The PhD is finished, and finally, everything is packed away in my home office; but it took me 18 months to get to this concluding stage. My desk was unusable for the year-and-a-half that followed my graduation and the mess worsened as the months slipped by.
After the final printing, the lovely purple-bound copy of the thesis which represented so much work and took so many years of my life, sat there, buried. People sent feedback; lovely, generous, helpful comments to inform ongoing writing projects. I added their letters and cards to the piles. I had worked so hard and so productively for so long.
What on earth went wrong?
I really enjoyed the research and the writing. Of course, there were hard times, days that every writer has, where it felt hopeless and more was deleted than was written, and days where I – and my family – hated the PhD and everything that it meant in our lives. Overall, though, I relished the opportunity to obsess about my research over several years. The slower, part-time PhD worked well for me.
I worked as a university academic almost full time throughout the project in demanding academic positions (all academic positions are demanding in today’s higher education system) and I kept up research and publishing in a completely different field to my thesis. And I wrote a thesis in a vastly different style to anything I had ever done before, and in a multi-disciplinary field that was new to me. I decided to write my thesis on a topic that was meaningful to me, a personal passion, rather than to extend research in the field in which I worked. I wrote a creative non-fiction text and exegesis.
Those decisions led to challenges, but those challenges did not lead to the mess in my study that grew to the point where I could not even get across the room to my desk because the path was blocked by additional boxes of papers and books. How did I move from being a productive and successful PhD student and academic to having a study that looked like a hellish hoarder’s hideout?
The major problem was grief.
Grief and loss were key themes of the thesis itself and they punctuated my life over the last few years of my project as well. I wrote in the PhD about memory and how people can rely on objects, tangible artefacts invested with meaning which can come to represent intangible losses. At some level, my desk and the ephemera connected to the thesis became significant memory objects for me. They represented unprocessed losses that I could not easily sweep away.
During the final months of writing, and just following completion, I experienced one of the most intense periods of loss in my life. Three close family members died and two other family members nearly died. Well, technically, one of the latter two died as well, but was resurrected following twenty-five minutes of CPR and several bursts of the paddles brought by the ambulance officers. In addition, during the last three years my husband retired and I, unexpectedly, retired not long after completing the thesis.
I completed the PhD but the effort involved on top of everything else left me shell-shocked. There is more to some of these losses than I can explain here, but the loss of my brother during the final months of writing was particularly hard. Because I was writing, partly, about my childhood, he was, inevitably, part of the thesis. He was the only one of my siblings who remembered the key period in our family life that I wrote about. Now there is nobody else but me who experienced some of those things and nobody who can help me remember the details, or who understands the significance of particular events.
Vamik Volkan, one of my favourite theorists, writes about loss and grief and the way that humans invest meaning in objects. Volkan calls these artefacts ‘linking objects’ because they link the griever with something that is no longer accessible. The linking objects are invested with meaning and significance; they are connected to the grief in a very deep way.
My study became a linking object. I wrote the thesis. I finished it, but the grieving for what I lost along the way was not finished. The unresolved feelings seemed to pile up like the mess in the study and I didn’t know where to start with them. I knew that I needed to tidy up, to sort through the accumulated walls of books and papers. I could not face it. It was almost as if clearing everything away would clear away a last connection with my brother.
I was also really busy, and I needed time and space to tackle the mess. Stopping paid work gave me time, and the prospect of a houseful of visitors gave me the prompt I needed to clear up the physical space. As I did so, I noticed other changes. Re-reading notes, throwing out rubbish and filing things away created order. I said goodbye to that part of my life, letting go of material things that linked me to my study.
I filed the papers from my thesis, cleared shelves, and took a trailer-load of books to Lifeline. This process helped me to revisit what had happened, acknowledge how hard it had been, and celebrate how well I had done to complete the thesis, despite it all.
Now, as well as an orderly space, I have a beautiful one. My large desk is gone along with my worn-out chair and the battered, dark-coloured filing cabinets. The old furniture is replaced by a hand-crafted table made by my late father-in-law, a new, bright pink chair and slimline well-organised white filing cabinets that open smoothly. My study is organised, and I feel lighter and brighter as well.
I have begun new writing projects.
Linda Devereux is a writing consultant and independent researcher. She has worked in higher education for many years researching and teaching in teacher education programs and managing academic language and learning units. She enjoys working with undergraduate and postgraduate students helping them to craft their writing and research. Linda’s doctoral thesis, a creative non-fiction text and exegesis, examined transcultural childhood memory. She is currently researching the transition to university for Australian students from rural and remote locations and has a number of creative life writing projects under development. Contact Linda via Linkedin
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