Writing my Performance Studies doctoral thesis was the most constipated process I have ever been through. An hour of straining produced merely a tiny nugget of hard text. I wish I could say that I was relieved, but there was more pressing to get out, but it was too exhausting trying to get it right, trying to get the perfect paragraph. After a while I began to hate the thing that I loved: writing.
It was because I was an artist learning to be an academic. As an artist, I was used to a free flow of words when the time was right. Then I would edit. But here, under the pressure of a deadline I wanted to get it right; to refer with deference to all the rules of an academic text in order to go beyond them. As an artist, I had never thought about getting something right. It’s right when it felt right and I never had to explain myself.
So, I took a month off to write a novel. 1,500 words a day, no pretty sentences, just the plot and events, just get the page turning, just keep the story moving, keep the characters alive and burning with whatever drove them. It was a silly, adolescent fantasy of a novel which, I hope, no-one will ever read. But I re-discovered my love of writing.
My doctoral thesis is perhaps the most boring thing I have ever written. For a start, it’s chronological, no flashbacks or distortions of time, no holding back of information to produce surprise or create suspense, no change in character. It aimed at the objectivity required by the humanities or social sciences.
Now that I am in the field of artistic research I look back at that moment and ask myself why the two modes of writing could not have been closer together. Surely in a PhD there is a clear protagonist who has desires, questions and opponents that they must struggle with? Aren’t there also secondary and tertiary characters? Does it not take place in a specific world with its own rules that are strange to outsiders and are therefore in need of describing and explaining?
Here, I am going to offer a series of exercises that may assist in that moment when you are thinking about how writing forms a part of your research exposition.
I’d like you to consider for a moment how your journey so far might be material worthy of a Kunstler roman – an artist’s memoir. Not an autobiography, but a memoir, meaning a creative non-fiction that deals with either a specific moment or a particular theme in a subject’s life. In this case, that moment would be the journey towards a doctorate.
Could an artistic PhD not be seen as a memoir of sorts? Describing a journey in a particular field of practice with an array of characters, problematics, resistances, successes, set-backs, magical tools, discoveries, villains, romances, monsters?
I’ve read enough dry, constipated, staccato, dutiful, confused, theoretically pick’n’mix, floppy theses with no narrative arc or concern for the reader to think ‘Yes.’
If you’re interested in some very simple tools to help make your writing more personal and accessible, your research more embedded and situated without sacrificing rigour then please read on.
This is an exercise for a memoir of your quest(ion), as an artist. It deals with the past. But it’s a template that could easily be adapted for the present or the future. It could be that, like my silly novel, none of this material will end up in your thesis. It could be that this is just a parallel process that informs and enriches both your performance practice, your understanding of yourself as an artist and your research:
Have your question(s) clear in your mind first.
Start to trace it back. When did it first occur to you? The first glimmer of this problem, question, lack, desire. Write it down. The place, the time, who was (not) there.
Delve a bit deeper: what provoked that moment? What came before to make the moment possible? Write it down.
You already have two scenes, two chapters. Keep going.
You are doing a genealogy, a family tree of this moment. You are excavating each moment when this theme emerged, or latent and not yet manifest.
Keep going as far back as you can, aim for ten scenes at least. Go as far perhaps as your first memory. Not of the theme, but your actual first memory, the first scene that holds strong, still to this day, in your mind. Imagine that this was where it began.
Make that your first chapter title. And then make chapter titles for the rest.
You now have ten scenes, ten Chapter Titles.
You may want to group the chapters into parts, or acts – Part One, Part Two or Act One, Act Two or Scene One, First Movement – whatever suits your field of study.
You now have a structure for a possible memoir of your question, which you may, or may not write.
Put it to one side.
Write ten words that cover the main themes, concepts, ideas of your research. Put them as headings on separate pieces of paper or pages. Freely associate on each page till you have ten words for each heading. Maybe the same words will appear on different pages. That’s fine, but it’ll be more fun if the hundred words you produce are all different.
Go back to your Chapter Titles. Divide the hundred words among them, let them land where they are most appropriate. Some chapters will have more words than others. Okay so, those chapters will be easier to write. The chapters with less words you’ll have to work harder at.
This is just the organising of thoughts.
Now it’s time to write.
Flick through your Acts/Movements/Parts, Chapter Titles and words. What excites you most? What calls you, right now, in the place where you are in your research? Find the word and write it at the top of a blank page.
Now, the point is not to be abstract. The Chapter Titles are scenes, not concepts. If the word you choose is a concept, then it has to relate to the scene you placed it under. For example, if the word is ‘performativity’, and it is under the Title “The Swimming Pool” then write about performativity through that scene, don’t quote Judith Butler, but use what you know of Butler to make sense of that scene through the concept. Make sense of your experience through the concept. Embed that concept in concrete experience. Make the concept live. Situate yourself with the concept.
Set a timer. 5 minutes is good. 10 minutes better, but harder. 2 minutes is fine also. Whatever it is, do not stop writing, do not pause to think, do not edit, do not stop, just write.
Put it away. Don’t look at it. For at least a week. The longer the better. Just keep writing the words, filing them away in their Chapter Titles. Make this your practice. Understand it as a process of embedding yourself in the question and its many facets. Treat it as… well… a treat to yourself. It’s a background work to construct a solid ground of how you came to be here doing this research in the first place.
If you make time for this every day or several times a week, you’ll have a writing practice.
You might also find a therapeutic value in these moments when you can forget the demands of a PhD and write with complete permission to explore the dirty shameful joyful affects that may seem at odds with the rigours of academic discourse.
But after a while you may want to return to these writings and start to reference them. ‘Ahh here is Judith Butler, this sentence is indebted to Hegel, that is so Lacan etc…’. That’s another work and another journey and another book. You may find a whole new project in one of the chapters, something beyond your PhD. New projects are always in the process of gestating in your current one.
Your PhD isn’t everything, it’s only a beginning.
John-Paul Zaccarini is a cross-disciplinary performer and director, currently Associate Professor in Circus at Stockholm University of the Arts. In the 90’s he produced queer anarchist performance with his company Angels of Disorder, curated visual and performance art in his gallery Studio 29, Vyner Street and worked with circus internationally. In the 00’s he toured the award-winning solo show Throat to critical acclaim and was co-Artistic Director of Company F/Z creating physical theatre.