I have been Dr. Donald Earl Collins for almost half my life. (It will be exactly half my life on October 11 or October 12 of next year, a couple of months before my 53rd birthday.) Only a small handful of things have brought me more pain, failure, and momentary triumphs than earning the PhD during the 1996-97 school year. But while writing is a profession that pays, I am still paying off the debt I generated earning this degree, literally and figuratively. This debt is something I will not pass on. I hope my life has more meaning than earning this degree ever took away.
Friday morning, November 22, 1996, I checked my email just after getting out of bed. Since the beginning of that August, after banging out a full second draft of my dissertation, I knew. Since the end of that July, really, after spending eight hours combing every iteration of every chapter of my doctoral thesis for comments from my advisor I missed, I knew. Since my advisor’s one-page response three weeks later to my six-page memo detailing every change, revision, dressed-up lie, obfuscated statistic, and glossed-over fact, I knew. Really, it was moot on October 23, when my other two committee members both approved it and knew, too.
That Friday morning before Thanksgiving 1996, Professor Joe William Trotter, Jr. sent me a rare email, officially signing off on me becoming Dr. Collins with the words, “It is done.” It was anticlimactic, but it was also freeing at the same time. Yay, me, right?
Not so much. I was a month away from possibly leaving my PhD work behind. That was how much Trotter and the whole process of petty jealous and verbal abuse and threats had taken their toll. To know that my advisor did not support any endeavors to give my career a boost, including the Spencer Fellowship that I won despite his lukewarm letter on my behalf. To feel so betrayed that I felt solace dreaming of wrapping piano wire around his throat from behind and pulling until I spilled his blood and death occurred. It should have been a sign for moving on to something less soul-destroying. But I prayed. I persevered. I finished what I started.
And I lost the thread for why I started in the first place. I went to graduate school to become a writer with enough knowledge and authority in my expertise to not be challenged in whatever writing project I decided to take on post-PhD. Boy was I a naive, dumb-ass 21-year-old! I ruined my writing for more than a decade as a result of this path. It took me until my blog and Boy @ The Window to find my voice again, my true, authentic, uncopyable voice. By then, I was already fortysomething (or, really between 39 and 44 years old at this point). My doctoral degree was already more than a decade old.
If I could do it all over again, would I choose to relive what I have truly reviled as much as I have relished? No, no, no. You don’t need to have a PhD to be an excellent writer. You certainly do not need one to write in relative obscurity. I learned that from Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Martino in AP English in 1987. No. I probably would have earned a PhD in social psychology instead, with stints of working as a K-12 teacher and a freelance writer or journalist in between. That path would have been more fun — if not just as morbid — at least.
I can think of what pursuing a more direct path to writing and working would have done. It would’ve saved me from four years of Trotter as my advisor, from “poverty wages,” never-to-be-counted-on Bruce Anthony Jones, and from abusive theoretical Marxists like Dick Oestreicher and Wendy Goldman. It would have saved me from myself and my self-doubt and constant need to prove myself to others to the exclusion of everything else in my life.
My mom does get a few things right about me. After I finished my master’s in 1992, she said one day, “Why you always gotta ‘I’ll show you’?” I wasn’t trying to “I’ll show you,” especially to the white gatekeepers aligned like a fraternity or a gang with baseball balls eager to jump me in (or out) of academia. Still, I do not like being told “No.” Especially by mediocre people with half-baked ideas motivated by their own racism and ageism.
This will not be a self-loathing celebration, though. I have figured it out, myself included. I know what I want to write, and why. I have succeeded more than I have failed on this front since turning 45. I may never make up for those years in the wilderness, between academia and the nonprofit world, chasing dollars and chasing the approval of white gazers and HNIC (Head N-word In Charge) types. But I am still here. I am much closer to the life I’ve always wanted than I am to the life I have gradually been putting behind me since 2008.