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.


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