A few years ago, when I decided to pursue my PhD in history, I quieted my inner voice whispering to me, "But what about your fiction writing?" I'd always wanted to earn my PhD, and I figured I'd have time to work full time, write my novels, and go to class part-time.
Oh poor, sweet Melissa.
I've always tended to bite off more than I can chew, and as a result, that's one of the reasons I developed the chronic illnesses that I have by putting myself through far more stress than necessary (of course, an abusive marriage and 18 yrs of trauma had more to do with it than anything).
With time, perhaps I'm finally getting wiser (and older, of course).
The first year of grad school went fairly well. I took one class a semester, continued to work full time, and even managed to finally, finally finish a novel I'd been working on since my divorce five years before. But my health continued to decline. I figured I could still keep up the pace.
The class I took for the fall 2022 semester challenged me in ways I hadn't bargained on, and it took up much of my time. I was so focused on writing a paper for this course that I had no time to devote to my novel. And boy, did I miss it.
About a month before the end of the semester, I began having serious doubts about my ability to continue in the program. I had to have a hard conversation with myself. With the limited energy you have due to your chronic health problems, how do you want to spend your time?
I took my question to Twitter, and one person's response really jumped out at me. They said, "In ten years, would you rather see your diploma on the wall with those three letters - PhD - behind your name, or a shelf full of your published novels?"
Put that way, there was no question about it. I wanted that shelf of published novels.
Fiction has always been my first love. But I also love history. That's why I write historical fiction. Studying history and being an academic historian is another kettle of fish altogether. It's a different type of writing, a different way of thinking. Because of the cognitive issues associated with ME/CFS, it took an immense amount of concentration and brain power to focus on my classwork, leaving no time for fiction.
I asked myself some other questions. Did I really need the PhD to be a historian? No. I've already published two history books and given talks. Did I need the PhD to advance my career? Well, that depends on what career I want - and what career I can have with my limitations. Short answer? No, I don't. I never had any plans to teach or go into academia. And another important question: if I didn't have free tuition through my employment with the university, would I have taken out student loans or applied for funding for the program? Again, no.
But the real question I had to ask myself, the most important question, was this: what brings you the most joy? Writing fiction or studying history?
The answer, of course, was writing fiction. That is where my passion lies.
I decided to give myself some more time to ponder my decision before notifying my advisor, and so I took dissertation hours this semester. But really, I was only prolonging the inevitable.
Last week, I told my advisor that I was withdrawing from the PhD program effective at the end of May.
These past two months, I've been focusing on my new novel, and it's been a relief not to have to worry about going to class, or having to worry about finishing an assignment. Sure, I miss classroom discussions and my fellow students. But in the end, this was the best choice for me.
I need to put my health first, and make myself a priority. That's hard for me to do. I spent years putting others ahead of me: my now-ex-husband, my kids, my job, etc. And I paid for it.
Now? I'm taking care of me.