PhD Block?

Doing a PhD is very much a self-directed, self-disciplined experience. I write words on a page hoping they will fuse and one day create a novel about a care leaver managing her life from sixteen to eighteen in the late 1970s. I read about writing, about narrative, and about care leavers. I collect books just like I used to collect stories whenever I visited my elusive family.

I’m becoming an expert in my field and with it, I learn more about the representation of society’s orphan class. I have always had an antennae for care leavers. But now it’s even more finely tuned to the news, social media, or books. I hunt through indexes and websites. I order books from the university library. Recently one came from Australia and I marvelled at my own importance and luck. And thanked the stars for the opportunity to study in a university, to use their resources and the resources of many more academic libraries that are for now, still open.

I keep journals, I fill out endless spreadsheets, I make notes and I compile lists under headings, to remind myself of the direction I think I ought to be heading.

But the truth is I’m not sure.

I’m not sure about anything anymore. I think I have PhD block.

Each time I start writing, I have to take myself through a process so that I can open the door to emotional memory, like a spacecraft docking and berthing. It’s a temporary joining that takes as long as the time I have in which to write. A snatched hour here, fifteen minutes there and endless seconds of ideas.

No, I’m not writing autobiography. But I’m writing the autobiographical and emotional truth. I hope to capture and pen down the generic care leaver experience not the statistical one. And at the end of each session, I have to find a way to be okay again.

Having read Lemn Sissay’s blog, We Are Many, about successful care leavers, where he says ‘their success…is in spite of what happened to them and not because of it.’ What happened to them, stays with me.

Later the same day, I have a conversation on Facebook about trauma. I then read a Guardian article about Erin Vincent who found writing about her parents being killed when she was 14, has forced her to relive the trauma for over six years.

I think back to the beginning of this journey or at least near the start, when I mentioned to my supervisor that I was thinking about getting myself an emotional supervisor, possibly an art therapist, so that I could explore the way I feel after writing but without it becoming a big deal. And I realise I’m tired. I have a recurring infection that just won’t go, and reading about Erin Vincent, things start to make sense.

I will find a way to write the words, the emotional truth, the journey of an ordinary care leaver. And I realise that I want to mention the care leaver writers, my muses, that I have got to know over the years. I also want to mention all the wonderful people who having experienced care, have made a success of their amazingly ordinary lives.

Care Leaver Writers 


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1 Response to PhD Block?

  1. Anna Meryt says:

    Your article reminds me of my experience of writing memoir. It reminds me of how patronized and angry I felt when people in various former (not current) writing groups said ‘Ah it must be therapeutic for you writing it all down’. They were referring to my chapter (in A Hippopotamus at the Table) where I talked about my experience losing a baby in late pregnancy. They were suggesting it was somehow therapeutic, somehow cathartic to write about it. No no it’s NOT therapeutic (for me) to write about past trauma. It’s difficult, it’s opening a can if worms which you’d rather keep shut, it’s painful. I have to force myself to sit down and write that stuff . I’m writing my second memoir now and it’s still like that for some chapters.
    Non writers don’t realise that writing is a compulsion, you are driven to it whether you’re writing memoir (your true story) or autobiographical fiction (some of your true experiences fictionalised). When you sit down to write, whether you are, as Stephen King has described, like an archaeologist with a trowel scraping away the earth to uncover the story bit by bit, or however your process works, you are immersed in it totally. You are not observing the story, the events, clinical and detached, you are in the midst of them, re experiencing them. Sometimes it takes me weeks to psych myself up to the point where l can write about an event. Every re-write, every spell-check even, finds you back in the traumas, reliving the events. It’s a process of uncovering, going deeper, getting below the surface until you get that vein of gold(sometimes) where the story starts pouring from your pen in a stream. And when you stop writing, you’re spent. It’s not ‘therapy’, the process is often re-traumatising. There is a relief when it’s done yes, like when you put down a heavy bag you’re carrying and sit down for a while. Not like oh I’ve re-experienced the trauma, now I can let it go. Actually, now I’ve opened the lid on trauma events from the past now what? What have I let out? Do I either put it back in the box or go into therapy for ten years?

    When you get blocked it’s because your subconscious is trying to protect you, stop you from breaking out from your safe, comfortable here and now, from lifting the lid again. Only one way to do it in the end. Get away from all distractions, sit down, start writing and keep writing until that bit’s done. Breather. Next.


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