It's been so long, too long, since we saw each other. We might be at a party or we may have run into each other on the street, shifting our bags from hand to hand as we shift our weight from leg to leg, shield our eyes from the sun, smile at each other, ask after each other's lives. We might exclaim over something or share a laugh or toast our half-drunk glasses of wine together yet then it comes, the inevitable question: how's your thesis going?
Is there any more dreaded question for a post-grad student then this one? My stomach clenches as it drops and I try to think of an answer that's not falsely bright or suffused with reluctance. "Good? You know. The usual. How's all your stuff?" Hopefully the conversation quickens its steps away from The Question but if it's been a while, if your heart is warm and supportive, or simply curious, you draw us back. "What are you working on at the moment?" whilst inside my head I'm pulling at my hair out with a cry, "no! I'm at a party/away from my desk/at a picnic/have escaped! For ten minutes, for an hour, it's not heaving over my shoulder. Please let me ignore it."
Because no matter how interesting I may find my research, how grateful I am to have this opportunity or how much I appreciate your interest in my work, there's a welter of other emotions that breed and stretch throughout this experience. The guilt of not doing enough, of not doing the right reading (if it's blogs I should be reading theory; if it's theory I should be reading other PhDs; if it's other PhDs I should be writing my own.) And if it's writing it's not good enough: ideas that crowd like cities inside my mind fall flat on paper and I lose all confidence. The fear of not being good enough- smart enough, resilient enough, motivated enough- to get the job done. The attendant anxieties and shame. Day in, day out. And running like train tracks beneath it all the feeling that I am doing this on my own- no-one else can do it for me, and if I duck out from under my work for a day then I've let myself down.
The challenge is to find a way to marshall the negative affect and put it to one side as you try and find other ways into your work. Today I went back to Rare Books to look at some other PhDs to remind myself that eventually all of this spreading, interlapping research will result in a finite document contained between two clothbound covers. I looked down at one, a hand on either side of the spine, and I felt a ghostly pride that I will fully inhabit in three years when the thesis between my palms is my own. It might be a struggle to get to that moment but get there I will.