Although the dissertation itself was an agonizing ordeal, I miss my dissertation director terribly. Getting to know her was one of the best things about my decade in academia. It'll be good to see her tomorrow--it's been too long. Two years? Maybe three. While most of my other professors were feeding me fear, she said, "Of course you should go out on a limb. That's where the sweet fruit grows." When many people who meant well were telling me I had gone too far not to finish the Ph.D., and that I had no choice but to trudge to the end, she reminded me that I was free, and that she would far rather see me happy and out than finished and miserable. Is anything more paralyzing than the belief that your own desires no longer matter? Within a year of owning the choice to stay, I had the degree in hand. Whereas most professors in our department abandoned their graduate students at the dissertation stage, she pinned a note to the door of her home library that said, "Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch to Wrythe" once she realized that I'd taken a wrong turn in my research while she was out of the country, and she never again left me waiting for feedback on my chapters.
After she'd invested her time, attention, and reputation in me for ten years, I confessed to her that all I really wanted in the world was to leave academia and write genre fiction. For ten years, I had lived as a prisoner of my own not-quite-accomplished prestige, and of other people's fears on my behalf. Finally it had become clear to me that it would be far better to work as a barista at Starbucks for the rest of my days, and be free to go home and write books I believed in, than that I should press on for tenure by writing books that I didn't believe in.
And she gave me her blessing. Literally. In so many words. Her blessing.
What I'm dreading about tomorrow is that, although I know I made the right decision, I have not one professional sale to my name, three years after leaving my former field. I feel like I ought to have slain the dragon by now, that I should have a big dragon carcass to haul in as my trophy. Not for Alicia, but for all those other department people who won't get it. Because I haven't proved myself by getting a tenure-track gig somewhere, I'm a nobody in that world. I can't honestly say I'm somebody anywhere else.
She won't care about that. And sporos is coming down from New England with his fancy tenure-track respectability to speak at the conference--it'll be good to see him in the glory he has always deserved. Some people really are meant to be literary critics. I just turned out not to be one of them.
The dissertation took me five years. It weighs in at roughly 100,000 words, I think. Yet I'm more proud of the 25K novella I wrote in three months than I am of the dissertation. There probably isn't a way to say that out loud tomorrow that doesn't devalue what my director gave me, or that doesn't provoke defensiveness in my former colleagues, or sound defensive on my part. But it's true.