It’s kind of a lonely road, the PhD. Let’s face it: if you’re ever going to get the thing done, you are going to have to spend some time (a lot of time, actually) alone with the thing. Just you, and your PhD. So, a lot of the time, it’s just me; no-one to see, nowhere to go. Just me on my wee todd.
When a particular PhD friend and I meet up for lunch, we basically have so much to tell one another that we can’t shut up. You can spot the symptoms straight away: two PhD students who have each been sitting alone in a room for hours, and who haven’t had the chance to talk to another human being yet that day.
The joy of being alone can be exquisite. I love, love, absolutely love being alone, and I love working from home. You can wear pyjamas all day. You can interrupt your work and go make yourself a poached egg if you want to. You can have a delicious homemade lunch, or eat stuff straight out of an open fridge. You can stare into space for a bit if you want to. You can lie down and take a nap. You can think your thoughts and let them wander on, uninterrupted. I wonder how on earth I’m going to do one day, when I am forced to go out and earn my living in some kind of ‘office’ environment, with people rushing past my desk all day and talking at me and around me while I’m trying to concentrate. I wonder how on earth I’ll do. Because the joy of working from home, and working all alone, is that you have all the space in the world to concentrate on the task in hand (with no-one to interrupt you apart from, of course, the demons in your own soul. I won’t miss those when I put on the suit and go out to earn my living in a noisy office somewhere.)
Sometimes, over the course of my PhD, I have dreamed of being even more alone than I already was. Your dear friends make demands on your time and try to entice you out for a coffee (and because you love them to bits and they are simply irresistible people, it is impossible to say no); flatmates enter and leave the flat at appointed times in the morning and evening, interrupting your solitary reverie (and you can’t help but run to them, like an excited puppy, to kiss them goodbye or ask them about their day). Maybe by 6 pm you are only just getting going and some idea is finally taking wing; but 6 pm is also the time when your boyfriend is finishing work and when you are meant to be going off to spend some quality time with him. The whole day is just all about times, other people’s timetables, within which you try to situate yourself. In the PhD-addled brain of the long-term PhD ‘user’, there are times when the sight of your nearest and dearest fills you with terror and guilt and fear. They all stop you from being able to sit there, hunched over your PhD for the rest of your life, which is what you are basically convinced you need to do, or should be doing; never stop, never go out, just sit there in solitary confinement, in a kind of exquisite agony. (I wish I had read the Procrastination Bible earlier in my PhD career: if only I could have read what Neil Fiore says about the supreme importance of ‘guilt-free play’, and I might have saved myself all the bother of feeling guilty about taking time off, and had a really naughty, happy time playing instead.)
Well, I exaggerate. But I do remember sometimes wishing that I could get away from everyone and everything – boyfriend-coming-home-time, mealtimes, the phone, all those fixed interruption times – just go away somewhere, just me, no-one else who knows me, a B&B somewhere, and just have the space to choose whatever moment of the day or night I want, to write. Imagine how much you might get done if you didn’t have all those places to go, all those people to see, all those things interrupting you and tearing you away from your work, to which it is so, so hard to return sometimes, once you’ve stopped.
A few months back, as I started my writing-up year (the final year, mind) I moved house. I moved away from London, where my tutor is and where I had a beautiful flatshare and where there were friends on hand to interrupt me and make me have coffee, go to the theatre, and just generally force me out to have fun – and moved to another town, one where I sort of know some people but not really, one where I sort of know my way around but where I don’t have quite as many favourite places or as many well-travelled, familiar paths as I did in my former city. And I thought – amazing: this is actually a really good opportunity to sit tight and finish the PhD. This is what I have been dreaming of: no lovely friends to tempt me away from my work just as I am getting going (except of course the Lover, with whom I now live, and who is on hand to provide emergency company and entertainment); none of those favourite old haunts where I am tempted to go and hang out and waste my time… it will be just me, all day, in the flat, writing to my heart’s content, and no-one will stop me. And it has been good, sort of. I haven’t really had cause to complain, except…
Now: as it turns out, moving house when you’re not finished with your PhD is already not the best idea, and not just because of the logistical upheaval of moving, of having to pack up your books and papers and then find them all over again; but also because, as I have found, your nesting instinct kicks in, meaning that you spend a delightful few weeks setting yourself up in your new home, and no PhD gets done in that time. (Don’t do it. Don’t move house, unless you’re being evicted. Don’t do this to yourself.) And I sometimes wonder if I did the right thing, moving somewhere where there aren’t quite so many friendly, familiar faces. There’s a bit of a problem here, because: I don’t particularly crave new friends, since I already have many, and they are all just an email or a phone call away, and I can usually manage to catch up with them, on the odd cross-country day-trip to my university. (plus they are wonderful: it seems almost a sacrilege to want NEW friends.) And I certainly don’t feel like putting in the time to go out and do all the socializing you have to do in order to make new friends; the whole point of being here is to try and finish this bloody PhD as quickly as possible, hence I’m not exactly desperate to sign up to do any community theatre or anything like that. But, all the same – d’you know what, I sometimes just miss friends. I don’t feel lonely, but I miss having the odd person in my life, other than my Lover, who will come running just to spend an hour in my company, with whom I can share jokes and news and talk rubbish, and voice my little joys and neuroses and fears. The Blackberry helps keep in touch. Living with a Lover is exquisite. But there are some things for which the company of friends at random times is necessary.
I have taken to hanging out in the local pub, using their comfy armchairs as my second ‘office space’. (now, this is something which is making me feel better: when I came here for the third or fourth time, the barman, with whom I had previously struck up a chat, said hello to me and addressed me BY NAME. It was the first time in my new home town that someone had done that. It was like, Someone knows my name. They know I exist. This is where I live; this here is the pub where I come; and someone knows. I have an identity.) I was sitting in a quiet corner the other day, experiencing an unusual sense of productivity and happiness as I worked on my PhD (thank you, Procrastination Bible. Thank you) when a song I like came on the radio. I had the urge to sing along to it and I realised: if you’re sitting in a pub with friends, you’re ‘allowed’ to sing along to your favourite songs out loud. If you are on your own, it is forbidden; that is a rule. It is forbidden to sing out loud if you are sitting on your own in a pub.
This made me think: dammit, I could do with some friends. You can get by on the occasional visits and have your close relationships conducted over the Blackberry, but there is just the odd moment, in the here and now, as opposed to in the foreseeable future, not 'next weekend when i come to stay', but now, where you just sort of wish…
But then I think – I want to be alone. I want to finish the PhD soon, and for that, you have to be alone. And if I want to finish this PhD, I think I NEED TO BE ALONE.
Dear Diary, what do I do?...
ps. Please note: this is not a sad post. This is just a post.