Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place be afforded: it can give form to dark shapeless substances but cannot bring into being the substance itself (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein)

I’m in the process of drafting the first chapter (eek!) of my thesis. The process, thus far, makes me feel very much like Dr. Frankenstein:

I’ve spent the past year amassing materials (am still amassing materials, actually). These materials come in the shape of primary and secondary, books and articles. These include both published and archival materials. Most of these things are digital, some are printed, but all are textual ideas in the shape of words (in my case). Add to this my own words, my mental and penned-down, typed out ideas. So, in my mind’s eye, I have an operating table piled with a mess of words…my monster’s material beginnings.

But I am keen to start making my monster (my thesis). But you can’t see the flesh of the thing without a skeleton…and then muscle next. Skin can’t cling to nothing.

So, this first step is a bit of fashioning a skeleton. There are examples of skeletons to mimic of course (the arguments and assessments of other historians), and I want a functional skeleton (obviously), but I also want something at least slightly unique. So I have to balance between mimicry and originality. This construction project is quite a bit of trial and error. As I assemble the bones together, sometimes things I thought would fit just won’t work together – a joint won’t marry the socket I wanted it to. So, scrap that, and start anew on that part of the skeleton.

At this point, I have a delicately assembled skeleton of this chapter. It is woven together with a thread that is not filament, but is a far cry from titanium, so I’m not sure if the bones will keep together in the long run. This “thread” for the PhD student is your initial narrative – your analysis of how you think this bone (idea A) connects to that bone (idea B). On this fragile foundation of assembled bones I’ve now adding some muscle – additional primary source evidence and secondary source argument to give some “meat” to my monster.

I found just enough to fill him in so that the skin was impermanently draped over the whole thing, and then the switch was flipped…

It came alive, but just barely so. And I’m not sure if it will have the capability to keep some life in it? The only way to know is to take it out into the daylight.

To expose it thus is to 1) risk realising it can’t keep life in it and 2) risk realising that your monster is a monster only its creator could love. These are both things that other monster-makers (other PhD students) warn you of. From their own tales of horror, they recount how they laboured over a monster of their own, only to then find it non-functional, inert, and lifeless…only to find that others found it not worthy of life…and then having to destroy the thing they made. This, they say, was of course tragic: to kill such a collection of your own darlings.  But this tragedy is part of what you signed up for, and part of eventually creating a creature that can, and should, sustain life.


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