It Takes as Long as It Takes

In Draft No. 4, John McPhee describes an important point about writing that he learned most pointedly shortly after beginning to write for The New Yorker. He learned this near the end of a serious of conversations with The New Yorker editor William Shawn. In these conversations, they were discussing – and editing – the first profile McPhee had published in the magazine. “After all those one-on-one sessions… – while The New Yorker hurtled toward its deadlines – I finally said in wonderment, ‘How can you afford to use so much time and go into so many things in such detail with just one writer when this whole enterprise is yours to keep together?’”

Shawn’s response: “It takes as long as it takes.”

Upon reading this, I was immediately transported to an experience near then end of my time in graduate school. At the beginning of what I assumed would be the year in which I finished my dissertation, I entered the job market. Fortunately for me, my advisor shared my confidence that I would have my degree in hand by the end of the year, and he said that in the letter he wrote for me. I made good progress on the dissertation during the year, receiving my advisor’s approval of each of the chapters I submitted. Things came to a head in mid-April, when I was offered a tenure-track position. When I received the offer, I was in the middle of writing the crucial chapter – the constructive chapter – of the dissertation. I set myself to the task.

I submitted the chapter to my advisor sometime toward the end of May. A week or so later, I received a note from him suggesting that we find a time to meet. Of course I was eager to get his response to my writing, and so set up the appointment at the earliest time that he had available.

But the conversation did not begin well. As I settled into a chair in his office, he sighed. And then: “What you’ve written here gives every indication that you fit your writing into the time you had available rather than taking the time you needed to write.” These somber words began what was perhaps the most painful three hours (literally!) of my academic career. We went through the chapter page by page. At one point: “Why do you have to write that way?!?? Why would anyone write that way?!??”

Obviously, I didn’t take as much time as I should have taken. But the lesson that occurred to me only several days later is that my advisor believed in taking the time that it takes to do the work he was committed to doing. I don’t know how long it took him to read the chapter and write the extensive notes he wrote about what he was reading. It must have been hours. I do know that he spent three hours discussing the chapter with me, and the feedback he gave me was crucial when I returned to the task. Or, as he might have said to himself as he sat down to read the chapter and, later as he prepared to meet with me, “It takes as long as it takes.”

And I contemplated how I was going to find the necessary time.

So I began my full-time teaching career without having finished my dissertation. Early in that academic year, I met with the Dean of the College. I proposed to her that I would like to focus on developing and teaching my courses during that year and return to the dissertation the following summer. “Is there any sense in which my being offered a contract for next year depends on my finishing the dissertation this year?”

“Yes,” she said rather bluntly. “I will give you a contract in March if your advisor assures me that you will finish the dissertation by June.”

Of course, my advisor had said the previous year that I would finish the dissertation at the end of that academic year. I called him to report what the Dean had told me. His response was immediate. “I will tell your Dean in March that you will complete the dissertation by June if you have completed the dissertation in March.”

It takes as long as it takes. And I’m happy to be able to say that I found the time that it took to write a dissertation that passed muster. My advisor and committee approved it in late February. And I received a contract for the following year. Even more importantly, I learned the importance of taking the time needed to complete a task rather than forcing work on the task into the time that I thought I had. I can’t say that I’ve always lived up to the maxim – after all, life presents many challenges that we don’t have time to meet as well as we would like – but I’ve worked really hard to make sufficient time for the tasks most important to me.