Writing, that eternal procrastination. What could possibly get in the way of hammering out a thousand words on a PhD chapter? Emails, of course. And if you’re working from home, the washing up must be done before the words can flow. How can the writing brain possibly function in this slovenly environment? Right. All that’s sorted. Now back to it. Sneak peak at Facebook? Good heavens, has x friend put up yet another 300 pictures of her wedding/baby/culinary skills?! Eye-roll emoji badly needed, and maybe a quick WhatsApp chat with fellow PhDers.

Writing is difficult, and we find every excuse in the world to wriggle our way out of it. To me, ideas are forever wispy, traipsing in and out of my mind, falsely reassuring me about my progress with the thesis. I’m thinking, aren’t I? Surely that is plenty of intellectual engagement. But it is only when I reach out to grab an idea – how hard can it be to put to paper? – that it proves to be elusive, strenuously resisting capture and extraordinarily evanescent.

The opportunity of participating in a PhD workshop, therefore, sounded exactly like what my meandering mind needed. It was a call to attend to the craft, and hard graft, of writing; of working on structure; of facing the demon called The Argument – oh, how I hate you! Why can’t I just write about things in my project that I find interesting?! – and of finding creative and constructive ways of bringing history and literature together.

In PhD workshops, researchers gather together to read each other’s chapter drafts, and to comment on and question them. This can range from stylistic nuances to broader thematic and structural issues. Is the real argument buried somewhere in Paragraph 3 of Section 2? Would it be more effective to start the chapter with that point? My chapter used three photographs from the colonial archives, and these drew a slew of responses on how visual and textual cultures could relate. Nobody, therefore, at the workshop is going to tell you that your draft is perfect!

The workshop can certainly be a daunting process. All that effort you had put into writing, only to be taken apart again! You’re laying your scholarly cards on the table, and expecting constructive kindness, at best. There is also the niggling worry as to whether other scholars really understand the context of your research. Can a Renaissance researcher helpfully assess postcolonial critique?

I found the workshop, however, an extraordinarily valuable, if intense, process. 14 fellow sojourners on the PhD journey immersed themselves in my research world for an hour-and-a-half. Their minds gnawed on my project, taking both a bird’s eye and granular view of my chapter. For the first time, I saw my work through other PhD students’ eyes. And the three academics present for my workshop session expertly shook out the dust from the folds of my chapter, and laid it out cleanly for me. It was my invitation to look anew at the familiar. I spotted the chapter’s creases but also the Big Questions – the ones I shy away from during my daily procrastination routine. Why had I focused on a particular theme? How was the material I was studying collected in the archives? What are the processes of remembrance and forgetting in history, and how did these play out in my particular research area?

These questions were framed by scholarly camaraderie and a genuine engagement with my subject. People commented on how well the writing flowed, how much they liked my use of photographs, how they thought my use of a Walter Benjamin quote was nifty. It made me think – ‘Ha, my research isn’t all dry and crusty and boring. They like my work!’ Most valuably, the PhD workshop gave me new ways of mapping my subject, new forms to morph and mould the research into, to try on for size and see what fit best. It also made me aware of how to respond, sensitively, curiously and attentively, to other researchers’ work and not steamrolling them with incessant questions.

Now that the workshop is over, it’s back to the old writing game, but also a journey back into the archive to unearth more material. I have returned to the quest refreshed.

Diya Gupta is a second-year PhD researcher in the Department of English at King’s College London. She studies the Indian soldiers’ experience in the Second World War through life-writing material and visual culture, as well as examines the literary and intellectual responses to this war in India. In June 2016, Diya was selected to participate in a 
three-week PhD workshop organised by the University of Notre Dame in the USA, in partnership with the Universities of OxfordEdinburgh and King’s College London.

Image (c) Subhashish Panigrahi