Monday, 4 November 2013

Progress Update: Writing Up.

In November 1955, in her Journals, Sylvia Plath wrote, "I am tormented by the questions of the devils which weave my fibres with grave-frost and human-dung, and have not the ability or genius to write a big letter to the world about this". This quote pretty much sums up where I am right now.

I've held off writing a blog-post because usually I try to be enthusiastic and share information that isn't purely about me/my personal feelings... but I felt like I should document this portion of the Ph.D because it is the most defining academic phase I've had so far.. maybe this post will have some value for other students in the writing-up phase of postgraduate life.

Writing-up is hellish. There are moments when you have a breakthrough and you feel like YES, this is the reason I started the Ph.D in the first place. Some evenings I go for a walk after writing, and listen to an album by someone like Laura Marling, and it feels as though everything in my environment is contributing to the thesis. The trees losing their leaves, the fields being tended, the smell of flowers - I feel like these sights and emotions all filter through into the words that appear onscreen. It hasn't been all bad: in the past few months I've had moments where I do feel like I'm writing something that is of value and importance (even just to me). These are the moments I try to hold on to, because for every glimmer of purpose, there are a hundred other times where I feel like "human-dung" and the most useless, thick, slow, unworthy person that has ever attempted further education.

I have always tried to be honest on this blog and paint an accurate representation of the triumphs and pitfalls of a Literature Ph.D... Writing-up is incredibly difficult. I have purposely moved back to my family home, away from friends and social temptations. Without doubt this has been a good decision. I feel like I can only get to grips with what I'm writing when my mind is totally engaged with the project - no distractions. But writing-up is a long and painful process. Sometimes it feels like I'm physically dredging the words from my chest and dragging them onto the laptop screen. My biggest problem throughout the whole process has always been the feeling that I don't deserve to be here (imposter syndrome). However, moving home and really dedicating myself to the writing of this dissertation has given me the confidence to claim the project as my own. I'm less consumed with negative feelings, but sometimes it can be overwhelming.

It's hard to describe how I'm feeling but even though there are a lot of frustrations and fears in my daily life, I know I am progressing. I am chipping away. I had previously mentioned how I would have liked the dissertation completed by November. Realising that I wasn't going to achieve that goal really dented my confidence. I look at myself now and know that I was never going to finish by November. In September my supervisor and I had a frank conversation and we both came to the conclusion that it is important to write something I value and care about: not something that has the potential to be good, but because I wanted to submit, is rushed and half-done. Having that conversation and making that decision/claiming my thesis was a really defining moment for me. I've been so aware of how "everyone else" is getting on, thinking that I'm a failure if my submission time is a few months after so-and-so. But having that frank conversation, and making my decision, I feel empowered. Now I know I will be submitting in early 2014 (either February or May - to be decided before Christmas), I've been able to go through complicated elements of the thesis more thoroughly and I don't think what I've written would be so strong if I hadn't had the confidence to decide something for myself, and of course, gained the extra leg-room of a few months.

Writing-up is lonely and isolating. I worry about a future job, daydream about jetting off and travelling the world. I worry that I have no fixed plan and conversely I love that I have no fixed plan. It basically feels like I'm terrified and standing at the edge of an abyss, but also like I want to shout "woo hoo!" and jump into the abyss. With every day I do feel increasingly that I am fit for this challenge. I have been so well supported by my supervisor in the past few months, it really has been a life-line. My writing style has finally matured. The wheels are in motion and I just have to keep going.

I'm happy to say that all of these mixed emotions and writing-slogs don't take away from the love I have for Plath's writings. Having the opportunity to look at the poetry and journals and fiction in such minute detail is a real privilege. There are moments when I sit back and think how bloody great Plath's work is! The words still have the capacity to intrigue and surprise.

At the moment I can't believe that I will ever finish this dissertation. But the old saying goes that it's always darkest before dawn. Like Plath in October 1962, I try to get up early in the morning and write from about 5am, as the sun comes up. Someday this thesis will be written. But for now I will continue to keep fumbling around in the dark, getting there. I am getting there.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

You will finish, but these things truly make their own timeline if they are to be any good at all. I have been working on my book for seven years--it is not a PhD dissertation, but it might as well be. As things stand, the first part is about to be published, but there is still plenty of work ahead with parts two and three. I have felt very alone in the process and I am envious of the support you have with your supervisor. It will happen. Plod on and don't lose sight of your thesis. That's my own best advice.

Alexandra McCarthy said...

Maeve, I really enjoyed your honesty in this post. I know how lonely writing can be, and while at times, that's definitely something to relish, other moments you just wish you could share the load with someone else. Sending good thoughts and wishes from Los Angeles and I for one applaud your dedication to your thesis and can only imagine what a fascinating piece it will be to read!

Claire Hennessy said...

Love this. Think it's important to talk honestly about the stresses and difficulties of academia and particularly the bits where it's you in a room with the words for months at a time. Sending you good thoughts...

. said...

I can only add that, in the end, all this long and exhausting process is gonna be terrifically worth it!
Don't lose faith!

Julio J. Hernández said...

Writing a thesis is like a pregnancy and a childbirth. I hope you have a happy ending.