Doing the PhD pretty much killed my desire to write.
I’ve always written. Ever since I was a small child, I’ve made up stories. My father encouraged me to write, probably from the age of eight or younger. I was in my teens when my mother brought home an old laptop from work – an amazing Windows 3.1 machine that I still have – and every summer holiday I used to sit inside and write all kinds of stories about battles and elves and brave young people swept up in maelstroms they couldn’t control.
Getting a job, doing a degree, getting more jobs and doing a masters degree never stopped me writing stories. No matter how much I was doing academically, I never stopped writing for pleasure. It’s worth saying here that I never wrote for anyone else, and I never considered pursuing writing as a career. I think my father’s example showed very clearly how unlikely that was to work, and I was always a very sensible child. I also never finished the tales I wrote, because I’d just write the bits that excited me, and once I’d worked out in my head how the rest of the story went I usually didn’t bother typing it up. But I wrote consistently, most weeks, for hours or more and just for the pleasure of creating.
I’m not sure whether it’s the volume of words I churned out during my PhD, or the actual PhD experience that put a stop to that. There were times when things were stressful during the PhD, but that used to turn me towards writing for pleasure, not away. I might have just been overwhelmed by the steady process of churning out hundreds of thousands of words. I do think my fiction writing suffered: my writing has become very dry, very mechanical since doing the PhD, and I think that likely relates to the necessity of hammering through fact after fact, data set after data set. But I what really killed fiction writing for me was that my ability to be creative was heavily damaged during the PhD process.
I have to admit I don’t have a clear concept in mind, when I say “ability to be creative”. I think I am trying to express the feeling I have when my mind is full of ideas, full of stories, full of the desire to create things that I believe have aesthetic or similar value. That desire to create or make rather than to analyse, or learn, or examine. It certainly became very diminished during the PhD. I was still creating, largely costume, but in a limited and mechanical way that simply attempted to achieve the minimum necessary. I didn’t take joy in the process, I just wanted to make the object for use.
As I reflect on it, I suspect it wasn’t the PhD exactly that damaged my creativity, though pressure, stress, and large amounts of academic writing did probably reduce my ability to write creatively to some extent. I think it was the way I felt during the latter parts of the PhD that really did the damage. At times I felt anxious, very self-critical, found it difficult to establish and retain confidence in the things I was producing, and experienced periods of low emotion and motivation and overall sadness. Being in that place, feeling those things, crushed almost everything else, and it’s not a surprise that included my desire and ability to create.
I also think writing, good writing, requires knowing who you are. Or at least being willing to explore who you are and what interests you, what perspectives you bring, what your assumptions and desires are. I’m coming to the impression that during the PhD I distorted my self, to fit within what I perceived was the role I should be filling. Conditions of worth certainly played a part there, as well as an underlying desire to fit in. I think I had assumed that the PhD would represent a time in which I would finally fit in, that my strong desire and motivation for learning and enjoyment of analysis and critique would finally be normal because everyone else would be the same. Why else would they be doing a PhD? Unfortunately that didn’t happen, and I still felt like the odd nerd who didn’t connect with anyone else. Part of the time I tried to fit in, the rest of the time I felt frustrated and alienated, and I suspect that I was rarely, genuinely, myself. I don’t think I found my niche, and I think I spent a lot of time assuming that was my fault, or just being perplexed by the whole thing.
It’s not the adversity that was problematic, I think it’s the fact that it lead me to be quite self destructive (on a purely internal, mental level), and to loose faith in my internal barometer. It’s difficult to be more than paralysed when you doubt your own judgement, not only on what is good, but what is worth even spending time on. I think I often thought or worried that what I was doing was stupid, worthless, a waste of time, bad for my career, of uncertain purpose, foolish, etc either by other people’s measurements or by what I perceived were other people’s measurements. Because that clashed with what I did actually, really, want to be doing I had to tell myself I was wrong, and I had to learn not to trust that internal direction. I never overcame it entirely, which I think lead to spending a lot of time conflicted or uncertain; paralysed.
As I continue my convalescence, I’m slowly recognising these things. I think I’m starting to reestablish trust in my internal barometer, and confidence that what I want to do is worth doing. This month I spent most of a whole day writing, in a single splurge that caught me a bit unawares. It’s one of the things that prompted this post.
Has anyone else experienced losing their creativity under similar conditions? I’d be interested to hear other peoples experiences.