m a r g i n a l i a

notes from a creative writing PhD candidate

on reading for phd comprehensive exams

“The PhD is the best gift you will ever give yourself.”

Author Roxane Gay gave us–a group of fangirling, bushy-tailed creative writing PhD candidates–this tiny morsel of encouragement last year during a craft class at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She followed the hour-long talk with an unforgettable reading, hosted by MU’s English Department. My tongue tripped over the words in my mouth when I introduced myself; I don’t recall what I said to her, but I do recall being incredibly nervous to be so close to one of my favorite nonfiction writers, my paperback copy of her essays fanning my sweaty face. She signed my book, “Traci: embrace your Bad Feminist.”

The PhD hasn’t been easy for me. I don’t say that in a flippant, silly way–of course the degree is going to be incredibly challenging, as it should; but I have had a difficult two years in my personal life (and so has my university and my program–I’m certain many of you have followed the news about MU’s campus riots, graduate students’ efforts to unionize, and the millions of dollars of cut funding and jobs lost in the last few months). I’ll be frank here, and will reveal more as my comps reading progresses and I can get out of my year-long blogging hiatus funk: after years of struggling with crippling anxiety and stress, with completing PhD-level work, sticking to deadlines, and turbulent, emotional roller coasters that negatively affected my life and the lives of those closest to me,  I was diagnosed with a cognitive disability. Finally! I thought. This makes so much sense. What took so damn long? It was a relief, and also a shock. Months later, I still waver somewhere between pride and embarrassment, openness and shame, about my diagnosis. I am now on the correct medication, in CBT, and have been more productive–and confident–than I have been in years.

Why am I going on about my two-year travails? The reason is this: My struggles with focus, mood, and maintaining relationships have drastically shaped my studies and academic interests as a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction Writing. My advisor nailed it when she said, “Traci, your problem isn’t that you are unmotivated or unprepared; the problem is that you’re interested in too many things.” My approach to the dissertation and comprehensive exams was scattered, to put it mildly; I had no freaking idea what I wanted to research for the next three years because, frankly, everything seemed “so perfect” and “so unique” (durr! English professor) and “so compelling.” Finally, my advisor and I arrived at a handful of topics that I can whittle down for my comprehensive exams, which I’ll take in May 2018. My focal points: Disability Studies; Women and Gender Studies; and Writing from Life. I’m “so interested” in a million things, but women’s narratives (specifically those that deal with the body, illness, (in)ability, memory and the loss of memory) captivate me. My comps list spans four centuries and does include men (Montaigne, Rosseau, Thoreau), but the majority of writers are women. And I like it that way.

I started my comps reading today with Roxane Gay’s 2017 memoir Hunger: A Memoir of (My) BodyI’m only 40 pages in and I love, love, love it. Beautiful and honest and staggering and relatable in the saddest of ways.

A colleague of mine told me that when she studied for her comps, she made a private blog and after she finished each book on her list, she wrote up a post to remind herself of the main characters/points/themes in the text. When it came time for the exam, she was able to read through her “notes” and put the big, overarching ideas together between some 120+ books. That’s what I plan on doing here, but in a public form; I’ve missed blogging, and it’s an ideal way to make sure I am writing regularly (something I, uh, well…I don’t write every day, and I really should).

My post on Gay’s Hunger will be up shortly, followed by a review of the graphic memoir Embroideries, by Marjane Satrapi, author of the bestselling Persepolis. Yeah. My comps list is pretty killer.

Here’s to a year of reading and writing my ass off. Cheers!





2 comments on “on reading for phd comprehensive exams

  1. santosomatic22
    July 21, 2017

    Lack of focus is always a problem for me, especially now that I’m technically pursuing a social “sciences” degree (i.e. MA in Communications), and my professors continue to exhort me to choose a precise thesis and go with it.

    But there’s so much out there, in the great wide world, to explore and connect. Even the choice to study Communications was somewhat arbitrary; like you, I too, have too many interests.

    This may sound strange, but congrats on your diagnosis! There is nothing more frustrating than knowing–feeling in your gut that something is amiss–and not being able to call the thing by its name, or explore your options for getting better, or even knowing that there is better waiting for you. It’s a tremendous leap, and it sounds like one that might very well catalyze your reading/writing efforts.


    *Andrea Menendez*JHU MA in Communications Candidate, Spring 2018 Marketing professional. DIY dilettante. Word nerd.

    On Thu, Jul 20, 2017 at 5:47 PM, m a r g i n a l i a wrote:

    > traci posted: “”The PhD is the best gift you will ever give yourself.” > Author Roxane Gay gave us–a group of fangirling, bushy-tailed creative > writing PhD candidates–this tiny morsel of encouragement last year during > a craft class at the University of Missouri-Columbi” >

    • traci
      July 21, 2017

      Andrea! Thanks so much for reading, and for your comment. Do you have a general idea for your MA thesis?

      Now that I’m on the right medication–one pill, once a day, not this prescription cocktail that was continually being toyed with every few months–life is so, so much better. And now that I can, as you say, “call the thing by its name,” I’ve found other people who were also diagnosed with cognitive disabilities later in life (one of them is on my PhD committee, actually, and just wrote a book about his experience–I’ll do a review of his memoir soon, since it’s on my comps list).

      I hope we get to meet up when I’m in D.C. between August 7th-9th! (I’ll be back in the metro area again for a week in November, so if our meet-up doesn’t happen on this trip, it will on the next.) 😉

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