Image by Katarina K
Many aspiring writers leap into an extensive project with enthusiasm, talking about it to everyone within earshot and then some. Then days and weeks go by, months pass and one day, a well-meaning acquaintance enquires about it and you’ll find yourself grasping for a non descript answer. As you walk away, rosy-cheeked and uneasy, you ask yourself why on earth you can never keep your mouth shut. There is more than that though, as the feeling that was already creeping on you, on and off, is here to stay: you really don’t want to do this any more.
This despondency, compounded by a deep sense of loneliness, is part of the writing life, as much a rite of passage as the hysterics reserved for the publisher who announces yet another draft and yet another delay. I realise even too well that these words are unlikely to be of comfort to you; if truth be told, they are not of comfort to me either. I am not writing a novel but I have written a PhD and for all writing purposes, and at over 80,000 words, I can certainly define a PhD as an extensive writing project. I put it to sleep late last summer and now it has returned from the dead, as many PhDs do, requiring revisions. And I don't want to do these revisions.
I am not the first, nor am I going to be the last, student who is faced with the prospect of un-binding three hundred pages and revising them one by one, yet knowing that someone, somewhere, is going through the same painful process does not make me feel any less hard-done by. I do not feel part of a silent brotherhood of dejected PhD students who continue despite adversity, fending off the enemy’s blows, dripping blood from the wounds but still marching to the end on their knees, eventually clinching the degree with a smile on their pale faces as the tear-jerking music swells and the end credits roll. No, there’s none of that moment of glory in sight here my friend.
I have been sitting around and lying low for quite some time, unable even to bear the sight of my magnum opus stacked on top of notes and scrapbooks, all gathering dust. Proofreading some unbelievably crap stories, which I have done lately and which I generally greatly dislike, is suddenly far more appealing than my own writing. At least for proofing I get paid. Yet, really deep down, I know I must proceed. Remember when I said that stamina is what differentiates those who succeed from those who don’t? I’d go as far as saying that stamina is more important than talent. Staying with the task through the slumps and the chasms and the hysterics and all the other emotional permutations of weakness and dejection is what will see you a victor on the other side of the creative process. Many people start novels, plays, PhDs and much else; only the truly focused ones finish them.
Did you know that The Thorn Birds was written in the evening, when the author finally had some time to herself? I know this reference may as well belong to the piece about not having time to write (read: if there’s a will, there’s a way), but it is no less important when related to the problem of wishing to let it all go. Do you think that Tolstoj, who is said to have re-drafted War and Peace eight times, did not feel like giving up? Ever? It’s part of the writing life, except it does not appear on the job description; writing is that very odd game where your only adversary is yourself.
We may want to give up for a multitude of reasons. Personally, I find that working alone, as one must do when writing, is responsible for very many of my jacking-it-in responses to the blinking cursor. I often want my work to flow like an alpine waterfall and find myself with a dripping tap. Other times I would be happy with a leaking shower-head and find myself working with a teaspoon instead. In practice this takes many forms, both for me and you. You may realise that your plot isn’t going anywhere or that you want all of your characters killed off; you may find yourself unable to imagine anything past a pivotal scene only to realise you're only half an act into the play; you may be unwilling even to contemplate revising parts of your research, making a plan for it or starting from the typos. Whatever the stage, I can assure you that the sole thought of looking at my bibliography, let alone updating it, makes me feel sick with what seems like self-inflicted boredom.
In reality, this profound sense of inadequacy is often dictated as much by suspected writing inability ('I can’t revise it, I am not good enough, I'm done') as it is by fear ('Oh no, I cannot possibly make it, what was I thinking?'). Yet, in the beginning confidence was whispering sweetly in our ear as the sacred fire of creativity was burning brightly deep within. The thought of my own beginnings is a sweet-and-sour mental relic that does not allow me to let go. Isn't it telling that, while considering to give up, a very faint glimmer of hope flickering in the far crevices of our minds is all we need not to give up?
This setting oneself free of writing troubles, as attractive as it may seem on occasion, is more painful to contemplate than even this lasting moment of stalling. Letting go of a project wouldn't be that hard in itself if only we could erase the past; the contemplation of the after is enough to send any creative person into an over-drive. We all know that abandoning a near-complete project, a novel in its third draft or a PhD at revision stage, is not an option.
There is one book that delves into the problems associated with finishing your work at great length, whilst also looking at all other stages of the creative process: Fearless Creating by Eric Maisel. In the very aptly titled 'From Wish To World: Completing Your Work', the author speaks of anxiety, judgment, detachment, criteria for completion and, perhaps more importantly, of successive completions and of how a project is complete many times over. I felt this very strongly as I was finishing my PhD and realised that, at the very end of it, I went through three major stages of completion. Doing revisions right now qualifies as stage four.
The author says: 'Stop now and do a small thing connected to your project. Write and rewrite a single sentence until it is completed. Mix pigments until you arrive at a beautiful green [...] Feel the satisfaction. These completions count. If you do not allow them to count, one day your wish to create will evaporate'. Not only will creativity die without our appreciation for completion, we will also be unable to look at our own work without a modicum of detachment, that which is necessary for improving the work itself. 'Find the psychological distance that allows you to look at the work and remain calm. [...] If you succeed, you will have learned a great enduring lesson–that it's possible to look at your work without panic'. Is it really possible dear reader? I guess the only way to find out is to persevere.