Stuck – can I avoid thesis hate?

This is a therapeutic post. Not a helpful one – unless you are stuck with your thesis writing and can find happiness in the misery of others or the feeling of camaraderie with a fellow fallen soldier. God, I am melodramatic. The reality is slightly less spectacular. I am merely stuck in my thesis. I have been at war with a section of the chapter I am writing and am slowly but surely reaching the point were I want to claw my eyes out or at least hide under my bed for a really long time. Or in my bed, with lots of food and good television (hi there House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Bed of Anxiety (the last one’s not actually a thing… yet. Don’t torture your netflix looking for it)).

Usually I believe in the shishi-odoshi style of writing (I explained that before),  which means that for a long time nothing happens until suddenly, bang, there’s your chapter (though, obviously, it’s more a baaaaaaaaaaaaang, since I still write small increments every day. The point is that there is a turning point from reading to writing and once this is reached, the writing is fun and flowy and not torturous at all). This is how I wrote what I wrote so far. And it was swell. I have 13000 words that I am actually really satisfied with. That’s more than ten percent. All is well in the Land of Nel. Except, the 13000 words I have are about two thirds of the first chapter and now I have to write the last third and I really can’t. I just can’t. The section I am supposed to write is on theodicy in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry and how it influenced Victorian authors. It’s supposed to be quite short. Only between 3000-5000 words. So it should be easy. My incredibly supportive supervisor is one of the world’s leading Coleridge scholars. So it should be great.

It is not.

I have been struggling with this on-again-off-again for the last two months. At that rate I’ll be done with this thesis at the day of the Last Judgement, when a thesis on theodicy will become, quite frankly, obsolete.

I have often found that once I am able to formulate what the problem is, I can usually solve it. At the moment, I can’t even say what the problem is but since hiding in the vicinity of my bed appears not to be an option (because I have to finish this fucker before the end of days), I’ll now try to formulate the problem. Ok, the first part of the problem is procedural. I usually read and think until it’s time to write. Then I become stuck for a couple of days. Then I write. Then everything is ok. Better then ok. Ahhhh-mazing.

This time, I read and thought. Then I got stuck. Then I had to interrupt my stuckness in order to prepare my transfer of status piece (for the uninitiated: the transfer of status is a holy ceremony in which a lowly Probationary Research Student, such as myself, is tested on the ancient rites of thesis writing, and, if succesful is miraculously transformed into a DPhil candidate. In order to transfer one hands in a 10000 word piece of writing, on which one is then tested). So instead of overcoming the stuckness the first time around, I had to cut my beautiful 13000 words down to 10000 in order to hand them in for the transfer. When I returned to the Coleridge section, I was still stuck but with the attached emotional baggage of feeling like I’d been stuck for ever.

Another part of the problem is that I think I don’t really like Coleridge. That isn’t usually a bad thing. I have often written about people who I didn’t like in the beginning. I only grew interested in them through writing. In some cases my initial aversion turned into deep admiration and ever so slight obsession (I once wrote a paper about William Empson, where I started hating his criticism and ended loving even his neck beard). Part of being a scholar of literary criticism, for me at least, is that I bond with my subject. At some point I usually feel a connection. I feel as if I understand the person about whose work I am writing. Of course, this is an illusion. I know Empson about as well as a stalker knows his victim; I am incredibly familiar with a public persona or implied author or some other kind of construct; I don’t actually know the real author, regardless of the amount of time I spent with their work, or letters, or even diaries. Nevertheless, a lot of good criticism, to me at least, is the kind where you feel the critic actually understands and sympathizes with the author, which doesn’t mean the critic can’t still be suspicious and critical.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge – not even visually very attractive

The problem is that with Coleridge I am not feeling it. I have been reading his writing almost every day for the last two months and I’m not feeling it. I’ve always enjoyed the Ancient Mariner (who doesn’t?). I am deeply ambivalent about most of his other poems, his lectures and a lot of his theoretical writing but that’s not the point. The point is I still feel like I fundamentally don’t know the man. I know so many biographical details. I know his friends. I know his sexy dreams and guilty pleasures (everything you write in your diary will be used by your critics).  And yet, I really don’t feel Coleridge. It’s not that I hate him. I can work with that (much interesting criticism comes from a place of moral outrage). It’s that he isn’t even real to me.

Ok, back to the original question: What’s the problem? Why can’t I feel Coleridge. Perhaps we just don’t work together. Perhaps we aren’t meant to be (whatever that might mean). Perhaps, it’s him (some obscure quality that makes him unsuitable for my critical exploitation). But truth be told, I don’t really think it’s him. It’s me. I am so anxious about the thesis and finally finishing this section that I wouldn’t recognize a great writer if he had “mad skillz!!!” tattooed on his forehead. My anxiety has created a blockade which keeps me from connecting and therefore from writing. The longer I don’t write, the bigger the blockade grows. I am blaming Coleridge for the fact that I haven’t written anything good about him yet.

Actually, now that I’ve written it down, I recognize the pattern. Especially in more advanced PhD students, I have often felt that when they say they hate their topic, what they are actually saying is that they hate their inability to write something they are satisfied with. Failure to write leads to hatred, leads to failure to write, more hatred, more failure, etc.

Is this what Coleridge and I are suffering from? I’m not sure. It seems as good an explanation as any. We had bad timing, I got stuck. Now I blame him and am building up all this intense dislike for him and thesis writing in general (if you can’t tell, I am not a happy camper at the library right now…).

So what do I do? Almost everyone I’ve talked to about my stuckness has recommended I leave Coleridge and do something else and return to it when I’m unstuck. I can’t deny that that sounds very tempting. But what if I don’t get unstuck? What if the problem doesn’t fix itself? Then I’ll move on, always knowing I have a Coleridge shaped skeleton in my closet that is haunting my thesis. What if I then get stuck on something else? Should I abandon that too? Do I really want my thesis to turn into a mass grave of abandoned attempts? Is that how thesis hatred and graduate misery is born. No, I’m afraid I have to just fight through it. I might feel happier now if I did not have to return to the illusive Coleridge tomorrow morning but four weeks from now, I’ll feel infinitely better having written a lousy section on Coleridge than knowing I still need to write that Coleridge section.

A friend of mine asked me if I am a perfectionist. I answered that I don’t think so. I like to think of myself as highly pragmatic. But the longer I think about this, the more I realize that the truth is that I can write something about Coleridge. My problem is that I feel that I can’t write something good about Coleridge. It is my unwillingness to write something that is not perfect that makes me unable to write anything. It’s almost as if the fact that I really like what I’ve written so far is making it harder to continue. When I started writing, I felt like I was fooling around, what I was doing was a zero-draft. Probably won’t make it into the final thesis anyway…. Now the expectations are huge and everything is so serious and my supervisor is a Coleridge expert and oh my god the pressure.

But hiding from it will not make it any less daunting. Writing it will. The best way forward appears to just write it. “Don’t get it right, get it written,” as they say. And to do that I have to mentally reclaim the feeling of “this isn’t even a real draft and who cares anyway” that helped me create my first 13000 words. Tomorrow, I will go into the library and I’ll write a mediocre section on Coleridge. I’ll wilfully produce something that is not perfect – even writing that makes my heart ache. This is my baby. I don’t want to write a mediocre section into my baby. But then, I don’t want to not write anything at all, either. After all, I’d rather have a baby with a bad haircut than a still birth. Hair regrows and bad sections can be rewritten.

(note to self: maybe not the best idea to think of thesis as a screaming, demanding baby… think of it as a kitten. Kittens are nice)


About Oxford DPhile

I'm a doctoral candidate in English at Somerville College, Oxford. My thesis, tentatively titled “Just Literature: Evil, Victorian Narrative, and the Problem of Theodicy”, explores the interplay between literature and theodicy – the justification of a good God in light of the existence of evil – in the works of A.H. Clough, J.A. Froude and George Eliot. I teach English Literature at the University of Würzburg, coach academic writing in English at Oxford, blog about the tricks and pitfalls of thesis writing, and love to collaborate. My novel "Das Unglück anderer Leute" was published by Galiani Berlin in August 2016.
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2 Responses to Stuck – can I avoid thesis hate?

  1. pancakesandwildhoney says:

    The caption under the Coleridge portrait is really quite funny. 🙂

    My advice: hit a couple of bowls, watch an episode of either Fringe or Veronica Mars (first season), your pick, and, then, just write something really terrible on Coleridge. Give it two days–no more–then make it not-so-terrible.

    For me, my writing the first time around is not always good, but if I write some bullshit anyway, I can always make that initial bullshit pretty damn good.

    “That’s how you become great, man. Hang your balls out there!” Sorry, I watch too many movies. I couldn’t resist.


  2. Pingback: Resolutions in Bits and Pieces: Two Ways of Getting Shit Done | Oxford Dphile

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