Four years. My thesis took four years to write. Four years of my life.
I’d like to say that this was a waste of time, that this is four years of my life I’ll never get back, that I could be way ahead in my ‘career’, that I’m now four years behind my peers. I’m not going to be an academic, and I am not looking to use this professional qualification, so, by that calculation, this four years of my life has been wasted.
But I can’t quite say it, because this four years of my life still exists; it has been recorded in my thesis. Flipping through it in the last days of writing up, periods of my PhD life jumped out at me from the pages. Somewhere in Chapter 2, there are remnants of that piece I wrote in my first year, when I was still hopeful, when I wasn’t scared, when I had confidence in my learning, and when the only blogs I would have been interested in writing would have involved reviews of the best cake-eateries in London, or some not-very-philosophical musings on the essence of my happiness. I come across certain parts of the thesis and I remember vividly how it felt, to be walking the London streets, sun coming out after the rain, looking in the shop windows, wandering around in a happy daze, feeling bloody marvellous. I was living the dream; I had somewhere to go and something to live for, but in between my home and the library I had the mental space to roam, to look around me and take things in; I had a beautiful city to explore, and I lived it and owned it and every inch of it was mine to enjoy. And I loved it.
Somewhere in Chapter 5, there are remnants of a conference paper I wrote in my third year, one that I was particularly proud of, because it contained so much cool, clever shit. People listened to that conference paper and came up to me afterwards and told me how interesting it was. ‘That woman went off with your handout. I’m sure she’s going to use all your quotes in her research’, a friend told me. This was cool, too.
And scattered throughout the thesis, there are memories of the bad times. The November of this last academic year, for example, when I sat on the sofa, with laptop and papers and books scattered around me, lights on, working, working, plugging away at Chapter 4. Occasionally, I’d look up at the beautiful view outside the big window (I did have a rather beautiful view this year). Occasionally, I’d find it so pretty that I’d stop for a minute and take a picture with my phone. I might put it up on Facebook, or email it to a friend. I came across one of those pictures on Facebook earlier this summer and it made my blood run cold: that wintry view from the window reminded me of how depressed I was at that time. Never again, I told myself. Or December of the year before that, hopelessly stuck and crying. I never want to feel like that again, ever.
So I reread a tiny bit of the thesis and I am transported back to where I was, and what I was doing, when I wrote it, and how I felt, and what was going on in my life at the time, and what the weather was like. Not so soulless after all, then, these sentences which ostensibly say nothing and reveal nothing at all about me, but which contain four years of my life, the good bits as well as the bad. The next time I look at the boring, impenetrable thesis of someone I don’t know (which won’t be any time soon, as I’m probably looking at a lifetime of part-time receptionist jobs from now on) I will wonder what bits of their life and their emotional self that person poured into those words.
The best bit of the thesis are definitely the acknowledgments. In a gratuitous, silly sort of way, I couldn’t help rereading them several times (after polishing them happily in odd moments, in the evenings, or on trains.) The acknowledgments are the bit of the PhD which sums up all the reasons it was worth it: the people who were there, who cheered you along, and who will be very happy to see their name in these pages. They might try to read on for a bit; they probably won’t get past the Introduction, but this is OK. They will get bored, because they don’t know what they’re reading for. You signposted the thesis for your examiners, not for your friends. There isn’t a footnote on page 20 that says ‘I wrote this the day you and I went to that amazing comedy club in Primrose Hill. Remember that?’ Or, ‘I wrote this when I was sad and that’s the day when you took me out for a walk and cheered me up.’
I’m just going to reread the Acknowledgments one more time, and then I’m off to do something useful (or else back to bed…).
"We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect"