I wrote this post two weeks ago; when I had three weeks to go before finishing and submitting my thesis. The nature of thesis submission being what it is, it remained locked in some notesy-sentences until now. Now I’ve had some wine, and it’s late, and I am secure in the knowledge that if I tried to do any editing work now I would be sure to mis something, so I might as well write about writing.

I am at the stage now of my PhD where I am summing-up.

Blank Parchement

It’s about all I have left to do. Oh, I do have to chase some references down through the labyrythine plots of the 8 fantasy series I’ve written about, but after that, I have two last tasks on my to do list, that each in their different ways seem unimaginably difficult. I still need to write the conclusion, and the acknowledgements.

I think that the stage of having to sum everything up was a stage I was (subliminally) terrified of, which may be why I managed to put it off past the point of professional proofreading. Over the last few days I have tackled the long-delayed task of writing “proper” conclusions for the chapters; when the thesis went to the proofreaders these mammoth documents just came, abruptly, to an exhausted stop.

What I am finding, to my surprise, is that I can do it, that the words seem to come.  I don’t really like it when writing is mysterious like this, when I feel that my conscious mind is perhaps not fully engaged.

I totally hate hearing fiction writers talking about how they mused and dreamt their book, or how the characters just went and took over from them (I understand that it might happen that way, or genuinely feel as if it does, there’s just something about that as a narrative about fiction-writing that gets under my skin).

It is a little uncanny when the thoughts only seem to be there in the writing, not before and not after, either. Before the moment of writing the concluding point, I didn’t know what I was going to write, and after, if I have the guts to squint anxiously out of one almost-closed eye at it, I don’t really know what I meant. Most of the thesis has had an existence separate from the page, being carried around in my head and carried on in conversations. It’s creepy when I write something, that, reading back over it later, I can’t even remember thinking in the first place. But in another way it is the thought of the chapter, or the thought that was underneath the chapter, all along.

This kind of alchemical process of finding out what you know as you write happens all the time, but it’s usually a matter of the timbre of the sentence , an inflection, a clarification as you realise that you have tangled two ideas together, or feeling that you’ve actually just made a contradictory point resolving into the realisation that what you thought was contradiction was just clarification.

Now I have done the conclusions for the chapters, so there is at least some indication for the reader that the very, very long discussion will soon be rolling to a stop.

Now I have to open the word document I’ve called “Overall Conclusion.” It has about 50 words in it. In rhyming couplets, oddly enough.

So obviously this is not an uncommon response to the writing of the thesis but in a different way from usual I don’t want to do it! I have been avoiding for so long thinking about what I am thinking, I hate people asking me what my topic is, my mind just stutters to a halt when they do. But I guess that questions about “the topic” are answered by the abstract. The conclusion goes deeper than that, it’s not about what the thesis is “on”, but about what it means.

The conclusion is – in 2000 words – the reason why scholarship of this kind is important, why choosing to do this work, which is in many ways very luxurious and work, was worth doing.

I can’t even write a birthday card. I hate having to compress down large emotions into tiny phrases, I hate being sentimental, and while I think that a birthday card with a joke is much more touching and thoughtful, I can never actually think of one, and to be frank I hate the effort of making something not sound twee or cliched or tired or sentimental.

A conclusion is not a birthday card. But the acknowledgements kinda are. I want to do justice to my debt to others, and be sincere, and hopefully funny, but I feel self-conscious too, that  in putting in words my debt to others, I’ll actually sound kind of self-aggrandising. You know like an Oscars speech. – Plus unlike the begowned ones I don’t actually have the excuse of having won anything, or I won’t at that point anyway!

I think that to free up my writing-mind I need to take up my pen, a real black felt pen and a notebook that have lately only been used for to do lists. I need to sit in a loud cafe, with a coffee, and then another, in front of me, focusing my world in to the table and the page and the cup. And then I won’t be embarrassed; I can write the most self-indulgent or emotional or ranting or metaphor-laden prose and I my looping asymmetrical handwriting will cover over the thoughts straight away; I won’t have to look at them, metaphorically, or be able to, literally.

I still can’t picture where or with what colour pen or quite how I will write the acknowledgements though… but before long, those too will be concluded.

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4 Responses to Summing-up

  1. Sylvia says:

    I find that kind of writing scary too, because I’m always worried that maybe this will be the last time that I will be able to do this… what if it doesn’t work next time? And what if the things I am writing actually don’t make any sense, but now they are in lovely finely crafted sentences that lend them a false sense of logic and inevitablity? But despite this unease, this is usually how I finish all my non-fiction writing. I find it quite different to the similar process that can occur during fiction writing. For me, although I too, in the past, have been guilty of talking about my characters “doing something” without my intention or permission, the actual experience of this is something more akin to a feeling of ‘flow’ – I can recognise the words they speak and the progression of the story as my own, more readily than I can sometimes in the academic stuff.

    Then there is blog comment writing, in which I just babble on and hope that I am making some sort of sense, to someone! Best of luck with these last painful stages! (I suggest maybe a green pen, for the acknowledgements?)

    • laurieormond says:

      Green pen smells like apples: excellent choice.

      That’s exactly the reason that feeling worries me! If I can’t remember how I got to the stage, or even what I was thinking while I was writing, how am I going to do this again?

      I think that maybe sometimes writing lets you “put into words” your developing idea, but sometimes, if the writing is sophisticated enough, then the words themselves force you to realise that the idea is too complex for you to ever quite successfully capture all of it.

  2. Sanna says:

    I think this is why I have problems with draft writing. The argument, the coherence only exists the moment you type. How am I supposed to go back to something I wrote a month or two years ago and make it better, if I can’t remember those thoughts ever beng in my head? What if I misunderstood something way back when, expecting I’d ‘fix’ it later, only to find I don’t recognise the errors later and couldn’t improve on it if I tried?

    …rhyming couplets? You are beyond awesome.

  3. laurieormond says:

    I secretly wanted to finish my thesis like this: Fantasy novels are worthy of study in their own right, but furthermore, they can provide a critical insight into how genre works, and into how popular fiction can combine ideas and attitudes that seem in contradiction.

    Which actually works as:

    Fantasy novels are worthy of study in their own right
    But furthermore, they can provide a critical insight
    into how genre works, and into how popular fiction
    can combine ideas and attitudes that seem in contradiction.

    (I didn’t, though).

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