When the going gets tough, the tough get writing

Life for PhD student can be pretty solitary. The cultural switch from the corporate world of interaction, swivel chairs and tea-making rotations to the world of wood-paneled walls and endless books was initially quite a shock to the system when I started my course in October last year. Of course, I love what I do, but it can be really hard to work within the limited space of your own mind for an indefinite period of time, especially when it’s so difficult to compartmentalise all of the other things that are going on up there and focus on one thing at a time. When you initially try to come down from the abstract theoretical space and ground your ideas on paper, everything turns into a bit of a confusing mush. You read back what you’ve written and think, ‘ick, that’s not what was up there in my head!’

Over the past week I have been trying to write: to tap into my inner creative. Tap tap tap. At times it has felt liberating, at others frustrating. Mostly it’s felt frustrating. I started the week with a plan, and immediately had to scrap the plan. After redrafting the plan I seemed to be away, and then the weekend came. And then I wrote some more, before stalling. In fact, this very piece has been punctuated by stalls. All of this points to a larger problem – the problem that one will naturally encounter problems in the creative process. In order to surmount these problems, solutions need to be devised; in the corporate world, we jokingly used to call it ‘solutionising.’

These solutions, I think, have to come in the form of variety. If in the past I have hit a stumbling block, I have overcome it not by removing the obstacle, but by removing myself. I take myself away, turn to the books, instigate a conversation with someone who might be able to give me perspective, or otherwise try to replicate the same thing elsewhere. This blog is a friend that invites and celebrates all of that variety. At times I descend into silence. But it is not good, nor is it productive, to focus entirely on one thing at the expense of everything else. The old adage that, in trying to cast your net out wide, you become a ‘Jack of all trades, but master of none’ is totally unhelpful. It is only through dabbling in difference that we are able to sharpen our senses and develop an awareness of new things, while enriching our sense of the old. It is all well and good to say ‘I plan to do this, this and this today’, but sometimes those plans don’t work for us, and we need to be prepared to reformulate.

In this sense, teaching ourselves is like teaching others, but a little harder, as we are not always able to see opportunity in our own problems: we just see further problems. So we need interventions. Sometimes it’s hard to know that, but, generally speaking, whenever I go quiet, that’s a clue. If I haven’t written here in a while, please clamour and shout – it really is for my own good!

I don’t know whether the writing fairy paid me a visit in the night, but for now I’ll work with what I can. Tap tap tap…

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  1. Coco d'Hont says:

    I agree with your point. People who tell you to take a break or do something else for a while are usually right and creativity flourishes when you’re not desperately trying to fit it into a mould. I used to think that my productivity depended on the number of hours I spent reading and/or writing, and felt guilty when I devoted time to extra-curricular activities. Over the past few weeks, though, I’ve discovered that working less actually improves the quality of my output. After months of frantic writing which didn’t get me anywhere, this is a pleasant discovery. It may be a useful antidote to the workaholicism and peer pressure I often encounter in academia.

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  2. Nicole Willson says:

    Thanks Coco, this is really helpful. I think the point that you make about peer pressure is a valid one, and I also think that these kinds of problems are channelled through social media – we see our friends (fellow PhD students and faculty staff alike) doing all of these incredibly intellectual things – starting work at 4am and not finishing until 11 at night, working on their own projects while trying to juggle teaching commitments and family life, and just generally being brilliant at what they do. You see all of this and you think to yourself, ‘how can it be this hard when I’m not even half way there?’ I guess what we need to remember, at times like this, is that we each have our own thing, and that we can’t measure it by other people’s standards. But we also need to remember that we are a community, and can draw on each other’s strengths.

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