The best laid plans: ‘writing up’ my thesis… here I go again…

I keep a snowglobe on my desk next to me as I write.  A plastic patchwork ‘Elmer the Elephant’ lives in the snowglobe.  Elmer sits beside me, forever frozen in time, stuck and enclosed in the curved-dome space he inhabits.  My snowglobe Elmer reminds me of the idiom ‘the elephant in the room’ which refers to obvious problems or situations we do not want to talk about.  In 2006, graffiti artist Banksy painted a 37 year old live elephant with non-toxic children’s facepaint to match the colour of the wallpaper at the ‘Barely Legal’ show he set-up in an industrial warehouse in LA.  The giant living breathing spectacularly camouflaged elephant in the room was placed there to draw attention to world hunger – an obvious problem we avoid talking about.

Undertaking a research project focused on family secrets, I have found giant elephants hanging around fading into the wallpaper almost everywhere I look.  Occasionally – momentarily – I come to see them in an almost sharp focus how could I not see it standing there! – but then it’s gone again – was it ever there at all?  I have wondered about this a lot in the last few months.  In the final stages of writing up my doctoral thesis, I have found myself hesitant to write.  Words elude me.  And I have questioned:  why we do get glimpses of insight, vision, clarity, focus…. and then suddenly they are gone again…and then, sometimes, they fade back into awareness?

I had hoped to have a final draft of my thesis complete by 9 June 2018…a personal milestone…but that was not to be.  Instead, my thesis has hung heavy in the air around me over the summer months.  I dip in and out of it…mainly out of it… not quite ready to reread the words, sentences and paragraphs I have already placed together in an orderly structure, because I know I want to – or more precisely – need to – restructure what has already been written, deconstructing it into a less orderly – but perhaps more ‘meaningful’ storytelling narrative.

If the thesis has hung heavy around me, so too has its theme.  The high-level topic – ‘Family Secrets’, often causes raised eyebrow interest from people I speak with about my research.  Perhaps it is because most people have some level of awareness of what it means or feels like to be aware of, or to discover, some kind of secret lurking behind the clutter of a messy family cupboardful of tidy ‘family stories’.  But, from the outset of my research project, when I started to write as a method of inquiry into theoretical and methodological concepts, I was aware that whilst I was somewhat excited to find out more about where writing might lead, I was also apprehensive as I sensed that where I might end up and what I might ‘discover’ was not somewhere I wanted to be or something I wanted to see or hear or feel.

I wrote daily, speedily, easily for over three years.  And then suddenly, faced with rereading my writing, reflecting and reflexively writing back into what I had already written, I found myself – rather like Elmer – frozen, stuck in a smaller world – unable to move.  In recent months, despite attending several writing retreats and sitting down on an almost daily basis with a ‘determined focus’, I feel like I have struggled to engage with my research or, in fact, to write anything much at all, over the last few months.  Instead, I let past words mingle around in my head.

This morning, as the school holidays (finally!) come to an end and I feel a distinct chill beginning to settle into the late summer air, I am sitting with a mug of coffee and Elmer (still frozen, stuck in his own wee snowglobe world) beside me.  Life, I realise, has been, in general,  an ongoing upheaval recently.  I have been striving for ‘feeling settled’ since I last wrote in this blog, back in March – when the snow fell outside ‘my’ front door.  It is now August, and Elmer and I are sitting at a different desk – in a different study – in a different home – behind a different front door – to quietly settle – again – as I embark on the task of working my way back in to the three very long, untidy and unwieldy Word documents entitled ‘Heaven’, ‘Hell’ and ‘Earth’  that represent my ‘thesis in progress’.

Although it is not theological, my thesis (without any deliberate or conscious intention) draws on biblical themes.  And as I look back at my struggles over recent months to commit a decent number of sustained words to a page or screen, I am reminded of the ‘wise words’ written thousands of years ago that are attributed to King Solomon who claims, ‘There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1).  At this time, as I turn my focused attention to the active task of completing the first draft of my thesis (again), I am aware that I will returning to reflect on cumbersome ‘data’ that leads me back in time towards places and moments of death, uprooting, weeping and mourning;  but I am also aware that the time of not writing has been a reflective space which has led to moments of reflexivity in my research project – and I am hopeful that King Solomon was indeed wise, and as summer gives way to autumn, I would like to find myself approaching the ‘season’ in the writing up of my research where I can look forward to moments of birth, renewal and – if I hit the word count targets I’ve set myself at the end of the day – a wee bit of dancing and laughing too…I hope so 😊

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