The Writer & The Narrative of Progress

Two of my favorite writers — Tolstoy and Dostoevsky — wrote what academics like to call “processional” journals/diaries. In the pages of such a processional book the writer brainstorms and plans out any longish piece of prose. Composing in such a journal/diary could either be in advance or in the process of writing a novel or a memoir.

I write every day in a journal, and have done so since around 1985. A good portion of those pages have dealt with process issues of one kind or another. While I didn’t dedicate a specific book or journal to process (I tended to write of process in journals, on scraps of paper, on Web logs or anything else at hand), it should probably be so. Similar to anything else, should you in the future need to find a note of some kind if you’ve dedicated one kind of book for your process notes then looking up any issue of process could be relatively easy to find. My system often means most if not all of my process notes get lost in the shuffle.

Today, I found this page (below) tucked inside an old book. It’s a bit of processional writing as I was grappling with how to write my doctoral dissertation — a creative manuscript, a memoir. Finding the ephemera was like a scholar finding some apocryphal treatise or torn pages from another source; it’s enlightening and rather fascinating.

It just so happens I have dedicated this year to revising the dissertation. A dissertation is not a book, let alone a publishing title generally. Dissertations are for doctoral committees to pursue and examine candidate qualities. Dissertations are not for general readers. So, this year I’ve decided to take the dissertation apart and work it into some kind of book. The processional notes might help, but they might not.

Interesting story. TS Eliot (below) got his doctorate from Harvard entering the university in 1906. He studied there, but also at the Sorbonne and Oxford, and completed his dissertation on Neo-Idealist F. H. Bradley in 1916 or thereabouts. Some years after convocation, the story goes, Eliot was said to have re-read his doctoral dissertation and commented that he couldn’t understand it anymore. Sheepishly, there are parts of my own dissertation where I could say the same.

Such are the joys and pitfalls of creating a dissertation. Processional notes might help and for the writer out there working on those long, long novels, I would add — a must.

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