The ‘creative confusion’ of the near to completion PhD student

I came across a lovely passage in an intellectual biography of Montaigne I read recently:

A more private kind of writerly doubt sometimes afflicted him, all the same. He could not pick the book up without being thrown into creative confusion. “For my part, I do not judge the value of any other work less clearly than my own; and I place the Essays now low, now high, very inconsistently and uncertainly.” Each time he read his own words, this mixture of feelings would assail him – and further thoughts would well up, so out would come his pen again. (pg 288)

This is an extremely reassuring thing to read. At present I’m vacillating between thinking my PhD is brilliant and concluding that it’s shit. One day, it’ll seem as if I’ve done something genuinely innovative. Another day, it feels like I’ve erected a vast conceptual house of cards which will topple as soon as someone who doesn’t share my theoretical prejudices starting points examines it. Sometimes, it seems as if I’ve done exactly what I’ve set out to do and developed a distinctive approach to analysing biographies. Other times, it feels like I’ve just come to some conclusions about my data and then articulated them in an obtuse language of my own devising, with some random insights culled from Margaret Archer’s books thrown in for good measure. The obvious conclusion to draw is that it’s not world shatteringly innovative or obtusely devoid of purpose, stunningly original or problematically derivative, not brilliant but not shit either.

The obvious conclusion to draw is that writing a thesis is a form of apprenticeship, learning through doing, with the results needing to be evaluated in these terms. But drawing this obvious conclusion is proving very distracting when I need to be focusing 100% on my writing. It’s also left me aware of the interestingly strange feeling that an inchoate project, started part time in September 2008 (and in some ways planned for a year before that), has almost become something concrete and final. It’s also weird to realise that despite how much it has changed in the process of writing, as have I (intellectually and otherwise), the focus hasn’t really shifted. The central question is the same: how do people become who they are and how do we study these processesBut I’m increasingly aware of the thesis as a provisional first step in addressing a question I’ll likely be working at for a very long time.

6 thoughts on “The ‘creative confusion’ of the near to completion PhD student

  1. When I was painting, I was sometimes asked, ‘How do you know when it’s finished?’. I said, ‘When I’ve answered all the problems presented by the painting to the best of my ability’. Then I would move on to the next one, sometimes taking the unanswered questions or problems with me.

    I once saw Picasso’s ‘The Letter’ in the then recently opened Picasso Museum in Paris. This boutique Museum contains many of his previously unseen works, owned by the family or Picasso himself. ‘The Letter’ is one of them.

    I stood looking at it for some time, then I began to cry. I wasn’t crying because of the subject matter (although it is unabashedly sentimental), but because Picasso had responded to every problem presented by the painting perfectly.

    This doesn’t happen very often. Finish the work to the best of your ability, then move on to the next one–my best advice.

  2. Your essential Question should indicator whether the Project you have launched upon will have an animating effect (inspiration) such that more and better information can be discovered, thence incorporated or otherwise expected to continuously flow into and nourish: promote further life in, the Question itself. Is real Learning occurring or are we building castles in the air in which nobody actually lives? If we find that the former dynamic is present, albeit inchoate, then we can be so far confident that we are are ‘on the right track’; but when colleagues or interlocutors start calling out to us: “Rapunzel, Rapunzel: let down your hair,” then, we might just want to reevaluate our Project with the kind of anxiety expressed in your blurb here. At any rate, if our Question is of a perennial kind and still entertained by good and intelligent people, its a good bet that our confidence in the Project will not be altogether misplaced, yes?

    That’s good enough for me; but then again, I’m not a Tower Denizen and never much liked the brilliant glare of polished Ivory. That’s just me, no offense intended.

  3. A parting shot across the Academic bow, for further humor’s sake-

    “I can add colors to the chameleon,
    Change shapes with Proteus for advantages
    And set murderous Machiavel to school.
    Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
    Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pull it down.”

    ~ Henry VI, Part three, Act III, Scene ii.

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