'Ut vidit, primus raptam librare bipennem ausus et aeriam ferro proscindere quercum' (OR, slash & burn farming for the despairing PhD Student)

Sometimes my PhD (or what exists of it thus far) makes me (and my writing efforts) feel very small.  It can be hard to see the results of hours of editing and rewriting when the one tiny (slightly) improved paragraph is buried within a swollen 15,000 word chapter which resists all attempts to curb its continual snowballing in random directions.  Yes, I should probably be more disciplined and use some of that fabled 'self-control' to avoid scurrying off down every scholarly rabbit hole I come across.  But that is a problem for another day. 

Accurate summary of PhD life.

I spent most of today trying to grapple with a chapter of this very kind.  Many cups of coffee were brewed.  I probably annoyed my office mates with lots of frustrated sighing.  Nothing much was achieved.  Until I turned to my favourite Classical author: Lucan.  Many of you who know me will know of my great love for Lucan and his feisty epic poem, the Bellum Civile (or Pharsalia, depending on which school of thought you follow on this matter).  In fact, I'm pretty sure I've mentioned it once or twice on here.  

A quick whistle stop tour of Lucan to get everyone up to speed:
(if you fancy a more detailed tour of Lucan and his work, I wrote a fun little intro to him over on Ancient History Encyclopedia: http://www.ancient.eu/Marcus_Annaeus_Lucanus/)
  • Lucan wrote and lived under the Emperor Nero.  Yes, the one who was too close with his mother and supposedly 'fiddled while Rome burned'.
  • Lucan wrote an epic poem (10 books survive, lots of people debate whether the poem is complete as it stands) on the civil war between Caesar and Pompey which essentially heralded the end of the Roman Republic (Yes, there's plenty of debate on this, but I'm trying to keep things simple)
  • Lucan's poem is filled with all sorts of exciting passages, such as an encounter with some rather fantastical snakes in the Libyan desert, some truly spectacular and gloriously gory battle scenes (if it can be cut off, Lucan will cut it off), and even a dark and magical necromancy ritual featuring a very cool witch. 
  • Lucan's poem is ALSO filled with lots of little features and motifs which have been interpreted by modern scholars as being indicative of his poetic programme-we call these metapoetic devices ('metapoetry=poetry about poetry', Merrett, M., 2016).

One such metapoetic passage comes in the 3rd book, when Caesar encounters a sacred grove during his little excursion near Massilia (Book 3, line 400 onwards, for those of you who want to check it out).  Although his men are too afraid to cut down the trees as instructed, Caesar (who has very little regard for the order of things, according to Lucan), rushes forward to fell the grove himself: 'Ut vidit, primus raptam librare bipennem ausus et aeriam ferro proscindere quercum'.  The act of tree-felling is considered particularly potent in ancient poetry.  Wood is often used as a metaphor for artistic material.  But consciously chopping down established trees, you are metaphorically chopping down the artistic work which came before you.  The activities which follow this sort of tree-felling, such as carpentry, ship building, and construction are considered equally useful for poets to spell out their creative talents.  These kind of creative activities which make use of the raw wood and transform it into something new may be interpreted as representations of the poet's new composition following in (or sometimes even challenging) the traditions established by his predecessors.   


So, how does all of this relate to my struggles with my messy chapter?  Lucan's Caesar cannot build his siege machines until he has cut down the grove and fashioned the raw material of the trees into manageable pieces.  In the case of my chapter, I, rather ironically, could not see the wood for the trees.  In order to be able to work on my writing more effectively, I needed to chop away at my chapter, a kind of academic 'Slash & Burn' strategy, to make way for more fruitful and productive labours.  

So I made some charts and lists:  
  • I broke down my chapter into 4 main sections (Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
  • I then subdivided each of my main sections, outlining what needed to be achieved and outlined in each section to correspond with my plans for the rest of the thesis.
  • I summarised each paragraph from the messy version of my chapter to check whether they were relevant/essential to the sections they came from.  If they worked nicely, they got to stay.  If they didn't quite fit, they were either rehomed elsewhere in the chapter, or sent to my 'Stuff Cut From the Necromancy Chapter' document to be reconsidered at a later stage. 
  • Based on my rough lists, I divided the messy chapter into 4 separate documents.

PhD Comics=source of comfort and giggles

This whole process took around an hour.  But it was an hour well spent.  In one of my previous posts, I discussed the merits of setting smaller, more manageable goals in each of my work/writing sessions (http://stimulosdeditaemulauirtus.blogspot.co.uk/2017/07/the-benefits-of-shutting-up-and-writing.html).  Although I applied this new logic to my everyday work, I rather shortsightedly neglected to extend it to the organisation of my thesis as a whole.  Now, the little bits of writing/editing that I try to do each day don't seem like hopeless droplets in the ocean.  I can see that actually, I've made some progress in how I think about things and formulate my ideas-the tidier parts of the chapter are no longer entirely overshadowed by the less polished sections.  

It can seem daunting, or even entirely counter-productive to hack away at a large body of work, but by doing so, you will ultimately be left with a clearer idea of exactly where your writing is going and where your main focus is needed.  Yes, I may be dealing with baby steps on a day to day basis, but for me for now, that's ok.  I think I'm beginning to understand what everyone meant when they told me that the PhD is a marathon, not a sprint...

Elaine over & out. 

If you want to read Lucan, I cannot recommend Susan Braund's translation highly enough: https://global.oup.com/ukhe/product/civil-war-9780199540686?cc=gb&lang=en& 
If you want to find out more about metapoetry in Lucan, you can check out this excellent book by Jamie Masters: http://www.cambridge.org/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9780521414609


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