Writing: Ups and (Yvonne ) Downs
Well into my second year of a PhD I have
not (consciously) written a single word of my thesis. Sometimes
this concerns me. It concerns me when students who began their
studies at the same time as me report completion of one or more chapters.
I also quake at the teeny scraps of study time and space remaining after
being ‘mum' to teenage boys. At such times I experience a
kind of palsy during which it becomes impossible to get a grip on any
productive activity. Nevertheless, contrary to the impression I may
have given, I write almost daily and I write prolifically. However,
this writing would, I'm sure, be labelled ‘writing down' rather
than ‘writing up' if it were to count at all. Like a designer's
diffusion label, it's good but not the real thing.
My ‘diffusion' writings consist in
the main of my journal, field notes, notes taken when I read, emails,
my blog, updates for my supervisor and sundry jottings in notebooks.
I am not saying that they could or should be accepted in lieu of a thesis.
The thesis is for public consumption and carries with it particular
obligations to its readers/audiences that these other writings do not.
I am also persuaded that the ‘thinking through writing', of the
kind alluded to by Richardson, is of a different order when ‘writing
up' rather than ‘writing down', just as writing a shopping list
or transcribing my interviews is different. I am guessing that
the difference is in the type of creativity involved. But the
inference that writing up is what really counts and writing down is
the beer and skittles element of doctoral research seems to me a strong
Sometimes I can ignore what others are
doing and confidently keep faith with myself (the role of my supervisor
is also crucial here). However, it is only through writing this
piece that I have come to appreciate that this confidence may not be
(just) mindless optimism. It is not simply that I know some of
my writings will be directly incorporated into my thesis, because at
this stage I cannot guess which. Equally, I have always known
that everything I write is in a sense relevant, part of a complex and
barely understood process of sorting out my ideas; sorting of a different
kind, moreover, to that which goes on in my mind while I am cooking
supper or staring into space. What I am suggesting here is that
writing stuff down which is not consciously part of the ‘real thing'
may account for the relative ease with which I then do write the proper
stuff (which is not to say I don't get frustrated sometimes too).
In a sense writing down is akin to the displacement activities that
are more usually a prelude to the immediate business of writing up.
So, although I tear my hair out sometimes, most of the time I find myself
somewhere on a continuum of writing pleasure. And at this point
in my life I do have to take my pleasures as I find them.
Yvonne Downs is a PhD student in the Department of Education at the University of Sheffield. Details of her research and life as a middle-aged student can be found on her blog-in-the-making http://phoenixrising-mindingthegaps.blogspot.com/