So much of graduate school is about reading. Books, journals, blogs, papers, a never ending stream of information. Incredible information. Mind opening, challenging, brilliantly crafted information. At times it feels like sliding up a hill at a breakneck pace, climbing higher and higher, totally disoriented as the ground falls away beneath you, giving perspective you never knew was possible. How could you know? Each new piece you read (well, the good ones at least) piles on top of previous work, changing the face of the hill, pushing it even higher, its peak beyond the clouds, to the point that you aren’t entirely sure that there is a summit at all. Its incredibly disorienting. Then, someone shoves a pen (or a laptop) into your hand and says, “Ok, write something new.” The pace does not slow down, the trees are zipping by, and the ground continues to glide by defying gravity. Who am I to say something new? Have you read this stuff? Are you aware of how smart people are in this world? How clear their thinking is? How much more there is that I have never read, never considered, can’t even begin to consider?
We take snapshots to remember moments in time, to mark the passing of time. We reminisce with those photographs, as they bring us back to the contexts, persons, feelings, relationships that filled those times. Or at least they bring us back to the residue of those moments, whatever it is that remains after time wears away detail, softens the edges. Memory patina. Photographs also force us to consider our mortality. Yeah. That’s heavy. That photo of me in 9th grade reminds me that someday, God willing, I will be an old man looking at a picture of me writing this dissertation. Then there will be days beyond that, at least for someone. Is writing itself any different? A bit. Writing is a static snapshot of a moment in time (perhaps a loooooong shutter time? certainly not a time-lapse, more of an overexposed motion blur). What does a photo communicate? Say I stuff a photo of C into a bottle and throw it in the ocean, then someone across the world finds it someday in the future, they will know nothing of him as a person, nothing of his life or times. But if I throw… say, my dissertation into a bottle in the ocean then someone somewhere could pick it up and, moving past the language barrier, could read it and gather something of my intention. The writing communicates for me. I won’t be there to speak for myself, to provide context, to offer insight. There are so many words floating around in the ocean (yeah, mixing mountain and ocean metaphors in one post). I sit here pulling a piece here, a piece there, trying to spin together the thread of a story that I was not there to experience. Then I will write my own words, my interpretation of my experience in the world, trying to weave that thread with my own into something, a life raft maybe? A flag to wave for a time? A rope to pull someone else to safety? A small corner of a tapestry? Or maybe just a knot, tied up neatly and thrown back into the ocean.
What do I have to say? Not much at the moment. Just these disjointed thoughts about writing as I try to write. These are not discouraging thoughts though, even the bit about photographs and mortality (believe it or not). I need to remember to be thankful we don’t have to hurtle up the mountain, or fish for words in the ocean alone. We aren’t just communicating with a hypothetical future moment, we are here in the moment together. That’s a pretty great feeling.