When I first started my PhD I was lost. This didn’t quite compute because everything leading up to that point had come together so well. Having relocated to London I had (and still have) the best supervisor I could have wished for, I had secured funding, I had somewhere to live and my proposal seemed neat and cohesive. The whole project was mapped out before I had even attempted any writing or practice.
My undoing came from the confidence I had beforehand followed by the withering realisation that I was out of my depth when faced with the unsculpted mountain of clay that now lay before me. My proposal (which had a justifiable connection to my MA research and practice) was self-assured with a broadly decided conclusion. This was the problem: I had set limitations on myself from the beginning. The task of picking through lumps of unknown clay in the hope of finding a pre-sculpted masterpiece of predetermined dimensions is stupid and one that I set about with all the vigour of an animal without a head (I don’t know. Let’s say a chicken, for example).
My thesis is practice-led and began with a focus on poetry that has now widened to include digital arts, nineteenth century occultism and a dash of posthumanism. I don’t come from a literary background and was weighing myself down with reading lists, methodologies and dreams of what my thesis might look like. My motive was an impossible epistemological nightmare: Learn everything in the world and then write a brilliant thesis that would stir the mind of even the most dour and ardent sceptic. I was going to deconstruct the very foundations of my field and rebuild from the bottom up. Foolish ambition aside, for all my vainglorious aspirations, the only thing I wasn’t doing was actually writing the thing.
My first supervision went like this: “ “. I had nothing to say. I confessed this sheepishly to my supervisor. She spoke to me about testing practice and finding a starting point from which to launch. I like the poet Jack Spicer and so she suggested we start from there. I went away to read and to think. A month later I was back, this time I had mind-maps, poetry drafts, sequence ideas, focused themes for my chapters and even a new title for the project. My supervisor (who is brilliant, did I mention this?) had taken away the burden of what I thought I was supposed to do (e.g. the self-imposed reading list that now bears little relation to my work) by inviting me to begin with something I enjoyed and simply think through it in relation to the questions that my thesis sought to ask.
The dialogical construction of Me versus the Recalcitrant Object That Is My Thesis is mirrored in the dialogical construction that exists when I think through problems or ask questions of myself. There’s an interesting feedback loop (or, perhaps, one of Arthur Danto’s rhetorical ellipses) there. In both cases the process serves to nourish one’s research, push a project forward and is, I believe, a vital tool in the writing of any thesis. To think is to work.
Do keep writing, though. I dread to think of anyone sitting in their viva and confidently tapping their temple as they boldly state: “It’s all up here, guys”.