Sunday, 6 March 2016

'Maybe you're in the middle of a storm.. waves are crashing over your tiny little boat there'.

It's been a long while since I've blogged, but I felt it was time to give an update on my PhD, for posterity's sake, if anything. Well, the long and short of it is, I'm still here, still writing. For so long I've prefaced blog updates with 'I'll be finished soon', rushing myself to tell any readers who stumble upon this blog that I will have this done (masking crippling self-doubt). But now that I can see actual light at the end of this tunnel, I do think I have developed a new-found understanding about the whole process which might be valuable for others in a similar boat.

Prize for those who can guess where this painting is from :)

By means of update, I should be clear about what I've been up to. For the past two years, since my funding ran out, I've been back living in my family home in rural Northern Ireland. I have a part-time job as a proof reader, I commute to University libraries once every six weeks with a suitcase of books. I write on Wednesdays, Thursdays, in the evenings (when I'm not too tired) and on weekends. It's funny, but I feel like these types of conversations are a bit of a taboo, probably because the academic world is overwhelmingly 'showy-offy' where many of us parade our achievements but never feel comfortable enough to say 'actually, I'm finding this really tough right now' for fear that circling vultures will pick us apart. 

Certainly, the neoliberal culture of 'advancement of the individual' fostered by Universities makes it difficult for conversations about struggles to be voiced. Of course, when I say 'struggles' I say it with the acknowledgement that I am dripping in privilege as an able bodied white women from an aspirational middle-class background. I have many many doors open to me, whereas in the UK only 7.7% of University professors are from BME backgrounds, and only 10 out of 14,000 University professors in Britain are women from black Caribbean or black African backgrounds. I might very well experience feelings of isolation but this is nothing in comparison to the actual structural and institutional exclusion and bias against people of colour - from the content of University syllabuses, lack of opportunities for students of colour, right up to employment. I strongly support the idea that reparations in the form of grants, scholarships and positive discrimination in favour of people of colour should be implemented in the UK.

From my own experience, the PhD process has been tricky. I'm one chapter off completion now but for the longest time it felt like I was never going to get to a place where I could see the end. I've spent the majority of the process feeling rudderless. Enthusiastic, but rudderless. I look back with fondness at myself five years ago trotting in to passionately say I was deserving of a place on a PhD programme writing about Plath - like it was no thing. If I had known the emotional and intellectual journey I was about to embark on, I probably would have balked. But it has been, by far the best decision I have ever made in my life. Even now in the throes of writing up and working and arguing with my Dad because I have the audacity to wear shoes upstairs in the patriarch's house (haha), it's been a fantastic experience. 

And I think that's what gets lost when you do a PhD or anything that's set in an ultra-competitive environment - how fantastic an experience it is to have the opportunity to broaden your mind, listen to others, learn from others, have the time to write and think, to be wrong and to work towards being better. Things happen - life gets in the way. You run out of funding. People need you to be present for them. You get a job. These things happen. It's ok to take your time with this. 

It will have taken me five and a half years to get a full draft of my PhD thesis done. I'm not ashamed. It might take me the full six years to get it ready for hand in. But that's been my process and I make no apologies for it. Radical intellectual transformation takes time! And honestly, my thesis is the best I can do. I hope it's enough for the examiners but I know it's enough for me.

Having spent many months worrying about my c.v. and job prospects and making sure I was hitting the (imaginary) benchmarks that are implicitly foisted upon you when you enter the postgraduate system, at some point in the last two years, I decided to stop. Maybe it's been the literal distance in miles between my life and the 'University world' or maybe it's been spiritual guidance from Plath who, as we all know, wrote her best work when she broke free of expectations and was living isolated and rural :) Whatever it is, being unapologetic about my learning journey has freed me. If you're reading this and you are struggling or have 'run over' time, if your postgraduate journey is taking you down different roads and presenting different challenges to many of your peers, remember, the important thing is that you get there, not how you get there. The job market is a mixture of unequal bias, nepotism and luck so there's little point wasting time and energy getting upset over imaginary jobs you won't get because your thesis has taken too long to write, wasn't funded, etc. 

A friend told me the other day that I'll regret having wished away so much of my time spent at home writing up in the last two years. And I think she's right. In the past two years I've reacquainted myself with my home, a place I've had a strange relationship with. Sometimes I get up early and walk before work and my attention focuses on small things like the dew on the grass in mornings, the sounds of the birds and grooves and shapes in the mountains. I'm glad that I've taken the time to stop and appreciate these things, especially in recent weeks. To all of us working and writing, we will get there. What we're doing is important. Don't be ashamed of your path, it has been a tough walk!

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Guest post: Rehan Qayoom reviews Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath.

Thanks to Rehan Qayoom for sending me on a review of Julia Gordon-Bramer's new book on Sylvia Plath, Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath. I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Julia at the most recent Sylvia Plath conference and wish her all the very best with this book. Such an interesting and fresh look at what inspired Plath and informed her poetry. I look forward to reading this book in the near future!

'Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath shows that looking at Plath's Ariel through the lens of tarot and mysticism opens the poems up to amazing new--and quite obvious--meanings. Critics and scholars have long looked at the mysticism in her husband Ted Hughes' work.

Sylvia Plath virtually worshipped her husband, letting him hypnotize her, cast her astrological chart and horoscope, teach her to meditate, and together they visited local witches, regularly practiced with the Ouija board, tarot, crystal ball, and other occult objects. Yet until now, no one has thought to look at Plath's work in this light.

In Ariel, Plath made each of her poems hold up against at least six different-yet-corresponding interpretations in perfect Qabalah/tarot order and meaning, and she did this forty times. If this was an intentional effort, Sylvia Plath was one of the greatest literary geniuses to have lived.

If this was unintentional and subconscious, let's call it "channeling," then we have a divine ordering to the universe laid out before our eyes'.