The dreaded rewrite

I have just finished rewriting the third chapter of my thesis. There are no appropriate metaphors for how I really feel about this chapter. I’ll stick to claiming that I feel like a successful fisherman waving aloft a shiny prize carp. This is, of course, a lie. I feel more like I’ve been locked in a cellar with something saber-toothed and nasty, until we eventually emerged, dragging each other by the teeth and splattered with most of each other’s brains. On this occasion, the chapter lost, but not by much.

This is, of course, an entirely irrational and overblown reaction to the end of a process that occurs while sitting down, in a centrally-heated flat, with ample access to tea (but not biscuits. I hate Lent. I would sell my face for a Jaffa Cake) and Twitter. I like my thesis. I love my research. I don’t like footnotes, except when I can knock the “pp.” off forty or so notes at a time, and thus pretend I’m saving words. But, my god, I have hated the last bit of rewriting this.

Even deleting items from my three-column, word-documented, cloud-computering to do list (truly, I am the Hunter S. Thompson of doctoral research) hasn’t mitigated the pain. “Don’t get it right, get it written” is the golden rule of DPhil-writing, but in third year, you also have to get the damned thing formatted and polished and devoid of square-bracketed injunctions to [MORE] (also [QUOTE] and [EVIDENCE] and the stomach-churning [PUT CONCLUSION HERE]).

Perhaps the subject matter made this so tough. This chapter contains most of the really depressing stuff in my thesis; the sexualisation of children, child suicide, the anorexic aesthetic, and the fetishising of celebrity illness (especially female mental health). This has, in turn, led to much re-reading of Sarah Kane and looking at the growing cultural obsession with underweight female bodies in the late nineteenth century. It didn’t help that I’d written the first draft in an immensely slappable style, although lord knows I’d rather rewrite for style than because of terrible holes in the research.

Here’s a fun fact, though: rewriting makes me wish I were a man, because if I were, I would grow a big Periclean, Roger-Allam-as-Falstaff-style beard every time I had a major piece of work to complete. I would rejoice in it. It would be a totem of chapter-writing and people would bow before its length and unrepentance. Everyone, knowing I was writing, would close their eyes in silent respect. As totems of chapter-writing go, a majestic beard would be much better than the library mumble (when you go straight from studying to coffee with a friend, and can’t form coherent sentences until the caffeine kicks in), or just looking slightly rough after days at a laptop.

NB: I don’t think this is a case of misdirected penis envy, or even a desire to have Roger Allam as my spirit animal. ‘Spirit animal’ is my new phrase. In the last week, two people of whom I am fond have informed me that Enjolras from Les Mis is their spirit animal. One is a socialist writer on the working class, feminism and politics, and the other is my Christian, drama kid visiting student from California.

Anyway, the last few footnotes are underway, and although it’s a sunny day, I don’t want to go out in case the phone rings. #freelanceproblems.

Chapter-wise, next up is Ellen Terry in Cymbeline, or the chapter which is meant to be about a pretty Briton princess, but ended up involving vampires, somnophilia, and pseudo-medical fanfic…

Why writing from day one isn’t nuts

Coat of arms of the University of Oxford Locat...
Coat of arms of the University of Oxford Location : seen outside Rewley House of Kellogg College, Oxford (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

James Hayton wrote a guest post at The Thesis Whisper, decrying the (very widespread) theory that to write a good PhD, you need to write as you go, or – as he puts it – write from “day one”.

I can only speak from my experience, as an English DPhil student at the University of Oxford, but I’ve found it essential to write as I go, for the following reasons:

1. Writing is rewriting.

The most valuable part of writing is rewriting. For me, rewriting is not always exciting – much of the material is already familiar to me, and I’m refining/redirecting/clarifying, not charting a course into the (thrilling) unknown. Nevertheless, it’s that critical eye which refines your thesis and makes the messy first draft (second draft, third draft…) better. I dread the thought of returning to my thesis between submission and viva (obviously praying I get that far! And not jinxing it! And knocking on wood and frothing with neurosis!) and realising that – although no thesis is ever perfect – just one more rewrite would have fixed things. If you don’t write from day one, you have much less time left to rewrite. Hayton says that it’s difficult to return to a chapter you wrote two years ago. This is COMPLETELY true because it is BILGE and you’re a MORON and why didn’t your supervisors stifle you at birth. On the other hand, realising something from two years ago looks like relative bilge is testament to your own progress since then; something I’ve found strangely affirming. Moreover, there will probably be something you can salvage. It’s easier to return to a chapter you wrote two years ago than to return to a chapter that doesn’t exist.

2. Writing is revealing.

Writing shows up the flaws in your argument; the paragraph that doesn’t fit; the stylistic tic that you need to spot; and, sometimes, the glorious link that couldn’t be made until ideas were made adjacent on paper. The more writing you’ve done, the more likely you are to see the strengths and weaknesses of your research. Writing from day one isn’t fun – not as much fun as a glorious library wallow without concept of producing results – but it does acquaint you with your research-self.

3. Writers have readers.

It is very, very hard for your supervisor to get a sense of where you’re heading and what your strengths actually are if you’re all talk and no hand-in. As ever, I’m very lucky in my supervisors, but in my 1st year a remark from the then Director of Graduate Studies (made at a general session for new research students) stuck with me: “A great way to get your supervisor’s attention is to hand something in“. If you’re only making notes and plans and following your own discursive research leads, it’s very hard to get the feedback which is so valuable early in your PhD, by averting disasters or pointing out obvious omissions. Sooner than you think, too, you’ll be wanting your fellow research students to look over your work, or you’ll need writing samples to win scholarships or even jobs…

4. Writers don’t just write theses.

Your thesis draft is the source of conference papers, podcasts, job applications; it’s a repository of fascinating miscellanea which frankly bear NO relation to your stated topic but which might turn into fascinating articles at some point. Writers are also teachers, and in a climate which seems to value research-led teaching, a clear research identity (and an idea about what constitutes good writing in your discipline) is much easier to model if you’re settled in your own written work.

And, finally, breaking my nice if semi-hypnotic/creepy structural streak:

5. There is no bloody time.

There isn’t time. There definitely isn’t time. Not in the UK. There’s time for reading and exploring and doing conferences and archive trips and all, I promise, all the attractions of graduate school life but there is not time for all these activities without any suggestion of written results. I teach and research-assist alongside my thesis, currently while applying for jobs and attempting to have a social life and see the people I love. Many doctoral students also have spouses, mortgages, children, and a pressing need to graduate before their funding expires (mine ends in Sept 2013) or before self-funding becomes still more untenable. You can’t be a seminar-going, committee-member, sociable, fulfilled, profile-building graduate student and then write your thesis. You have to do both at the same time, and make the best fist of it you can. There’s no blueprint for writing a thesis, but you’d have to be an extraordinary person (or just extraordinarily hurried) to sit down after thirty months’ research and write 100,000 words in the final six. More power to James Hayton, if he can manage it – but I can’t, and I’d advise any new researcher not to try.

NaNoWriMo, murder and the Wallace affair…

This is, I guess, an appropriate post for the run-up to Hallowe’en! Warning: gory/disturbing stuff beneath the cut (my first attempt at using one on WordPress, hope it works!)

A couple of days ago, I signed up for NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. For the uninitiated, this is a worldwide online project where participants each write a novel – 50,000 words – in the 30 days of November. Since signups, I’ve been fretting about the possibilities of libel, slander and nobody speaking to me ever again. I hope this is merely a clever displacement activity to avoid the most likely reason for failure – simply not producing those 50,000 words.

The prospect of winning NaNo (trans: successfully meeting the word limit) fills me with huge relief: in 30 days, it’d be done. I’d have written a novel, and – no matter how bad, boggy and unpublishable – I would know it could be done. And then I could do it again, rather better – it’d never be so difficult again, not until the tricky third-novel-slump where I have to go and stay in a friends’ house in the Fens and drink tea and stare out and possibly have a passionate/doomed love affair with the man who brings the post/dark-eyed waif from the village. And then produce something a bit Woolf and a bit Dylan Thomas.

God, can you imagine how that child would have looked.

I am also, my brothers, joining A Book Club. I have never been sure about Book Clubs. They always screamed Richard & Judy and those 3 for 2 stickers (no that’s not just snobbery, those stickers induce HORRIBLE ANXIETY, I can NEVER find 3 books I want on the table and then the girl asks and god), also the prospect of sitting round discussing Clarissa Dalloway’s Motivation does tend to make you scream when it’s what you do for – well, not a living. For the three years that push you dramatically into debt, teach you to eat plovers’ eggs and are so golden-and-aquatint that the rest of the world seems cold and dark, woe, woe, et cetera. But Simon is in lots, so they must be okay, and now Book Clubs appeal to me in the same way as NaNoWriMo. I am jobless. I am dolescum. I finally have the time.

Plus, my sole close schoolfriend currently in Really Gainful Employment (Recruitment Consultant, hoyes) hates it so much he suggested a Book Club in his first recorded moment of speech without irony. Sincerity, from him, indicates a man on the edge of a quarter-life crisis/a Birmingham-based Columbine, so we’re all going to sit in a pub and mock our own literary endeavours, before choosing books to read for next time.

Of the two readers whose tastes I know well, I predict – respectively – Nabakov and Orwell as opening gambits. I’m veering towards Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (haven’t read it yet – any thoughts?) for several reasons: 1) love my boys though I do, I’d be surprised if they chose many women writers – they’re Salinger & Orwell kind of guys, and 2) the fact it’s dystopian means they might actually like it. I’m not a big reader of dystopia, but I adored Oryx & Crake. Here’s another reason I’m nervous of the Book Club – when I talk about books outside an academic context, I sound sort of stupid. I don’t know whether to play nice and seem witless, or leap into a tutorial-style discussion and attempt to shed their hearts’ blood.

In terms of what I’m actually reading, I’m on a massive P. D. James kick, and waiting (probably forever) for Gary Taylor’s Inventing Shakespeare to arrive from Amazon. I heard P. D. James preach in chapel once, but until now Dalgliesh has been a big omission from my personal detective-canon. Having read Cover Her Face, Shroud For A Nightingale, The Black Tower, A Mind to Murder and now Death of an Expert Witness, I watched an ITV3 profile of her earlier in the week. Gyles Brandreth being an amiable idiot, Ruth Rendell being surprisingly closed-lipped on a woman she obviously loves, Mark Lawson being an unforgivable cretin (apparently Dorothy L Sayers “was all right on character but couldn’t really write a sentence”, berk berk “>berk berk) and Val McDermid rather ostentatiously calling her “Phyllis” (I wanted to link directly to McDermid’s website, but the typewriter sound effects are too annoying).

Several of PD James’s novels owe a positive debt to Dorothy L. Sayers. Shroud for a Nightingale has the same closed female community, sexual spectres and last-minute-assault-on-the-sleuth as Gaudy Night and, not coincidentally, is my favourite thus far. Set in a nurses’ training school in the 1970s, its opening pages contain one of the most horrific murders in detective fiction, the death of Nurse Pearce in the nurses’ demonstration room.

Talking of horrific murders, it cannot be every family that stores an almost-forgotten cache of crime scene photos in the same blanket box as old letters and birth certificates. I guess I’m just lucky. Our blanket box is a last-chance saloon for paperwork, never opened except  for those mysterious periods in my childhood when my father would get out 400 pieces of paper and  balance our finances (or at least acquaint himself with the imbalance).

Beneath the layers of respectable bills and invoices lies stuff from a film my dad worked on in 1990,about an unsolved murder in 1930s Liverpool. Do you remember the Prudential insurance ads? The Man From The Pru was the story of William Herbert Wallace, whose wife Julia was bludgeoned to death on the hearth in their shabby, cramped front room. Wallace claimed he’d been out at the time of the murder, searching for a non-existent in a street that was never built. The client was R. M. Qualtrough and the street was Menlove Gardens East, and I am enough of a terrifying crime nerd that I’m telling you all this from memory.  Wallace was tried, convicted and then sensationally acquitted. He didn’t hang, but died a broken man. The film starred Jonathan Pryce, Anna Massey and it dates horribly and as a child I was strictly, strictly forbidden to read the contents of the THE MAN FROM THE PRU file that was exacavated during my father’s financial archaeological digs.

My parents rarely censored what I read. Occasionally my mother has guilt that I got hold of trashfests like Yes, Mama (illegitimate orphan cruelly treated father disinherits mother senile child abuse prostitution suicide marries one-armed Boer veteran) and A Lady in Berkshire (“Kitty Winters could never have been called handsome but at that moment she looked almost beautiful” — trufax, and I found that at primary school) at nine, but since I also read all her Shakespeare, Dickens, Blyton, Christie & EJ Howard, it didn’t hurt. I think censoring children’s reading is pointless and stultifying, unless your precious lamb is somehow veering towards Firearms Monthly and Mein Kampf. I was only ever banned from The Jewels of Tessa Kent, which I read surreptitiously and guiltily in five-minute intervals (at thirteen, two years after Emily Organ passed round the sex bits in The Horse Whisperer to an awestruck Form 7X), The Betsy (mother decides Harold Robbins automobile expose will destroy child’s innocence) and, unforgettably, The Contents Of This Folder. My father said sternly that it was Not Very Nice (I must have been about five or six the last time the folder was unearthed in pursuit of papers – not long after the film was made, in fact), but otherwise I think he’d forgotten the thing existed.

I must have been a compliant kid. I didn’t read the folder until yesterday. And yes – apart from the respectable and fascinating original newspapers, it was horrible, horrible stuff… Continue reading “NaNoWriMo, murder and the Wallace affair…”

REVIEW: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh | Women & The Campus Novel

51d4obbekqlI have just finished Michael Chabon‘s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), the unforgettable but certainly not unmissable story of the rather tears-prone Art Bechstein, college student and gangster’s son, and how he spends a summer. I say ‘not unmissable’ because you’ve probably read it already. The trio of neurotic and rather boring narrator, attractive/irritating/enigmatic girl and enticing/enigmatic/somewhat homosexual male friend is also to be found in The Talented Mr. Ripley (aren’t the current Radio 4 versions dreadful?), The Secret History and Brideshead Revisited ; all of which function to a greater or lesser degree as examples of the genre. The remainder of Pittsburgh, Highsmith- Tartt- and Waugh-free, owes a great deal to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and a bad case of genre confusion, but already I know I’ll reread it. As a whole, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh doesn’t live up to its opening, which has a brilliance of style and a kind of enormous narrative swoop that promises golden prose and enjoyable heartbreak. Read it for the opening. If you’re reading this and know me, I’ll lend you my copy. If you like books about crime, America, colleges, homosexuality, doomed youth and doomed love, you’ll like this and quite frankly I do and that’s why. I’ll definitely be reading other Chabon soon. Oh, and the bastard wrote the book for his MFA thesis. Life’s not fair.

BUT. There is a but. There’s a big but, and one which brings us right back to Brideshead. Apparently, they’ve (by which I mean director  made a film of Pittsburgh. A film, which, on its ‘Story‘ and ‘Meet the Cast‘ pages, makes no mention of anybody playing the novel’s second main character – Art’s namesake, corruptor and sometime lover, the (as I mentioned) enticing/enigmatic/somewhat homosexual Arthur Lecomte. With Art’s mostly unseen father (the gangster – no, really, it’s brilliant, the Mafia’s in it lots), Lecomte is the most interesting part of the story. I fear that the film of Pittsburgh, in sidelining Arthur/Art for the heterosexual romance between Art and Phlox, makes the same mistake as the airless, degayed and de-Catholicked Brideshead (re)-adaptation last year. Phlox is played by Mena Suvari, and if Phlox is the film’s heroine, it’s going to be a film with a vacuum at its centre.

Phlox is at the kind of girl who only exists in the campus novel. Like Jane, she’s unreal; less real even than Julia Marchmain, or Howard’s various sad-eyed victims in The History Man (1975). I wondered if this was an I-Blame-The-Patriarchy moment with something to be imputed to male authorship, but no. In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), the most successful campus novel of recent years and (to my mind) the most beautiful (and heavily indebted to Chabon), Camilla is completely unreal, only a grey-eyed little image (albeit a beautiful one) about whom we know things, rather than knowing her. The other women, central to the story are Papen’s California friend Judy (to be unfavourably contrasted with Camilla – loud, brash, freckled, promiscuous) and Bunny’s girlfriend Marion (a ‘little thing’ who’s ‘not afraid to wear a dress – [Bunny] likes that’).

Perhaps, depressingly, it’s impossible for the female to be anything other than the Other in a novel about education. Alan Bennet makes the point admirably in The History Boys, through the lips of Mrs Lintott – but isn’t it telling that, first off, the female character added to the film was Fiona (visible sex bomb vs. referenced sex bomb of the stage script), and that second, although we’ve had the Man and now the Boys, we’ve yet to meet The History Women?

I should say that I love – absolutely adore –  all the texts I’ve just mentioned. I wouldn’t change them. But I would, if I could, give them sisters; female narratives of education to rank alongside, either talking about both sexes without casting one as Other, or focussing on women as earlier texts did on men. My favourite novel of all, Dorothy L. Sayers‘s Gaudy Night (1936, and rather madly annotated here) does this, getting to the heart of the problems of learning, sex and academia, and arguing them as honestly as possible. But I don’t know anything that’s done so, in the same dirty-handed, articulate, beautiful way, since Sayers.

That children’s fiction used to do this for girls in secondary education – Blyton, the endearing Oxenham, Bruce, Angela Brazil etc – is simultaneously recognised and derided. A quick guide – if you read the above authors now, Blyton will seem the most familiar, Oxenham the gayest, Bruce the most formulaic and Brazil weepingly funny. There are earlier, more radical texts, like the BLISSFUL er, v complex and interesting Alice Stronach’s A Newnham Friendship (1901), which is unusual in that a) it’s set at Cambridge, b) it actually gets involved with the heroines’ academic lives (Homer! Translations!) as opposed to merely their sporting/pranking exploits or noble and really quite racist capturing of unfortunate German spies, and that c) it’s really, really good.

Continue reading “REVIEW: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh | Women & The Campus Novel”