I read a tweet not too long ago from Margaret Atwood. She announced that she was just about to ‘go down the writing burrow’ for a while.
Her metaphor of the writing burrow really struck me. The ‘burrow’ clearly signals that you will be out of communication for a bit. You’re going to be cut off, living in your own world, tunneling deep into ideas, hibernating until the writing is done.
The notion of the writing burrow also rings true to me. It suits those times when I have to be completely obsessed with producing a particular piece of text. But it flies in the face of all that writing advice which says that all you have to do is to write regularly every day and the big pile of words will just appear. You do have to write regularly, yes, but sometimes you have to do more – you have to become completely obsessed with your project, absolutely and utterly compulsive about getting the writing done. Total focus is the only way, it sometimes seems, to produce the work.
This was how I got my own thesis done. I can clearly remember cranking out two to three thousand words every morning and then spending the rest of the day getting organized for tomorrow’s stint. Even when I wasn’t physically at the desk, or in the office, my brain was still half at work on the writing. There were notebooks in every room in case I had a thought, a flash of something I should add in, or something I needed to change.
This was of course quite a strain on domestic life. I wasn’t up for distracting conversations some of the time. Or I perversely wanted an engaged listener because I needed to clarify something that I couldn’t quite sort out in my head. But then I often got distracted when my partner started a conversation about something not related to my writing. Fortunately, this single-minded anti-social period didn’t last that long, and my partner was patient and tolerant. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have finished my PhD in good time if I hadn’t been in a position to burrow into the writing process in this way.
Now I’m sure that not every thesis writer has to narrow their focus and attention this much in order to write the Big Text. I’m sure that many people do write on bit by bit and get it all down and done. But I do suspect that going down the writing burrow happens more and more often than we say. The last few months of the PhD sometimes really DO require the PhD researcher to become completely and thoroughly immersed and embedded in their text.
And… I’m not at all sure we do PhD researchers a favour by not acknowledging that there MAY be a need for them to spend time getting down and dirty in the writing burrow. I know it’s scary, and I know it might put some people off, but really, it is how it is for some of us. Burrow, burrow, scribble scribble, another fat book. And how good to know that’s how it is for Margaret Atwood too!!
What’s your experience of thesis writing? Was/is it a burrow, or something else?