“For a work of this kind is never a monologue – it is an uninterrupted conversation with those of the past whose thoughts we study, and with those whose task it still is to build the future out of the heritage of the past. And this conversation goes on, after the work has been completed and has become, itself, part of the past.”
– Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism (1943)
As per usual, it has been forever since my last post. I’d like to say it’s because I am a fascinatingly eccentric freelance writer with old money who only deigns to write something down when a strike of brilliance hits.
It’s quite the opposite. While I may be quite eccentric in my own way (is that redundant? I think eccentricity implies uniqueness…) I am also a barely-financially-independent grad student with a penchant to take on way too much and only the best of intentions to recommend myself to those few who spend their hard-earned time to read this blog and… well… humanity at large.
These past few days I took a self-imposed mini-vacation after barely making a (yet again self-imposed) deadline for my first thesis chapter. Since I seem to enjoy sleep-defying business more, I would say vacations are overrated but I don’t think anyone has ever said that – and I couldn’t argue it if challenged. This break was, nevertheless, definitely needed and (I hope) well-deserved.
Did I get Christmas shopping done? Finish one of the three novels I have been intermittently reading over the past month? Go to a spa? Leave town?
None of the above. All great ideas though… where were those when I woke up Wednesday morning trying to decide what to do with all my time?! Instead I watched the new Hobbit movie (twice), finished a season of Parks and Rec, spent a large chunk of every day wandering aimlessly around town on foot and caught up with some old friends.
But before all that… That Chapter that has been nagging on my brain like a petulant child (and since I REALLY didn’t want to do it, the persona it took in the untamed – and largely unexplored – world inside my brain indeed sounded like a 4-year-old) is done. Well, as done as it can be for now. I fully expect to be editing it to the end of my days – or at least the days of this MA.
The best part about a self-imposed deadline was there was no one else to blame for my lack of sleep. frustration and crazy. My colleagues at school bore the sudden personality change surprisingly well (thank you for that). But I do believe this is because most of us were in a similar head space. At any rate, the lack of commentary on my feral behaviour was much appreciated.
With all of the avoidance and procrastination (I am a certified expert in both…when I need to be… I should get that certificate framed already) I think I had forgotten how rewarding it is to actually get something done. It’s not the whole thesis, sure, but it’s about 1/5 of the way through and that feels damn good. At various points during my hermitage, multiple eureka moments occurred (none of which in a bathtub) and while some ended up in the final-rough draft many MANY others died very swift deaths at the hands of my overworked and underpaid sense of reason. That being said, I thought I might share a few bits of wisdom that did survive the carefully crafted obstacle courses of my thought processes. So here goes.
Don’t be afraid to challenge what has gone before you. Yeah, the person who wrote that book may be Dr. So-And-So with 30 years of scholarly work on you but that does not mean they know everything, it does not mean they are correct and it CERTAINLY does not mean there is nothing else to write. One of the many things my Mum taught me is that fresh eyes generate fresh ideas. So question everything. You never know where it will take you.
That being said – also don’t hesitate to lean on the scholarship a little, when you need to. Most of my work on the Travellers is challenging the majority of what has come before me. The context of Irish Nationalism, however, has benefited immensely from the brilliant historians (in whose company I don’t think I will ever feel at home) who have been researching Irish history since before I was even a remote possibility. In an ideal world, we could do all the work ourselves. In this world, we need all the help we can get – I may not know you Mr. Richard English but you will be included in my thank you bit. I can promise you that.
When you get stuck, try another angle entirely. I myself was hung up for days on talking about the significance of the mere act of collecting Traveller folklore and how this, in some small way, made them a part of Ireland’s National Narrative. As my poor colleague who received my desperate text in an attempt to retain the fleeting wisps of inspiration can attest to, this thought randomly occurred to me on a bus (so inconvenient, c’mon brain – step up your game). The folklorists were collecting information from the Travellers, yes, but the Travellers were agreeing to provide said information. Not only were they accomplices in this attempt to archive the rich troves of Irish folklore, they were also instigators. Not a passive people, the Travellers chose exactly what they would impart to the collectors from the Irish Folklore Commission and in doing so dictated how they would be represented in an archive largely outside of their control. The point of this? There are always two sides to every story and, I would argue, usually much more than that. If one path has been exhausted find – or better yet build – another one.
Never ever underestimate the power of conversation. I have half a mind to start recording all my interactions with people – family, friends, co-workers… even strangers who strike up conversations on the bus when headphones have been forgotten. You never know where inspiration will come from. I’m pretty sure the thank you part of my thesis is going to be the longest. Is that allowed? I’ll just make the font super small…
Finally – a few words of wisdom that were imparted to me over the last 6 days of the chapter blitz (identities withheld but you know who you are):
“Change location, find isolation, eliminate procrastination.”
“Eat, be merry, whatever.”
“With a world full of people telling you how to feel and act you seriously need to be good to yourself.”
“Let’s just say we can never be cultural studies theorists for fun.”
I’m sure there are many many more but those are the few that stood out to me.
I’m not sure this was as literary as some of my posts but … I guess here’s the point of it all. Life is so short – too short to not spend all of it enjoying as much as you possibly can. I complain quite a bit – “I can’t write another page. There’s too much research left to do. Concentration is impossible. This is no fun – it’s never ending. Etc…” But you know what? I don’t think I’ve ever attempted something so challenging, so intellectually rewarding, in my life. It’s now December, by March (if all goes according to plan) that blasted word document will have reached 120 pages, somehow. And despite all the ramblings, the late nights where that cruel cursor never seems to budge, the regular (unproductive) daydreams about travelling the world….I know this is something worthwhile.
Our theses may not change the world in any big way but, hell, what we’re accomplishing? It’s something. While it’s being written… It’s just a word document. After it’s done – it’s a piece of history.
Life is beautiful