On writing when the words want to be somewhere else

I am writing this from a writing retreat in the beautiful Devon Valley near Stellenbosch. I am hugely lucky to be starting my writing year here, away from the pressures and activities of everyday mum-and-wife life, where all I have to actually do all day is put words onto a page and make them make some kind of sense. However, I am finding the actual doing of the writing hard work this week.

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Dol-de-Breton

I am writing a book. A whole one, on my own. I have been thinking and scribbling about this book for a long time. It has been like circling a huge obelisk, going round and round looking for a door or a way in, and finding none. Or circling a block of marble, trying to see the statue inside it so that you know where and how to start chipping away at it. But there is no door, and the statue is a fuzzy blur, so round and round I have been going, not quite writing, but not quite doing nothing either. It is just too big. How do I start? What do I write first? How do I get this right?

The first thing I have told myself, firmly but in a kind tone of voice, is that I must actually stop being such a faff and write something, anything. Just start, and try not to edit, and some words will come. They probably will not be right, but they don’t have to be right now. They just have to be written, and once I start, like a tap being turned on, the ideas will start to come from the swirly depths of my mind where they have been percolating and find their way out, and slowly be formed into a logical story. So, this is what I have done, yesterday and today so far. I have just made myself write, for 20 minute slots at a time. Freewriting, as it were. It’s slow, and difficult and frustrating, but I am slowly starting to see the statue. It’s just a finger, or an eyeball, at this point. But it’s there.

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Interior with reading woman by Carl Vilhelm Holsøe

This brings me to the second thing I am counselling myself about, in a slightly more exasperated tone of voice. When I started conceptualising this book, and talking to one of my advisors about it, I had these romantic visions of me and my book, up late at night, lamplight burning in my office, typing away while the words and ideas flowed. We were going to be so productive, and clever, and it was all going to be so enjoyable, and intellectually stimulating. The reality is … less romantic. My office is such a mess I can’t even see my desk. I am so tired by 8pm there is no chance of coherent thoughts beyond that hour. And the words, they are not flowing. They are trickling, at best. So my romantic vision is pretty much shot to pieces, and this disappoints me. Which then leads to more circling of the obelisk, and less actual chipping away at the door or statue. Don’t get me wrong here: I expected much drafting and revisions and rewriting, but I just didn’t expect to not enjoy it. I hope I will enjoy it eventually, but right now I am not having much fun.

The final thing I am advising myself on comes from a friend and mentor: I have to be prepared to write rubbish that I will eventually delete or chop out in order to get going. This is a tough one. I know, of course, that with every paper and chapter and so on that I write, there are parts that are written and then later binned because they no longer fit, or strike the wrong tone, or just are wrong. I write rubbish, for sure. But writing a page or two of rubbish for a journal article feels like a lot less potential time wasting than writing pages and pages of rubbish for an 80,000 word book. I think this is what I am struggling with: I have a deadline, and other things to do as well as writing this book, so I kind of want to start writing and have it be the actual book, and not all the drafting and writing around that will eventually start becoming the book through cutting, deleting, selecting and more writing.

I remember feeling this way at the beginning of my PhD – staring up at this obelisk and wondering how on earth I would actually make it into something other than a lump of rock. Then, I had a supervisor to chivvy me on, and wonder where my drafts were and give me feedback. Now, I feel I just have me to hold myself accountable, and I am not always very good at that.

stone-dressing-tools-1-1-800x800So, I am trying to stop being romantic about this, I am trying to stop expecting all the words to be good, and perfect and erudite. I am trying to just write what I can now, and trust that the rest will come if I put in the time, slog through the difficulty and slow writing days, and do the work that I know needs to be done. That’s not a sexy, super-slick and easy plan. (Sorry about that.) But it’s a plan I can work with, that will break me out of the circling, put the chisel in my hand and start the chipping process. And that’s enough, for now.

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Making friends with your PhD (or at least being on speaking terms)

I thought a good post to start the new year off would be one about getting onto the right side of your PhD – making friends with it, or at least working out how to get along in a civil and amicable way. Being BFs with your PhD is a lofty ideal many do not achieve, but some people really do love their PhDs, and manage to have very firm and happy relationships with them, in spite of bad patches. But how do they do it? And how can those  on the outs with the PhD turn the relationship around?

Starting out

If you think about doing a PhD being like conducting a relationship – bear with me here – you can think about it in stages. The first stage is falling in love, right? Heady, consuming, whirly – you can’t really think about anything else, but it’s exciting and scary and pretty cool. You may feel like you have stumbled onto It – or an It of some kind – and this makes other things in the world brighter and more sensible. Finding a PhD research topic that excites and interests you can be a bit like this – it’s exciting, and it can be scary because of the all the work involved, but it’s pretty cool. Finding a research topic or question that you ‘click’ with and that makes you want to go out and find the answer and do the work is kind of like finding It, and it’s a good feeling.

But, not all relationships start out this way. Not everyone gets into a relationship in a heady whirl of passion and excitement. Some people rationalise their way into relationships, and they stick it out even when it doesn’t quite feel right or exciting or heady, and they do so for many different reasons. If you have talked yourself into doing your PhD, and you don’t like your research topic, or don’t feel particularly stimulated by or interested in the project, it can be really difficult to be friends with it, or love it. And if it starts out with you talking yourself into rather than being swept up by it, staying the course can be tough. Love can grow, though, but that does take time.

The middle bits (where sh*t gets real)

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If your relationship has started out well, that initial chemistry and compatibility that drew you together can be transformed into a bond that can sustain you through inevitable struggles and challenges. The middle bits of any relationship are full of ups and downs and real life stuff, and it really helps if you like each other underneath everything else, and can maintain a solid friendship that can hold you on the bad days.

In the case of a PhD, that initial interest in your research topic, and strong desire to find the answer to your questions and make a contribution to your field can indeed sustain you during inevitable rough patches, where research participants drop out, or you can’t get hold of a key paper you have to read, or your supervisor sends tough feedback that takes you back to the ‘drawing board’ for revisions. That initial feeling of excitement at doing this PhD at this point in your life can be transformed into a feeling of being ‘friends’ with your PhD, liking it even when you kind of hate it.

But if you started out talking yourself into a relationship you’re not sure you want to or should be in, and you are still talking yourself into it every day, it’s so much harder to weather the hard days, because they may actually confirm that you’re not in the right place, rather than simply being a bump in a generally good road that needs to be navigated and worked through. Thus with the PhD: if you are doing it because you feel you should, or if you are working on a topic you don’t like, or that someone else chose for you or talked you into, or that you talked yourself into because it would be practical, or easier, but that doesn’t really feel right, it can be really difficult to be friends with your PhD. How do you make yourself sit down and work on something that makes you feel bad about yourself, or that makes you feel like less of a researcher, rather than more? How do you create a civil and even amicable relationship with a project you have to keep convincing yourself to do, even when you are not sure you even want to be doing it?

The end(?)

Unlike good relationships that start out well and weather the tough bits successfully, PhDs do have to end. But, if you choose the right research topic for you and can be friends with your PhD, it can open doors to ongoing, related and eventually new research that you build a career out of. In this way, while the discrete PhD project ends, the research plan it becomes part of keeps evolving. If you have started with a solid platform with the PhD, you know what kinds of research you like and want to do, and what interests you, and you can create or connect with research projects that help you to keep working in these ways. You can learn much from a friendly PhD relationship that can stand you in good stead for ongoing research and writing work in the future. If you have enjoyed your PhD, you may well be sad to see it go, and struggle with the loss, at least initially.

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If, however, your whole relationship has been difficult and fraught with uncertainty and bumps, the end often comes as a relief. And you may well have learned different kinds of lessons – like what kinds of people and relationships you don’t want to be involved with in future. You may be left with a kind of bitter feeling about having wasted some of your life in the wrong place, when you could have been giving your self and time to other things. Even if you struggle through and manage to finish the PhD, a difficult and unfriendly relationship with your doctorate can still leave you, at the end, Dr You, but with a bittersweet sense of having lost as well as gained. You may have a PhD, but no desire to continue researching in this field. You may have struggled so much that you become disillusioned with academia, and an academic career. Or, you may not even finish, and choose to end things before it goes any further.

phd-survivorThere are no easy answers here. I hope that you can all find a way to befriend your research projects – MA or PhD – or at least find a way to feel interested in them enough to keep going. If you are struggling, strength to you. It may help to take a small break, or tweak the direction of a part of your research if you can, to find a way towards a more amicable working relationship. If neither of those are possible, and you just can’t quit, then try a mantra: ‘I will finish this, and I will have gained, even if I have lost too. This will be worth it in the end’. Or, to quote a small blue fish: try to ‘just keep swimming’ and hope the current takes you up and onwards.