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MONTHLY BLOG 87, BURNED BOATS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

2018-03 No1 firework-flames-clipart-19

Firework-flames @ Clipart flames-clipart.html (2018)

What to confess this month, having burned boats last month, about my intention to finish a big never-ending writing project? First message: yes, it’s good to announce THE BOOK END, even if it still remains tantalisingly-nigh-but-not-yet-quite achieved. Burning one’s boats in public concentrates the mind and attention. Words flow from the keyboard. Deadlines hammer in the head. One feels intensely alive.

At the same time, all of life’s hazards and impediments take this declaration as a signal to attack. There is a serious leak in the bathroom, dripping water onto the stairs below. Urgent action is imperative. A car tyre goes flat at the wrong moment. Long-lost friends come round to call for a long, chatty visit. A close relative falls ill and needs attention. Other work commitments, entered into gaily months ago, suddenly become imminent. The email in-box, of course, overflows with multiple messages, which need sorting, to check that most are safe to ignore. But some are urgent requests from former students needing academic references for jobs which they seriously might get: such exercises of advocacy-at-a-distance need time and careful thought. All these intrusions from the rest of life are entirely predictable, but become major distractions when competing with THE BOOK END deadline.

Cyril Connolly (1903-74) has met with a lot of flak for writing that: ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway’.1 He is accused of being not only anti-baby but also misogynistic – implying that the little woman should either not have tempted the creative man to have sex in the first place – or, the worst having happened, should at least take the pram/baby out for a long bracing walk, leaving the creative genius alone, so that he can agonise over his failure to write in complete silence.

Yet Connolly wasn’t really blaming others. Instead, he was probing his own painful sense of failure. He instanced other damaging factors which may also inhibit creativity. Those embrace: drink, apathy, boredom, getting sidetracked into journalism – and coping with the burden of expectation, after early ‘promise’. There’s good scope for debate as to which of those experiences is the most destructive. These days, a later Connolly would have to add: getting bogged down by emails and social media. So a bit of sympathy is in order. We may all have our own ‘enemies’, whether internally within ourselves or externally in the pram-in-hallway-equivalent or even both.

Lastly, declaring THE BOOK END of a big project teaches another significant lesson. Finishing is not as simple as dotting the final full-stop of the final sentence. As my partner Tony Belton is fond of saying: ‘It isn’t ended until it’s ended’. He learned that when setting up computer schemes in the 1970s. People would constantly say: ‘It’s just a fortnight away from completion’. But each fortnight would turn into another fortnight. There’s a confession of that syndrome in the first iteration of the on-line fashion-retail business, Boo-Hoo, whose bankruptcy in 2000 was a scandalous part of the collapse of the dotcom bubble. Ernst Malsten and his colleagues kept promising their backers that the innovative on-line system would be activated ‘within weeks’. But the weeks kept going by. Too many different people were inputting and changing the operating system, which was getting further from completion, not closer. Too late, realisation dawned. ‘It was a mass delusion. We either hadn’t seen, or had simply closed our eyes to, all the warning signs’.2 Boo-Hoo indeed.

Finishing a big writing project is a different exercise, under one-person control. Yet many last touches are still required: last re-reads; last edits; last checks to footnotes, illustrations, and bibliography; last inputs from the publisher’s readers; last decision about the final snappy dictum. So announcing THE BOOK END helps to speed things onwards. But it isn’t ended until it’s ended.

1 C. Connolly, Enemies of Promise (1938).

2 E. Malmsten and others, Boo-Hoo: $135 Million Dollars, 18 Months … A Dot.Com Story from Concept to Catastrophe (Arrow Books, 2002), p. 233.

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MONTHLY BLOG 59, SUPERVISING A BIG RESEARCH PROJECT TO FINISH WELL AND ON TIME: THREE FRAMEWORK RULES

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

The ideal is helping people to finish a big project (a book, a thesis) not only well – that goes without staying – but also within a specified time. Why bother about that latter point? Mainly because people don’t have unlimited years and funds to produce their great work. Plus: the discipline of mental time-management is valuable in itself. When all’s said and done, there’s nothing like a real deadline.

So first framework rule: check that the researcher/writer really, really, really wants to complete the project. (Not just wants the qualification at the end of it). What’s needed is a burning desire to sustain the researcher throughout the four years it takes to research, write and present to publishable standard an original study of c.100,000 words. Ability, aptitude for the specific subject, and a good supervisor, are certainly needed. But more still is required. Motivation is crucial.
2015-11 No1 Early Flame
How burning should the burning desire be? Maybe not a total conflagration from the very start. But a genuine self-tended spark that can gain strength as things proceed. Finishing a big project is a long slog. There are moments of euphoria but also risks of boredom, isolation, exasperation, wrong turns, discouragement and even burn-out. The finicky finishing processes, which involve checking and checking again, down to every last dot and comma, can also drive people mad. In fact, the very last stages are highly educational. Each iteration produces a visible improvement, sometimes a major leap forward. Completing a big project is a wonderful experience. But it takes a burning desire to get there.

A second framework rule follows logically. Check continually that the scale of the project matches the allotted time for completion. That’s a necessity which I’ve learned from hard experience. Keeping a firm check on research/time commitments is vital for all parties. There are a few people with time to spare who do truly want a life-time project. That’s fine; but they can’t expect a life-time supervisor.

Checking the project’s scale/timetable entails regular consultation between supervisor and researcher, on at least a quarterly basis. Above all, it’s vital that all parties stay realistic. It’s too easy to kid oneself – and others. The worst thing (I’m prone to doing this myself) is to say airily: ‘Oh, it’s nearly finished’. Take stock realistically and, as needed, reconfigure either the timetable or the overall plan or both. If the project is being undertaken for a University research degree, there will also be a Departmental or Faculty review process. Make that a serious hurdle. If things are going well, then surmounting it will fuel the fires positively. But, if there are serious problems, then it’s best for all concerned to realise that and to redirect the researcher’s energies elsewhere. It’s hard at the time; but much better than protracting the agony and taking further years to fail.

Thirdly, organise a system of negotiated deadlines. These are all-important. The researcher should never be left drifting without a clear time framework in which to operate. Each project is sub-divided into stages, each undertaken to a specific deadline. At that point, the researcher submits a written report, completed to a high standard of technical presentation, complete with finished footnotes. These are in effect proto-chapters, which are then ‘banked’ as components of the finished project, for further polishing/amending at the very end. Generally, these detailed reports will include: Survey of Contextual Issues/Arguments; Overview of Secondary Works; Review of Original Sources and Source Critique; Methodology; Research Chapters; and Conclusion. Whatever the sequence, the researcher should always be ‘writing through’, not just ‘writing up’ at the end.2

Setting the interim deadlines is a matter for negotiation between supervisor and researcher. It’s the researcher’s responsibility to ‘own’ the timetable. If it proves unrealistic in practice, then he/she should always take the initiative to contact the supervisor and renegotiate. Things should never be allowed to drift into the limbo of the ‘great work’, constantly discussed and constantly postponed.3

For my part, I imagine setting a force-field around everyone I supervise, willing them on and letting them know that they are not alone. It also helps to keep researchers in contact with their peers, via seminars and special meetings, so that they get and give mutual support. Nonetheless, the researcher is the individual toiler in the archives or library or museum or (these days) at the screen-face. Part of the process is learning to estimate realistically the time required for the various stages – and the art of reconfiguring the plan flexibly as things progress.

Undertaking a large-scale project has been defined as moving a mountain of shifting sand with a tea-spoon. Each particular move seems futile in face of the whole. But the pathway unfolds by working through the stages systematically, by researching/writing to flexibly negotiated deadlines throughout – and by thinking hard about both the mountain and the pathway. So original knowledge is germinated and translated into high-quality publishable material. Completion then achieves the mind-blowing intellectual combustion that was from the start desired.
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What follows is based upon my experience as a supervisor, formally in the University of London, and informally among friends and acquaintances seeking advice on finishing.

2 See ‘Writing Through’, companion BLOG no. 60 (forthcoming Dec. 2015).

3 A literary warning comes from Dr Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871/2).

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