On power, self-doubt, and the collective nature of novel-writing

The day I held in my hands a book written by one of my supervisors (physical, i.e. IRL ink on IRL paper), the other sent me an email.

The ones and zeroes assembled themselves to spell out, digital ink on digital paper: ‘difficult work’ and ‘tough ask’ (I had to etymologically trace the latter all the way to the 19th century Sydney: it’s legit). Through the fog of tiredness at the end of the day (read: an IRL glass (or perhaps two) of IRL champagne I had had in our graduate school’s kitchen, celebrating the school’s digital anniversary), those were the only words I could make out.

It was a sobering experience – literally. The effects of the champagne immediately vanished without a trace.

I had come into the office to wrap up and leave, but instead found myself slowly sinking into my chair and clicking through the comments on my ISP (read: assessing the scope of damage, measuring the depth of my incompetence, fathoming the extent of the ensuing despair). I felt a state of emergency descending on me. As a (very poor) coping strategy, I shot back an (unnecessary) email, COMMENTING on the two most important COMMENTS. It gave me a sense of control (‘I have it together. I can analyse and synthesise. I can skim the gist and relate to it. I can discern between the essential and non-essential. I can see what is central and what is peripheral! I’m on it! I’m already doing it!’).

That night I had a dream, or, more precisely, a nightmare. The IRL ink on IRL paper and the weight of the sheets bound together in one supervisor’s book superimposed on the other’s digital comments in the margins. In my dream, the other supervisor wrote a book, too.

It wouldn’t have been a problem, if the book wasn’t a novel.

Something went wrong, some glitch in the Matrix. Like in Inception, the layers piled up on each other and created something grotesque, irreparable.

No, said I in terror, looking at the digital cover of the book displayed on social media. No, no, no. This is wrong. The cover was light-blue, with pink flowering branches.

I woke up with a start. Realising, in blissful relief, that it was only a dream, I was however left with a nagging feeling which followed me all day, a feeling I didn’t have the time to analyse, synthesise or make sense of.

In the light of day, the comments didn’t look as ferocious as the night before; they were tame and completely constructive (Like: ‘Aspects missing in your research questions’, followed by a fall-out list of twenty-two items (ok, exaggerating, only seven)). Battling with the comments, I didn’t have the time to return to my dream and think: Why was I grudging someone, least of all a person who had obliged me by thoroughly reflecting on my own incomprehensible scribbling, the right to write (excuse the pun) a novel?

After all, didn’t Julia Cameron proclaim that everyone has it (the right), and wrote an entire book entitled The Right to Write (presumably, the pun intended)?

On Christmas day, after stumbling upon a book with a pink sakura branch on a light-blue background lying around in my parents’-in-law house in Delhi, I decided to do a little brainstorming on the reasons why I was grudging the dream version of my poor supervisor that right. I had to exercise my research imagination to come up with hypotheses. These are some of the potential explanations I managed to churn up:

  1. Anxiety of the two worlds meeting (a.k.a. obsessive compulsive disorder). My supervisors are supposed to supervise me and teach me how to do research, rigorously and scientifically. They should not be writing novels, poems, memoirs and other frivolous things. Det är förbjudet.
  2. Everybody knows that senior researchers don’t have the time. They are busy doing research and training junior researchers to do the same, for which they have meagre hours. Come to think of it, they have meagre hours for everything, and therefore they don’t have any free time in which they could write novels or other irrelevant things.
  3. I, however, being the free spirit, can do such things as blogging and writing poetry. And I have the time for that, too, because as a PhD student in Sweden I have 1700+ hours annually (plus all the unproductive hours in which I am undoing what I did in the 1700+ hours, after some glasses of champagne), which leaves me with plenty of time for the frivolities.
  4. It is I, and I alone, who discovered that there is no distinction between art and research, and that a person can do both. It is my hypothesis, and only I am allowed to explore it. I should patent it. How dare anyone else mess with the idea?
  5. When push comes to shove, it is permissible for the supervisors and professors to READ novels. Only on holidays. That is ok. But not write. That is inadmissible.
  6. How can a supervisor do such a thing without me knowing? It’s not a scientific article, nor even a scientific book. It’s a NOVEL! How can someone just pull out a thing like that from their sleeve? It’s a betrayal.
  7. And finally. I cherish the dream of writing – not a PhD thesis, but a book of literary quality. Dreaming that my supervisor did it is a projection – and an uncomfortable one. I willingly submit to scrutiny my research questions – but a secret dream? It’s like giving it away. Like letting someone in on something which is too close to my heart. It’s like giving away all my power.

Somehow (and I hope my dear supervisors will find it in their hearts to forgive me and not take it personally), this dream/reality superimposition crystallised a whole bunch of peripheral, shadowy questions which suddenly stepped into the centre of the brightly lit stage.

What am I doing and why? What do I want to produce and for whom? What is the nature of my work? Do I have it in me? Can I summon from the dark corners of non-existence something new, something that has a distinct shape, something I can claim to be my own creation? Do I have the power for such a conjuration?

As I stared morosely out of the window at a busy Delhi street, I tried to scramble together some answers, which loosely fell in one of the four themes: art versus research and fact versus fiction; the collective and the individual; power, authority and apprenticeship; and the work.

Firstly, about doing research versus creative (and sometimes too creative) writing.

When I studied in Glasgow, I was a guest blogger for the university, supported by a wonderful mentor Scott Sherry. I never thought anyone read what I was writing, let alone that it might have any consequences. It did aplenty, including sudden invitations to coffee with professors ‘for a chat’ (it was nice meeting you Professor Byrne!) and summons to the Dean.

It turned out that in actual fact the whole School of Economics had been reading my infamous blog, including the secretary Jane, who said to me on the graduation day: ‘Tatiana, I hope that one day you will write a book’. I glanced at her sheepishly and asked: ‘You mean… a PhD dissertation?’ I will never forget the look on her face. She stared at me intently and sadly, and slowly, ponderously shook her head. She clearly didn’t mean a PhD dissertation. She meant a book.

A novel, perhaps? (I’m not a novel person, really, when it comes to writing. A bunch of short stories, more likely?)

However, I don’t really see the dichotomy of the two as strongly as Jane saw it. I have never been so steeped in words, worlds, and metaphors in my entire life as I have been now, working on a PhD project (I am, I swear!) and writing a bunch of frivolous ruminations and poetry – in the margins, on the cuffs of my shirt, napkins, and in Zoom chats.

Secondly, about the collective and the individual.

There is nothing I can ever claim. Every artefact is a social act. It’s not even so much about ‘standing on the shoulders (poor Weber and the gang); it’s more about socialisation, and the collective nature of the work.

The other day I read a book introduction written with my supervisors, where I am stated to be the first author. We wrote it about eighteen months ago, and I remember drafting the first draft and being all hyped up about the task to make sense of the whole book and present it as some coherent thing. Now I couldn’t for the life of me make out my original draft.

I was squinting, trying to find traces of my own fitful, flamboyant writing, hearing instead only my supervisors’ confident, contained voices. Every now and then I would glimpse a sentence which took words out of my mouth, expressed precisely my innermost thoughts, and think – I must have written this one, well done me! – only to see at the end of the sentence a reference to the source I had never read ( I’ve read them by now of course… haven’t I? I am a diligent student). This exercise in unearthing my contribution, doomed to failure, made me feel incompetent – and yet, at the same time strangely comfortable and at peace.

Thirdly, about the master-apprentice relationship – and this is only a sketch.

This one deserves a separate post – or two, and they are attendant. Here I can only say that looking at one’s commented ISP too late at night is not a good idea, as it results in dreaming of supervisors writing novels – a bit overwhelming due to the seven hypothetical reasons mentioned above. However, the power that our Teachers have over us is not as ferocious a thing in the light of day as it is by night, and in fact is not at all a power over, but an empowerment (I did some reading about power-over versus power-with from my supervisors’ own work, including that which is co-authored with a former PhD student who seems to have survived and thrived, so… voilà. Some late-night reading of Foucault is ensuing).

Finally, it is about the work. What I learnt from that dark December evening and the following not much brighter December day is that self-doubt is also a form of self-indulgence (I’m playing here with something I shamelessly stole without a reference, but I promise to return it to the owner by citing it properly on another occasion). Both are distractions from the work, which for both artists and researchers is collective as much as individual, fictional as much as ‘scientific’, and that the power to do it comes from releasing some of the power – and getting out of the way. The proof is in the pudding: it’s only the work which matters.The trick is to distinguish the work from the multi-faced distractions in disguise (like writing this post right now istead of getting on with the Draft of Article One).

I hope that you, dear artist-researcher, will take this post with a pinch of salt, and for what it is – an exaggeration and dramatisation of something that you, probably, routinely experience. A strange dream, an onset of existential self-doubt, a sense of powerlessness – what is it but a typical day in an artist-researcher universe.

After some reflection and another cup of coffee, I take back what I said in the seven points on why our supervisors shouldn’t write novels. After all, we are all writing novels – collectively and on our own. I implore you, do write, whatever you want. I won’t say a word.

What is the novel you are writing, and who/what empowers you?

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