Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Diary of a PhD Student: Hello, panic, my old friend!

Friends, Romans, readers: You have missed a lot. In my head I had been updating this fairly regularly; I see now that I haven’t actually posted anything since the back-end of July, and since then I have – believe it or not – gone through a monumental spin on the PhD wheel. This spin, though, actually saw me fall in love with my research while I started to heavily resent my creative thesis – in a (half-)surprising turn of events. Only half-, though, given that on average PhD students seem to move between loving and loathing what they are doing between three and twenty-eight times a week - so perhaps one spin on the PhD wheel is a huge understatement.

Earlier this week, I still firmly hated my creative thesis. I had submitted a draft to my supervisor at the start of the summer so that I could spend time working on my research paper in the months that followed - and I did, rather successfully. I spent most of my summer, in fact, buried beneath mountains of research. I read, I scribbled, I even wrote and published an article – which you can access here – and I annotated fiction and non-fiction alike, while slowly but surely developing something resembling a concrete idea for the shape that my research paper would take. 

And then, my supervisor Skyped me.

Supervisor: The second draft is much better.
Me: That’s great to hear, it really is.
Supervisor: So if we can talk through my annotations, chunk by chunk –
Me: Yep...
Supervisor: Some chapters are okay, though, but there are one or two strands that still need some work.
Me: Yep...
Supervisor: If we talk them out, then, we can focus heavily on the book for now, and move back to research at some point in the New Year.
Me: ...yep.
Supervisor: Because realistically I think we could have a fairly clean book by Christmas. 

I didn’t say no, of course. I’m weak and stressed and – somewhat surprisingly to me – this man has a much more accurate feel for my abilities as both student and writer than I do most of the time. As such, when he tells me that I can get something done by a certain – albeit seemingly unattainable – deadline, the small segment of my grey matter that still runs on logic says, ‘Okay, we can do this. It will take work, but we can do this.’

While the much larger, more tired, and more erratic chunk of grey matter says: 

That second gif is where I have lived for the last few weeks. I told myself the biggest lie I could to justify not going back to my creative work: ‘When I’ve finished reading this research book, I’ll do it.’ And so, I dragged my eyes begrudgingly from one line of that book to the next in a determined effort to finish it in the longest time it could possibly take anyone to read a book that a) wasn’t particularly long and b) they were hugely interested in. It was a hard task to drag The Feminine Mystique out as long as I did and for that, I deserve a round of applause, I think.


So I finished the book. I highlighted, annotated, scribbled (are you sensing a theme here?) and then I thought: It’s time. I’d backed myself into a corner by setting a deadline for starting again and once I hit that deadline, I knew I had to come good on it – despite my desperate need to hide from my protagonist for a while longer (for anyone who knows her, this is probably an understandable reaction on some levels, though).

And so here we are, back in creative-land. Earlier this week when I first dragged my deflated carcass back to the annotated manuscript that my supervisor gave me weeks ago, I wasn’t ready. I took one look at the opening chapter of the book and immediately wanted to throw the towel in completely. Choruses of ‘This is shit, I’m shit, I can’t get my PhD’ could be heard by anyone wandering along the road outside my house for those first few days of working on the book again. Try as I did, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t ready, wasn’t worthy, and wasn’t in the least bit prepared to make the book better than it was. The second draft took a lot out of me, and it took a lot out of the book – around 18,000 words, you’ll probably remember, if you’ve read my previous rants – and so this feeling of ‘Go away, I’ve already done this’ was a hard one to bring back to the book with me.

Then something quite miraculous happened. I went through the first chapter, added annotations of my own alongside those of my lecturer, I repeated the process for the second chapter – which, incidentally, is in an even worse state than the first is – and then I braced myself for the third. I turned the page, one eye open, barely able to look through whatever God awful mistakes my supervisor had found, totally unprepared to let myself tumble into plot holes galore that were undoubtedly there – but instead, I found a circle. One circle, around an incorrect date, referring to a film. On the page after that, nothing. This continued for a page or two further, and the next annotation? Faulty phrasing, a word that needed to be changed, and a sentence that didn’t fit right. And then I got to the end of the chapter. 

Now, let’s get something straight: I’m ten chapters into these scribbles now and there are definitely more chapters like one and two than there are like chapter three. But my God, those chapter-threes are making this whole thing just that little bit easier this time. They’re giving me something to hang on to – latch on it, dig my claws into, in fact, for fear that I really will lose my grip entirely otherwise – and through them, I’m launching myself from one chapter to the next.

It’s scary as hell, yes. This in my third and final year, and this will be my third and hopefully near-final draft of a book that I’ve spent what feels like an awfully long time working on. But I am officially taking baby steps – albeit slightly reluctant ones – in the right direction. My supervisor was right, it turns out. The book is better – much better – than draft one; but not quite as good as draft three will be... 

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