I am a scatter brain

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I have been at my thesis part time for nearly six years now. I have two more years in which to complete it. These are the difficult years. This is when I will need to stick to the basics of my academic housework, to set up indexes, footnotes, paragraphing etc. But before I do this, I need to get the body of the thesis held together. I need a skeleton, one on which I can pile flesh, jam in organs and stick on limbs.

This is my task today – to construct a thesis skeleton. But I am a Jill of all trades, and a mistress of none. I hobble from one thought to the next and cannot settle on a single idea, a single image, a single notion to follow.

Another person might move to someone else’s writing for direction, but I do not want to read yet, not another person’s writing, not yet, not anymore. Another person’s writing will become for me yet another distraction and I am already awash with them.

This thesis matters to me. It matters to me as one way of overcoming the wretched sense of failure, which I endured some nineteen years ago when certain powers-that-were decided that I should no longer continue in my training.

I had invested so much in this training to be a psychoanalyst that at the point where my mentor told me I was no longer wanted, my world seemed to collapse, and for a time it did. I survived then by putting one foot in front of the other, one step at a time.

One day I took myself off to the Immaculate Conception Church in Hawthorn in search of comfort. I no longer believed in the healing power of God and his angels but I still held faith in my memory of those times when I could find comfort in the quiet, musty corridors of an empty church. I tried to breathe in the feel of the past, myself as a child, a child who could be comforted by the belief that someone out there was looking out for me and that all would be well in the end.

In March 1993 the playwright, Dennis Potter spoke about his life.
‘You start defining your dignity by your ability to work,’ he said, and then he paraphrased the words of an unnamed American theologian.

‘There is a child crying in a room and the mother comes in and picks it up and says, “There, there. Everything’s all right.”

Outside there might be bombs and starvation. Is she lying? The answer, in my opinion, is that she is not. No matter how corrupt, wicked, cruel, disastrous the world is, some little tributary of feeling says, “It’s all right.” That is where writing comes from.’

Blogging has become one way of practising my writing but it is also a distraction, as if I am cleaning my house and move from one room to the next, never quite settling on a task before I move onto the next.

Today I must brainstorm my thesis. I must stick with the task.

It is Good Friday. The one day of the year when most things stop. I allocated this day in my mind the last time I sat with my supervisor.

‘You are going to need to sit down with these ideas and work out a structure,’ my supervisor said. ‘You are going to need to pull it together’.

Pull it together. Who me? Not me, I am a scatter brain. I am fearful of structure, the way it ties you into a forced form , like a straitjacket, the way it narrows the roads along which you might travel.

This is not true, another inside voice says. Structure will allow you to follow multiple roads. It will create a sense that each road is clear and separate, each leading somewhere different.

The way it is now your roads begin but they end in cul de sacs. They end in incomplete bits of pavement. They end nowhere.

I fear I have already imposed too much structure on my thesis but it is not a creative text per se.

The creative text can form one road, my now internal supervisor says to me, but it needs a description of what you are on about, otherwise your examiners will fail you – again.

Again you will fail. As you failed mental arithmetic in grade six and Mother Mary John handed back your report card and said
‘I knew you were bad, but I did not realise how bad.’’

Strange how some words stick. How some words come to colour your entire life.

I have slipped into the second person. Forgive me. I am trying to include the rest of you in this, my fellow bloggers. I imagine you too know what it is to feel damned to failure for the rest of your life.

It is a damnable position from which you never quite recover.

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55 Comments on I am a scatter brain

  1. Christine
    April 2, 2010 at 1:47 am (8 years ago)

    I really wish you well.

    I remember my father telling me that structure can be freedom. You can do a lot within it, he said. The false structure, the one that ultimately led to his decision to retire early, was borne of the ambitions, envies and phantasies of others. A decade later he was vindicated…

    On another tack Shakespeare's sonnets, so immaculately structured, are exquisite in their ability to touch the human heart.

    Good luck!!

    Reply
  2. LimesNow
    April 2, 2010 at 1:55 am (8 years ago)

    What rich allegory, Elisabeth! The skeleton, organs, limbs. You truly touched another woman who feels completely over-shadowed by her long list of failures. And yet, I would say this to you: you suffer much angst about being a failure, and yet you've worked at this thesis for 6 years, with 2 to go. This is a major life event. Something else to which you have given birth. Go! Finish it!

    This week, for the first time in many decades, I entered a Catholic church. It was all about carpet and upholstery cleaning and pizzas for dinner and nothing whatsoever about my belief system, but I felt some peace there. I sat in a pew for a moment and sensed my troubles leaving me . . . until my trousers began to take on moisture, because that pew had already been cleaned.

    Elisabeth, I GET it and SHARE some of the feelings of failure. Move on!Go!I will support you.

    Reply
  3. Conda V. Douglas
    April 2, 2010 at 1:59 am (8 years ago)

    Elisabeth, oh my, I heard every word you wrote in my head…some in my voice, some in a teacher's, some in my mother's. Right now, I'm working on the skeleton of my new novel, which is a struggle. In some ways it helps to know my struggles are far from unique. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. Anthony Duce
    April 2, 2010 at 2:18 am (8 years ago)

    The failures are just education opportunities. Everything I failed at prepared for what I really wanted to succeed at. There is something to be said for an open all over the place approach, just means you'll be doing a lot more deleting at some point to finally pull it together. Liked your words today again.

    Reply
  5. Bonnie, Original Art Studio
    April 2, 2010 at 2:43 am (8 years ago)

    Elisabeth: You allow yourself to be so vulnerable in your writings, and that has definite appeal. I have to wonder at a supervisor who has allowed you to get six years into your work without presenting some structure to your work …

    I know stories are essential to a writer … but I cannot help but wonder what freedom and heights of creativity you might experience if you did not let the stories and wounds define you. We are all so much more than what was done or said to us …

    Reply
  6. joanny
    April 2, 2010 at 4:08 am (8 years ago)

    Elisabeth

    Your words touched my heart — we all struggle with this human dilemma – Oh to begin at the end —

    In more ways then one I can relate to your story today, I signed up for this — back in grad school myself – kids grown– wondering why? what makes us want to overcome our failures? to begin as unlikelihoods? to push the limits of our doubts that overshadow us? follow us — it is in our quiet moments that we hear the voice echo in the wind — saying Yes, -you can.

    Joanny

    Reply
  7. Ces
    April 2, 2010 at 4:23 am (8 years ago)

    Hello Elisabeth!

    I hope you find the time for yourself so that you can get this done. I am rooting for you.

    I would think that blogging is a very distracting activity, at least for me. It is like playing when I should be working.

    Good luck!

    Reply
  8. Elizabeth
    April 2, 2010 at 5:28 am (8 years ago)

    Throw off those chains and write. You are a beautiful writer. You are a beautiful writer. You are a writer. You are a writer. Etc. Etc. Etc.

    Reply
  9. Ronda Laveen
    April 2, 2010 at 5:36 am (8 years ago)

    You are so close now to the finish line. Do not let them or yourself victimize you. I say stuff that middle finger of your success in their pastey, nay saying faces.

    I can understand why you don't want to read, yet again, someone else's work. You have collected all you need, now all you have to do is order it. You've done the hard part…REALLY. This is all just accounting.

    Carpe Diem
    Carpe Good Friday

    Reply
  10. Annotated Margins
    April 2, 2010 at 6:14 am (8 years ago)

    I lock myself in a structured box called 12-bar blues; I play for three hours and people applaud. As for the scatter brain business… hmm… that's a toughy… maybe a tinfoil cap? Or… maybe things will fall into place and you will write when it's time for things to fall into place and for you to write. Everything will be all right.

    Reply
  11. Lorenzo at the Alchemist's Pillow
    April 2, 2010 at 7:02 am (8 years ago)

    This post really got inside my head for some reason. Perhaps it is because I, too, have spent much time in musty empty churches and today, Good Friday, they are not empty, but filled with persons who, unlike you and me, do still look for divine intervention in their lives.

    In your profile, you say you can see "how hard it is to describe myself, when there are so many different selves to describe". So which of those selves is a scatter brain? Or a failure?

    Not any of the ones I hear in this beautiful post (I especially liked the feel of the musty church and the "there, there… everything is alright"). I get the distinct sensation that the only thing you "fail" at is in truly embracing other people's notions and calibration of success and failure as your own. Beware of success in that endeavour if ever you should achieve it.

    Churchill once said that "success is going from failure to failure without ever losing your enthusiasm".

    So go build yourself an enthusiastic thesis skeleton! Don't think of it as a test of success or failure, but just as a task that has to be done so you can enjoy all your other scatter-spirited enthusiastic pursuits.

    Good luck!

    Reply
  12. Elisabeth
    April 2, 2010 at 9:15 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Christine.

    I've thought long and hard about structure and I have decided that the need for it comes from the more 'masculine' side of our functioning, which probably sounds a bit loose here and appallingly gendered. My cultural studies daughter would have a go at me for categorising things so.

    What I mean to say is that I think the need for structure is something from the left side of our brains more than the right. I hope I have the distinction right, I often get the functions of the different sides of the brain mixed up. the right side is the more emotional, creative isn't it. the let for logic and reasoning.

    It interests me that you quote your father's ideas on structure here. I have long believed that my difficulties with structure come from my lack of fathering. If that makes sense.

    Reply
  13. Elisabeth
    April 2, 2010 at 9:58 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Lesley. I suspect I have moved on but the memory still trips me up from time to time, especially when I'm faced with such issues as the need to develop a structure, and not simply for an essay.

    I've mastered plenty of them, but this thesis is meant to be somewhere between 70,000 and 90,00o words. Effectively, it's book size.

    I have not yet written a book. The thought is daunting. But then I think of Anne Lamott's wonderful advice in her book on writing, 'Bird by Bird'.

    When her younger brother, Buddy, is struggling over a junior school biology or some such assignment one night – there are simply too many birds to categorise – his father takes him aside and says, 'Bird by bird, Buddy. Bird by bird.'

    I say these words to myself now, oftentimes when I too feel overwhelmed.

    My visit to the church was also one way of trying to deal with the volume of my emotions at that time.

    I'm not sure it would work now, though I still love to visit cathedrals and the like for the awe they inspire, mostly to do with a sense of history and what has come before.

    Reply
  14. Elisabeth
    April 2, 2010 at 10:02 am (8 years ago)

    Hi Conda. It's good to know my struggles are not unique. I have a suspicion that a fictionalised novel would be much harder. A friend of mine who is onto her second novel after a huge fanfare for her first tells me all about it, something to do with the need to cantilever the entire structure without knowing where she is going. I like this idea of course because more often than not I do not know where I am going, either. Hopefully we'll all three, you me and my friend get there in the end. Thanks, Conda.

    Reply
  15. Elisabeth
    April 2, 2010 at 10:06 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Anthony. You're right of course, our mistakes are preludes to our successes, if we can learn from them.

    Obviously this is one of your mantras. You spend a great deal of time, as far as I can see, learning from your own process, your mistakes, your successes and everything in between in your art.

    It's great to share this with you and thanks again for your reassuring words.

    Reply
  16. Elisabeth
    April 2, 2010 at 10:14 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Bonnie. I must speak on behalf of my wonderful supervisor, both supervisors, in fact. I'm fortunate in that I have two.

    They have both impressed upon me the need for structure from the onset and we talk about it ad nauseum, but I am a writer in preference to all else. I am not an academic.

    As such I take more pleasure in the actual practice and process of writing. I do not enjoy the rest so much: the thinking, the redrafting, the structuring, the strategic planning etc.

    I try to find my way through these things by writing. I do not like to plan ahead.

    It is not unheard of, this way of working. It applies though more often to fiction, than to nonfiction. And in some ways I fear I merge the two.

    I call it 'autobiographical fiction', after one of my writing heroes, Gerald Murnane.

    This might seem a misnomer, but to me it makes perfect sense.

    Thanks again for your kind and helpful words, Bonnie.

    Reply
  17. Elisabeth
    April 2, 2010 at 10:21 am (8 years ago)

    Thank you, Joanny, for your lovely thoughts. I'm most grateful to you.

    Your words put me in mind of something I have written elsewhere, about the degree to which I write to overcome the shame of past failures but also to silence the critical voice that takes form in my mind in the first instance on the shape of my exceedingly critical father.

    He is represented for me in academia and it is hard to shake my childhood fear out from under the thrall of the authoritarian voices of certain intellectuals who might seek to stifle it, as opposed to others from academia who seek to nourish it.

    None of this is black or white. There are so many gradations in between.

    Reply
  18. Elisabeth
    April 2, 2010 at 10:30 am (8 years ago)

    Ces, thanks. You are a hive of activity yourself and reading your blog, looking at your wonderfuk art and scrolling through all the comments posted at your door, I'm not surprised you see blogging as a distraction.

    It is of course a distraction, but to my way of thinking, a welcome one. For as much as blogging distracts us from our work, it also adds a dimension to our thinking based on other people's comments that we would not otherwise access if we worked entirely alone.

    I have writing friends who do not like to put out their work for work shopping or scrutiny until it has reached a certain standard. Otherwise they feel mozzed.

    I'm not like that, nor are you as far as I can see and many other bloggers whose work I admire. Not that we don't present work of a high enough standard, but many of us here seem to want to share our work in progress as if we become one another's supervisors, mentors critics whatever.

    So for all the distraction there is also the value added component in blogging that I find priceless. Thanks, Ces.

    Reply
  19. Elisabeth
    April 2, 2010 at 10:38 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Elizabeth, who spells her name with a 'z' in contrast to the European spelling of my same name with an 's' . You also have a beautiful daughter, Sophie whose name begins with an 's'.

    I have written elsewhere that my favorite letter is the letter 's'. I shall not say more about it here, other than to acknowledge the different spelling of our names and the bond we share almost automatically because we have the same name, a common enough name, I know, but a name that allows itself to many variations.

    Thank you, Elizabeth, for your encouragement.

    Lord knows you are one hell of an encourager, a woman of courage who works against extraordinary odds to add to the quality of her children's lives in the face of enormous hardship and a woman who also writes like a dream.

    Reply
  20. Elisabeth
    April 2, 2010 at 10:46 am (8 years ago)

    Oh Ronda, I wish I were as close to the finishing line as you imagine.

    It's true, I have read a great deal. It's also true that I have written thousands upon thousands of words on the topic of my thesis, but putting them together in such a way as they flow and make sense is not an easy task.

    One of my daughters tonight was appalled to hear that I write before I plan.

    Her father has taught her well. Always begin with a written plan he tells them, our daughters.

    But I never write to a plan. I always write first and see where it takes me. That's fine, except when you want to put your ideas into book form.

    As the same daughter says, 'you can't just drop a series of brain farts'. Ho hum.

    Reply
  21. Elisabeth
    April 2, 2010 at 10:51 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Mike. You're lucky to be able to lock yourself into such a concentration box of musical endeavour.

    I'm sure that things will come together for me in the end. As I've written elsewhere, it's not that i can't write. It's more that I've written too much and need now to refine it, to prune and pluck out excesses, to make one thing follow the other, to form a coherent narrative and to have worthwhile things to say in relation to the relevant theory.

    Ah me, I'm beginning to feel even more exhausted but that goes with the territory.

    You're right of course, in the long run, all will be well.

    Reply
  22. Elisabeth
    April 2, 2010 at 10:57 am (8 years ago)

    And finally, in this long run of responses to a series of comments that I had left to build up over the afternoon by refusing to let myself check for comments on this mornings post, because I had to work on my thesis and could not let myself be distracted, I come to you, Lorenzo and your generous words.

    You have lifted my spirits. I take heart from your quote from Churchill, and to use an apt military term, I shall soldier on.

    Thank you, Lorenzo.

    Reply
  23. melissashook
    April 2, 2010 at 1:16 pm (8 years ago)

    I think these moments of extreme panic at having to accomplish a task are so interesting….I always interpret them as the monster-eyed-dog of my unconscious trying to prove that I will again fail…over the years, I've learned to acknowledge this power and to understand (most of the time), that I'll get past it…

    Reply
  24. Jim Murdoch
    April 2, 2010 at 1:25 pm (8 years ago)

    I have a similar problem. I have a novel to finish. My poor mental health over the last three years has been a perfect excuse not to finish it and now I spend hours daily blogging so although I’m now so much healthier (I’ve improved in leaps and bounds over the past few weeks) I can’t help but feel a reluctance to pick it up and start afresh. Blogging is easy by comparison and the projects are short, three days to a week and then I can move on. I don’t allow myself time to get bored. I don’t know how you feel about your thesis but I suspect that it’s a bit like I feel about this novel; it’s an obstacle that needs to be got through. It’s the other side that’s more important. Will finishing my novel make things all right or prove that things are all right? I suspect a bit of both.

    Like you I am also fearful of structure which is an odd thing for me to say because I love order but I think it’s the place of structure in the scheme of things that bothers me. I don’t plot or plan before I start. I just head off in a direction and see where it takes me, which means where I end up is not necessarily where I expected I might. That’s fine for a novel but is that fine for a thesis? I don’t actually see why not. As long as it reaches a natural (and one would assume logical) conclusion.

    Your problem is the same as Potter’s. By 1993 he would have realised that his time was limited. I watched his 1994 interview with Melvyn Bragg (in fact I bought a copy when it was released in book form) and I suspected that’s what you were quoting from but I see not. The simple fact was that he had months to live and two projects to complete. So he cut his cloth, cut down on his commitments and paced himself.

    I suppose one of the questions I would be asking myself just now is whether what I have produced so far is in the shape and form needed to get you a pass. Exams are not the place to innovate. I remember Charles Ives’ Symphony No 2 which was his ‘thesis’ and it is a traditional ‘Classical’ symphony all bar the discord at the very end, a cheeky raspberry. After that he could please himself and he did. So, produce what’s expected of you and then write your book. Until your thesis is out of the way you’ll never write your book. Once you’ve put that to bed you can go, “All right, let’s do it my way now.”

    Reply
  25. Mim
    April 2, 2010 at 1:57 pm (8 years ago)

    Good luck, Elizabeth.

    You may want to think of "structure" as a list. Beginning, middle, end, each with sections you can number or give a letter to.

    "Structure" is such a heavy word. I like to keep it simple.

    Reply
  26. Kirk Jusko
    April 2, 2010 at 7:42 pm (8 years ago)

    Don't know about thesis, but I'd say that post has a fine structure to it.

    Thought you already were a psychoanalyst. Did you recently change the "About Me" section to the left? I could have sworn the first time I read it, it said something about psycology.

    You mentioned that your writing often ends in a cul-de-sac. Could that mean things are brought full circle? I don't know about a thesis, but in a novel that would be considered a remarkable achievement.

    Going to expose my ignorance of psycology big time here, but I read somewhere once (Reader's Digest?) that Freud believed the main drive or primal urge or whatever was sex whereas a student of his named Adler thought it was agression, physical or otherwise. As much as I'd like to think Freaud was right, after reading blog after blog (including yours) about people getting cut down to size before they even had a chance to grow in the first place, coupled with my own personal experiences (I'm sweating as I write this) I fear Adler might be right, but again, I'm ignorant.

    Finally, if anyone ever again tells you that you can't write, tell them I said they need their head examined.

    Reply
  27. Elisabelle
    April 2, 2010 at 9:27 pm (8 years ago)

    I wish you "bon courage" for your work. I admire you for being so dedicated to your thesis.

    On a side note, I don't think that anyone is damned to failure. I don't believe in fate either but I have the feeling that every time I failed, the path was not write for me and I was meant to go somewhere else. Maybe it is just how I want to see it but it always turned out to be true: there was another way, a better thing for me.

    PS: blogging is a distraction but such a fascinating window!

    Reply
  28. Elisabeth
    April 2, 2010 at 10:36 pm (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Melissa, the monster-eye-dog of my unconscious indeed. Last night I dreamed exquisite dreams in rich detail, and writing one up this morning I see that it is all about my central argument: that the desire for revenge can bring about creativity in the form of writing if that desire is nt enacted or repressed but is harnessed processed, worked through etc.

    I can see that dog with his eyes the size of dinner plates, the one I read about in childhood stories from Greek and Roman myths and today I wonder that his eyes were the most frightening of all. Not his jowls and sharp teeth, not his huge haunches, not his saliva dripping lips.

    He might be able to tear you limb from limb, but it's those eyes that threaten to bore through you, to see through you to the other side, to strip you naked under their judgmental gaze. These eyes are the most malevolent. Thanks Melissa.

    Reply
  29. Elisabeth
    April 2, 2010 at 10:54 pm (8 years ago)

    Well Jim, as ever you are most helpful.

    I suppose it has something to do with our shared problem, how to complete a task that we have set ourselves and yet one which nags at us, as if it should not be achieved.

    Why do we procrastinate so? I often wonder about it. I think there is a certain momentum to these tasks and maybe I have gone on too long. I feel as if I have entered new territory now and my original thesis begins to feel stale.

    And yes, you are right, I want to write my book, the book that I can write as I see fit, not one that has to fit into some preordained guidelines.

    But I must finish this thesis. I will finish it

    I have five brothers, one is an artist, and an accountant by day. The other four are all in varying professions, but all four have begun a PhD. Only one has fallen short of finishing and this only recently when he decided to stop. I cannot go into details here, but it seems to me it's important to finish what I begin and I will not fail in that endeavour.

    I have three sisters and I will be the first girl to arrive at a PhD. I know that part of my motivation is to satisfy my dead father, a vain endeavour given that he is dead, but nevertheless a fierce motivating force. Perhaps my father in my mind is like Melissa's monster-eyed-dog, the judgmental one.

    When you say I should just get the thing done and passed, I agree. I should stop worrying about the comments from those markers. There will only be three people who decide the fate of my thesis. But three people can be powerful in their influence on your life, as has happened to me in the past.

    This comment is getting too long. Thanks as ever, Jim. I want to encourage you with your novel, but not to the extent that you stop blogging. I love your posts and your comments. I love your sage, sensitive, humorous and articulate presence within the blogosphere. Your writing shines.

    Reply
  30. Elisabeth
    April 2, 2010 at 11:02 pm (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Mim. My husband has a wonderfully logical mind.

    He tells our daughters, and he tells me and has done so for years: It's easy to write an essay. First you say what you are going to say, and then you say it Finally, you write what you have said – a beginning, a middle and an end.

    He knows full well that I bridle at this suggestion, not that you are suggesting as much here. You talk about a list, including a beginning, a middle, and an end.

    The difficulty for me is that my thinking is more rhizomatic, in the Deleuzian sense of the word. You know – a root or a tree trunk. They have many branches that go in all sorts of directions.

    I am not a 'big picture person'. I like the detail and although I can easily build bridges between one idea and another I find it far more difficult to get a sense of the overall picture in my mind.

    There's too much to say. If I narrow it all down to the bare bones, it begins to bore me. It's only in the depth of the writing and in the intricacies of the detail that my heart soars. Then I have the energy I need to read and to write.

    Thanks Mim.

    Reply
  31. Kass
    April 2, 2010 at 11:10 pm (8 years ago)

    The humanness in your writing always comes through. I know you will keep putting one foot in front of another and arrive at a finished thesis (and a better understanding of why you put yourself through this ordeal).

    Reply
  32. Elisabeth
    April 3, 2010 at 12:49 am (8 years ago)

    Dear Kirk, I started to write you a long comment in response to yours but it is far too long to include here.

    I will send it to you in an email.

    If anyone else reading this comment here is interested to know about the changes in my profile and to understand more about the psychoanalytic ideas and stuff to which Kirk refers in his comment above, please email me at 6thinline@gmail.com and I'll send the details on to you, too.

    Thanks, Kirk, for your reassuring words.

    Reply
  33. Elisabeth
    April 3, 2010 at 12:58 am (8 years ago)

    Heaven knows I need 'bon courage' for my work, Elisabelle.

    I agree with you, none of us is damned failure. I wrote the words in this post as an expression of my deepest fears, but my fears are not facts and I have not been such a failure in my life overall.

    It is only in this one precious areas, precious to me at least, and that is what makes it so painful. But it is nothing compared to the suffering that you and others who blog here have had to endure.

    And I also agree with you, that blogging is a distraction at times, but today for me, responding to your comments here has proved extremely useful, in that it has made me write in detail about certain 'facts' that I have been reluctant to put down on the page.

    Now I have written them in an email to Kirk and to any other interested bloggers who care to let me know of their interest and I feel so much better.

    Blogging can be playful but it can also be hard 'work', valuable work and I am so grateful to you and others who make it all possible. Thanks, Elisabelle.

    Reply
  34. Frances
    April 3, 2010 at 8:08 am (8 years ago)

    Is "fail" a harsh word to use, Elisabeth?
    One can think: fail/pass
    Or one can think: fail/succeed
    Or one can think: fail/didn't quite get what I was aiming at, but what did I get from the experience?

    To fall short of an extraordinary goal is not to fail.
    Because, of course, a PhD is an extraordinary achievement.
    The aim and the endeavour, to my mind, is success enough: the outcome is more or less immaterial – (except for the very material velvet hat, of course).

    Oh, and being interested in, and valuing a wide variety of what is on offer in this world is not, to my mind, a "shotgun approach", but rather a rich and involved engagement with life.

    Reply
  35. Eternally Distracted
    April 3, 2010 at 10:42 am (8 years ago)

    My blog name says it all – I am totally and utterly incapable of concentrating on the task in hand… I am only happy if I have a million trillion things to do and only one hour to do it!

    Reply
  36. steven
    April 3, 2010 at 2:42 pm (8 years ago)

    elisabeth – clearly a touchstone piece for many people – you articulate a deep truth – a deep reality – for many people. i have "failed" frequently through the course of my life, and in ways that have hurt others as well as myself. astonishingly i forge onwards. my approach to life is simple. i live, work, play and exist inside boxes. some of them are handed to me by virtue of my vocation, my unwillingness to change in certain areas of my life, my wish to be predictable to people. but there are dances that can take place inside those boxes that define, describe who i am and allow for me to continue to grow. so it is with writing, art, music, being. i too failed grade 6 math. i now speak at conferences, to university students, about math. i love the irony. have a peaceful day. steven

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  37. Jim Murdoch
    April 3, 2010 at 3:58 pm (8 years ago)

    A few thoughts on failure. Is it failure of you cannot complete a task which is beyond you? What if you have expectations that exceed your abilities? If you go for a walk into the unknown you will end up somewhere but since it is the unknown it’s unreasonable to build up expectations beforehand. If you don’t get as far as you thought you might, you’ve not failed, you’ve miscalculated. This is all semantics of course. We have this obsessive need to trap experiences within words.

    Every novel I have written has been a journey, an exploration of an idea and none of them ended anywhere near where I might have thought when I first set foot on that journey. Part of my problem with my current novel is the fact that I’ve clung onto a second act that I suspect is beyond my abilities to pull off. There are plenty of writers who could, in their sleep, but I suspect I’m not one of them. There are reasons why I have dug my heels in, the main one being a desire not to write the same kind of books as I’ve done before. I’m trying to train myself to grow in a different direction to the one that feels natural.

    I can think of two examples: one is the singer Alison Moyet, the other the actor Dustin Hoffmann. Moyet’s known as ‘The Voice’ for a very good reason. She has one hell of a voice. And what need I say about Hoffmann’s ability as an actor? I saw two TV programmes a good few years ago now. In the first Moyet was being asked to sing opera and in the second Hoffmann was having his first crack at Shakespeare. Both struggled, really struggled. In fact I remember Hoffmann walking up to the camera that was filming him and saying something to the effect, “This is hard. This is bloody hard.”

    When I write my blogs I use my voice. I know my voice well. I know its highs and lows and I don’t try and push myself beyond my range. I’ve never been one to copy other writers but many of the books I like reading are books I would never consider writing. Because I wouldn’t know how to start. Well I managed to start one. In fact I’ve written half of one. And it’s not too bad so far. But I’m not sure if I’m capable of writing what I want to write next. It feels a bit too ambitious. But it’s a good idea. I have two choices: I can change direction and take the safe option or I can bide my time and wait for my ability to catch up with my ambition. The book’s not going anywhere.

    When will I have been said to have failed though? Failure is a matter of perspective. I will never climb Everest. I won’t ever even climb Ben Nevis. I’m not capable and I will never be capable. I can only fail if success is within my grasp. And until I’ve succeeded that is only conjecture. I’ve always been one to set attainable goals in the past. Perhaps this goal was too ambitious but I’ve taken ownership of it now and nothing else will do. It will feel like a failure. But just because it feels like a failure doesn’t make it one.

    My book and your thesis are hurdles. And there are two ways to get over a hurdle, jump over it or walk round it. A good example of the latter would be Hitler’s approach to The Maginot Line. Did Hitler fail because he didn’t play by the rules?

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  38. Kirk Jusko
    April 3, 2010 at 9:03 pm (8 years ago)

    Thank you so much for that email, Elisabeth. I found what you had to say extremely interesting.

    Now, speaking of failings, I've just re-read my earlier comment, and noticed that I said your "About Me" is on the LEFT hand side. It's actually on the right. On my blog it's on the left.

    Freudian slip.

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  39. Rick
    April 4, 2010 at 12:30 am (8 years ago)

    You sound like the quintessential writer!

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  40. Elisabeth
    April 4, 2010 at 4:24 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Kass for your reassurance here.

    Heaven knows how I will finish this thesis given my infinite capacity to be distracted but I will finish it, I know, and then I can spend my days playing, or so I like to think.

    Of course this is not the way it works. One task is over and we set ourselves another. I could not live happily without a significant challenge, preferably several at once, just to keep my heart racing.

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  41. Elisabeth
    April 4, 2010 at 4:30 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks Frances. You're right 'fail' is too harsh a word but it is the one word that suited my state of mind both at the time I wrote this and at other times earlier when the events I still occasionally struggle with recur in my mind.

    You're also right about the importance of the execution, as opposed to its outcome.

    As they say, it is the journey that counts more than the destination.

    I think both count, though it is easy to overlook the importance of the journey, the here and now with its valleys and peaks and flat bits.

    Thanks, Frances, yours are wise words and I appreciate them.

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  42. Elisabeth
    April 4, 2010 at 4:33 am (8 years ago)

    Eternally distracted, a woman after my own heart, but somehow you have managed to maintain such a bountiful blog.

    You must attend to it often enough and persevere with its vagaries, despite your tendency towards distraction. that includes your recognition of my efforts here.

    A truly distracted person would most likely not notice.

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  43. Elisabeth
    April 4, 2010 at 4:42 am (8 years ago)

    Thank you, Steven. Your comment here is as resonant as your posts.

    Your simple approach to life, your ability to 'compartmentalise' for want of a better word, is certainly one way of dealing with life's struggles. You do well in this regard. It shines through your blog.

    I wish in some ways I could be so settled, but if I were, I would not be me, and if you were not, you would not be you.

    It's good though to take ideas from one another and one of the things I take from you is a clear appreciation of beauty in its smallest detail.

    It's hard to imagine you as failing at anything and the fact that you too once suffered humiliation in grade six by failing maths is reassuring.

    Mind you, I have never overcome my maths phobia and I fear I may have to some extent passed it on to my daughters. But there are other good things they take from me, so it all evens out. Besides their father who has strengths in other ares shares them around with our daughters too.

    At least we are all now numerate. Thanks, Steven.

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  44. Elisabeth
    April 4, 2010 at 5:17 am (8 years ago)

    Wonderful thoughts on failure here, Jim. It's interesting that notions of failure seem to be the most remarked upon aspect of this post.

    I take your point about the difficulties of trying new ways of doing things, trying out a new voice, trying a new style.

    I tend to avoid those sorts of challenges, though I can remember once, perhaps not so many years ago, when I would never have dreamed it possible that I should be hobnobbing with academics.

    I love going to the academic conferences, those on literature at least, the ones focused on autobiography and biography because I am something of an outsider.

    Two years ago when I was at a conference in Hawaii, a few of the people there assumed I was a university lecturer, and that I taught as they all seemed to teach in some English department somewhere or other.

    They assumed this, I imagine because of my age. Most PhD students were younger than me, though i was not the only 'mature aged' soul.

    The point I'm trying to make here is that in this context I did not feel a failure. I felt comfortable with the gaps in my education, namely that I was not an adacademic, because I see things through diferent eyes.

    But send me off to a confrence full of analysts and I might feel differenty. Not so much intimidated – not any more – but churlish and uncomfortable.

    This is similar to the way I might feel where I to go to an event sponsored by my mother's church. Everyone there I imagine would assume we hold the same values and it would be like talking to a brick wall to suggest other persepectives.

    This comment is a bit all over the shop. It lacks structure. Sorry.

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  45. Elisabeth
    April 4, 2010 at 5:18 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Kirk, for observing your Freudian slip and to you, Rick, for your encouragement.

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  46. Terresa
    April 4, 2010 at 5:23 am (8 years ago)

    Damned to failure. That is a rough thing to live with.

    In my own small world and approach to life & writing, I shy away from things because, ultimately, I think if I don't try them in the first place, I won't have failed. I feel that way about sitting myself down to task on writing a complete manuscript.

    And I am facing it, a little at a time. Bit by bit, I will hack away at it, this forming manuscript, until it is complete.

    Blessings to you in your thesis & endeavor. As Anne Lamott suggests, write through it, burn through it until you get through to the other side (paraphrasing greatly here).

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  47. ALeks
    April 4, 2010 at 3:27 pm (8 years ago)

    Oh yes,I know very well what you are talking about and yes I do believe Im a huge failure myself! Wasted all this years to realized that I failed on all fronts and one most important,I have not been happy as my loving parents wanted me to be,as I wished for me to be!

    What makes you feel OK with just that what you already achieved and what is not a failure,not at all,when I read your marvellous writings here,learn bits of your life and how much you gave to this world,that is definitely not something what I would call failure!! And if I tell you that mother was right to tell her child that it will be all right than you know it is out my free choosing cause I need something good to believe in,just in those moments you need some words of comfort,friendly hug or simple a smile on the street from someone you do not even know! If it counts for something,I believe in you,and whatever you do I will respect you.OK,there are some things in life I do not support, :O),so there are some limits!
    Thank you again for one eye opener and another gem from your treasure world,you remind me of a raw Tiger Eye stone,stone I love the most of all stones! It is my honour to have had met you Elisabeth! Good luck and it will be all right,it is written in the stars!
    Heel veel liefs en groetjes uit Holland,
    Aleksandra

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  48. Jesse
    April 4, 2010 at 4:40 pm (8 years ago)

    I wrote a paper on scholarship in the Carolingian renaissance. The scholars avoided originality at all costs for fear that they could not discover truth like the ancients. What we have from them is not new discoveries, new ideas, but the structures that they built. That is where they expressed themselves, in choice and arrangement of ideas only. On a larger scale they worked under Charlemagne to arrange their country. The basis of the modern school system and a universal style of writing (the model for our times new roman) come from the Carolingian era.

    I fear structure and it is a great weakness for me in academic work. Thinking this way changed things. The ideas I work with for the most part are not my own. To think the place that I show myself is the hints of arrangement, preoccupation, and the like give those things a greater feeling of importance. Although I suspect that, being a scatter brain myself, I secretly wish to represent myself in an orderly manner such that I might become as I appear.

    It is amazing what powers to wound a teacher can have on a child. People look at lower level teaching as somewhat of an easy job, but a few ill-used words have shattered so many of us.

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  49. Elisabeth
    April 5, 2010 at 7:10 am (8 years ago)

    Thank you Aleks, my friend from Holland. I think most of us from time to time feel as if we have not achieved as much as we would like to achieve in our lives and in our work, but you are right – we must go on and recognise what good there is.

    In your work, Aleks, I also see the most amazing achievements, not only in your art, in your love of music and the way you share it,and in your writing but also in your ability to communicate with so many other people throughout the world who share your love of art, of music, beauty and of friendship.

    Thank you again, Aleks.

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  50. Elisabeth
    April 5, 2010 at 7:24 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks Jesse for outlining this background to our method of scholarship. I had no idea, though I always imagined there would be some fellow or fellows in the background who had wanted to improve things along the lines of what was meaningful for them at the time.

    Have you heard of an essay written by Ursula LeGuin on father tongue, mother tongue and native tongue? I have found it extremely helpful. You might, too.

    It features in LeGuin's book as her Bryn Mawr address 'Dancing at the Edge of the World'.

    I'll quote just a tiny bit from an essay I wrote on the subject, assuming I can fit it into this comment:

    Father tongue, the language of the academies, is as Ursula Le Guin writes, the language of public discourse, the language of power, the language of the outside world. Such a voice is essential to the development of technologies, science and the humanities. It presupposes that a common language can be spoken in laboratories, in business and governments everywhere. And “those who don’t know it or won’t speak it are silent, or silenced, or unheard” (LeGuin, 1992, p.148).

    Mother tongue, on the other hand is “always on the verge of silence, often on the verge of song” (p. 153).

    Father tongue is “an excellent dialect,” Le Guin writes. It is “The language of thought that seeks objectivity” (p. 148). Our public systems, the political and legal, our education and culture depend on it. Its “essential gesture … is not reasoning but distancing – making a gap, a space between the subject or self and the object or other” (p. 148). It can be “immensely noble and indispensably useful, this tongue, but when it claims a privileged relationship to reality, it becomes dangerous and potentially destructive” (p. 149). It is the voice that suppresses the mother tongue.

    Mother tongue the language that greets us at birth reminds us that we are human.

    The mother tongue, that we unlearn in the academies, is conversational and inclusive, the language of stories, “inaccurate, unclear, coarse, limited” – mother tongue breaks down dichotomy and refuses splits. “It flies from the mouth on the breath that is our life and is gone like the out breath, utterly gone and yet returning, repeated, the breath the same again always, everywhere, and we all know it by heart” (p. 149).

    Neither mother tongue nor father tongue alone are enough. We need to integrate both voices into what Le Guin calls our third language – “native tongue”, which involves “a marriage of the public discourse and the private experience” (p. 155).

    Apologies for the long quote but I simply love these ideas and the way LeGuin and Drusilla Modjesksa – who in her wonderful biography of her mother, Poppy, first put me in touch with LeGuin's essay – express themselves.

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  51. persiflage
    April 6, 2010 at 4:26 am (8 years ago)

    it is interesting that the idea of the beginning, middle and the end was used. It helps, but it can confine. At the end this simple concept ought to have been achieved, but the way there is, of course far more complex. I think of weaving, of colours, and blending, integrating.
    For me the problem was in being able to encompass the totality, instead of merely a piece at a time. When I retired I was a researcher, although not an academic, and had struggled with what should have been my major paper for over a year. Bits and pieces kept seeping or bulging out, and I could not manage the overall synthesis and resolution. Partly this was my own inadequacy, which I freely acknowledge, but after feeling quite devastated and ashamed for quite a long time over my failure to succeed, I realised that a part – only a part – was due to the effects of chemotherapy on the conceptual capacity of the brain – which was much less acknowledged then that now.
    I am sure you will indeed finish the thesis and that all the interweaving will be done.

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  52. Jesse
    April 6, 2010 at 7:31 pm (8 years ago)

    Thank you for the lovely response. I read her essays on fantasy and fairytale but no others. I think I shall search for these as a celebration of the end of semester.

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  53. Elisabeth
    April 6, 2010 at 11:27 pm (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Persiflage for your lovely thoughts about weaving and interweaving. As well you talk about your chemotherapy. I suppose that exoerience must be like dropping a stitch to use a knitting metaphor. You're right, I'm sure it must ave impacted upon your ability to conceptualize, our bodies and our minds are so inextricably linked.

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  54. Elisabeth
    April 6, 2010 at 11:28 pm (8 years ago)

    You're most welcome, Jesse, for the reference. I hope you enjoy reading more during your semester break.

    Reply

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