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A DAY - DISSERTATION HAND-IN

It's been four months. My MA dissertation has officially taken up a third of my year and I have barely any recollection of it. I can't remember any of my initial ideas or any moments of epiphany and frustration. Time has erased everything aside from my final submission. I should have kept a journal, I realise that now, which is why - in one last bid to preserve something, anything, of the experience other than a stack of A4 pages - I've chronicled the day of hand-in. 

5:27 - Bed
It's back. I can hear it through the open window, c-oo-OO-oo-oh. Again and again and again. I throw the covers off, reach for the curtains and slam the window shut before climbing back into bed. I hate that pigeon so much. 

7:00 - Bed
My alarm clock bleeps. It's a horrible high-pitched sound that gives me palpitations, but I'm sticking with it because I don't like my phone to be the first thing I touch in the morning; it's actually the second thing I touch. Baby steps, right? I get up after allowing my eyes to adjust to the light. 

7:16 - Desk
I take a few sips of my tea and eat half the bowl of porridge I've just made, quickly scrolling through Twitter and Instagram on my phone before responding to a couple of messages. As soon as my laptop has fired up, I open the browser and check Facebook; then I check Twitter again. I spend the next hour fixing the half-assed conclusion I wrote last night. It's still not great but it'll work. 

8:45 - Kitchen
There's a new oven in the middle of the kitchen floor, all wrapped up in polystyrene foam. The dog is circling it, sniffing every corner. As I wait for the kettle to boil, I think to myself: 'That's the kind of protective casing I'll need of I'm going to get through this day.'  

10:23 - Desk
I've finished editing, at last. I want to catch the 11 o'clock train into London so I have approximately 10 minutes to check page numbers and compile 5 different pdf files into a final document. I'm thoroughly panicked.

10:42 - Front Door
I'm stuffing my back with books as I run through my checklist out-loud. I give the dog a quick kiss and tell her to wish me luck, then head out of the door. My dad yell's 'you can do it, mate!' as I scramble down the garden path, adjusting my t-shirt and tucking my phone into my pocket.

10:53 - Greggs
I've given myself shin splints from walking so fast, but at least I've got some extra time to stop off in Greggs before I reach the station. I pick up a bottle of water and some kind of caramel filled, sugar covered donut. I Instagram it, what else? 

11:07 - Train
I've bagged a window seat so I'm pretty pleased. After replying to a few messages I plug in my headphones; I'm listening to My Dad Wrote A Porno because it makes me laugh and I'm enormously anxious. A guard checks my ticket after about 20 minutes but other than that my journey is uneventful.

11:50 - London Waterloo
I've missed my connecting train by a few seconds, so I wait for the 12:03. It's really hot. 

12:36 - Library Cafe
I need to take a moment. I'm sitting on a purple sofa drinking tea and eating a cheese and onion sandwich, the same spot I sat in just over 2 years ago, but I was with my housemates then. We'd been surviving on a diet of cheese toasties as we prepared to submit our BA dissertations. It would have been cool to share the MA with them. I'm trying not to get sentimental so I listen to another episode of My Dad Wrote A Porno and write a list of all the things I need to do next.  

14:34 - Student Office
After battling with printers and binders, I hand in my dissertation. Various pieces of paper are stamped and I watch as the past 4 months of my life is dropped into a cardboard box, wrapped in green-coloured plastic. That's it? 

15:06 - Corner Shop
I call my mum from outside the station to tell her I've done it. I feel a bit spaced out, so I nip into the corner shop for an ice cream. There's carpet on the floor which isn't as gross as you'd think. The whole shop smells like pick'n'mix and I feel like I've been transported back to my childhood. I resist the urge to stay there and head to my platform to catch my train.

15:56 - Train
I wake up after falling asleep against the window. I have a few messages from friends congratulating me and asking if I feel relieved. Weirdly, I don't. I feel stressed, tired, and a little sad. These moments are always quieter than expected. No confetti, no heart-pumping soundtrack, but that's ok. For now, I just want to get home and have a lie down. I'll toast to my achievements tonight.

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FIFTEEN MINUTES


Fifteen thousand, that's how many words I have to write in the next four weeks - by September 15th, to be exact. In theory it's manageable, but, in practice, it's proven to be a bit more difficult than I expected. Because no matter how experienced I might be at this point in my MA, fifteen thousand words is a lot to comprehend; it's a lot to map out, in my head and on paper even. And so, up until last weekend, my pile of notes continued to grow while my word-count remained at zero, the blinking cursor on the blank document taunting me with every flash.

Naturally, Panic and Perfectionism set in. And let me tell you, these are not a friendly pair. While Panic urged me to move forward and just write something, Perfectionism would quietly tap me on the shoulder and whisper: 'yeah but, if it's not right you'll only have to do it again.' I didn't have the mental energy to satisfy either of them; Panic wanted stamina, Perfectionism demanded concentration, and I couldn't face hours spent at my desk. But then I found a solution. In an effort to ensure that my weekend wasn't a total bust, I told myself: 'Work for fifteen minutes, that's all.' So, I did.

With only fifteen minutes on the clock, I was comforted by the knowledge that it would be over pretty fast. What's more, it forced me to focus on the one-inch picture frame; this is a technique I learned from Bird by Bird (a writer's essential, FYI), in which Anne Lamott suggests starting with something small, tiny even, to combat creative paralysis. You can't, after all, write fifteen thousand words in fifteen minutes. And by lowering the stakes, doing little bits in short bursts, I actually managed to draft half my word-count - seven and a half thousand words - in around four days.

So, I thought I'd share this gem of wisdom. I'm sure I'm not the only one who tends to bunker down during big projects and torture myself into working for solid hours/days/weeks. It's easy to believe 'the bigger the project, the bigger the personal sacrifice.' But that's not a great philosophy - it's mine, I should know - mainly because it leads to eternal misery and total burn out. In reality, you don't need to put your life on hold to get stuff done, all you need is fifteen minutes.

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THE REAL WORLD

'You'll have to join the real world, won't you?' he laughs, taking the cup of coffee from my hand. With a smile and a nod, I wave him off. That's how such conversations end, without exception, and this is how they usually start: 'What is it that you do then? Oh, when will you finish your studies? And then what's your plan?'

I play out this little charade on a daily basis, at work, at parties, at the supermarket checkout. No matter how varied the circumstances, there seems to be a universal consensus that post-September, when I finish my MA, it'll be my duty to hop on the first bus destined for the 'real world.' Mostly, I agree with this suggestion, or at least, I agree with the sentiment behind it - find a suitable job and start making the most of the skills that six years of higher education have equipped me with - but lately, I've come to resent the slightly condescending tone that people tend to add to it. If I'm not already part of this so-called 'real world,' where exactly do they suppose I am?

Perhaps they think I've been living in a not-so-real world where cats and rabbits reside in fancy little houses, dressed in shoes and hats and trousers. Every woodland is populated with buttercups and parma-violets, and all creatures, great and small, thrive under the peaceful rule of our governing lion, Aslan. Here, I don't work 78-hour weeks trying to finish my MA, broaden my CV-worthy achievements, and support myself in a minimum-wage service job. Rather, I roll out of bed at 3pm and skip along the Yellow Brick Road to Munchkin Land, where I stay until midnight, reading books, drinking tea, and eating pop-tarts. I've never had to pay bills or order tap-water at a bar because I can't afford a real drink. And when facing a difficult situation, I just click my heels three times and wait for my fairy godmother to sort things out. If only!

As far as I'm concerned, I've been living in the 'real world' for quite a while now; I've been responsible and sensible and well-prepared. But you know what? I think I'm due a break. So, you can keep your bus ticket, your high-rise buildings and your six-figure salary - when I finally graduate in September, I think I'll book a flight instead.