I’ve got a draft. Not a military draft or its hononym (e.g. a draught of cooling beer). I’ve got a draft of my thesis.
I’ve actually had one for a while. I’ve enjoyed having it around: I’ve got a draft, you say, when allowed out in public, and people applaud or say urgh or yeech or gosh how clever or do shut up, Sophie, as the mood takes them, but what they never do is ask for any further statement on your progress. Confession of the draft is sufficient, and that suits me just fine. A draft is a useful thing. A settled thing, a clean and finite and accomplished thing, especially when viewed from a very long way in the distance.
I am familiar with the theory and practice of that which follows the creation/achievement of that first draft. I have read the war records of those who have gone before, or rather, back. They go back to their draft – their clean, their settled, their satisfying draft, the embodiment of accomplishment – and they discover that the earliest chapters of that draft might as well have been written by someone on crack. They discover that their arguments were parsed out in crayon, their structures tacked together with hairy wool and their paragraphs riddled with the shrapnel of a thousand square brackets reading [NEEDS MOAR] with reference to detail, evidence and, indeed, references.
It isn’t that I stopped working. Since having my draft (like some smug pregnant waddle-y lady, now post-partum) I’ve
- written and delivered my first lecture at the English Faculty;
- given two conference papers, one in Oxford and one in Newcastle;
- chaired a panel at each (fun and also bizarre), and read.
- Read all the things, in fact, where “all” involves tiny wartime print and/or endless blissful theatrical memoirs by previously unnoticed mad actresses (Ellaline Terriss, anyone? She didn’t try to tell me about spiritualism – hello Constance Benson – but she was, to put it mildly, weird). I think this photo says it all. Basically, I’ve been filling gaps in my knowledge and working through 2012 To Read.docx with all the insufferable righteousness of the smug/drafted/insane.
- I’ve also started writing up a commission from OUP USA (which probably deserves its own post, but I’m too paranoid and shall wait til it’s over).
- Meanwhile, I’m planning two research jaunts (one to the post-industrial north, and one to the inaccessible south) and I’ve also, er, moved house.
Somewhere in the midst of this, I have thought up ways to make two of my chapters (perhaps startlingly) better.
I have been reluctant to start writing again, because I know that once you go back, and start writing again, you cease to be a person with a draft. You become a person with a version, a person entangled with a hideous embroiling mass of prose which can no longer be disguised as a draft, and, indeed, how did you think it ever could?
I’ve been reluctant to start writing because I know, deep down, I’ve been enjoying this moment as a rehearsal of that far-off moment when I can say not “I have a draft” but “I have a thesis”. Pretending has been great fun; far more fun, in fact, than facing the bone-deep crapness that I’ve feared was lurking beneath the surface of Chapter 2.
It’s not as if I want my thesis to end. I love my DPhil. Obviously, I want the achievements and the progression and the letters variously before or after my name; I want the possibility of jobs and books and post-docs and more teaching and everything else that comes with post-doctoral academia. Very prosaically, I want submission to coincide with the end of funding (who doesn’t?)!
But I love my DPhil. I still don’t understand why anyone would voluntarily sign up to spend three years studying something that on some level didn’t make them ludicrously happy or interested (this is different from signing up and then realising your thesis topic is dull/flawed/not the thesis you married). Of course, my thesis can also make me excruciatingly miserable. For example, when I’m teetering on the edge of rewrites.
Nevertheless, the fact that this post is being written indicates that I’ve managed it. Not the rewrites or – of course – the thesis in its entirety (yet), but looking the draft in its face and beginning the second draft.
I’ve written here before about tricking yourself into writing, and I’ve managed it. The experience (sustained by Marks & Spencer “reduced fat”, and yet suspiciously all-butter chocolate cookies) has (re)taught me several things:
- It is never as bad as you think. This applies both to re-confronting your draft chapter and jumping very fast into a swimming pool of cold water. Both build character, and neither will actually kill you (pending bad luck).
- Keep the faith regarding the two basic maxims of DPhil/PhD existence:
1) don’t get it right, get it written, and
2) there is no writing, only rewriting
- The point about one’s earliest efforts lacking the wit and nuance of a photocopied bum is that it is fantastically easy to improve them (the writing, not the bum. Although SPANX FOR YOUR PHD would be an amazing slogan).
- Because your first academic daubs were created at the moment of maximum ignorance and minimal scholarly presentation (all right, this might just be me, but apparently in Michaelmas 2010 I was using a referencing format known only to God), you are guaranteed to do better this time (if you detect in this a certain amount of fervent self-reassurance, I can only ask you to pay no attention to the flailing twit behind the curtain).
- Stop eating the biscuits.
Unfortunately, though, not getting it right but getting it written must eventually evolve into actually getting it right, and it seems I’m at the moment where writing must start hitting rightness. I have been scribbling on paper, designing new templates, and scrolling [Ctrl+F] through hundreds of pages of notes.
My draft does sometimes make me want to shout. Bits of it are good. Bits of it are terrible. Bits of it are unexpected, and largely unexpurgated narratives of copy-cat Ripper killings committed in Yorkshire around Christmas, 1888. To the holding bay these sections must go (along with “Why I Hate Gordon Craig” and “Things Which Seemed Amusing To Me With Regards To Eighteenth-Century Performance History “. My DPhil would have a great blooper reel).
In any case, I’m writing again: slowly, and in a state of uncertainty as to whether the new direction(s) in which the chapter wants to go hold insight or procrastination. It’s been a shock to discover how much more I want to say and to have it confirmed that the chapter of my DPhil that I tried to write first may actually handle the most complex issues.
Thanks for indulging both this navel-gazing and the blog’s recent silence; people have been fantastically kind about the DPhil-based entries, and I hope this consideration of redrafting is useful to someone, too. Certainly, starting the second draft of a thesis is something for which I had no mental map or resources. Cold swimming pool/ripped bandage analogies aside, it’s going well and getting better.
I can’t promise radically more regular updates, however, since BT MESSED UP MY PHONE ORDER and now I shan’t have broadband at the flat until AUGUST 8TH (I have the deluded conviction that if I say this loudly enough, on enough forms of social media, corporate concern for bad publicity will mean everything is MAGICALLY FIXED. Feel free not to disillusion me).
In the meantime, I hope everyone’s having a good “summer” and that, wherever you are, the weather/Olympics/conference guests aren’t annoying you too much. Lots of love.
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.