Friday, 22 January 2010


And so, eventually, back to my dissertation - a story I started in a post back in October last year and never got round to finishing. Which is fitting, given my dithering over the dissertation.

(Those of you joining the story here should perhaps know that my original intention for dissertation was to write something about a psychoanalytic view of punk. No one had done it. I had direct experience of the subject. And, more cynically, I thought it had a reach beyond the narrow world of the analytic consulting rooms. Maybe I could even transform it into a piece of writing that I actually got paid for.)

So what is in a dissertation? In my case, eleven thousand words. To some minds, a lot. A hell of a lot, in fact. To other minds, not much at all. At least, that's what everyone told me when I discussed it with them. You're a professional writer, have been for years, it'll be nothing for you. That's what they all said. Friends, family, fellow students: all basically told me to shut up and get on with it.

Which is what I intended to do. My plan was to start getting thoughts and notes together during the first year. Which I did - up to a point. There was so much reading for the course, though, that I never really did that much. It always took second place. Actually, given my other commitments, it was a lot further down my priority list than that.

So by the time I eventually got round to arranging a meeting with the tutor, I didn't exactly have the biggest file full of notes and references. I just had a couple of possible ideas to present and the confidence to reckon I could blather on about them for a bit, fairly articulately and coherently.

So I blathered on a bit to my tutor about punk. She seemed, well, politely uninterested. She asked me, quite reasonably, how I could develop my thoughts and ideas. The implication was clear: you're dead-ending here, my boy.

So I told her about the other idea, the one about love and work. Fuller details are in the previous posting but the gist is that 'love and work' was - supposedly - Freud's response to the question 'What matters in life?' Taking that as a starting point, I'd tease out both the history of the phrase and the way psychoanalysis has had to say about love and work and . . . and. Or, at least, what psychoanalysts have written about those three little big words. Dissertations are nothing if not a big heap of quotes and citations.

My tutor perked up as I talked. She gave me some neat ideas and lines of inquiry - many of which ended up in the finished piece. She pointed out, for example, that psychoanalysts, by and large, talk a lot about the 'work' of the therapeutic endeavour but have little of any consequence to say about what most of us think of when we think of work - the job that we go to most days and which pays for the roof over our head, our food, heat and . . . psychoanalysis bills.

So I had my subject. She suggested some papers I might read and thoughts I might want to think and pursue. She encouraged me to be brave and not worry about my writing being unorthodox in academic terms. Rightly or wrongly, I took this to mean that I could put jokes in it. Not that I told her this. I certainly didn't tell her that, right from my first thoughts on the subject, I'd intended to open it with a lengthy joke. (It made it to the final version, too.)

All that was left to do was arrange a supervisor. She said: you just need someone to help you progress your ideas, right, not someone to help you with the actual writing etc. Right, I said. She asked who I'd like. I told her. She was a bit surprised but said she'd make the call. Which worked.

The only problem was that it was only possible to have one meeting before my supervisor, like all good analysts, headed off for a long summer break. Actually, it wasn't a problem for me. In fact, I was happier that way. I didn't want to be deflected from my own path too much. Like all writers, I just wanted to be told that what I'd written was good enough that pretty much the entire canon of English literature and letters could from now on be boxed up and put into cold storage.

So we had that one meeting, on a sunny lunchtime in north London - of course. I was given some more ideas for papers to read - and a good story about another cache of papers which were stuffed under another analyst's sofa. I went round the corner to one of my favourite Indian homeware shops, bought a couple of stainless steel bowls and went home.

All I had to do now was write the thing. Eleven. Thousand. Words.

Next up The writing of it

PS Some little rewards for making it to here. A card trick. A mouse trick. An explanation of what we are up to in Afghanistan.