Thursday, 29 August 2013


All year long, I tell myself ‘I want to be finished by (December/ March/ June/[insert month at random]). I set myself doable deadlines (with the help of friends and lovers who are good at seeing how long a thing will take). I miss all the  deadlines; a chapter which was meant to be finished on a Tuesday has not even been opened by that day, because another chapter took far longer than I’d hoped. I’m not surprised by this, nor am I even upset. It is as though my brain has given up before we have even started, and told me ‘You know, you are not going to make this deadline, so I may as well not even bother’. This week – absolute final deadline – ‘you know, you can’t miss this deadline, this is it’ (to quote the Lover) – and I have missed it. Today and tomorrow I am supposed to be working on chapter 5; I am on chapter 3.  I am running out of days. The knowledge that I am running out of days slows me down on those few days still available to me.

Somewhere along the line, a long time ago, I made commitments to friends and family for this time of year (important weddings and birthdays, mainly). I never thought, not once in a million years, that I would still be doing this PhD now; nor did I imagine that there would still be quite so much to do (because all these chapters make no sense and need rewriting, and inspiration has only just condescended to arrive). So I try to keep these commitments to family and friends, for what are, after all, momentous and important occasions in their lives. Seeing as I am supposed to be sharing in their joy, I try to be ‘joyous’; I go in there, nicely dressed and smiling, and I try and act carefree, I laugh and talk and thank them for inviting me, I tell them that it actually helps me, this, having a few days off my PhD, it’s the best thing in the world for me, I’m so thankful to them for dragging me away. I big this up so that they don’t feel bad. (because if I am spending all that time away from my PhD, we might as well all enjoy ourselves, non?...). And I find myself almost believing it. Maybe it is true, and maybe one day I will look back and will be grateful that I went and enjoyed these happy times, and that I did not make all these people upset for the sake of having a few days’ extra time to work on my mediocre PhD (days which, knowing me, I would probably waste anyway, on making coffee after coffee, and fantasizing about cleaning the floor).

When I actually look at how many ‘long weekends’ I have pledged away, and how many mid-week escapades have also been planned, the number of working days available to me shrinks drastically. And my mind goes into panic mode, wondering how on earth I am going to produce a draft of Chapter 3 at all, given that it still needs rethinking, and that ‘thinking’ has been replaced by ‘panic’. (I can’t think when there’s packing and planning and booking trains to do. I can’t do it.) And so the few days that I’ve actually got also slip by, somehow, without a great deal of work being done. Every time I almost get going I have to interrupt myself again, close the computer, and go off to another rendezvous, memories of what would have been bits of my chapter fading away in my head.

I tell myself that it’s good for me, these weekends away, it’s good because it’s ‘restorative’, I will end up reenergized and truly ‘re-created’ (this is a Procrastination Bible sort of word). But of course this only works if you actually manage to work on the other days, and get stuff done. I read somewhere that Kafka used to fantasize, in letters to his lover, about the possibility of dwelling in a cave, with meals delivered to its door, but otherwise being left alone in there for weeks on end. What fantastic, uninterrupted writing he would then produce!... And boy, do I understand what he was feeling!... Indeed, a cave of one’s own would be nice. A room of one’s own is not enough.

What happens, though, if you set yourself deadlines, and you want to make them, but you just keep missing them? what happens when you get to a point when there is no more time to push deadlines further and further forward? What do I do then? Will I have to spend stupid sleepless nights, again, on producing rubbish that I am too tired to actually make good? … What is the point of all this work, if that's all it will come down to in the end?... Will this ridiculousness ever stop?...

Will Cloud Nine ever finish her PhD?... Join us next week for our next episode of ‘I Hate My PhD’.

Friday, 23 August 2013


On the self-help book front: I have read a beautiful quote about 'having autonomy' today. it went something like this: in any job you do, you need to have Autonomy. 

what is autonomy? - I hear you thinking.

not having autonomy means, for example, saying things like: 'my supervisor/ teacher/ boss is going to like/ not like this report/ this work/ this chapter'; 'my family approve/ don't approve of what I do'; 'I can't stand to do things that don't interest me'. 

if you have autonomy, instead you say things like: I like/ don't like how well I wrote this chapter; if my family doesn't like my job that's their problem; everything i don't already know interests me. 

(the 'autonomy' line i copied word for word from the self-help book; the 'non-autonomy' bit I paraphrased freestyle. i guess this is because i am a lot better at saying non-autonomous propaganda to myself. just practice, i guess...)

alarming conclusion: I have not a shred of autonomy. I must start practising it.

Here is what the author suggests (note: i am unlikely to actually do this, but I will engrave it upon my brain and try and at least think about doing it...)

'Keep a notebook. Call it 'Autonomy Notes'. [...] On the left-hand pages write down things you felt and did that were not autonomous: 'I got hurt when my boss didn't appreciate my work', or 'I got resentful and deliberately dragged my heels on the filing job'. On all the right-hand pages, collect thoughts that will help you remember what autonomy is, like 'Knowledge belongs to me' and 'My life is bigger than any job', and so on. (Try looking up quotes in a book of aphorisms from your local bookstore.)

Now, each time you write about a nonautonomous feeling on the left-hand page, search for an encouraging thought [...] for the right-hand side.

[...] Autonomy means you're in business for yourself, no matter who you're working for. 

(from Barbara Sher, 'I could do anything if I only knew what it was')

Sunday, 11 August 2013

I Wanted to be a Writer

i bumped into my Lover in the kitchen, as i went in for a glass of water. he had likewise just gone in there and I found him rattling pans in a grumpy way.

'baby, [the subject of your thesis] is so BORING', complained the Lover. 'next time, please pick something more interesting.'  (I had asked him to proofread a chapter and 'make suggestions'.)

i made a sympathetic/ grateful face and i said 'i know. i'm getting bored of it too.'

now: the subject on which i am writing my thesis is not boring. not to everyone's taste, maybe, but my thesis is (or could be) actually quite racy. academics sound excited by it at conferences. non-academics (normal people) get very interested when i start telling the story. you can even make it sound plausible, like it's something the world might actually want to read and be interested in, and like it's something you can tell someone about at a dinner party (and still get invited back). there seems to be only one thing left to conclude, and it ain't a happy conclusion: by writing it all down, by assembling it on a page as best i can, i am making it boring. i am; i am to blame.

i had rewritten this chapter to try and take on board my supervisors' suggestions: you let the quotations do the talking too much; don't hide behind the quotes, let your own voice come through more; analyze, problematize; etc etc etc. basically they were saying: you have written a load of stuff and it tells us... not a whole lot. they were sitting there with me, during the January progress review, staring at my 40 pages of printed writing; writing which had cost me a lot of effort, which arose out of many struggles in the library but also many happy flights of inspiration, which cost me sleepless nights and many frustrations and tears, but which, now completed, correctly footnoted and presented, and with a conclusion to boot, sat there on the table, dead, impenetrable; as soon as my supervisors pointed out all its flaws, i too could see: these 40-odd pages don't say a whole lot. i had a go at rewriting/ cutting-and-pasting this chapter into shape, and the verdict from the lover is in. and unfortunately it isn't a good one. 

there's a big difference between the conception of a work, and its execution. most writers would probably agree that by the time you are finally limping your way towards the end, the finished product looks nothing like what it was supposed to. but in my case... surely this is a bit more extreme. to be limping towards the end marker, and people still don't actually understand what i'm banging on about in this thesis... 

i feel like i am taking beautiful books, concepts and ideas, and picking them up and attempting to put them in my thesis, but somehow i end up just walling them in, like a builder does, with a shovel and some concrete, so that, in the end, no one can actually see them. i have words, and i know what all my words mean, but then i put them together in such a way that they lose all meaning. my sentence construction is thick and impenetrable. my supervisor writes things like 'heavy ending' next to my paragraphs. ['could it be that she means 'cool'? as in, 'wow, man, that's, like, HEAVY!' - asked the Lover once, cheering me up.) indeed, i have reason to believe that she thinks I am not a native speaker of English. 'well, obviously it's probably a bit more difficult for YOU', she once said consolingly as we were sitting together and attempting to repair a particularly shitty piece of writing. (i did not contradict her, i was not upset. if i have to, i'll use this weapon in my viva. my foreign-sounding name has rarely worked in my favour; well, it might at least start now.) seriously though, it did make me smile: my writing is so bad that i don't even sound 'english'.

the sad thing is, i do have ideas, and beautiful thoughts do come to me, which, when i tell people about them, light up the room and make academics look up with shining faces, and laugh and dance with joy.* but then i go away and try and translate them into words, and I get into a tangle with all the footnotes you have to do ('has anyone else ever written about this before?...' 'i can't use this word, because that word now means something else, because this theorist has used it in his...' 'should I acknowledge X's work on Z?' - and the dreaded one: 'THIS IS TOO DESCRIPTIVE'. i can't tell you how much i have struggled with this: either it's too anecdotal and descriptive and 'fun' and not 'PhD-ey' enough, or it turns into a pile of bollocks. In my attempts to make my thoughts into a PhD, I murder their beautiful essence, and the words, as though tortured, stand empty and blank and staring. 

and every time I write something, the life gets squeezed out of me too. because there's only so many times you can watch intelligent people stare blankly at the work you have painstakingly produced, and there's only so many times you can take the words 'what is it that you want to say?' before .... well, before you don't want to, anymore.

thought of the day: i'm a bad writer. i write stuff, it bores me, i work my ass off but not really, i present my offering to a world which does not like it and turns away. i wonder if this is how a bad mother feels.

* (that last sentence clause: ) not really.