Category Archives: writing

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.

*

 

Why The World (Still) Needs Lois Lane, 2020

I was depressed the summer I decided I was going to watch Smallville all the way through, from beginning to end. Spring semester 2014 had been the culmination of my descent into the darkest parts of my mind. I stopped eating and leaving my room; the one time I did, I ended up sobbing on the floor in the Outreach Office of Admission. I cried for so long that by the time I could be persuaded to accept a ride back to my dorm and got back, I was greeted by a squad of cop cars and police officers who were preparing to take me to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.

My therapist and psychiatrist had both firmly suggested I take a medical leave for the rest of the semester after that. I cried and laid in bed with the lights out, exhausted, for the rest of the semester, but I didn’t leave. At least, not until my courses were officially over and my exams were done. Not having been in the presence of mind to apply for summer internships or programs, I returned to my parents’. I received a letter later that summer which stated that I had made the Dean’s List. It came around the time I had wandered out of the house, with the vague idea that I might lay down on the train tracks less than a mile away. This was all before I had a panic attack so bad I was hospitalized.

After months of the endless panic and emptiness that plagued me during the day and the sleep paralysis which haunted me at night, I felt I needed to do something, anything to occupy my mind. My irregular visits to the library for comics had led me to Smallville. Browsing the small graphic novel collection in my library reminded me of someone– someone I had loved for a very long time and who had, incidentally, told me for years that I would love Smallville.

Fine, I thought, half to myself and half to him, that afternoon when I returned home and pulled up the pilot episode on my laptop, you win.

For the rest of that summer, I binge-watched Smallville. It didn’t take me long to fall in love. Between Clark Kent’s puppy dog eyes, the angsty 2000s rock soundtrack, and my adoration for seeing characters I had met in the pages of my beloved comic books on screen, I was hooked. I knew Smallville’s characters as if they were my own friends and I loved them all.

But I especially loved Lois Lane.

Lois, I felt, was far superior to Lana and her relationship to Chloe was a perfectly executed character introduction. Lana Lang was the dictionary definition of a damsel in distress. She was weak, defenseless– a liability. And yet with a flip of her hair, she could make Clark Kent’s eyes glaze over.

I had always imagined the root of my distaste for Lana could be boiled down to my fierce love of Lois, and by extension Lois and Clark. I had a similar feeling when I watched The Vampire Diaries’ Elena fall into a seemingly endless number of dangerous situations, only to have Stefan, Damon or both save her. Fans doted over Elena, who in my mind couldn’t hold her own, and passed over much better characters (read: Bonnie Bennett). Perhaps it was simply my inclination as a fan; but that explanation never satisfied me.

The next fall when I returned to school, I found myself drawn back in a theater for the first time since my sophomore year of high school and when I emerged, I had a new set of friends. We were bonded together as if by an indestructible golden thread, and some among us were closer than others, including me and K. I had never imagined we would be friends, K and I, because for a long time, I had disliked her.

She was about my height and we were both plus sized girls. We were both smart and outspoken and involved in many of the same organizations as first years. We were matched in every way and yet she somehow still managed to be better at everything. She sang like an angel and I had not gotten a call back for a single a cappella group. She stood at Harambee when we honored those with impeccable GPAs from first semester; a former straight-A student, I barely hid my sulk. I heard the whispers of boys who wanted to date her but knew they didn’t stand a chance.

No, I didn’t dislike her; I was jealous of her.

When I went back to watch Smallville a few years into our friendship, I didn’t see Lana. I saw K. I saw a girl who everyone liked, who was good at everything, who got the guy. She was everything I wasn’t. Comparison, the saying goes, is the thief of joy; and yet I watched Smallville and realized I was sizing myself up next to Lana.

This rewatch, I discovered different gems. This time, I realized that though Clark’s Lana chapter and his Lois chapter overlapped, that didn’t bother the girls. Lois, and Lana, seemed to know that they could both be important to him, for different reasons and in different ways. They were never catty; they peacefully coexisted. Lois was never jealous of Lana to the point of disliking her. In fact, Lois always seemed to respect Lana. It was almost if Lois could see Lana through Clark’s eyes; if Clark saw something in Lana, then she must be something special. Lois was always self-confident enough to not be insecure about Lana, because she knew there could only ever be one Lois Lane.

K and I never competed for anyone’s affections. The only person who was keeping score was me. Lois taught me how to let go of my insecurities.

And I listened.

Chloe Sullivan, on the other hand, was the version of myself I had left behind.

I remember my disappointment in summer 2014 when I realized I would have to watch three entire seasons before I got even a glimpse of Lois Lane on Smallville. I was even more disappointed when I was confronted with Chloe Sullivan, one of Clark’s best friends, who appeared, at first glance, to be a half-baked version of Lois, meant to tide over viewers until showrunners were ready to introduce the infamous LL.

But there was something familiar in the way Chloe looked at Clark. Her feelings for him stirred up the ghosts of my own from long ago. I cried when she wrote a letter to him in Season 2: “I’m the girl of your dreams masquerading as your best friend.” I knew that feeling intimately. I, too, had harbored feelings for more than one best friend long past their expiration date. I held onto them for so long they started to define me.

It was why I felt for Chloe. It would be six seasons before there was even a glimmer of hope that she would move on and realize that Clark simply would never look at her the way she wanted him to. In spite of everything that she had going for her– she was cute, smart, resourceful, loyal, empathetic and loving– her torch for Clark Kent would be what defined her.

Like Chloe, I had a tendency to put everyone and everything before myself. In many ways, it wasn’t even our unrequited loves that broke our hearts. Our expectations made us responsible for the mess.

I didn’t want to be defined by the school girl crush on the captain of the JV football team that I continued to nurse for no reason other than it was familiar.

And so I imagined who I wanted to be.

It was easy. I wanted to be like Lois. She was the person I was before the break, who I was at my core– the person I wanted to make my way back to. She was who I wanted to be. Lois was brash and honest and had an eye that knew how to cut through a lie. You could tell she had a spine of iron and grip of steel. She was a natural disaster, a hurricane who defied labels, and orderly Clark Kent both hated and loved the way she blew through his life.

I loved people who saw me as a hurricane– intense, immovable, and inevitable. Beautiful and dangerous, powerful and hand-crafted by God.

In the same way which a storm like that cannot disguise itself as anything else, Lois is unapologetic and insistent about who she is. She cannot change, and why would she?

There’s a core to the character of Lois Lane that has been stable over time, amid her various iterations: she has been ambitious, driven, and justice-oriented. Those are no small personality traits. They are character defining. And it’s this strength of character that brings Clark Kent and Superman back to Lois time and time again.

It is possible to love a hurricane.

Lois is how I made my way back to myself. That summer, and for a long time before, the parts of myself that I had loved– my conviction, my unconditional love, my creativity– were suffocated by the jagged edges of the broken person I was at that moment. But there were moments when bits of my beloved character shined through the mess, glowing weakly, but strong enough to remind me that it was still there. It was those parts of myself that Lois spoke to. She seemed to help those pieces glow a little stronger. I was able to hang onto their shine a little longer. She was how I started to make my way back to myself over the course of ten seasons.

Truthfully, Lois led me to something better. She and Smallville showed me mirrors, representations of my life. Some truths were easier to see than others. Some took more time to digest.

I clung to Lois because she reminded me of who I was and taught me how to be brave again. Lois was a fighter; I almost walked away from my fight.

I’m not sure that I knew it then, when I first sat down to watch Smallville that hot summer in 2014 or when I wrote “Why the World Needs Lois Lane” in 2016, but I know it now: Lois Lane saved my life.

And that’s why I still need her, after all this time.