You ever see those Formula One cars on their warm up lap, how they waggle their tyres, zipping sideways across the track, warming up to make sure they don’t crash and burn? That’s how it felt starting my practice-based research PhD in Creative Writing: I found myself zig-zagging in the early weeks. I’m trying to do something extraordinary in crime fiction: ease a way through what others seemed to consider a dead end. The first pressure was to deliver something, anything, that might pass muster with the Supervisor. I handed in a rattlebag of oddments: literary curiosities I ‘d engineered that were tenuously related to the subject – a poem, a roll of flash fiction, some prose patches, various sketches of characters not yet connected with any plot. It was plenty and yet wasn’t anything.
To keep switching metaphors, I felt like I was attending the barbers with a bald head. Supervision can be a fraught thing. Visions of Sweeney Todd swam into my mind as I turned into the corridor for that room. There was no bloodbath, maybe a few nicks. Actually some great insights and suggestions to consider matters that had not shown up on my radar.
That’s been the pattern of our meetups. Playing it out with the other PhD students has also been a boon. We have an online forum – a gang of six – where we can hot-house work and ideas. There’s rarely been total agreement within the forum, but the suggestions, questions, and comments have always been helpful.
I’ve learned to understand running into problems with research as being like getting bumped while in a bumper car at a fairground – bumps are part of the messy joy of the work and solutions are often as unpredictable as the problems. To give one example, early on in the year, I wandered into the wrong department (History instead of Literature: they have a similar building on campus). As it turned out, I met someone I knew there and we swapped notes. It gave me renewed impetus in one area. I’ve learned to roll with such luck.
Over the course of the year, events in my personal life (choose one from a rich list that extends way beyond the civic registrar’s neat ‘births, deaths and marriages’ ) have intervened. To get me through it I decided that studying is a joy but also a discipline and riding those knocks is part of the discipline. Masochistic? Maybe. But it worked for me. In those times, the research became a refuge, a way of blocking out the din of that registrar’s noisy coughing.
So I’m happy to report I’ve made headway. Some things still loom that could yet flummox me. Half of what I have written may not survive. But I have enough grip not to panic.
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