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A master student’s shitty first drafts

Door Zeger Polhuis  

In the first week of April my fellow students in the master Social and Cultural Anthropology returned from their three months of fieldwork abroad. I was one of the students who stayed in the Netherlands for fieldwork ‘at home’. I look back on three months of research on the experiences of Indian medical professionals in the Netherlands, and simultaneously look forward to the last interviews that I have scheduled for the coming weeks.

After having conducted most of my research, I had a muddling mass of data, information, and personal experiences. I had visited and interviewed doctors of Indian origin in various places in the Randstad area. I did not know, though, if there were any Indian nurses in the country. I knew that there had been nurses on temporary contracts, but did not know if they were still around or had already returned to India. During the celebration of the Indian Republic Day in Amstelveen, I met someone who knew one nurse from India, and then one contact led to one other. After that, contacts multiplied, and I heard about, and met nurses who were still living and working in a number of cities. I conducted interviews and attended Sunday mass with some of them a number of times. Now I have a pile of notes about my observations and experiences, and a bunch of audio recordings of the interviews, many of which I still have to transcribe. This I have to craft, together with scientific literature, newspaper articles and my own academic reflections, into a meaningful and valuable thesis.

Slowly and painfully, I try to get back into the rhythm of classes, handing in assignments, and reading textbooks. As I am halfway through reading Anne Lamott’s essay ‘Shitty first drafts’ in our textbook on fieldwork, I feel the urge to write – but it doesn’t happen. The essay by Anne Lamott, who is a writer, is great – it is well-written, funny, but also reassuring: reassuring that there are other people like me who, well, suck, and are screwed up. Lamott explains in a cheerful way how first drafts are always crappy one way or another – but we have to write them in order to learn how to write good stuff. During the next few weeks, I will conduct some more research to fill in a few gaps and answer some more questions, and I really have to get my transcribing done. At the same time, though, I will have to start with writing some assignments, fragments of drafts for my thesis. As I will be writing, and even now as I am sitting at a table in my house writing this, I imagine a lot of people watching me, looking over my shoulder: my supervisor and teachers, my fellow students, the people I met and interviewed, the people who did not respond or whom I did not get to meet, friends, God, the scholarly saint Thomas Aquinas, while outside saint Francis of Assisi is hanging around in the Vondelpark, preaching to the birds while sunbathing, and barbequing with cool people from Amsterdam South-East. And here I am, inside, writing. Shitty first drafts. Let’s get it over with.

Zeger Polhuijs, student in the master Social and Cultural Anthropology


  1. Thanks Zeger, that is inspiring.

  2. Dvora Yanow Dvora Yanow

    Dear Zeger Polhuijs, If you write your thesis like you’ve written this post, the ms. should be a smash hit! And if you have trouble starting the writing, you might imagine that you are writing someone specific a letter [e.g., Dear Mom, or Dear Aunt Sally]. Good luck!

  3. I agree. And Dvora, what have you been up to lately?

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