Seeing the (writing) abyss

I had the day off last Friday. My last workshop of the year was scheduled on that day, and since it was a day-long thing, I decided to take the day off and pull the ‘research student’ hat for the day. I was really looking forward to this workshop, which was Writing in the middle of your PhD, because I did not get a space in the first year one (Writing at the beginning of your PhD) and I had heard really good reviews of Dr Dan (@grammatologist). I went in with the intention of changing my perception of writing, and to try to clarify some feedback that I had received from my supervisors a few days before, and the workshop did not disappoint.

I believe one of the things that worked for me in this workshop was the bluntness and ruthlessness of Dr Dan’s explanations about how writing really works. Possibly due to my sociocultural background, I like to hear things as they are. I am all for British social conventions, but when it comes to important matters, I do not mind people being straightforward and even a bit rude. This is something I have experimented rather well in a basketball refereeing scenario – I hate being told I am doing a good job when I know it is not that way, because it takes away the good feelings associated with the times in which I have actually done a good job (and I know I have). If I am doing something wrong, I’d rather know or else I’ll never fix it, because I either don’t know how, or I don’t even know there is an actual issue. Dr Dan was very straightforward, and I appreciate it.

Writing is hard.

I have to write 90,000 words in the next 20 months. My latest draft needs considerable revision. I have changed focus on my thesis so a new literature review needs to be written – and the consequent steps ‘backwards’ that that implies. I need to work longer hours. I have to forget about volume and focus on writing better arguments. My academic English requires additional work. I have to take the 50,000 words I have already drafted along the way and a) recycle what I can, and b) bin the rest.

I will have to kill a minimum of 40-45,000 words.

Punch in the face.

My argumentation needs to be reconsider and my style has to either be polished or seriously restructured.

Punch in the face.

I need to work longer hours. Weekends are the only option.

Punch in the face.

It is no surprise that I left the workshop feeling I needed some Gaviscon. The good thing is that I wasn’t alone – the colleague I went with to the workshop felt exactly the same. We both realised how daunting the future is looking at the moment – we even finish around the same date, which is even more daunting to me, because I am part time, so a) I should have more written at this point in time and b) I have less time, due to the part time more time means less time philosophical equation. The sense of dread that I had during this workshop was not unfounded: I think I saw the abyss, the writing abyss. It allowed me to see the inconsistencies of my own work, and although I now feel slightly more in control of what needs to be done (and how, to a point), at the same time I feel that most of the research I have done so far is only ‘around’ the subject of my thesis, and a ridiculous amount of first-year-style work will need to take place in the next six months or so in order for me to be where I want to be, at the time I am at at the moment. I suppose there is a meager consolation in the fact that I have gained clarity of what I am doing and how. Having the clarity, however, also lets you know exactly how much work I should be doing in the next few months, and this is, of course, really scary.

The good news is I ran it past one of my supervisors and she agreed that the course of action I had decided to take made sense in the scheme of things, and that makes me feel that even if I am slightly on the late/short side of words for APR submission, the panel will be convinced that I have a solid, well thought plan. Seeing the abyss, however, was not a nice experience, although I suppose that the motivation you get from that experience (the sheer fear, basically) does push you to write your best, or at least try.

As much as I believe I am not anxious about the whole process, the reality is that the experience has taken its toll on my body and I have started to feel exhaustion and subconscious anxiety, and that’s the road to the dark side. So as much as I have worked my wee socks off for the past few weeks, this is completely unsustainable in the long run, and I have made the decision to take it easy and not burn myself before submission. Because if I do, I will most definitely not submit, and that’s not what we want.

I shall keep an eye on the abyss, and keep the negative thoughts at bay for the time being. And use the newly found clarity to do things well, but slowly.




I am writing this because right now I feel smug. Too smug for my liking. And this has to change!

Over the past few weeks my writing has gone through the roof, which is great, after overcoming a bit of wussy writing crisis. False alarm overall, and once I took off the breaks form my chapter bike, I was zooming off into the wild at high speed. Last week I posted over 3,500 words at a writing rate of 709 per day, and gave my chapter a final shake. My notes on Friday the following:

1. Do one last comparison of these two short stories (for Monday)

2. Write conclusions (on Tuesday)

3. Edit like there is no tomorrow (Wed-Fri)

…all said with the outlook of providing my supervisors with a second first draft and they can see where I am going with this. This was agreed like that – the attempt is not to have a perfect chapter, but a chapter that can be easily modified if required (which makes for easier writing) after having reached the half way point of my PhD time a few months ago. I have been writing this for far too long, so it needed that word count burst. I was radiant on Friday afternoon.

It’s Tuesday, and although I have attempted to write in the same fashion as last week, I know I can’t. And it’s not that I can’t because the rate I was posting last week was unsustainable for long periods of time, no. I can’t write because I feel smug. Sitting 25 words away from the 18,000 barrier, I know the chapter is coming to an end. 80% of the work is done. But this last 20% is going to take just as much as the previous 60%. I am dreading the editing, so the slower I write, the longer it will take for me to have to go into editing – but that is just a fallacy. In the meantime, and knowing myself (knowing I will get slower and more smug as the writing progresses) I have taken additional responsibilities this week that are going to ensure I get very little time to actually focus on the writing – meaning that every minute on the chair should count double! Oh well.

Yesterday I found myself wasting time in a productive manner, self-sabotaging myself – I even went as far as to rearrange the entire living room because it seemed I would do more work if I fengshuisize it. I was feeling particularly smug because during the day I managed to post 1,300 words – and hence I didn’t feel bad that I was wasting time deliberately. However, I had the chance (a good chance) to finish point 1 of what I was aiming to do and possibly start typing up some conclusions (that should not go too much over 1,000 words) and I missed it – because I was feeling smug.

It’s so hard (and boring) to edit once you know you have pretty much written as much as you needed to. The very little appeal that editing has combined with my smugness and it might take the best of my weekend work to get this chapter out of the way. But I need to, otherwise I will not be able to get on with more exciting (and way scarier things). And I really cannot afford that.

Right, I’m gonna go back to work and sit my bum on a chair until this gets done. And wipe that smug smirk off my face.