your abilities. That has happened quite a lot with this chapter, and it’s only recently, after more research on my part, that I’ve been able to wrangle my ideas. It’s not quite there yet, but I do think that I am on the path that will eventually see this chapter completed.

The hardest part, I think, will be fitting this chapter into the existing structure of the dissertation. That was also a big part of my problem in Chapter 3, but in that case I had a stronger idea of its role in the larger project. Still, I think that by holding onto the glimmers of intelligibility that I’ve managed to produce, I can manage to keep focused throughout the duration of this chapter’s composition.

Now, don’t think that I ignored Chapter 3 today. I went through 15 pages of the draft to check for consistency, coherence, and a bit of proofreading. I hope to make it all the way through that process this week, and next week I’ll make sure that the revised bibliography is compiled and ready for submission. I also managed to tidy up some of the language. Sometimes, I tend to use a very strangled sentence structure. I comfort myself with the thought that I’ve learned to recognize this and, if I can’t prevent it, at least I can fix them.

Tomorrow will be more of the same. If I keep up this 1,000 words a day pace, I should be able to churn out this fourth chapter by the end of the summer (if I’m really lucky, possibly even July). It finally feels like I’m making the progress that I need to keep the inspiration intact.

I have a good feeling about tomorrow. I’ll meet my goals, and I’ll be one step closer to finishing this chapter.

And that, my friends, is a good feeling.

Dissertation Days (25): A New Day, A New Chapter 4

In between the chaos of moving and travel (I’m about ready to set off for another round tomorrow), I managed to squeeze in a little work time today. Since I’d rather hit a wall with Chapter 4 as it was, I started a new version, one which really, consciously sets out to be the version I want to submit at the end of July.

To that end, I only managed to write 500 words today, but I’m pretty happy with them. I managed to bring together everything I wanted to argue in this chapter, in a way that’s more coherent than I’ve managed to attain so far. As I’ve said before, I want to focus on what I’m calling “imperial melancholia,” a yearning for a form of political stability that seems to always exist frustratingly out of reach, perpetually tantalizing with the possibility that it might be brought into fruition.

A lot of my thinking on this has been shaped by recent reading I’ve been doing on the role of spectacle in the way that film works, as well as my most recent reading research, a history of the Cleopatra icon by the British author Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Spectacle, to me, has always been frustratingly vaguely defined, and one of the things I hope to do in this chapter is to tease out the sort of meanings inherent in this oft-used cinematic expression. It is all part of my redemptive critique of the epic, my attempt to take it seriously as a means of engaging with the larger questions posed by modern (and ancient) history.

Once I return to my normal work schedule, I’m really hoping to get back into my old habit of writing 1,000 words a day, especially since I want to have a really strong draft of this ready for submission to the adviser by the end of July. If I can do that, and if I can get Chapter 3 and 4 approved by the very early Fall by pretty much everyone, I’ll feel like a great deal of pressure has been lifted off me. It’s a tall order, but I think I can do it.

I’ll be hitting the road for yet more traveling tomorrow and throughout the weekend into the early part of next week, so don’t expect any updates from me until then. After that, though, I should be able to get back into the swing of things.

Onward.

Dissertation Days (24): Chapter 4

So, today was the first day in quite a while that I didn’t work on Chapter 3 at all, but instead focused my energies on Chapter 4.

I have to say, all of that effort paid off. I managed to get 500 good words, and I think I am edging closer to a fully-fleshed argument. If you know how irritated I have been with this Chapter and how much I have struggled to put together a coherent argument that fits in with what I have been doing in the other chapters of the Dissertation, you no doubt know why this would be such a big deal.

As I mentioned yesterday, that essay from Tom Brown has proven to be extremely helpful in enabling me to make a compelling argument about these films. I have to say, the core of this chapter–the emphasis on empire–is a bit of a holdover from the very earliest concepts of this dissertation as a whole, but I do think that it has something in it that fits with how the project has taken shape.

If I’m being completely honest, this is the chapter that I’ve been dreading the most. I’ve done a lot of research, and there is still a lot to do, but I’m gradually clawing and groping my way toward a conclusive set of arguments.

While I’m still uncertain whether my set of claims about Anthony Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire really make a substantial contribution to the understanding of the film, I do think that what I have to say about Cleopatra is useful. Like The Bible: In the Beginning, the film has suffered from a really extensive study from a film studies perspective, still less from a textured historicist analysis. That’s basically what I hope to provide in this chapter, since I believe that the film deserves more critical appreciation than it has largely achieved, either in mainstream of scholarly film criticism.

I’m getting ready for another bout of travel, so my updates will be rather sporadic. Sunday will probably be the next day that I get a chance to really work on the dissertation, but even so, I’m sure the project will not be far from my mind. It never really is.

Once I’m able to settle down for a bit (in about a week and a half), it’ll be a real crunch time.

I can do this.

I can.