Wrap it up!

My husband has been working on his dissertation for years and now I'm supporting him while he doesn't finish it. Help!


Cary Tennis
July 8, 2004 11:54PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I am a 34-year-old woman married to a man 20 years older than me. We have been married two years and dated for seven years before that. When we met, he had just begun coursework for his Ph.D. in English literature. His decision to interrupt his life and go back to school was a big one. After two years, he decided to take a leave of absence from the program and move back to his hometown to take care of some family responsibilities. This lasted three years, during which he completed his oral examinations for his doctorate and worked full time teaching. Our long-distance relationship survived.

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Three years ago we decided to get married, giving ourselves a one-year engagement. We finally committed to being in the same place and he moved to New York, where I had been living and where we remain today. During the engagement he was working on his doctoral dissertation full time. My salary was enough to support us, and we thought the dissertation would be done before our marriage.

That was not the case. My husband is a brilliant scholar, but a painfully slow writer. After one year of working full time on the dissertation, he realized that the isolation of working at home alone was depressing, so he started teaching two classes as an adjunct. This was beneficial to his mental well-being, but not to getting the work done. Since then, he has not taught some semesters in order to write full time, and taught other semesters in order to not rely on me for spending money and also to keep in the professional loop. The dissertation is still not done.

Every summer he gives himself deadlines that he doesn't meet and makes promises to me about its completion that he doesn't keep. He had been taking medication for depression, but that made him feel too lethargic with no adrenaline to put in long days of writing. This is supposed to be the summer that it finally gets done. His advisors are growing impatient. And he is not getting any younger. Without that degree in his hand, he has not been able to secure a full-time tenure-track job, despite literally dozens of applications sent out over the past two years.

I am at my wits' end. Last summer I tried threatening him (though of course the summer came and went and I did nothing when it wasn't finished). This summer I am bribing him with the promise of a vacation that he has always wanted to take if he gets it done. He has 250 pages written and people are telling him that it he should just "wrap it up" and be done with it. But he insists that the topic is large and that he hasn't covered it thoroughly yet. You should know that when his advisors do read his material, they heap praise on his writing and his work. One esteemed professor said that his dissertation so far is among the best he has ever read by any doctoral student and believes that it is the foundation for a solid academic book in the future (can you imagine how long that will take to write?!).

Can you give me any advice, Cary? I am tired of this elephant in our living room. I am tired of being the primary breadwinner. I am tired of coming home and seeing that he decided to paint the bookshelf when he should be writing. I am tired of being embarrassed about it not being done when friends ask when it will be done. I want to banish him to his brother's house until he finishes, but I feel strongly about the commitment I made to him. Emotionally, I am at the end of my rope about this. I have lost my patience.

What should I do?? Please give me a few lines of your frankest advice.

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Wrap It Up, for God's Sake

Dear Wrap It Up,

One writes a dissertation to advance in academic rank. It might become a book later. But for now, it's an academic performance intended to demonstrate a certain competence. So if he truly wants to advance in his career, and if he's clear about the purpose of the dissertation, it would be reasonable for him to wrap it up.

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Ha! As if scholarship were not a form of madness! As if every dissertation writer does not secretly dream that he is creating a work of literary genius! As if the hungry heart of the artist does not find in every tortured phrase a song to sing!

While a dissertation is not a book, it is a serious, formidable act of writing, and the tortures of writing are such that only the person doing it knows when he is done. So until he reaches a point where it is more painful to keep revising and researching than it is to finish, until a craving for the trophy of completion outweighs his dream of posterity's regard, until his secret claim on future glory fades in the light of clear and present misery, it sounds like he's just going to keep on writing and revising -- unless he can come to see that he truly has mistaken a professional task for an artistic one, and all his artistic dreams are not to the point.

Lord knows I sympathize. But he's the one who has to make the choice to call it finished and hand it in. Meanwhile, what do you do? Aside from pointing out to him what I have just mentioned, what can you do? Is there any way you can make peace with it while you wait? Can you see its humorous side, that you married into a dark comedy, that you woke up in a Woody Allen movie? Maybe you have a friend, a good, intelligent, sophisticated friend, whose husband took 10 years to write a recipe for goulash, and you can laugh about this with her.

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I know what it's like when my wife comes home and finds I've dug a big hole in the yard instead of working on my book. But she also knows there is a rhythm to this, that the mind, having been plowed, in turn seeks to plow the earth for a while, to get something back, to fertilize itself. It always takes longer than you expect.

And, as if to prove that point, what have I just done? I have just spent far too many hours on this simple response to you, writing long and cutting, writing long and cutting, as though what I were doing weren't just the handing out of advice but something deeper, more demanding and profound. You should see all the prose I threw out! What a fool I am! Give me your husband's phone number! We must go fishing together!

By the way, have you seen "Barton Fink"?

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Cary Tennis

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