Failures of Creativity

I identify as a creative person. Always have. It’s remained a constant thread through my life, though the expressions thereof have shifted over the years.

Taking this most recent degree has been characterized, for the most part, by having to put down most creative pursuits – unless I can do it more or less on autopilot on the infrequent occasions I watch TV, it’s hard to make the time. This has led to me turning out a truly ridiculous number of crocheted blankets and scarves, and little else.

Except writing.

The degree has reminded me that I can write, and write well. I’ve discovered a love of nonfiction, where I had previously thought of myself as more of a fiction writer. This blog is symptomatic. When I have something I need to get out in text, it now won’t let me go. It’s become meaningful and satisfying in a way that it wasn’t the first time around. Some of it is a change of perspective – I’m doing this degree for a purpose, to reach a personal goal, instead of aimlessly moving from course to course to fulfill the expectations of others. I’m far more sure of myself, my skills and my ideas than I was a decade ago. It’s now possible to grab onto an idea and see where it takes me; my younger self would too often stare paralyzed and overwhelmed at the screen. I know I can write. I know I can write competently on an academic level. I’m organized; I know how to  break down a task, make goals and allot my time accordingly. Even at the height of trying to do too much in too little time at the beginning of this degree, I was able to get by. It got ugly, but I did it.

Sometimes, that’s not enough. I’ve been forced to concede that, despite my best efforts, my thesis requires an additional semester to complete.

It’s been a major blow to my confidence. After spending six months building the digital project at the core of my thesis and pounding out about 70 pages in an additional six weeks, the review process has not been as I hoped it would. It has proved massively disillusioning, both in terms of my relationship with my advisors and in terms of my ability to maintain a quality level of productivity under stress. For the first, suffice that being self-directed doesn’t help diagnose issues when one’s advisors are hands-off and require prodding to fulfill their role. For the second, the first has led to the need for a far more involved revision process than I anticipated. I expected to have to rewrite, add a paragraph here and there and polish. I did not expect to be told that I was missing a fundamental piece of supporting structure.

My goal was to defend in September. When I finally got feedback on my draft, nearly a month after I began sending my advisors material for review, I spent a few frantic weeks trying to rectify the problem. The first attempt failed due to a near-complete lack of the information I sought. No-one had deemed the technical details worth recording, only the results they facilitated. The second attempt in a new direction proved too broad, compounded by being too close to the material to see where my arguments were failing.

By the end of the second attempt, I was a mess. I had been beating my head against this for weeks without a single day to myself, barely leaving the house or able to get some headspace away from my thesis for more than a few hours at a time. I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t get my materials lined up the way I needed to, couldn’t put together a coherent argument, couldn’t articulate how it was supposed to illuminate what I’d already written, couldn’t conceive any longer of how to scale it into something manageable. I broke down.

I’ve never hit the point of being truly incapable of writing before. It feels like failure, like my creativity and critical thinking have abandoned me. I could write a decent blog post, but not complete the work that I’ve invested two years to an acceptable standard. To be so close to my goal and miss has been difficult to reconcile. So much of the positive change I’ve seen in myself these last few years have been because I let myself believe I could do this, so much of my hopes for a better future are loaded into finishing this degree, that it’s been crushing to realize I’m not there yet.

It’s my deadline, not the university’s. Two years is an artifact of the program’s design, not a hard completion date, and it’s more common for students taking this degree to go beyond that. I know, intellectually, that there’s no shame in taking that extra time, giving myself permission to regain some distance and perspective.

Doesn’t make it sting any less.

This degree is important to me. It’s mine in a way my first degree wasn’t. It’s exposed me to new ideas, developed my confidence to speak out, given me hands on experience, built my skill set in directions that better serve my long-term goals, and opened up a richer range of possibilities for the future. Not finishing in two years has meant an additional strain on my budget and delayed my ability to job hunt. It’s an extra load of stress and frustration, the fear of losing my hard-won self-sufficiency, and a deep down doubt that I can do it at all.

I’m not claiming that all this is rational. It doesn’t have to be to weigh on me. It’s hard to escape that this has not gone as I’d planned, or hoped, or imagined. Some of it’s mine to own, some of it is beyond my control. I know I’ll finish this. It’s just that today, it’s hard to feel it.

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