In first year, I went to absolutely every training seminar going, in the hope of insights into the DPhil process (and, you know, how to get my hands on some money). A Highly-Acclaimed Shakespeare Scholar was at one of them. I can’t remember what the seminar title was, or whether the following observation was made generally or to me in particular.
The Acclaimed Shakespeare Scholar was talking about her own experience as a DPhil student, when she used to experience a phenomenon she called “clever days” and “stupid days”.
…there was a pause in which everyone present contemplated what The Acclaimed Shakespeare Scholar having a “stupid day” might look like, and the degree to which it would have resembled any one of us functioning at our intellectual best, if we were lucky.
The gist was that the aforementioned scholar had been intrigued and frustrated by her tendencies towards “clever” (i.e. productive, insightful, positive) and “stupid” (frustrating, unproductive, what I’m having as I write this post) days, and their apparent lack of trigger. She’d tried mapping them to see if they followed a pattern – any pattern, even down to her own hormones. They didn’t.
If I am very tired, or very stressed about non-work-related issues, a “stupid day” is not surprising. Today, I am a bit stressed. I am going away soon; I am flat-hunting; I am being thwarted in affordable theatre-ticket-buying and the economy is on fire thanks a Cabinet containing four hundred millionaires and sixty-three baronets. But the fact remains: I am less stressed than I am stupid. Today, I feel incredibly stupid.
Yesterday, I was prolific: 1,368 words, less demented than the previous batch but still full of semi-colons and square brackets containing words like EXPAND and MORE HERE. Sometimes, when I write a lot, I get nervous. I worry that the amount of rewriting I’ll need to do outweighs the net value of what I’ve written, and that waiting or writing fewer, more polished sentences, might have been better. Even though one piece of first-year advice was “start writing sooner”, by the end of the day I was crowd-sourcing advice and reassurance from the vast number of essay- dissertation- and thesis-survivors on my Facebook.
My lovely friends rallied in praise of word vomit, owt being better than nowt, not getting it right but getting it written, and (my personal favourite) the fact that “a blank word document at the end of the day during the DPhil is the stuff drunks are made of”. I definitely felt better about those 1,368 words.
Today, though, has felt like a stupid day. I have written some words, but couldn’t tell you how many – they’re dotted all around, and some are in note form. This is certainly not my first “stupid day”, but I think I did manage to turn it around, and on reflection, felt inspired to write this list:
DPhil Techniques For Rescuing A Stupid Day
1. Edit what you’ve written. Rewriting is a thousand times easier than re-writing, with the satisfaction of creating an infinitely better end-product. I think when you’re in a real fug about work, though, there’s the danger of hacking at it too hard, so edit carefully. Style-edit only, concentrate on the piece of the chapter written longest ago, or (this works best for me) turn to a completely different chapter. I like this last one because it reminds me there was life before this chapter and there will be again (n.b. in no way a doctoral drama-queen) after. Also, rewriting inevitably involves generating new words as well as cutting, so if you’re in a co-dependent relationship with your wordcount, there’s some redemption there.
2. Write like you’d talk. I have rough/first drafts of so many paragraphs and chapters styled by a near-manic determination to get the words out at all costs. Sometimes the trigger has to be “so, in 1888, you’ve got these two things happening at once, because in the autumn you get these murders in Whitechapel and…” in order for the academic style to take over subsequently. There’s a gulf between being blocked on paper and unable even to speak. So don’t write; talk on paper. This technique is essentially about tricking yourself, and variations include:
- Typing in a word processor other than your usual (e.g. TextEdit not Word for Mac, in my case), or in an email which you send to yourself to read the next day,
- Rewriting the last paragraph by literally writing it out again – you’ll be unable to help making improvements, and will probably have your “flow” back by the time you need to start on fresh content,
- Switching from laptop to longhand, or vice versa, or
- Imagining what you’re writing is a conference paper, rather than a section/chapter, and coming up with a series of “Pithy Quotation or Alliterative Amusement: Thing and Thing in Time or Place”-style titles for it.
3. Read something relevant to your research. Usually my “stupidity” derives from ignorance. I don’t know what to write because I don’t know about something. In that way, blocks can be really useful because they show up the gaps in your knowledge early, at the first-drafting stage, when you have the most scope to do something about it. Embrace the deadlock and deal with it. For me, this ties in with another comment I got on my facebook post, with which I strongly identified; I only feel I’m thinkingproperly once I’m actually writing. The act of selecting, refining and arranging my research tells me where the gaps are.
4. Read something new/marginally relevant to your research. If I’m tangled up in a chapter, reading something apparently unconnected can act as a catalyst for reshaping/reframing my thoughts, by forcing me to step outside whatever I’m currently working on.
5. Get out of the library. Today, I realised that part of my problem was that I was going stir crazy in the Lower Camera. Decamping to Caffe Nero, rehydrating and reading my work on printout gave me a sense of perspective. God knows that the genuine excitement of working somewhere new is one of the most pathetic aspects of student existence (as a finalist, I spent a few days up Parks Road in the Rhodes House Library and it really was like going on holiday, I know, tragic, it’s best I’m kept here quietly and allowed to look at books), but sometimes it works. Fresh air and sunlight and a little stroll to sort out the Deep Vein Thrombosis, etc.
6. Do something useful. I always have a to-do list full of tasks like THE BANK and POST INVOICE and BUY WHITE SHIRT and REPLY TO THAT EMAIL, DO YOU WANT TO BE HOMELESS/FRIENDLESS/JOBLESS. Creative procrastination or quality break? Doesn’t matter, but if your writing is really going nowhere, fill the pause with one of the other things playing on your mind. Sometimes, if the real problem is that I’m feeling overwhelmed by all the demands on my time, clearing a few bite-size to-do tasks redirects me to the main event.
7. Do something fun, without feeling guilty
sometimes. Occasionally. In moderation. While constantly apologising/justifying. Work/life balance is important (I’m told). There’s a bit in Gaudy Night (1935, and therefore totally an appropriate Guide To Life) where the mad-eyed, overstressed finalist complains to the Dean of Shrewsbury College that her mind feels blank and empty, and is told that is as good a reason as any to get outside and play tennis. I prefer, um, champagne and kosher cookies with my housemates (in no way what just happened) to healthful sport and Vitamin D but I STAND BY the fictional advice of the fictional Dean.
Today, when I finally got out of the Bodleian, had a walk and could think, I remembered a Word document in which I’d jotted down thoughts about the chapter section I was trying to write. I opened it and discovered that it was much more comprehensive than I remembered – no continuous prose, but the basis for it (and rewriting notes, of course, is a great way to trick yourself into writing again). So, my stupid day was rescued by the existence of the clever days.
Although the champagne, cookies, and housemates helped too.
If you have other strategies for getting through the stickier bits of writing, I’d love to hear them, below.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.