“For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”
Wait! This is not a post about running!
So since Christmas, I have been trying to write two essays. Two 3,000 essays that are due in very soon. It sounds so simple when you say it like that – I write everyday at work adapting my style to audiences and formats. I journal often finding writing things done a cathartic way to get my thoughts out of my head. Surely two short essays can’t be that bad? But my essays have been a tough process. The light is nearing at the end of the tunnel and I’m relieved that the process will end (one way of the other).
I thought it would be tough but I have found it really surprisingly hard but also it’s a really interesting experience. I’m learning things about myself, I’m sure it is a process which is helping me grow. It just feels hard. Uncomfortable. Unusual. Testing.
Academia and I have had a hard time, I have been thinking about this a lot as I have been clearing stuff out at my mums house. We have found numerous school reports, books that I bought while doing my last MA and while I was still dreaming of doing a PhD. I love studying and for a large part of growing up I just wanted to be paid to read books. School made me feel stupid; I worked really hard but found the ideas in my head hard to write down. By the time I finished my masters I wanted to leave academia and never go back, refusing to go to my graduation because I disliked it and felt so demoralized. It has taken me a long time to consider studying again and I don’t regret the decision. So what is it that I find so hard?
I’m attracted to the ideas and the thinking; I love the act of studying but I find writing and expressing my thoughts on a page incredibly difficult. I am incredibly self-conscious about writing and get intimated by the blank page. I love researching – reading around the subject but translating my thoughts onto the page often ends up as a torturous process with me wondering what on earth I’m doing to myself. So I thought I would document what I have learnt so far from the process to encourage me in reaching the finish line.
I haven’t written an academic essay for a long time and at the beginning I found it hard to find motivation and discipline to get into it. I definitely had a preparation phase when I went to academic writing workshops, bought stationery and worked out how to use the various libraries. Without sounding too much like a dinosaur, so much has changed since I was at University – the growth of e-books and online journals, having to submit your essays online and everyone being convinced that everyone wants to plagarise rather than write something original.
The lovely Wellcome Library, a good reading nook.
I found it hard after really long days at work to want to log in in the evenings or turn on my computer at the weekend. I felt overwhelmed and exhausted. It coincided with my workload getting colossal and there just seemed no space to think, breath. At this point, I still was trying to do a lot – hobbies, see friends and work crazy hours. Unsurprisingly cramming studying into small fragments of weekends doesn’t work well.
Then in February, panic set in. I found it really hard to understand some of the papers – it all felt very foreign and quite dry. I am a humanities person – I understand theories and arguments, I am discursive in my approach and much less scientific than I need to be in this course. It is interesting to study a new discipline but not having anything to fall back on is quite challenging. “Wot is this hierarchy of evidence you speak of?” I found myself muttering but “who is the Terry Eagleton of the policy evaluation world?” on a particularly bleak day. One of my study comrades who also did English made me laugh by saying “we read Derrida, we can get through this.”
To begin with I found a couple of hours completely exhausting. I discovered that getting out of the house was really important for focused work – decamping to a cafe to read papers and a range of libraries has been key to get things done. The Wellcome Institute has become one of my favourite places to read; the British Library feels a bit like a youth club at times I find! Taking myself out of the house is necessary to help with focus during the working week; weekends are fine to study at home. I bought a desk and set up a little study in my spare room.
March arrived and I was having horrid dizzy spells in which I kept appearing at the Drs explaining that I thought I was suffering from anxiety and stress. It was horrible because I honestly thought I was going mad. I just felt very odd; the whole room would swirl and I would feel like I just had to go to bed. It appears that I’m suffering from anemia and after several weeks of industrial strength iron I’m on the mend and actually as I’ve felt stronger my general resilience has improved. So after reaching rock bottom in early March, I’m on the mend and have got into the swing of things.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve really put the hours in and have hit my stride. I can studying easily for a while day now, over the Easter weekend whole days were zipping by while I was locked in a world of reading and writing. I’ve written draft essays and I’m continually working on them. I wish I had longer and I’m trying to be strict and not over read at this point which is really hard. I have to remind myself that I’m doing this to learn and I’m trying to do the best possible job without overly focusing on the outcomes. It is hard but I keep having to remind myself of that so I don’t just drive myself completely mad. I comfort myself that for a lot of professional writers, writing is difficult but you need enough desire and discipline to turn up and keep going even when you think you are writing complete rubbish.
Working full-time and studying part-time is quite a difficult combination for your tiredness levels and ensuring there is balance in your life. I definitely haven’t cracked it but I do think it is a test of emotional and physical stamina. I have been thinking of Marathon trainers and how they approach their running; I think I need to build my stamina and ensure I have rest days. I have been thinking about writing as like building muscle memory which will build up over time. When you build muscles, you tear the fibers so maybe pain is an essential part of growth. Building muscle tissue involves good nutrition, rest, sleep and strong immune system (among many other things) all of which are what I need right now. I’m trying to break hard things down into small parts, taking each part slowly until I understand it. Take breaks. Try to be patient with myself. Find ways to boost my resilience.
I’m hoping that I will fall in love with the act of academic writing; or at least by the end of the course get freaked out less by it.
So since Christmas, there has been my inner voice saying why are you doing this? What do you have to prove?
In truth, nothing.
For me, I like learning because it is part of wanting to live life to the fullest. But part of the process is also trying to understand your limits and really pushing yourself to succeed. It is about endurance. In order to get good at something whether that it is writing, playing music, sport, dance or work; you have to put the work in and that takes discipline, time and energy.
I’m trying to learn to love the process rather than fight against it.