It's raining and probably illegal to go to the library, or 'How I'm writing my thesis in lockdown'
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Slowly. I'm writing my thesis slowly. The Bodleian libraries closed completely during the first lockdown in March. I did not join the mad rush to empty the Faculty library of its contents just before the formal lockdown, because most of my research material is in closed stacks in Swindon, about 25 miles from Oxford. Also, it just didn't occur to me.
There has been a fair bit of second-guessing myself since the severity of the pandemic became real. The whys and wherefores of this line of work have been a constant in my internal monologue. Is this worthwhile? Is this any good? Is this making me a better person? There have been several revised timelines and yet another bloody rehash of the fundamental structure of the damn thing, in the last week no less. There was the period in March and April when I was supposed to be in Chicago, then Amsterdam, then Berlin. I sadly had to abandon my plans to check out archives in between swanning about in beautiful cities in a big scarf.
I have long assumed that the swanning about in beautiful cities was the main point of academic research and/or conference trips. This assumption was unpleasantly reconfigured upon finding myself resorting to Google Maps' Streetview to plot out various architectural marvels, 'standing' outside archives virtually, sans scarf, sans the thrill of foreign adventure, sans archival material.
There are no windows in the tiny office in the flat I share with a Lovely Man, which means that it could always be any time of day. I thought that this would mean that I would be able to work until late at night without 'feeling it' but instead, it means my eyes feeling like they're bleeding by midday. I also wake up with a headache most days. It's uncertain whether the primary cause is: staring at a screen; the windowless cell of an office (with overhead lighting that makes me look deeply unwell on Zoom calls); the global pandemic; writing a thesis; or just a low-level existential hum. I hope it's the writing of the thesis causing the headaches and bleeding eyes because that can at least can be dealt with (concluded, hopefully), though unfortunately not by the regular washing of hands or the wearing of masks.
Here is a bust of Some Guy wearing a mask upstairs in the Old Bodleian reading rooms, from back in August when there was no danger of getting coughed on by undergrads. These days I keep well clear.
Most days I'm at my desk by 8.30/9am, trying to ignore my emails, inevitably answering my emails. Then I try to get out about 500 to 1000 words, either of notes or of actual thesis content. I indulge in a few minutes of self-loathing every hour on the hour. I try to write a professional tweet. I make a third cup of tea. I try to decide if it's worth booking a seat in a library for a day this week. The library is all booked up until next week. COVID-positive cases are rising and I decide to stay home anyway. I check my email again in the hope that someone has written to offer me a job, or at the very least, a few kind words about my research/network/podcast/existence. They haven't.
This process is more or less successful about four days of the week. On the days that it's less successful, I indulge in more frequent sessions of self-loathing, in between doing teaching prep (often unpaid hours of it), or managing the admin and communications of Futures Thinking, and the social media of the Postcolonial Writing and Theory Seminar. I like to procrastinate doing one kind of work with another kind of work, thus ensuring a sort of perpetual sense of failure.
I've scrubbed together about 20k passable (debatable) words since the first lockdown began, excluding notes. My note taking system involves gathering into one Word doc quotes from other people's monographs and articles. Then I make extremely lucid comments alongside in Track Changes: 'Significant'. Sometimes 'Nah.' I am very intellectually engaged.
I think about my thesis all the time. Sometimes I 'solve' its questions in the middle of the night, but berate myself that I should be sleeping, and have forgotten the golden nugget by morning. Everything I read or encounter is experienced through the lens of the theoretical argument that underpins my thesis. This means that I am not only living through a pandemic, but living through a pandemic that I am constantly comparing to the dystopias and apocalyptic narratives addressed in my thesis. How might Diletta de Cristofaro's theory of critical temporalities actually apply to the real present? What is the novum in this situation? The world is skewed, mate, disaster is no longer existentially-proximate, the political intent of the speculation has come to pass, this is political theorising in action, and it's not looking good.
This is how I am writing my thesis. Slowly, constantly, in my mind, puzzling it out every moment of the day (and night), living it as I wander around this beautiful and isolating city. It's getting it out of my mind and down on paper that is the trick. Or treat.
Happy belated Halloween.
On a separate note: I will be planning a few posts going forward. The next one will be 'On Rejection' (once I get over several recent rejections). Thereafter I'll be explaining how I put the Narrative Futures podcast series together and then perhaps a blog post on my 'writing process', such as it is. If you'd like to read something specific from me, please do be in touch.