At some stage, those who undertake a PhD must confront the fact that they are to become writers. At some point they will inevitably have to embrace that “lonely and ugly experience” that seems “a sort of easy process”, but isn’t (see Note §76).
Often a question that is asked of prospective PhD candidates is why they want to undertake such a prolonged and focused mode of inquiry. What is the reason they are postponing their life to pursue a single question? Is the candidate pure in their intentions? Do they seek an original contribution to knowledge? Do they understand what it is that academics ultimately consign themselves to a life of (see Note §93)? Perhaps a further and more fundamental question should also be asked. One that carries a seemingly poetic weight, but is much more honest as a criterion for the undertaking – must you write? *
To finish a PhD, one must write. In vulgar parlance, it is now called ‘writing up’. The final ‘stage’ in a sequence prior to submission. Submission indeed! “Are you writing up yet?”, “How’s the writing up going?” they ask you and blink. As if it was so easy, a process like all others. Those who ask after one’s PhD in such a way show their cards of comprehension. They reduce the process to a bureaucratic exercise – a mere stage of a ‘project’ like any ubiquitous other. For some, of course, ‘writing up’ is as simple as the question asked of it. For others, those of a perhaps more noble spirit, whose comportment to the world will find no place of comfort or recognition in contemporary academia, it is torturous. The only reconciliation they have available to them is in the knowledge that the struggle places them amongst many before them – artists and intellectuals alike – who have known what it is to write.
Contemporary academia no longer rewards those who are called to write, but those who can meet the call to publish. “Publish or perish” is the careerist’s imperative. The question above the intellectual’s typewriter is no longer “write, damn you, what else are you good for?” but “publish, damn you, what else are you good for?”
One should love writing and hate publishing, resist the ‘publish or perish’ imperative, and ‘write with no publication intention’, because one must.
*The poetic weight of this question refers to the source from which it is derived. I.e., as it is in Rilke’s most-famous passage from his collected letters to Franz Xaver Kappus (first published in 1929 ):
“In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?”
Rilke, Rainer Maria (2001) Letters to a Young Poet New edition. London: Random House Inc.