Writing and thinking

I am about halfway through my dissertation now and the end is comfortably in sight. (Unless that light I think I see in the distance is will-o-the-wisps about to lead me astray in the marshes.) I’ve been trying to fit in two hours of work four nights a week, and then also to be at my desk for most of a day at the weekend. This is because I am incorrigibly dilatory in settling down to actual work, so of, say, six hours at my desk, I may have worked for three of them, at the end of which I will likely have 379 words fewer than I started with but several thousand more calories. I don’t know why sitting down to work absolutely requires tea and biscuits, but it does. After a few weeks of this faffing around, the deadline will loom, my mind will clear, my thoughts will come to sharply defined focus and a few hours later I’ll have most of a chapter. (A very short chapter, I should say, since the whole dissertation is only expected to be 18,000 words, although apparently 10% over is acceptable).

This last-minute approach been pretty much the story of my life, although I am significantly more organized now than I was as a child when I would certainly be up until the early hours the night before that project was due because I had frittered away all the time leading up to it. When GCSEs and A-levels loomed I was always frantically revising at the last minute before the exam, something that clearly showed in my disastrous A-level results at least (A, B, N, E). I still need deadlines before I can get anything done, but now I am much better at self-imposed deadlines, or ideally, bribes. It’s a sad moral weakness, but I am shockingly venal and therefore able to bribe myself through most things. Sadly, no one else ever bribes me to do anything, but really, I encourage anyone reading this to try it.

Duly bribed with the promise of a packet of Jaffa Cakes, or a couple of episodes of Buffy if I will only stay at the computer for long enough, I settle down. Sometimes each small, sharp fragment of a thought has to be teased out, painstakingly slowly, until it can be tied, one word at a time, to a corresponding sentence. Those are the days on which the tea and biscuit consumption increases to quite revolting amounts and suddenly it seems imperative that I should scrub my bathroom floor instead of wasting time pretending to be intelligent. But when the writing is going well and I am totally immersed in it, my mind whirs and my concentration is impregnable. These are joyous times because there is something both tiring and relaxing about such a deep focus. When I finally snap out of it I feel mentally cleansed. Or when a play that I’ve been struggling with suddenly falls into place (you, Helen, you know who you are) there is an almost audible click in my brain as the ideas suddenly line themselves up in regimented rows and march forward onto the typed page. I think I have been lucky in that mostly, I have found the research and writing process to be extremely enjoyable; mentally taxing but deeply rewarding.

The dissertation is the first sustained piece of writing I have ever done and I have begun to notice characteristics of my own writing style. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I think I write in a rather old-fashioned way, which makes sense because my preferred commentators are the pre-war classicists. I use the word ‘thus’ and not even in a deliberate and self-conscious way. Does anyone else still us ‘thus’? Such a handy, workmanlike word. I also seem to be fond of a ‘both…and’ formation, which I think I picked up from translating Greek ‘te…kai’ sentences, and I pile up my adjectives three deep (but never more than three). This last is a Ciceronian oratorical flourish, not seen by me since the hours I spent working on his In Catilinam with my immensely forbearing A-level Latin tutor, Mr Ballard. (Bless the man for his patience with my hopelessly illogical, semi-informed approach to translation work. I could screw up the easy stuff by being too impatient to figure out what part of the verb I was looking at and which nouns it matched with, but then make ridiculous leaps in translating more difficult bits because it just felt right. I’m sure he despaired.)

Given that it’s been 14 years since I last translated anything, and all the Latin and Greek I used to know has long since burned away in a pyre of unused knowledge, I am pleased to find these shadows flitting through my pages. They say to me that all that time spent on the 4th floor of the John Rylands with my nose in dictionaries and grammar guides wasn’t wasted. I didn’t particularly enjoy studying for my degree and I wasn’t a great student, but I was hooked then by the classical world and I am reaping the benefit now. When the dissertation is written I will miss it. Yes, I’ll have my time back and that stack of unread books will wonder what hit it; yes, I’ll be able to go hiking or cycling on perfect days instead of resolutely shutting the door on summer; and yes, I’ll be able to tackle recipes that take hours instead of minutes to prepare. But, what will I do with my head?

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5 thoughts on “Writing and thinking

  1. Emily Barton

    Hemingway would think your writing needed much work. Thus, I think it’s brilliant and wonderfully stylistic. (And I LOVE the word “thus.”)

    P.S. We should start bribing each other. I work very well with that system, as well.

  2. Becky

    You are too generous to me, Emily. I will be happy to bribe you whenever necessary. What sort of bribes work for you?

  3. Emily Barton

    Jaffa cakes work very well for me, too (especially if you’ve got the real thing).

  4. Becky

    Jaffa Cakes it is. If I lay in a big enough stock, will you come and visit from Pennsylvania?

  5. Emily Barton

    Absolutely. We’ll reward ourselves for going weeks without seeing each other with Jaffa Cakes and tea.

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