How Writing Fiction Has Helped Me Write My Dissertation

One of my personal trademarks is my love of undertaking lots of projects at once. My mother characterizes me as someone who loves to stay busy; once she said that if you take a normal person’s full workload and add about five things, that’s my sweet spot. There are a number of troubling ideas tied up in this conception of busy-ness: critiques of hustle culture, the unreasonable workload hefted onto the shoulders of junior scholars of color (specifically women of color) and the very real trope of the Black Superwoman come immediately to mind. There are so many factors that leave someone like me vulnerable to overwork and burnout. However, a combination of boundless energy fueled by anxiety and often hypomania, and a desire to keep myself motivated by pursuing a number of side passion projects helps keep me sane while I’m writing my dissertation.

I have a few different hobbies, including yoga and crafting, that offer respite in different ways, but the number one activity that keeps me ready to dissertate is, surprisingly, more writing.

Since passing my comprehensive exams last May, I’ve been focused on my prospectus and dissertation. Since that same date, I have also drafted two novels, several comic book scripts, and over half of a graphic novel project.

Researched dissertation and article writing uses a different set of muscles than fiction writing. For me, it’s the equivalent of reading for research and reading for fun (which is also something I make sure to do while dissertating). Either way, like various forms of exercise, it’s all still good for you. It keeps your mind well oiled and practiced.

Writing fiction is actually a great motivator for me to do my researched work. I often don’t let myself write any pages on my fiction project until I’ve hit a predetermined goal for my writing session (usually something like 250 words or 2 pages). And because I’m eager to write new pages, I’m more likely to get my work writing done before heading over to my other Scrivener projects. It’s a great break for when I want to write but I’m tired of my “scholar voice” and want to explore things in other ways.

It also helps me hone in on what I want to say in my dissertation and how I want to say it. One of the novels that I wrote and have worked on a lot since I first drafted it last year is, in a lot of ways, a fictional adaptation of many of the themes I’m exploring in my dissertation. Trying to convey those themes in a Young Adult novel requires thought exercises that help me be clear and concise about the idea I am trying to communicate in my dissertation. The likelihood that anyone outside of my committee will read my project is slim, but these ideas are still important to me, so I slip them into my novel. Writing on (at least) two different projects helps me think through who my audience is for my work– all the variations of it.

I think this is particularly important to me as a scholar who writes about Black girls (and women). I want to talk to us. I want to use my words to reach somebody. And I know that my scholarship– my manuscripts and peer reviewed articles– may not be the work that gets to who I want to be in conversation with. But it might be my novels. Perhaps a blog post. Maybe the articles I manage to write when I have the time.

Then, practically speaking, writing fiction reminds me that my whole life isn’t my dissertation. It helps me keep things in perspective. My dissertation is not, will not, be my magnum opus. I am much more than these few hundred pages that I will produce as a representation for this sliver of time in my life when I was deeply invested in chasing this one particular set of questions. I will write other things. I will love writing other things. There’s so much more to explore than what will go between the covers of this project.

There are so many reasons why this works for me. I could write about how it’s a salve for my soul. I could write about how fiction saves me. But ultimately, I do this because I can’t not.

When I was a first year in my grad program, Edwidge Danticat came to campus and someone asked her why she wrote. She replied simply, “I can’t not.” Nic Stone recently said something similar on an Instagram Live video.

I write all of these things because I can’t imagine living with all of these stories inside of me, just carrying around from place to place. Wouldn’t they get heavy? No, I have to write mine down to make space for the new ones, and then one day, I will write those, too.

I can’t control how my ideas come out of my head and make their way onto paper. I’m just grateful I have the tools to work with them and help them find the form they need to thrive.

Dissertation Check-In #2: Motivation

I’m unsure if it was the pandemic or just how I was feeling, but the other day, I was daydreaming about what would happen if I just didn’t finish my dissertation. It had been days, weeks, since I’d touched it meaningfully. Ultimately, I knew it would be fine if I didn’t finish. The world wouldn’t stop and I would eventually find some sort of job. To no one’s surprise, images of myself with a stack of novels–ones that I had written–danced through my mind. I could just step out on faith and pursue writing novels full time. The thought of infinite time, uninterrupted by dissertation work, to write the stories on my heart was tantalizing.

But as quickly as the moment came, it was gone, and I was back working on the conclusion for a chapter as if the events of the previous couple of weeks had been a bad fever dream. (Which admittedly, they kind of were.)

Earlier in the week, I watched two panels featuring Black women authors speaking on their forthcoming, and, in some cases, recently published YA fantasy novels on Black Girls Create. They made me think about the future of Black girls in fantasy, and how bright it was. The feeling sustained me for days, though I didn’t immediately write about it. It gave me a reason to reaffirm why I was even doing this dissertation project.

So I pulled out my dissertation journal, flipping to a blank page, and wrote at the top:

“Motivation Prompt:

Who are you writing this dissertation for?

Why are you writing this dissertation?

Why does it matter?”

In theory and in practice, you should know the answers to these questions. It’s what your chair and committee will ask of you before you even embark on your project. This means, you probably have a rehearsed answer. You probably have what we may think of as “the right” answer.

I needed to give myself permission to answer these questions openly and honestly, without judgment or expectation, because if I didn’t have a good answer, it would have been time for me to make some major reevaluations.

To my surprise, as I sat with the questions I had posed myself, answers–and not the ones I’d been rehearsing for months– sprung forth.

Who are you writing this dissertation for?

Me. 

Yes, I was also writing this for all the Black girls who fly and the Black women who write them, but at the core, I was writing for me. For present me, who couldn’t imagine writing anything else; for future me, who would be extremely disappointed if I don’t give the world this piece of myself; and for past me, who would have been awe-struck to see how many Black girls fly these days.

Especially for little me, whose grandfather always greeted me with, “What you got? That Harry Potter?” when he saw me approach his and my grandma’s house, toting a book and pushing my glasses back up my nose.

She would have been so overjoyed to see that I still believe in magic.

Why are you writing this dissertation? 

How could I not?

What else would I write about?

What else moves me like this?

And also why not?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about our now ancestor, Cheryl Wall, and the photographs that other Black women scholars and writers have been sharing on social media of themselves with her. I love looking at those pictures, because they often are groups of Black women scholars and writers, lots of love connections in one image. When you look closely, you see that they are of all disciplines– literary theorists, anthropologists and poets… and they all know each other, love on each other, read each others’ words, are inspired by them, and work with them. It’s more than citational politics, this community of creation that Black women have fostered gives them infinite opportunities to be seen and known.

I want to be a part of that practice and lineage.

It also made me realize that I’m already doing some of that work. It’s what Micah and I have found in each other as we build off of each other’s work, getting inspired by each other’s words, finding peace and solace in the other’s worlds.

Some might think it’s self-indulgent to write about a good friend’s work; but this is how Black women writers and scholars have begun to build scholarly and personal community.

This is a love practice.

How could you see that in what is possible in your work and not want to be a part?

Why does it matter? 

Because Black women and girls matter. 

There was a moment where I realized the justification didn’t necessarily need to be much deeper than that. If we love and care about Black women and girls, we need to love the work that’s on their souls.

This is how I’m loving on Black women and girls. This is the work that’s on my soul.

This is the story I want to tell right now. 


If you get stuck writing your dissertation, I recommend giving yourself permission and time to sit with these questions, or your own, and see what’s on your heart. Let it motivate you. And write it down, so that when you lose sight of what’s important, you can return to the core of your inquiry whenever you need it.

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