By Susan Carter
I’ve just met with a Pacific Island doctoral candidate, let’s call her Vai after the beautiful Pasifika movie that you should try to see. Vai moved me almost to tears by recounting that she does her doctoral writing in the cemetery next to her grandmother’s grave. Her grandmother brought her and her siblings up and died fairly recently; the doctoral project will be dedicated to her care and support, all of which have led to Vai’s success. Sadly, Vai’s grandmother won’t be there to celebrate doctoral graduation, but she is sharing the journey. She plays an important role by providing a symbolic place of support for writing.
Vai finds the cemetery a calm leafy space, away from the city noise. More to the point, she feels emotionally and symbolically supported with her beloved grandmother beside her. She takes a small table and chair intended for picnic use and her charged-up laptop, and in this safe sacred place, she settles into her doctoral writing.
I’ve written before on the idea that maybe space can provide an incentive to write, describing nine different people’s attempt to try somewhere conducive to writing. Cally has chosen the topic of spaces where theses are written too, talking about her own preferences, and providing some literature that supports doctoral productivity. I’m returning to the topic, though, because this is the first time that I have considered the symbolic possibility of space for writing.
Whenever I have suggested to writers that they try different places, I am thinking about the view, about beauty, about luxury, about any spatial attribute that makes the spot congenial to writing and thus makes the writing a little bit easier. Writing retreat spaces, and shut-up-and-write café spaces are well-known for inducing productivity, because they are where there’s inspiration from others working companionably alongside. Vai’s account made me realise I could expand on the dimensions of beauty and collegiality with something that is symbolically meaningful.
For me, that is writing when traveling. I like writing anywhere at all when I am traveling because I like traveling so much. Travel is exciting. I’m most fully alive when I travel. Always, though, part of being fully alive means that I am writing to publish, too, because my writing self is probably the strongest version of myself that I have.
A stray dog in Salta, Argentina, befriended me and sat like a loyal hound at my feet while I did revision work on an article. I was amused that he wasn’t really my dog, but for a short hour or so I was able to experience what doctoral acknowledgments quite commonly describe: the support of a cat or dog who simply sat through the long writing duration.
On another academic jaunt, I took my laptop along to a beach in Cornwall, UK, where I had intended to swim as well as write. The boulders that needed to be negotiated for the long stretch down to the water disconcerted me, though, because they moved often—I’m pretty uncoordinated and couldn’t afford a broken leg. So I skipped the beach and the swim, and stayed quite contendedly just writing at the terrace above the beach while my partner got a swim in.
Then an Irish bar in Cordoba, Spain, was the nearest place with wifi on one trip, and I ended up working there often while my companions explored the city like real tourists. The bar was noisy, the sports channel on tv competing with the jukebox, and small children running up and down. I drank gingerbeer, shut all that noise out, and disappeared into my own writing and thinking.
I’m good at shutting out distraction: once on a ferry on the Brisbane River, when I was heading to the University of Queensland, I’d so succeeded in shutting out the world while I gave feedback on thesis writing that I failed to hear an announcement telling us we had to disembark. When I pulled myself out of the work and looked round I found myself alone in the passenger area and heading back the way we had come from.
So why could I regard those experiences as involving symbolic space that empowered my writing? Well, I see travel as a huge luxury—and I still see research writing like that too, as a luxury, with apologies to those who find it torturous. I savour the extraordinary indulgence of being on research and study leave, with time to take in the world and have a clear mind for thinking. Could doctoral workshops discuss the symbolic? Maybe it’s too personal? And yet any approach that helps doctoral writing to be produced satisfyingly might be worth mentioning? Do you have an approach that someone else might consider?