One of the most difficult challenges I faced during the beginning of the dissertation process was figuring out how to write a chapter. How does it differ from a seminar paper? Are there specific elements or sections I need to include? How do I know when I am done? After finishing full drafts of my first two chapters (finally!), I feel ready now to offer some brief reflections on this process.
Although I had read beautifully written critical and theoretical texts before, sitting down to write my own chapter was still a daunting experience because I have only ever been familiar with the form of seminar papers. The essays I wrote for class, with its specific thesis statement, often focusing on a single literary text, did not prepare me for writing a chapter that is just a piece of a larger project. For me, grappling with this new form also meant learning how to let go of my own desires to produce a perfect whole, a neat and contained document. I had to move between the arguments I wanted to pose in a specific chapter and the over-arching research questions that animate my dissertation project. I had to constantly remind myself that a chapter is just one attempt at getting at these larger questions without necessarily having to answer them in full; the following chapters would provide other opportunities and angles for returning to and approaching these questions differently.
When I first started writing, I had a sense of the various elements I needed to include in a chapter: a section on historical and theoretical context, another on methodology, sections for readings of specific literary texts, and of course an introduction and conclusion that frames my argument and gestures towards previous and/or subsequent chapters. To a certain extent, all of these different sections are necessary (depending, of course, on your project), but after being in the thick of chapter writing I have learned that identifying these sections is the easy part. Deciding on how to frame and organize your chapter, the particular arrangement of these different sections, is the real challenge because, for this, there can be no easy formula.
I realized (gradually and painfully) that the structure of each chapter depends on the questions I raise and the arguments I want to make; in this way, form and content are inextricably intertwined. Since my project deals with questions about knowledge production, I knew that the way I choose to present my research questions, claims, and analyses matters for communicating my critique of institutional racism and imagining possibilities for social justice. I spent long hours thinking about just the right framing and organization, which was the most difficult part of the writing process. I had to learn how to be okay with radically shifting the structure of my chapter, with letting go of huge chunks of text that I agonized over, but knew deep down simply did not work.
I also learned in the shift to writing chapter two that the form of one chapter would not necessarily fit another. Structurally, the two chapters I have written are very different. For the first, I had to accept that my readings of the two primary texts (Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange and Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe) could not be neatly divided into discrete halves. Realizing that what interested me was how these texts speak to and with each other meant figuring out how to interweave them throughout the chapter, while also keeping a sense of the distinct quality of the fictional worlds of these novels. For my second chapter, the range of materials I wanted to incorporate, including archival research, literary works, and scholarly studies on the figure of the Asian coolie and the coolie trade, pushed me to engage formally with a collage aesthetic. Arranging the chapter through the multiple beginnings offered through the disparate materials that comprise a collage allowed me to attend to these different textual mediums and to explore how the practice of collage itself suggests an alternative critical practice for relating to archives and archival materials.
Writing these chapters was ultimately a process of discovery that allowed me to deepen my own understanding of the kind of critical and political work that I hope my dissertation can do. I want to end this post by emphasizing the pleasure of this process, of sitting with your thoughts and allowing them to guide the shape of your writing. This also leads me to the question about how you know when you’re done- it will be the feeling of satisfaction that comes not from answering your research questions fully or reaching a certain number of pages, but rather from the expression of a full thought. It is the feeling that you might be ready (at long last) to share your work with others, to receive feedback and suggestions about what is underdeveloped or missing, to see your ideas out there in the world.