Last week was full and good, bright skies, big clouds, sudden downpours, and a wild wind that seemed to temporarily blow doubt and mess from my thoughts. I’m sure I’ll write more about the individual components in due course, but for now, in the almost-immediacy of its aftermath:
First, on Tuesday, a talk at Landscape Surgery on my research. It occurs to me now that this was really the first time I’ve presented my research publicly in any form. I’ve spoken about writing and its relationship to place, and referenced in passing my own work, but here it was: a solid thirty or forty minutes of me on swimming pools and swimming bodies, on repetition and mundanity and the ugly-beauty of the watery world and what it might mean. (‘Thus the minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world,’ Bachelard wrote.)
I spoke mainly about the materialities of the pool, lingering on its more unsavoury elements: snot, spit, sweat, mould, mud, hair, floating plasters. This was a sort of expanded version of a paper I was due to give at the AAG annual conference last month. Someone else read that out on my behalf, for which I am grateful, but I was happy to have the opportunity to actually face an audience. And it went well, or well enough: I was worried that no one would have anything to say in response, or that in spite of my own love for it the subject matter would simply prove too dull to liven up, even with references to floating balls of snot and allusions to the weird intimacy of an environment characterised by the revelation of so much skin. But my talk was followed by what felt to me to be a very engaging discussion: people had ideas, questions, things to suggest. And so apart from the usefulness of the feedback I received, and the useful practice of thinking about and formulating responses, it was also generally heartening to know that this work can lead to such a discussion.
I thought about this again on Wednesday, at a masterclass with Robert Macfarlane in Brighton (organised by ARENA - a joint, AHRC-funded initiative between the University of Brighton and RHUL). I’ve been so often preoccupied by the why of my research, the ‘what really matters?’, but in fact this is why, this is what matters. I like that my work can be captured, more or less, by a single word. ‘Pools,’ I can say, by way of introduction, and people have a sense of what this might mean: like the pool itself, the word both encloses and opens (it ‘invites intellectual wanderings’ whilst ‘at the same time it prevents the wanderer from losing his way,’ as Thomas Van Leeuwen puts it). And I like that so many people have some immediate, often visceral or emotive, response to the idea of the pool. They’re thrown back to childhood, or reminded of a passage in a novel they love, or they hate pools, or they can’t swim, or they get vertigo when they can see the bottom at the deep end, or they used to swim for a club and chlorine connotes competition, or their local pool is so dirty, or, or, or, or. Possibilities keep opening out: ‘maybe this isn’t really related to your research, but…’ And it always is, in a way. People have something to say, to feel, about the pool.
In this way my body, or the bodies of my research participants, is just a vehicle for the reader. A backdrop to project onto. No one can know what it’s like to be me in the water but they can know what it’s like to be them, and onto the idea of the pool is mapped both sets of bodily experiences. We talked about this, a little, throughout the day: what does the body know? How does it remember? How do we write about these things - under the surface, inscribed in muscle and bone or somewhere deeper, harder to understand - how do we find a language for this?
Speaking of language: there was a lot of talk at the masterclass about a perceived tension between forms of 'creative' and forms of ‘academic’ writing. I've been selfishly interested in this since I began my PhD; it's what I was trying to get at in this (dry, jargon-laden, paywalled) paper on 'the art of writing place', though I'm not sure I have yet found an approach to writing in either context which feels quite right, let alone found a way of writing in both contexts simultaneously. Macfarlane spoke at one point about 'forms of hospitality to the reader that academic writing doesn't necessarily extend,' and I like this way of thinking about the act of authoring: that you can choose to invite the reader in.
With academic writing it's difficult: sometimes the point of it is to make you work. (But hospitable writing can make you work too, so this is not to say hospitable writing is necessarily easier on the author or the reader.) Sometimes the best way to describe things is through a shared disciplinary language, a rhythm of formality. Sometimes, though, it comes from insecurity. I’m guilty of this: when I come across a concept about which I think others may know much more than I do, when I feel I’ve veered into territory I can’t feel firmly beneath my feet, I try to build a maze out of obfuscatory phrases, buzzwords, sentences so long they become ropes with which to tie the reader down. (Don't go exploring: stay on the path.) It happens most obviously when we try to condense: who ever, for example, fully understands abstracts?
On the other hand there is a precision and a consideration to good academic writing that I believe everyone should strive for. As an editor I know this; when you're playing with someone else's text you really feel the weight of every word. As a writer it’s easier to forgo precision in favour of speed. When I write I often leave holes in the text, marked with parenthesis to mimic the shape of a gap: (()). Sometimes the hole is there to be filled by a paragraph, an entire segment of writing that I can sense but which I haven’t yet thought through. Other times, though - more often - it’s a single word or phrase, essential for rhythm or clarity, but still in the shadows. Academic writing constantly forces this kind of thoroughness: what does a word mean, what can a word mean, what has a word meant?
That afternoon, after the class, I went for a walk along the seafront. Brighton is not a place I know extremely well but I always find it easy to feel my way around. It’s a place I keep dipping into, a day here, an afternoon there, and every time I do I experience a sense of being righted. Perhaps it’s because of where I grew up; I find a coastline the most intuitive way to orient myself. I go there and I get my bearings and I come away again. Here in Oxford we have the river, which winds and slyly divides, and the frontier is not so obvious, but a coastline is definitive, it marks an end and a beginning. So I walked for awhile with the sea to my left; the wind was so fierce that it was blowing people backward and the gulls made no progress, suspended in currents of air, while the water rolled and roiled and the sun illuminated a haze on the horizon.
Anyway I think about all this in the context of what has been, PhD-wise, a fairly flat few months. A few weeks ago, trying to write some words I'd promised to get down, I felt almost fatally frustrated with the prospect of having to push forward like this, paralysed by the purposelessness of it. It seemed entirely possible that I would never make any progress again, and that any progress I had made previously was in fact illusory. Everyone feels that about big projects sometimes, I know this. Even last weekend: we dropped by the house of an old friend and had a gin and tonic while her two children sat at the table eating their tea, and she said, ‘how’s the PhD going?’ and I said it’s fine, it’s fine, it's better than last month when I felt like giving it up. And she laughed and said, oh, I feel like that every time I write anything - which was on the one hand extraordinary to me, because she is someone to whom I look up, a serious Oxbridge academic, and yet also entirely unsurprising, because of course we all feel at times like buffeted gulls.
So sometimes it's a month of nothing much, a month of headwinds: maybe I'll give up and go the other direction. And then sometimes it's a good week, and that’s a relief, but it doesn’t mean that everything will be different now. The work is still work. It's repetition and ritual, muscle and mould, a narrow gate.