After the thesis: out of the writer’s den

Writing a PhD thesis can often be a lonely process. Long days spent in solitude staring at a computer screen and trying to make sense of reading material, theory, case studies, and ultimately your own writing (that what-on-hearth-was-I-thinking feeling!). Through the process you soon realise that beyond being utterly exhausting and unnerving, many lonely weeks of scratching your head and chewing your pen can also be depleting.

I submitted my thesis in September and I passed my viva in December. The first few months after submission have been dedicated, for the most part, to tide over my finances. This new semblance of relative financial security made me realise to what extent researching on the breadline could affect not only your thinking, your productivity on an academic level, but also your sense of self, your sense of worth. I did not dare aiming higher because I was so afraid of what was going to come next. Insecurity was like a constant drop of water, hardly perceptible at first but extraordinarily powerful in the long term. Insecurity also meant that I always rolled up my sleeves and prevented myself from complaining. You need a certain degree of confidence to tell your employer that your working conditions are not good enough.

The break from academic writing was needed, and not only because I desperately needed to pay off a credit card debt. It was needed because the the PhD depleted my intellectual energies. I submitted not because I thought it was ready but because I had run out of steam. During the summer I realised that I had given it everything I had, there was nothing left, it was time to let it go.

The post submission break was productive in other ways. I reconnected with friends and family. And with my husband (not enough is said on the strain research puts on relationships, many friends in long term relationships have experienced a similar situation. As postgrads we were utterly unprepared to face this aspect of our work.

It is now time to start writing again, starting, funnily enough, from the thesis. After many years of extenuating work, I need to come to terms with a work that is far from perfect but that paved the way to some kind of intellectual maturity. A work I hope might be of interest to others, a work that might be even helpful.

It is now time to go back to writing with joy; to go  back to writing for myself, to go back to practicing being a better writer. Remembering that writers must get out of their den from time to time, they must nourish their craft interaction, emotion, connections, experiences.

 

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How to close an institution

The absence is justified, I promise. I’m currently finishing chapter four of the thesis. It has been a fascinating journey. I immersed myself in the extraordinary practice of Giuliano Scabia and Compagnia della Fortezza and I had the opportunity  to finally study Italian anti-psychiatry with the necessary attention. Of all the incredible intellectual and political practice developed in Italy between the 1960s and the 1970s, anti-psychiatry is one of the richest, and undoubtedly one of the movements that radically changed the face of Italian society.

Here is John Foot’s beautiful, short introduction to the work of Franco Basaglia. Enjoy!

To write or not to write

On the web there are very few things as desolate as a neglected blog. Well, I am guilty. I started this blog in the summer of 2012 to document the extraordinary experience of the Mellon School at Harvard (by far the best academic experience I have ever had) and I haven’t published anything since. Not that I haven’t been writing in the last year and a half. As I opened the blogger main page this evening, after several months of absence, I found, to my surprise, few unpublished drafts that my perfectionism always prevented me from sharing. Why? The answer is simple enough. Fear. I was, and I am, afraid of exposing myself, of not being good enough, of failure. And I am not the only one. Kaite O’Reilly explained it here. But I am determined to comply with Eleanor Roosevelt little piece of advice (“Do one thing every day that scares you”) and to make an attempt at overcoming my creative fears.

The funny thing is that up until few years ago writing was pleasurable, exciting, calming. I used to find some kind of meditative stillness and contentment in the act of writing. I haven’t experienced it in a long time. What happened in the meantime? Well, I started writing in my second language, which isn’t always easy, and I started a PhD. That’s when I stopped writing for pleasure. Since then the most demanding exam committee decided to permanently take residence in my head, systematically sabotaging most of my creative endeavours and turning the writing process into toil, pain and sorrow. Doing a PhD has been the single most challenging thing I have ever done; research tested my patience, my strength and my self-esteem. Like most PhDs I went through rough patches and fought with the most common academic beast: self-doubt. And towards the end of this often painful process I was rewarded with three invaluable gifts: a heightened self-awareness, a resilience forged in blank page panic and financial hardship, and a voice.

The pleasure of writing depends on the courage of writing. As Umberto Eco said, with the exception of the groceries list, one always writes for someone else, for a real or imagined reader. I must confess that had been skeptical about blogging and social networking. Blogging in particular seemed an activity apt for those who love the sound of their own voice and take particular pleasure in imposing their opinion upon the world wide web. Well, I can take the risk. Now I can. I shall write, then. About what? Well, as wannabe academic blogger I should definitely write about art and politics. And anything in between.

Not quite closing remarks…

The Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research has ended over a week ago. On our final day at Harvard we all began to realise that the summer school’s impact on all of us as researchers and as individuals was going to be deeper than we initially thought. The Mellon School 2012 was a privileged   space of cultural exchange, it created a community that will hopefully gather again in the near future. We shared ideas and doubts, we challenged each other’s assumptions about our research, we nourished our everlasting love for theatre and performance.
Love. Intellectual love. These are the words that emerged during our round up session on 15th June. And perhaps no other word best explains the intellectual exchange we immersed ourselves in. I do believe that he quality of our debates (that went on far beyond the excellent seminars, lectures, and workshops) was greatly enhanced by the profound care we demonstrated for each other’s work. Not a secondary element in the current academic climate. And away we go, back to our work, back into the world. Sentimental, I know, melodramatic, even. We called it “Melloncholia”, that peculiar mix of nostalgia, longing, gratitude and sheer joy that grabs us when we think about our two terrific weeks at Harvard. It will stay with us for a little while.

Right, now I feel like a school girl at the end of a summer camp. Back to business, then.

Whilst John Harvard looks over us

The Thompson room at the Barker Center is a large XIX Century hall, high ceilings, paneled walls. Just opposite the entrance, an impressive fireplace occupies great part of the wall. On top of the mantelpiece a bust of John Harvard. I don’t quite know what to make of his gaze, not completely benevolent, not judgmental either. I cannot avoid it, anyway. The Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research at Harvard started on Monday, as we gathered in the Thompson room enthusiasm was high, participants and faculty members were all looking forward to getting started.

This second edition of the Summer School has mustered 29 postgraduate researchers and early career scholars coming from the United States,  France, Germany, Brazil, United Kingdom, Poland, and, well, Italy, for two weeks of intense work on “theatre and philosophy”. The institution represented here are among the most the most prestigious, Yale, Cambridge, Columbia, Berkeley, Freie Universität Berlin, Central School of Speech and Drama.

It’s difficult to sum up these first four days of summer school, how intense and thought-provoking the discussions have been, how the Mellon School has in just four days gone beyond my most optimistic expectations, but I will attempt to do it in few words.

In his introductory lecture Martin Puchner set the scene for a productive debate that we developed in the following two days and that is still growing now. The aim of the 2012 Mellon School is to bridge two fields, theatre and philosophy, that have often looked at each other with suspicion if not with open hostility. Our aim here is to “use philosophy to unsettle theatre, and to use theatre to unsettle philosophy” (and after four days at the Mellon School I can say that Martin’s statement supremely summarizes the work we have developed so far). His paper reflected on the origins of the antitheatrical prejudice in an important part of the western philosophical tradition. A prejudice that has been modulated differently through the centuries, and that is most commonly based on epistemic (Plato), ethical, or aesthetic grounds (Nietzsche). And yet, the well-established tradition of the philosophical dialogue, from Plato onwards, presents us with texts too similar to dramatic texts to be ignored. And perhaps is Plato the one who can paradoxically bridge theatre and philosophy. The same Plato who, as a young choregus, supposedly burned his first tragedy to become a pupil of Socrates. “Come hither, O fire-god, Plato now has need of thee!”, according to Diogenes Laertius these are the choregus words as he abandons theatre to become a philosopher. I would not swear upon the historical accuracy of the quote, and yet, isn’t this refusal of theatre far too similar to gestures of modern avant-guardes who wished to destroy the old to make room for the new? To get rid of a previous dramatic tradition in order to build theatre anew? Or do we simply take pleasure in toying with the idea of Plato the dramatist, reclaiming him for us, stripping his thought naked after two millennia of Platonism?