I’ve been thinking about writing a post for a few weeks. It’s not the one I intended to write. It has been 3.5 months since I started a PhD at Queen’s University, Belfast and everything is about writing. I’ve been on writing courses, I’ve submitted pieces to be assessed and learned how to handle positive criticism, I’ve looked at the screen and wondered who wrote that great sentence or that crap (hint: it was me).
A quick thought on criticism. At some point in the not-too-distant past, I took feedback personally. In a way, it can be personal and rarely, but sometimes, feedback can be used bitchily in a work environment. However, I’ve lost the triggering sensation that feedback used to bring. Is that a delicious benefit of middle-age or have I developed more positive habits? A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with a (middle-aged) colleague and we agreed that we are so lucky to get this feedback on our writing, feedback which aims to make us better writers. You couldn’t pay for that. Well, you could, but you wouldn’t get it from people who know you and care about you.
Lots of social media and blogs like this oversell the joyful ‘look at me’ character of life. The fun selfies, the perfect cake-makes, the finished quilts. In 2020, I’m taking a reality check and sharing both the joys and the things which are, well, chewy. Here’s one of each connected to writing. First, my joy is that I’ve written a book chapter and submitted it yesterday. It’s to be included (subject to edits) in a new book coming out later in 2020. I’m absolutely thrilled to have been asked to take part. It was flipping hard to do. Second, my chewy issue is that writing academically is really fecking difficult. There’s a plethora of advice, much of it very sensible and well-intentioned. There is a universal-ful of reading to do and ideas to enjoy and thoughts to think. But at some point all of that goodness needs to turn into something on a page. And it needs to do that in a way that works for me.
Yesterday, I was working on a particular aspect of my thesis and my head was way down the rabbit hole of some esoteric idea. I met a lecturer to discuss something and she asked me for a summary of what my core thesis was as we’d never discussed that. I did my best fish impression, mouth agape. Diving back out of the rabbit hole to an elevator pitch was nigh on impossible. She was generous and understanding, but I’m sure was wondering what is this guy actually working on!!
When I find something chewy or I’m grumpy about it, it’s a signal to me that I’m working on a solution in some deep bit of my brain. Switching from detail to summary was a work skill for me, why should it be different in academic life? I think it’s because my mind is so expanded by the possibilities laid out in conceptual academia that connecting that kind of thought with what it means for everyday practicalities is a challenge.
So there’s my challenge for Year 1 of doing a doctorate. Structuring my thinking and writing in a way that allows me to explore these exciting ideas but shape them into useful tools to address my research questions.
I chose the title of this blog deliberately: The Writing Groove. It’s a very old Germanic noun (groeve) for a channel or rut created by repetitive actions. The way to crack this academic writing challenge lies in repeatedly working at it. In taking part of every day and just doggedly working at it. In allowing the mind to breathe, going away to do other things and keep coming back to it. In developing a groove.