“Rest, Recovery and Reflection” are integral to your PhD

 

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Rest and Recovery

I saw the above quote from one of the many woke instagrammers I follow and it leads me onto my revelation this week, it’s something I always forget at the time and realise how valuable it was afterwards. Stepping the hell away from my work. Everytime I work obsessively on something and pick it apart and beat myself up, I forget that all I need to do is step away from it for …2 or 3 days max and when I return, not only will I realise that it’s not as terrible as I thought- but I’ll be able to edit with fresh eyes. At the time, this is the very hardest thing to do because I’m in this ‘panic state’ -I’m telling myself if I just keep working right up to the deadline it’ll be alright. Of course, I forget that if  I’m sat there worriedly staring at the screen- I won’t be able to do my best work. I won’t even be able to identify what to change or what direction to take it. So, this week, I decided that even though I was behind with my deadline, I would take 2 days off – just cleaning and doing general up-keep around the house, planning my holiday, walking. It was then that I would be doing the dishes and I’d suddenly have an idea about my thesis (“Oh that could go there…” “maybe I could focus on this instead”). It was as if stress had been a constrictive band around my mind, when it was finally freed of the pressure I’d put on myself it began to spark ideas and some of the excitement I’d first had in the project returned.

Reflection

Now I quite enjoy a good bullet-journal video as much as the next person but the other day I definitely wandered into the overtly self-help, new-age side of youtube…you know the ones who constantly promote their new “life-changing” book (for only $40, impressionable subscribers!). Still, I came across a woman who recommended something a bit different in terms of setting goals. She advised you draw your current self with the worries like speech bubbles and then the future self, as you would like to be. I will admit, I was hesitant to do this. I mean- how could it be any more helpful than the lists I usually make in my journal? BUT, I have to say, I quickly realised drawing it out helped me identify what was bothering me a lot easier than my usual list-making. It might be because I’m a very visual person, but scribbling that little figure (tired, dishevelled) surrounded by concerns and then again (fresh, decidedly not wearing yesterdays clothes) really helped me identify what was bugging me.

My first figure was plagued by thoughts like “I’m online too much” and “I don’t get to do as much reading as I’d like”, “I want to learn a new skill but I don’t make time for it”. And the second, new-and-improved figure boasts that they do in fact remember to take their vitamins everyday and drink water and that they have found a way of limiting their time on social media (a girl can dream).

It definitely felt like a restorative, grounding exercise to combat the ‘free-fall’ of a PhD. I say free-fall because of unprecedented amount of freedom  suddenly bestowed on the PhD candidate. No clear goals or looming deadlines. Hey wait isn’t that the dream! you might cry, carving your own path?  I’m afraid to say, dear reader, that as fine and dandy as that might first seem, the realisation quickly sets in that you are alone and you’re going to have to hold yourself to account. For someone like me, whose time-management skills are subpar to begin with, it’s a hard pill to swallow. If I’ve learnt anything in the past 9 months, it’s that the first year is a crucial transition period where PhD students  learn how to adapt to this new style of working.

My advice is to keep checking in with yourself (preferably once a month or more), keep re-evaluating your work-routine (what works and what doesn’t) and keep venting about how bloody hard it is (to friends, family, peers, supervisors).

 

 

 

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Monday Musings: Productivity apps

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“Forest” ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

So, a while ago this lecturer recommended an app called Forest to improve our productivity, and then low and behold I’m watching a sort of life-guru youtuber (don’t judge me) and she mentions the same thing. If you stick to the basic package it’s free so I decided to check it out. The gist of it is when you open the app, you plant an acorn and you can’t leave (to check instagram for example…) or it destroys your tree. If you successfully resist temptation you can see your forest grow.

I was pretty skeptical (in fact I was certain it wouldn’t work for me) but I figured hey-they must have looked into psychology of this, it’s gotta provide an incentive for some people. I was pleasantly surprised to find that although I did give in and kill my tree once, for the most part I wasn’t tempted to touch my phone and it created a relaxing atmosphere (the app enables your do-not-disturb setting) and did actually deter me from opening other apps. The best thing about it is there’s a little ‘notes’ function so if you have a sudden urge to google something or remember you need to ring the doctors for example, you can type it up for later without deserting your tree or interrupting your study.

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” 30: 30″ ♥ ♥ ♥

Another app I’ve tried is 30:30, it’s kind of similar to the pomodoro technique where you work in short chunks and take a 5-10 minute break every half an hour. So you get your allotted 30 minutes to do each task you’ve set yourself (e.g. read that boring academic article, revise your introduction, have lunch). The timer lets you know the end is in sight so it’s not too overwhelming, and the way you can break the tasks up into segments (with some cute colourful graphics to boot) really does make it feel like your work-load is a lot more manageable. I think this app probably works great for some people, but for me, I always ignore the breaks and it takes me way beyond 30 minutes to really get into something. So instead of enhancing my productivity my phone is just buzzing every so often telling me ‘time to move onto the next task’ and interrupting my flow. It might be handy if you want to get general admin sorted, like emails and referencing, but when it comes to getting stuck into my thesis I prefer long periods of undisturbed time where I can really get into the zone which is why I think Forest works a lot better for me.

 

 

 

What happens when the ‘gifted child’ becomes a mediocre adult?

 

If you were labelled as a smart or ‘gifted’ child at school, you should definitely check out Valerie Valdes’ twitter thread. Hundreds of people commented, sharing their personal stories of inadequacy, the difficulty of going from an exceptional child to struggling at college and university and failing to attain the level of success they (and others) believed they were destined for. They talk about paralysing perfectionism and self-doubt and an inability to deal with failure.

Interestingly, the Guardian recently published an article: “Why there’s no such thing as a gifted child” which explored the unremarkable childhoods of so-called geniuses like Einstein. The author focuses on the fact that one common denominator among those who go onto great success is an adult care-giver who believes in the value of education. In other words, someone who encourages them to learn.

But as Valdes’ points out, yes, we were encouraged to learn and study and so we flourished in an environment where other adults (more important people!) were giving us praise. Ultimately this meant of our self-worth was linked to our intelligence and success at school- rather than other attributes such as confidence or kindness or creativity. The onus was not on effort or even our enjoyment, but on measuring success. Don’t get me wrong helping your kid believe in themselves is A+ parenting, but whenever I expressed doubt about an up-coming exam or assignment my mothers insistence that “you’ll be fine you’re smart” was maybe… not…such a great idea. In fact, I think “well, work hard and you’ll see results” might have been a better mantra.

Like all parents, I guess mine figured I was ‘gifted’ but when I started primary school, teachers began complimenting my parents on my reading comprehension. In secondary school I found English so easy that the teachers didn’t set me work with the rest of the class, they gave me novels and let me read in the corner, inflating my ego further and fuelling the belief I was ‘above the rest’. (That said, coming from a working-class background there’s no way I would have been introduced to these literary authors without their help).   I was always the acerbic pin-head, the teacher’s pet, the book-worm. It was how others defined me and how I defined myself.

When I didn’t apply for Oxbridge, there was a palpable sense of disappointment from some of my family. Not only was I intimidated by their lecturers after an Open Day, but I realised I wasn’t going to do well enough in my A-levels to get in. This was a crushing realisation, I’d been told that people like me went to Oxbridge and hadn’t even contemplated any other possibility. As I struggled to perform in science and maths I realised some career paths would never be a viable option for me. For the first time, my life wasn’t panning out like I’d planned. When I performed worse than expected in my A-levels the university’s I applied to, to my absolute dismay, offered me Education rather than my requested English Literature.

But I was soon in for an even bigger reality shock. A few months into my degree, it slowly dawned on me that working at my usual easy-breezy capacity would only get me 2:1s (the equivalent of a B grade). If I put in a lot of study-time I could maybe scrape a 1:1 (the equivalent of an A grade), but not always. The step-up from A-level to degree-level work really unnerved me. They expected so much more than I was used to.  For the first time in my life I had to actively work at something.

Still, the way university was set up I could continue to receive the praise I craved from adults in positions of authority, satiating my need for external validation. But being surrounded by other equally intelligent peers meant I lost my position as ‘special’, sometimes other students outperformed me.

As others mentioned on Valdes’ thread, previously ‘gifted’ children often struggle when they hit college. After realising they can no longer coast by on their smarts- people recounted stories about dropping out of higher education completely or taking leaves of absence for depression- plagued by crushingly low self-esteem or Imposter Syndrome. This new, challenging environment spurs a crisis of identity in ‘gifted’ adolescents. Why is this so hard for me? If I am not the best, then what am I? What is my worth? Whilst students who have always performed ‘averagely’ know the value of hard-work, and see university as simple another obstacle they have to work at to see results.

So, what happens to the gifted child as they age and their dreams don’t come into being? When they begin to struggle whilst their ‘average’ peers succeed? A good deal of them self-implode. Some of them stagger on plagued by the sense they’re not reaching their full potential, and I would hope, some, like me, are humbled and ultimately freed from the entire notion.

That, yes, they might have been a very bright kid, but intelligence is nothing without passion and perseverance. That they were never destined for greatness and that they certainly weren’t entitled to it. That there is no objective measure of success. That their life is not going to look how they expected and is no less for that. That they stop equating career-status with self-worth. That they stop living to fulfil their parents aspirations and find their own happiness, whatever it might look like.

One commenter suggested others read Carol Dweks theory on the benefits of a ‘growth-mind set’ which has in fact been pretty transformative for me (I’ve actually mentioned it in a previous blog post.) It advocates for a positive approach to learning a new skill- rather than assuming (as many previously ‘gifted’ children do) that if we don’t succeed at something the second we try our hand at it, then we must be stupid or lacking somehow. We have been taught all our lives that ‘talent’ is a product of innate ability, and not of hard-work.

“Einstein[…] struggled against rejection in early life but was undeterred. Did he think he was a genius or even gifted? No. He once wrote: “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer. Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”

My intelligence might have helped me get to where I am today, but traits like perseverance, determination and curiosity count for so, so much more. I am done being other people’s ‘gifted child’ and I’m pretty excited to spend the rest of my life as a woefully mediocre adult with only myself to please.

 

7 books that had an impact on me

 

 

I saw someone on Facebook nominating their friend to post a book a day that had been hugely influential for them. Being characteristically impatient, I compiled my own list and posted all 7 of my favourites immediately.

  1. Their Eyes were watching God. Zora Neale Hurston is my favourite author, hands down. Hurtson chronicles black lives after the abolition of slavery. All of her prose is worth reading.
  2. Frankenstein. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve seen some great productions or what exactly about this gothic tale I love so much, but it’s a steadfast favourite.
  3. The Colour Purple. For me Alice Walker’s writing has the same poeticism as Hurston offers. Tragic and beautiful.
  4. Wise Children. I started off reading Carter’s short stories but I fell in love with Night at the Circus and Wise Children- with their rambunctious, head-strong women.
  5. Flannery O’Connor. We studied her correspondence and journals in class and I soon decided to read her fiction. Her stories are effortless, perfectly contained snapshots of the Deep South. Think Carson McCullers.
  6. Sonya Hartnett’s book about an impoverished Australian family was given to me when I was 14 by an English teacher. She gave me a whole host of novels but this one stuck in my memory and haunted me.
  7. Wyrd Sisters. Terry Prachett is my go-to comfort reading, for most people I’d imagine its re-reading Harry Potter and delving back into the world of Hogwarts. In my family we had the Discworld with a slightly more grown up, slightly more biting humour. Not only are his female characters are unapologetic and centre stage but every book is a wonderfully funny, satirical comment on society.

 

PART 2: poetry & me

Locality gives art

Robert Frost

 

What really inspired this whole reflection on my poetic journey was the fact that yesterday we had a visiting speaker, a well respected American poetry critic (Steph Burt), come to workshop a few students.

She was charismatic and energetic and charming. You felt how exhausting it must be to maintain that fervour, but her enthusiasm was infectious.

Some of the poetry offered up for critique by MA students was wonderful, electric and acerbic. It was timely, addressing issues of identity and gender. It captured the zeitgeist. It propelled you on and it was politically incentivised. Ali Smith’s experimental novel How to be Both definitely came to mind. It reminded me of where I was with my own poetic style and for some reason- this gave me discomfort.

I sat there quietly, not contributing, trying to work out why I felt perturbed. My writing has turned away from the overt kind of politics I previously favoured. At this point my writing almost exclusively centres on the natural world or the domestic. I had been struggling with writing a long-poem, since I hated having any superfluous word that didn’t need to be there, any expository passage or dull language. Yet these students carried their narratives with ease, spanning pages and pages. I admired their gumption, the same confidence I’d once had in asserting myself, the “I”, this explicit punchy verse, speaking back. These MA students had written a timely rebuffal to the oppressive narrative society feeds us (think Rupi Kaur’s Milk&Honey, think Rankin’s Citizen: An American Lyric, Tyehimba Jess’s Olio). They were trying to affect change. They were raising awareness and they were producing captivating lyrics. Maybe, this was what I should be writing? I worried my work seemed apolitical, irrelevant, that there was no readership for it.

At about 22 I had reached a point where the “I” didn’t sustain me or inspire me any longer. Confessional lyrics and alt-lit were so self-sacrificial, I felt they lacked nuance. Yet the more reserved poets seemed to avoid sex. Avoid shit. Avoid the realities of human life. It was only after reading Anne Carson, Kathleen Jamie and Hadfield that I saw how eco-poetry could encompass a lyrical “I”. I realised that they didn’t have to be ‘pastoral’, ‘bucolic’ scenes of romanticised countryside. They could be real. They could be scattered with litter. I could turn my attention to anything, I didn’t have to ignore any aspect of reality in order to meet a high-brow poetic register.

I knew I needed to situate the speaker in the natural world and not be overcome with a stream of consciousness. I wanted Frost’s ‘locality’. I wanted ‘place’. All these things which had bored me about Heaney in my teens, suddenly seemed striking. I wanted lyrical but I also wanted environment. The daily grind. I want kitchen utensils and dog shit on the curb. Colonies of puffins. Bored cows rubbing their backsides against a gate. I want inadequate sex. I wanted to document everything, not an endless “I”I”I” parroting itself, caught in its own machinations.

Thanks to Steph Burt’s endless list of recommendations I have just purchased books from C.D.Wright, Bernadette Mayer and Mary Dalton which I hope will do just that.  I can’t wait to see how their writing speaks to me.

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Image taken at Lake Vyrnwy, Wales.

PART 1: poetry & me

I have some hilarious poems I wrote as a seven year old. They were usually about flowers. Dogs. Birds. Postmen. I was obsessed with the changing seasons. I loved Robert Frost, Walter de La Mare, William Blake because they were in my one treasured and well-worn anthology. They rhymed. They had a beat. They sounded like beautiful incantations.

When I reached secondary school I became obsessed with war poets, Wilfred Owen– but particularly Siegfried Sassoon. It was a sobering moment learning about this big wound in our history. I felt deeply connected the poetry, I felt a responsibility to study them and remember.

On the other hand, I was absolutely bored stiff of Seamus Heaney who we were forced to read. I distinctly remember hating Death of a Naturalist. Firstly it didn’t mention sex or warfare. Secondly it talked about ‘farting’ and toads, not beautiful things like poetry ought to. In fact I didn’t think poetry should contain vulgar or common words at all. Looking back, I can see I was frustrated by the fact that my experiences were not being articulated or reflected in what I was reading, I couldn’t relate to the writing. Incredibly, at this point I had exclusively read dead white men. Yikes.

The first female poet I was ever introduced to was Carol Ann Duffy and her collection The World’s Wife. She spoke candidly about female sexuality. It was an absolute revelation. It was playful and subversive. It was dark and gothic. It laughed at gender roles, it laughed at the idea of the submissive woman. It talked about homosexuality. It was HERstory and it gave voice to my experiences for the first time. I was thrilled. Poetry had a new face.

When I got to university, inspired by Duffy’s reanimated fairytale characters and historical figures, I wrote exciting, lively retellings of the Greek myths we were studying. I wrote about the imbalance of power between men and women. I tried to emulate Plath (poorly). I wrote polemic poetry about current affairs. Atrocities abroad. I was totally precocious. But as time went on I became dissatisfied with them. They were clever performances, and nothing more. I felt like I wasn’t getting to the root of what I was trying to say.

So I guess I went all the way back to the root of the English language when I started translating Old English poetry. I loved its sombre, monosyllable descriptions of the landscape. Sometimes elegiac, sometimes simply haunting. They were so sparse and concise but conveyed so much. I left my long, narrative wheeling free-verse behind and started to work small. I read Jon FurbergEzra Pound, Mina Loy and H.D. whilst my language became increasingly selective and Imagist.

I felt my own voice emerging under the tutelage of Simon Armitage. I needed fresh voices and he gave them to me, suggesting Medbh McGuckian and Kathleen Jamie. These poets included the natural world. They trusted the reader to engage with their experimentalism. I drew from the incisive lines of Anne Carson, her tireless innovation with language. And then the observational, intensely beautiful poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Jen Hadfield which are so steeped in place -these all had an effect on me.

I’m fascinated by how my ideas about poetry have metamorphosed over the years and how they will continue to change.

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A Review of Padraig Regan’s debut collection ‘Who Seemed Alive & Altogether Real’

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I didn’t dislike this pamphlet but I also didn’t love it. It pains me to say that especially when it’s another young poet starting out and trying to make a name for themselves. But let’s see if I can work out exactly why this collection didn’t come alive for me.

Padraig Regan is an Irish poet and this is his second poetry collection (his debut was Delicious in 2016). When reading the acknowledgements (anyone else love to do that?) I happily noted that Regan was supervised by Sinéad Morrisey- I love Morrisey. Her honesty. Her dedication to the mundane, the daily monotony. I was certain he’d had good guidance.

So I was slightly taken aback by the dogged attachment to ekphrasis (in laymens terms that means 95% of poems were inspired by paintings) from Caravaggio to Hockney. That’s not a problem in and of itself. Fine art is a great source of inspiration, as is all visual media, but when a poet uses ekphrasis I feel like the poem should gain a life of its own, whereas a lot of Regan’s poems remained an adage. Though the sensuous descriptions of colour were lovely to read, his imagined conversations between dead artists bored me, and I relished the rare instances where he turned his attention to his own daily life.

Another gripe I have is many of the poems felt unfinished (something I don’t often complain of, as I love brevity) but I couldn’t shake the feeling that he hadn’t really go the heart of the poem before washing his hands of them and moving on. It’s not that Regan can’t write well, it’s the fact that he can write well, but remains superficial, which is so frustrating as a reader.

It was the observational, confessional Aubade which stood out for me. It moves away from the erudite, name-dropping of the previous work, instead we are on a cold British street where ‘a rubbish truck is shunting up the street like something mammalian’.  The speaker lies in bed with his lover listening to ‘the reel of seagulls scrape the bellies of clouds’.

I think in all honesty I feel like Regan is just beginning his poetic journey, and despite my criticisms there’s a spark to his writing that I desperately want to see come to fruition.