James Burford is a Lecturer in Research Education and Development at La Trobe University.
He researches too many things.
Recent preoccupations include: academic conferences, academic mobility, gender and sexuality in education and the felt experience of doctoral education.
Recently, I found myself sitting on a panel offering advice to graduate researchers who are trying to finish their theses. Even though I wrote my own PhD about the feelings involved in writing a PhD, it is easy to feel inadequate to the task of advice-giving.
Theses are so intricate, so specific, so personally transformative, that you are never entirely sure if you and another becoming-doctor are even talking about the same kind of thing! (See my thesis here, and a blog post about it here)
Sitting on this panel, I decided to be as honest as I could about the lumpy rhythm of my own doctoral experience.
My doctoral life involved multiple moves of house, city and country. It was punctuated by a relationship break-up and new love, part-time then full-time work at universities, and intense care work for a sick relative, which resulted in changes to my candidature (see more on this here – subscription required). My doctoral research was also intellectually challenging in ways I never really anticipated, leaving my brain bent into new shapes and leading me to question beliefs I’d long attached myself to. It is, as many doctoral education researchers have written, as if an important threshold (subscription required) has been crossed. There is no going back to pre-PhD me.
Given that a thesis is so long in duration and I am very forgetful, I can’t say what my approach to writing really was with any great accuracy. I think at the beginning I spent quite a lot of time walking backwards into things. It was as if I needed to figure out what a doctoral student might do before I could actually do it.
So, I would sit in the library, chew pencils and carry books around and try and feel doctoral. Because thinking is often a slow, interior and quiet activity, often it seemed that not a lot was actually happening even though it probably was. I seem to remember a lot of time spent trying not to fall asleep, but that’s just how this period lives in my unreliable memory. Others might remember me being otherwise!
Toward the end of my thesis I have a different vision of myself: a person wholly obsessed. I got myself into a daily rhythm where I would wake up early and silently cycle to the canteen. Seven days a week, I would eat and drink the same things off the menu and then make my way back to my room on campus that was wallpapered with pages from my thesis. There, I would pace about, trying to find the rhythm of the words in my head. I managed to engineer some months free of teaching and lived those months as a graphomaniac in near solitude. I barely left my room, let alone the campus. I had the profound privilege of spending a few months ignoring almost all other worldly things. Luckily, I lived in campus accommodation and they looked past the fact that I forgot to pay my power bill for nearly 10 months straight…
While I didn’t take up vows of stillness, silence or solitude in a conscious way, this phase of monkish doctoral living was characterised by the renunciation of sensual pleasures, and devotion to my thesis. Once my thesis was done, I went back to academic work and continued to approach it with some asceticism.
In my current role as a research educator, I hasten to add that I wouldn’t prescribe this mode of being for writers I talk with! But neither do I want to pretend that my own experience toward the end of my thesis was well-balanced and serene.
If we’ve marked the start and the end of the thesis, let me now reflect on life after the thesis, some years later.
My current self shares some traits with the selves I’ve introduced above. I still think I am often walking backwards into things, and still a bit of a graphomaniac, but other things have changed.
As I was sitting on the panel, I noticed the following words tumble out of my mouth: “Nowadays I romance myself into my writing”. As I caught myself saying this, I wondered what it meant.
Here is my attempt at an explanation:
Being an academic means that writing and undertaking research is a core part of my job. But in the weekly rhythm of my working life full of meetings and workshops and emails it is also a treat that I savour. I desire writing and knowledge production. I desire the opportunities it affords me to be creative, to transform myself, to wrestle with hard problems that bounce around in my head, and I desire the opportunities it brings me for intellectual intimacy and friendship with collaborators I am working with.
Recognising my desire to write, I have shifted my writing warm-up from a disciplined ascetic life, which prioritises abstinence from indulgence, to one which fully engages with writing as a sensuous bodily practice.
I prepare for writing much like I’d prepare for a date with a sweetheart. I set aside a generous period of time. I get nervous and giddy. I pace about. I wear perfume.
Nowadays, I get myself ready to write by actually getting out of my pyjamas. I try to dress up nice and do my hair. As I sit down to write, I try and stay present, vulnerable and patient to what might come.
I also produce a cosy writing space by lighting scented candles or incense, and getting the mood right through lighting. I pour a cup of tea, and sometimes I indulge those old clichés of chocolate and fresh cut flowers. I like to have things nearby that make me feel good: sweet-smelling handcream, a facial mist to spritz myself back to earth, a soft scarf to drape around my neck, a sharp pencil to write with. Sometimes, I like music softly playing, but mostly I still prefer silence. This also means the two naughty cats I live with have to stay downstairs.
I guess I see romancing myself into writing as a way of embracing the wants of my writerly body. As time has gone on, I have become less inclined to be frugal with physical pleasures. I see it now as a kind of seduction, a dance I dance with myself, the work, and the words and ideas of others. Like walking backwards, or proceeding monkishly, this way of writing seems to be working for me for now.
To be clear though, romancing my writing is, like many relationships, hard work. It is about showing up, being flexible and working things out.
In this post, I’m not really interested in advocating for a particular way of being in relation to writing. Instead, I am trying to call all writers to reflect on the ways we are for ourselves when we produce knowledge. This is a call to locate new ways of being academic writers, ways that are perhaps more experimental. I reckon there might be writing selves we could take up that are on the tips of our tongue or the horizons of our vision. It’s now up to us to discover them!