The thesis follows me like a stalker. It has been in my brain wherever I go, whatever I’m doing. I dream thesis, eat thesis, walk, talk, sleep thesis. The thesis is there, around every corner, waiting at the top of the stairs, lying in the bottom of cooking pots, mixed in with laundry I take out of the tumble dryer.
My task at the moment is to reorganise the thesis under sub-headings to make it easier for examiners to negotiate the terrain and tune into the arguments. Sunday I did the deed: I carved it up into body parts of thesis, saved each separate limb, organ and section in a separate document. After that act of vandalism, I had no idea what to do with it: what order will I stitch it back together? The analyses of the work of Selima Hill and Pascale Petit are, in my opinion, the most interesting and engaging sections; but I can’t lead with them to grab the examiners’ attention without first putting in place the theories underpinning those analyses. This single dilemma has invaded my sleep: I dreamed I murdered my thesis, but I got off on a defence of self-defence.
On Sunday, I filled the RD9 form for the meeting last week; then worked on the creative section, ignoring the need to reorganise the critical section altogether. I updated the contents of the creative section in line with poems I’ve added recently; took a last look at poems I’ve redrafted in line with Jean Sprackland’s advice, highlighted the new and redrafted poems in the collection to make it easier for her to find them and sent it off to her again for comment. Is that section at least ready to submit? To be honest, this all seemed like an easy option to get me in the groove, a particular example of procrastination. It was easier to work on that than to address the big issues that were haunting me.
On Monday I had a day away from my study. I worked on the books at my daughter’s restaurant all morning, then in the afternoon we went to Peterborough to meet my son, Richard and a friend, Maria. It was midnight when we got home. I had a lovely day; but the thesis was in the back of my mind all day, that problem of sub-headings, like a kind of intellectual ear-worm. What if I…
I woke at 4.00 a.m. on Tuesday with the problem still pecking my brain—I use ‘problem’ here in the creative sense. I felt I was set a problem to solve, like a huge, creative puzzle. I had some wonderful ideas while I was asleep; but unfortunately I didn’t write them down so when I woke up I couldn’t remember what they were.
But if it’s hard starting something, I reasoned, just start it and see where it takes you. I went for another soft option: I worked on the introduction section, fine tuning it. It took me a whole morning’s work. By the end of it I wondered if it was any better than it had been before I started. And still I hadn’t addressed the real issue, the reorganisation of the text under relevant sub-headings.
I stopped work after lunch; called it ‘thinking time’, as if I haven’t had a brainful of that this week. Wednesday, I was diverted by life again. I did some more work on the introduction, sent it to Hilary for feedback to see if it was more focused than before. In the afternoon Bill and I went into Manchester for Bill’s delayed birthday treat. We ate at Mr Cooper’s in the Midland Hotel, then went to the Opera House for ‘Motown the Musical’. It was good: energetic and entertaining. Particular favourites were the actors playing Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. It was like revisiting the carefree days of my youth. But all the time the thesis was chewing away, stalking me. After the performance, I had Motown ear-worms to add to the annoying thesis ones. My brain is mashed!
It was Saturday before I had chance to work on it again. I decided to grasp the nettle and go for it. The only way to deal with a bully is to stand up to it/him/her. So I took each separate body part and worked it under sub-headings, starting with the theoretical bits. This required some editing to make it make sense without the body parts that used to surround it, so it was an intense morning’s work. I worked for five hours, with one short tea break. So far I have a ‘Mirror, mask and fetish’ section and a ‘The sonnet and Carol Ann Duffy’ section. I haven’t put them together in any kind of order yet, but I’ve made a start. I’m on my way. That bullying stalker is still there, around the next corner, but she’s leaving me alone for now.
So there you have it. If you’re doing a PhD you’ll have weeks like this. Weeks where the work seems too big, too aggressive, too damned cruel. You’ll wonder why you ever thought a PhD was an attractive idea. But you won’t give in because you’re not a quitter, and you’re so close to the end. I’ll be at it again later today, knocking that problem into shape. I won’t let it beat me.
A poem: this is one of my alternative mothers. I have written this sequence about women—and men—I know, women from history, women from literature; even places I’ve lived anthropomorphised into women. It’s been great fun to write them. This one was loosely inspired by the ‘sex for luncheon vouchers’ scandal of the late seventies. I took the idea of joyful sex work and played with it. I imagined having a mother who gets by on her natural assets; who doesn’t need to work because she has someone to pay her way. She just has to be available on demand. How embarrassing would it be to be a teenaged daughter under those circumstances?
Alternative Mother #6
There are days she doesn’t even leave her bed
except to got to the bathroom.
Last week she binge-watched all eleven series
of Vampire Diaries until she could taste blood.
She looked at me like I was a roast beef dinner
If she does make it downstairs
she lounges in her D&G leopard-skin onesie
in the Barker and Stonehouse leather recliner
paid for by the sugar daddy. She’s never worked,
thinks she’s Kim Kardashian, the world comes to her.
And the world wouldn’t want to offend her:
she wears a grudge like a body-con.
I don’t remember her ever actually using
the Bugatti touch-sense kettle or the electric Aga
in the kitchen. We mostly eat Domino’s,
McDonalds, take-out from The Great Wall.
She flirts outrageously with the Deliveroo man
who pretends he can’t speak English.
My friends never visit. I don’t invite them.