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.

 

Primo Levi’s voice

I had no idea this interview existed. Primo Levi speaks to Sue MacGregor on The Woman’s Hour in 1986

http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/holocaust/5110.shtml

Levi is one of my favourite writers by far. Beyond his invaluable insight into one of the most shocking crimes of the Twentieth Century, his prose, elegant, precise, measured, evocative should be a model for any writer.

Thank you, BBC!

The Life of a Writer

Roald Dahl on working as a ‘businessman’ in the City of London in 1934. And on writing, of course.

I enjoyed it, I really did. I begun to realize how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours and a fixed salary and very little original thinking to do. The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. It happens to be a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whisky than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.

R. Dahl, Boy: Tales of Childood (1984)

Research, Politics and Paywalls

‘Il Valle non c’è più’. ‘the Valle is no more’, said F. bitterly at the end of his intervention to what was arguably the most heated debate at the 2014 Euronomade meeting in Passignano sul Trasimeno. We were a large group, at least fifty people, crammed outside the auditorium under the afternoon sun. Few seconds of silence followed F.’s words.The thought of having lost the physical and symbolic centre of of an extraordinary movement suddenly hit us. One thing is reading about it on the paper, another one listening to the occupiers’ voice.Ruminating over the end of the occupation might not be the most useful activity, and yet, this is perhaps the right moment to start reflecting upon the Valle’s achievements, potential and setbacks. At Euronomade we only begun to scratch the surface.

teatrovalleoccupato esterno

For those among you who do not know the Valle Occupato’s story, you can have a look at the special issue of Theatrama or at the documentary Occupying the Commons, both good introductions for the English speaking public. I have been following the occupation since the very first days, albeit from afar.  Their work was so unique and inspiring, and yet so little known in British theatre circles. I got in touch with the occupiers in the summer of 2012 but I managed to visit them only in March 2014. It was a difficult moment. The Angelo Mai collective had been evicted only a week before my arrival, the dialogue with Rome City Council was at a standstill, and the authorities had just rejected the Teatro Valle’s application for legal personality. Tension was palpable. And yet I found many occupiers willing to talk to me, happy to answer my questions or to have me around during assemblies. Considering the circumstances, they had been incredibly generous with their time.

I went to the Valle out of curiosity and political solidarity, and with the best of intentions. I wanted ask questions, to understand, to listen. I hoped I could be able to help. I listened, I asked my questions, I observed, I tried to understand. Helping, though, was a different matter altogether, and I left the Valle feeling in debt, a debt I could not repay. I justified my trip to Rome telling myself that academic writing that could potentially amplify artistic practice. And in part, it is true. My paper on Teatro Valle at the IFTR Conference gathered quite a crowd, and the Q&A went far beyond the allocated fifteen minutes, eventually taking up most of our lunch break. Researchers from all over the world wanted to know more, to understand, to dig deeper to see if the Valle’s story could illuminate other political and artistic practices.Yet, I cannot help wondering if I am the best person to tell this story. What perspective can I possibly bring? How do I relate my reflection to the occupiers’ struggle? Although sympathetic, I am outside of that struggle. I cannot consider myself an activist. And I cannot shrug the feeling that my research parasitically exploits their work.

Three years of observing and listening to the occupied Valle – and indeed the other occupied arts spaces all over Italy -were bound to have an impact on my practice too. The rich debate around the commons, the backbone of Valle Occupato, eventually compelled me to radically reconsider the nature of academic work and scholarly research. What can research give back to struggle or to an artistic practice if only other scholars listen to our conference papers? How can we engage in a broader discussion if our articles hide behind a paywall or are available only to the lucky few affiliated to an academic institution? Who are we writing for? Does our work benefit anyone or anything except an increasingly self-referential academia? When I stepped into the occupied theatre I expected to encounter a lively political experiment. What I could not foresee is that the occupation would slowly but irreversibly transform my understanding of scholarship, my conception of the researcher’s function, my view of academic institutions. And that, at the same time, it would confirm that there is still a higher education worth fighting for.

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.