Saturday, May 01, 2010

Procrastination

Yesterday, a woman I met on line sent an email to ask if I had any thoughts about her dilemma. She, like me, is in the final stages of a PhD but is much closer to finishing than me. She finds herself unhappy with her work - so close to the end but it no longer satisfies her.

I am aware of entering a similarly odd and negative space myself, one in which the thesis that I had imagined all those years ago - this wonderful book that I would write filled with extraordinary examples of how the desire for revenge has triggered creative writing - has become stuck. The ‘book’ although it is filling out, has lost most of its lustre.

It is not a book anyhow. PhDs are dressed up as books but they are not books in any conventional sense. There are too many requirements to mark a thesis as a book. It is one that no person other than an academic would want to read.

I want my book to be a ‘good read’. I want my book to grip my reader from go to whoa.

I now know that this is not to be, in part because as I said earlier there are requirements for a PhD that mean I have to include stuff – I call it stuff – that I would prefer to leave out. In this sense it is like being back at school preparing for final exams.

I have seen it with my daughters, all of whom write well. Often times I have made suggestions about ways of developing their work and they say:
‘You can’t be too creative. There are rules. You can’t just do as you please.’

I began my PhD in part to give me structure, to give me momentum, to give me community. It has done this in spades, but now as I approach the finishing straight I find I resent the constraints. Is this just an excuse?

In an earlier blog I wrote about Michael Leunig’s take on creativity. It applies here.

During the week my second daughter graduated at a ceremony held at the Melbourne
Convention Centre. In a sea of many coloured gowns, my daughter wore cherry red with white piping to signify her admission into a master’s degree in cultural heritage. It was a proud moment when her name was called and we could see her face on the screen overhead as she walked up to the chancellor, tipped her hat twice as instructed before she took her place on the stage with the ten others waiting for their share of the applause.

When the academic procession first marched into the convention centre and I watched the guard in black gown and hood, carry the mace in his thick-gloved hands, my eyes welled with tears.

I do not understand my sensitivity to certain rituals. It happens at my daughters’ school, too. When the procession starts up at the beginning of presentation night, when the academics and teachers line up in rows and march in their gowns, hoods and mortarboards into the assembly hall, I choke up. I am back in the church of my childhood, feeling the comfort of tradition wash over me, centuries old traditions that stir up some primitive longing.

Yet my cynical self baulks at this sentimentality.

I reckon we need rituals. They form the punctuation marks of our lives. They heighten our sense of what matters in life: the weddings, the funerals, the graduation ceremonies.

I did not bother to attend my own undergraduate ceremony over thirty years ago. I graduated in absentia. I thought I was too cool then to waste my time sitting around with a whole lot of fogies in academic gowns. Not for me, then. Now I look forward to the day of my floppy hat, but I have some hurdles to get over before then and these hurdles seem high, too high, perhaps.

I fancy I have taken to blogging as an act of avoidance: to assuage the loneliness of the road ahead, to comfort me in face of the task that stretches before me. I have to shape my thesis into a form that makes sense, that has narrative energy, and that does not include too much superfluous nonsense, does not repeat itself too often, and that holds meaning in a pointed and well articulated way.

I write about it here and I feel like a three-armed juggler with five balls who does not know how to use her third arm. I am awkward, at sixes and sevens, in a muddle and drowning under the weight of my wish to procrastinate.

Who wants to read this drivel? Some of my blog friends might, but they are not as demanding as the three people who will read and decide on the fate of my thesis.

Bloggers have expectations: to be entertained, to be moved, to be shocked, to be comforted, all manner of expectations, but academics have other expectations that are more hard boiled.

While I am stuck like this, my writing is stuck, circular and lumpy.

When I was young there were days when I sat around hour after hour in search of something idle to do, something that might occupy my mind, my fingers, and take up energy without taxing me.

Sitting in front of the television might have worked once but I gave up TV when I was twelve years old. One day As I scribbled the last of my history homework in my exercise book I considered what it would be like to take my time over my work. What it would be like to hand in neat and thoughtful work rather than this haphazard higgledy piggledy stuff I had just dragged out of the text book and my head that morning as I rattled along on the train to school. On such mornings I needed a seat. I could not do my homework standing up.

'You must stop watching TV,' I said to myself that day. 'TV eats up time and does not help you to pass exams.'

It was as easy as that; to give up television, like giving up smoking, which I did ten years later, but which was not at all easy until I found I was pregnant. Somehow after that smoking did not matter one bit. Pregnancy took away all my desire for a cigarette.

What can I draw on now to drag me out of this appalling state of procrastination? Why do I resist that which was once so compelling? What perverse part of me has taken hold and insists I waste time writing drivel like this for my blog when I could in fact be editing and thinking about, considering the weightier subject of my thesis topic? Why have I become such a slug?
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