Wanting to write
A few months ago, the fiercely brilliant writer Cory Taylor died. In the time before the cancer became fiercer than her, she wrote ‘Dying: A Memoir’ as a way to make sense of death, of what was happening to her.
It’s a beautiful book.
A section that struck me, was when she talked of not having a bucket list:
“From the age of fifteen, my one true ambition was to become a writer…. My real good fortune, however, was in discovering what I loved to do early in life. It is my bliss, this thing called writing, and it has been since my schooldays. It isn’t just the practice that enthralls me, it’s everything else that goes with it, all the habits of the mind”.
This made me think back to my PhD. One of the reasons I started along that path was that it seemed a nice way to write a book. A PhD could create a structured writing practice to improve the habits of my mind.
You don’t need to tell me that I may have been a smidge naïve then.
My PhD supervisor didn’t like reading drafts and I consequently became terrified of submitting anything because nothing was good enough from the get go. I became absolutely obsessed with only writing beautiful words that would be considered good enough to be read. I became unable to write.
For as long as I could remember, I had been writing. All I wanted to do was to write. And all of a sudden I absolutely could not do it.
Fear is a terrible thing
It took me a long time to get over this fear – to understand that no one writes the perfect first draft – to accept that first drafts are simply a mechanism to get words and ideas onto a page so they can be made more beautiful in subsequent drafts. And some of the tools that helped most came from outside the PhD system, from the realm of creative writing.
Three helpful steps
1. Read what other writers say about writing
I was so far down the rabbit-hole of fear that I needed to take a step back from writing-writing. Instead of trying to write (which was stressful), I read about what writers said about writing (which was far less stressful). And I realised that many of the writers I admired did not find writing easy but, instead, had set up rituals and processes to help them keep on writing. They had all created strong habits of the mind. None claimed to ever write the perfect first draft; all acknowledged that writing could be a slog. At the end of the day, writing was a job and some days were better than others. Realising that I was not alone in writing imperfect first drafts started dismantling the fear of imperfect words. As long as I showed up and tried, I was on the right path.
2. Fill a page (or three) with free writing.
Once I started overcoming the fear, I wanted to start writing again but I took baby-steps and started with free writing. This idea came from ‘The Artist’s Way’, which suggested waking up and writing down your stream of consciousness for three pages. Mostly these pages were just words on a page – not about anything, they didn’t mean much. Sometimes though, because I have an absolutely distractable monkey brain, writing about what I dreamt the night before led to sparks of ideas about the thesis – often because I had dreamt about the thesis the night before. Tiny bits of sense. Even without these sparks, starting the day like that was enthralling, as writing became a habit again. These scribbled pages helped me fall in love with writing again because words on a page make me happy. I became braver about writing PhD drafts – I learned what feedback was helpful, and what was not. I remembered that writing leads to more writing, while fear leaves you trapped outside the page. This is why things like “Shut up and write” are so important – they give you time to free write and potentially find a spark of sense.
3. Find a writing circle of niceness
No matter how wonderful (or less so) your PhD supervisor is, sometimes you need new eyes to read what you’ve done. Once I started writing my thesis again, and once I had begun to recognize constructive criticism, I found a writing circle of niceness. We all shared our drafts with other, knowing that we could trust each other to give feedback with the only agenda being to make the work better. I could not have finished my PhD without this circle. I was able to hand them first drafts and they gave me space to fail – the first draft for them was only ever the starting point and all things have to start somewhere. In reading other people’s work, I also saw how differently ideas could be expressed and how much our work differed from each other. There was no right way to write a thesis – we simply aimed to create the most polished version of our work as possible.
Towards the light
Not every PhD student may nurture a dream to become a writer outside of their academic identity. Yet our academic work is creative by it’s very nature – we create something out of nothing. In this way, guidance from the creative arts can help in putting us on the writing path again – find our way back to the thesis.