Academic job market, academic life, Academic research, Academic success, hybrid careers, professional roles

Step into the shoes of the hybrid academic-professional career

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“Offering high quality research and teaching support requires a good level of understanding of academic practice. While not all professional staff need to be academic, there is a need in universities for a band of staff who bridge the two much larger groups.” – by Anonymous Academic, September 2017, The Guardian.

When I read the article ‘Work in an academic-professional hybrid role? Say goodbye to career progression’ in The Guardian a few weeks ago, there were many things that rang true. Yet I felt that ‘anonymous’ didn’t tell the whole story.

Sure, hybrid academic-professional roles can be neither fish nor fowl, the definition of a hybrid, really. Like ‘anonymous’ my credentials in the academic world aren’t shabby, and neither are my professional ones, either. I bring to my professional role in academia the expertise of someone with a doctorate and published and well cited research, as well as 15 years experience as a professional journalist on major publications.

But it all feels as stitched together as Frankenstein’s creature.

Then again, isn’t this the reality in today’s academic workforce?

‘Anonymous’ bemoans the fact that hybrids “struggle with identity, career progression and acknowledgement of the effort that goes into juggling the dual roles of being a professional and an academic.”

Sure – but it’s a damn sight better than the alternative – the nail biting hand to mouth existence of a sessional lecturer. I could easily go down that path and opt for sessional lecturing, having a place (well, hot desking) at the ‘high table’ of academia. Having – even if the umbilical cord is tenuous – an academic institution to link my name and research. In other words, get paid for maybe 24 weeks a year.

Or: I can do what I am doing. Have an interesting, ongoing professional position in a university where I can use my research skills, engage in teaching, communicate academic research and knowledge to a wide audience and write for a living. And do my own research and creative practice after hours, with the tagline “Independent researcher”.

I have two children to support as a single parent, so I figured I can suck it up and ditch the ego ride of calling myself a full time academic, a full time (albeit sessional) lecturer. Like the savvy hybrid, I can make the best of both worlds, and of course, the university benefits from my hybrid skills and expertise.

And, likewise, I benefit from an ongoing position at the university and all its benefits. And that is the way of the academic world of 2017.

“Researchers seem to be dropping like flies — leaving or just being left behind. Many reasons are to blame, including overproduction of graduates, casualisation of the workforce, corporatisation of universities, disillusionment, disenfranchisement, increased competition for funding or just natural attrition.” – University researchers Need More Than A PhD, The Australian Higher Education, October 18, 2017.

Mind you, this is nothing new to me. I have always been a scrappy hybrid – and with that comes hybrid vigour. Not for me the luxury of time off each week to study for my doctorate while I worked full time in an academic role. I have heard of the indulgence of a semester off (paid by the university) for academics to finish their doctorates – even after they have been taking their own sweet time doing theirs part-time.

This hybrid did her doctorate full time in four years – while holding down a full time professional job (and raising two young children). Did I mention I also taught a Masters subject on top of that work load? And published and presented at conferences. I got no time off whatsoever, save what I earned myself as annual leave and overtime – and my line manager took pity on me at the very end and threw in an extra few days leave when it looked as if I might have a meltdown. In fact, most of the time it was my workplace in the university rather than the academic staff who were most supportive while I completed my doctorate.

Of course, none of that guaranteed or got me a foothold  in academia after all. Reality check. That’s life. Welcome to Academia in the 21st Century. I shouldn’t complain – I was in print media in the glorious halcyon days – and everything is always about timing. But forgive me if I am snarky about the cushy ride delivered to others in academia, simply because they got in at the right time, not because they deliver any real benefit to the university. Hybrids can be like that – we want to shake up the status quo. Look at Frankenstein’s creature. Poor hybrid, more intelligent than the saps around him, a well-read autodidact who had to suffer fools. He didn’t take it lying down, either.

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Hybrids abound in universities, but we are not always easy to spot. Maybe we keep our heads low, because we don’t want to pay attention to ourselves – academics guard their turf more viciously than my Corgi defending the footpath outside the front door. They can also be incredibly arrogant and very defensive when finding they are dealing with a hybrid. Sad to say, maybe no one really likes a hybrid.

“If you don’t do teaching or research, then (academics believe) you are just a parasite,” one correspondent says. “When it all goes wrong, I have to bail the academics out,” complains another.” – John Gill ‘By the Role Divided’, Times Higher Education.

Not that we hybrids are complaining. At least we have job, and we are grateful for it. Theorist Donna Haraway famously said she’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess – well, hybrids would rather have professional jobs in academia than nibble at the edges of it, trying to survive as sessional staff with their hands out with begging bowls, asking for more, please…

 

 

 

 

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Academic relevance, Academic research, science fiction

Academic research that matters: women’s bodies and speculative fiction

51Lc7FlfDPL._AA300_Many times I find myself justifying the validity of a doctorate not only in Creative Writing, but also my chosen research area – speculative fiction.

I am reminded by many critics that I’m not doing something heroic like researching a cure for cancer or launching a satellite into space. And yet my research exploring animal and women’s rights in the creation of hybrids in science fiction has never seemed so relevant.

The critically acclaimed TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1980s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a chilling world where women are reduced to their basic biology as childbearing machines.

Women’s reproductive rights are denied in the face of a ‘greater good’ – a widespread decline in female fertility which results in fertile women being hunted down, captured, traded and forced to bear children for the elite via sanctioned imprisonment and rape. Women’s wombs and fertility are seen as such a socially and economically valuable commodity that these actions are justified and enshrined in law.

As Naomi Alderman argued in The Guardian what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so terrifying is that everything that happens in it is plausible. The politics of fear, she writes, are always the same. “They are easily recognisable in retrospect. They are easy to acquiesce in at the time. On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, one popular placard read “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again”. There’s no gain the women’s movement has made that can’t be taken away – a fact that will sound terrifying to some and a gleeful plan of action to others.”

“We let them [women] forget their real purpose,” is a chilling quote from TV series, and one that resonates with many women who fear the draconian rules and backlash under the Trump administration when it comes to women’s rights. Kaylie Hanson Long, the national communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, says President Trump has laid bare the real motive behind the war on reproductive rights waged by antichoice politicians and extremist groups. ‘It has very little to do with abortion and everything to do with keeping women in our place by limiting our options and freedom.’

There is more truth to Atwood’s fiction than we care to admit. And more reason than ever to be proud of how speculative fiction we are writing and researching can test the future for us by critically exploring what is happening now and asking – and then?

Alderman argues: “feminist science fiction does tend to feel fresh – its authors have a habit of looking beyond their particular historical moment, analysing the root causes, suggesting how they might be, if not solved, then at least changed.”

Let us explore the many ways that women’s wombs are contested spaces both during the reproductive years and beyond.

Just as in Gilead, women’s fertility is privileged. As standard practice, the media has an ongoing fetishization of pregnant celebrities.

The spectre of Gilead is one all women live under. In Australia there is currently an HRT shortage that has been dragging on for months and affecting many women in midlife. Yet there has been no media outcry over this. We can view the lack of interest in the HRT shortage as a disregard for women’s health now that their reproductive days are over. Atwood argues that under Trump, women have been put on notice that hard-won rights may be only provisional. “It’s the return to patriarchy,” she said, warning that whenever tyranny is exercised, “it is wise to ask, “Cui bono? Who profits by it?”

This obsessive and misogynistic link between female worth and reproduction is also at the heart of the medical profession’s patronising conspiracy of silence about the long term health risks associated with vaginal birth.

Mavis King breaks this taboo, writing about ‘the things that can last a lifetime after a vaginal delivery, such as a weak bladder, reduced feeling or even pain during sex, a heavy feeling in the vagina where your insides feel like they are falling out (and quite literally can be)…If I had been presented with some clear and simple possibilities, which every obstetrician would know, then I feel I could have made a more informed decision and been better prepared for the recovery.’

Cui bono? In the UK, there are claims that women are being pressured not to have caesareans as part of an NHS culture of ‘policing pregnancy’ – this is because it costs the government money. The surgical procedure costs the NHS more than double a vaginal delivery. No wonder the alarm at the rise in caesareans worldwide. Of course, there are very good medical reasons for having a caesarean birth, and good reasons for not, but it is interesting, and not widely publicised, that there is a financial incentive on the part of governments in the worldwide campaign to stop women accessing this option. Women are pressured into vaginal delivery even when they will end up with life changing consequences.

In September 2017, Australian recipients of vaginal mesh implants gave personal accounts of their suffering to a Senate committee in Sydney. The women received the mesh in a bid to correct urinary incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse as a result of damage to their pelvic floor after childbirth. The hearings come as 800 women fight in a class action lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, claiming their vaginal mesh implants have left them in pain.

Throughout their lives, women are silenced about speaking about their embodied experiences as women. We are shamed about frank and open discussion regarding birth trauma, the long term impact of vaginal birth, and caesarean birth (I was accused of being ‘too posh to push’ after Handle With Care my book on high risk pregnancy came out).

Once the reproductive years are behind us, we find that the taboo shifts to silencing, dismissing or trivialising women about the menopause.Research has found women find it hard to talk about experiences of menopause at work because they fear aged-based discrimination.

UK broadcaster Lorraine Kelly who went public with her struggle with menopause said that it is still the last taboo. “We still don’t talk about it, even with our own girlfriends…. It’s natural! As a woman you get periods, you have your child-bearing years, and then you have the menopause.”

Indeed, we haven’t come that far in the past 70 years when it comes to discussing menopause in the media. In 1948, when obstetrician Dame Josephine Barnes gave a series of talks on women’s health on BBC radio covering bleeding, hot flushes and hormonal changes, there was uproar.

Earlier this year the Australian Health Department confirmed a shortage in the Estradot oestrogen patch, along with Estalis, which combines progesterone.

Endocrinologist Dr Roisin Worsley said the shortage wasn’t being taken seriously by authorities and that this was because it’s a female issue.

The manufacturer Novartis advised in April that they were working to ‘resolve fluctuations in supply’ and estimated this would be resolved by mid 2017.

Yet the shortage of the commonly used transdermal patches continues, forcing women to seek alternative forms of HRT which can have increased side effects.

The Health Department has updated its advice that the transdermal patch shortage will continue until November 2017.

This means that if the shortage does indeed end before the year does, women will have been without adequate and consistent supply of the drugs for 12 months.

Imagine if Viagra manufacturing was disrupted for an entire year.

The trouble with all this silence about women’s bodies is that the many varied narratives and nuances around the different stages of women’s reproductive lives are lost. Only the most ‘sensational’ and ‘news worthy’ see the light of day. But just as not all women experience life changing birth trauma after vaginal delivery, not all women suffer from debilitating menopause symptoms. Just as not all men after a certain age need chemical assistance from the little blue pill to maintain their sex lives.

Let’s flip it around to see what applying a women-centric narrative to men’s health issues looks like. If menopausal women’s need for HRT to resolve complaints like hot flushes and insomnia isn’t considered important enough for the government to put pressure on the manufactures to come through with reliable drug production, then it seems only fair that impotent men’s desire for erections should be deemed similarly inconsequential.

Something however tells me that the reliable supply of Viagra will never dry up.

Creative Writing PhD, Creativity

In praise of the PhD in Creative Writing

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The Creative Writing doctorate is viewed with suspicion for not fitting into the accepted binaries. It is neither a literature doctorate nor the accepted Romantic idea of a writer expressing their ‘natural’ talent. Even celebrated, experienced writers are dismissive of courses that “teach” you to write.

It is this autodidactic baggage that so many writers carry around with them and drag into their first session with their doctoral supervisor. It weighs down on them as they trudge to the library with a heavy heart. They are warned – the Creative Writing doctoral student must put aside their intuitive writing abilities in order to hone their research skills, think critically and be self-reflective.

The doctoral journey also forces those who undertake the Creative Writing doctorate to examine what impact their research has had on their own writing, on their creative project and it’s usefulness – to themselves as writers, the academy and also the impact of the research they undertake for their exegesis.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the majority of Creative Writing students, at least to begin with, struggle with the research component of the course, and see the exegesis as “the price you pay” to do a PhD in Creative Writing.

The PhD in Creative Writing has at its heart a tension that is inherent in the exegetical-creative writing binary.

Yet I have found my research to benefit my creative writing. Indeed, this can be seen in the enormous flights of fancy and fantasy woven into Stealing Back the Relics, my 15,000 word short story published in And Then…a new adventure anthology. Critics can be assured the years spent in academic research has not crippled my boundless imagination in the least. Mine is, as a fellow writer drily observed, ‘a robust muscle’.

Stealing Back the Relics appears in And Then …the Great Big Book of Awesome Adventure Tales Vol 1, (published by Clan Destine Press) and is my Dan Brown style romp through catacombs, private museums, art galleries and grand houses that takes readers across Germany, France, England and Greece.

The brief from publisher Lindy Cameron was simple – write a page turning adventure romp with two protagonists of equal weight. What to write about? Well, as I work in an art gallery, and spend my free time in art galleries and museums, the murky cauldron of images and off-the-wall ideas that fed into Stealing Back the Relics were all about art theft and archaic reliquaries.

On my three week visit to the other side of the world, I was up cathedrals, down catacombs, and sketching in museums where I was drawn to the grotesque and beguiling reliquaries – ornate vessels that hold sacred pieces of saints.

What, apart from the re-charge of the conference trip, is the relevance to a doctoral blog, you may wonder? Well, dear reader, the one of my story’s protagonists is completing his third PhD and still hasn’t got tenure…inspired by many a real life story on the fringes of academia, and by one very intelligent soul in particular.

In fact, his wife, a very successful and well known author, has just embarked on her own doctorate.

Not surprisingly, given the circles I move in, many of my friends and acquaintances have doctorates, are finishing their doctorates or – gulp – are on their second or third doctorate. Out of all of this cohort, I can count on one hand how many have tenured positions as academics. This desire for a groundbreaking research discovery – that might lead (hopefully!) to tenure is what drives Stealing Back the Relics. Yes, more than a nod to David Lodge, reimagined for the 21st century.

Stealing Back The Relics also neatly reflects what I strongly believe – that the rigour and research and mindset that goes into a Creative Writing PhD is not ‘wasted’ if you don’t teach. Indeed, my obsession with reliquaries, and the oddly grotesque veneration of saints and macabre obsession with death in European museums and churches, is simply an offshoot on the years I have spent exploring such manifestations of Gothic excess in fiction past and present.

 

AND THEN…THE GREAT BIG BOOK OF AWESOME ADVENTURE TALES VOL 1

AND THEN – DETAILS

What:  And Then…the Great Big Book of Awesome Adventure Tales Vol 1.

Edited by:  Ruth Wykes & Kylie Fox, with title page illustrations by Vicky Pratt and cover art by Sarah Pain. Stories:

Stories by: Sulari Gentill,  Jason Nahrung, Alan Baxter, Jason Franks, Lucy Sussex, Amanda Wrangles, Evelyn Tsitas, Peter M Ball, Narrelle M Harris, Dan Rabarts, Kat Clay, Sophie Masson, Tor Roxburgh, Emilie Collyer and Tansy Rayner Roberts.

To buy: Vol 1 is now available as an eBook from this link.

Doctoral completion, Graduation ceremony, post doctorate

Is there a Dr. in the house? The gendered use of honorifics

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Last week, ABC radio broadcaster James Valentine pondered if Ms had really caught on. ‘How many people used it? If not, why not? And why do so many younger women prefer Miss and Mrs? Had this campaign for equality failed?’

Up until three years ago, I used the title Ms all my adult life, and I have a woman called Sheila Michaels, who died three months ago, to thank for bringing the honorific into common usage half a century ago. In 2007 Michaels told the Guardian that she was seeking ‘a title for a woman who did not belong to a man’, and her inspired uptake of Ms on a radio program caught the attention of Gloria Steinem, who used it for the title of her feminist magazine Ms. Which was launched in 1971.

A decade later, Ms was an obvious choice when I went to university and had no intention of being addressed as Miss. In my mid twenties, I kept both my own name and the honorific when I got hitched. It seemed unthinkable to me as a journalist to change my name – my byline – for the simple social act of marriage. Men do not have to leave their identity at the altar. Here’s the thing – none of my relatives had an issue with my continued use of Ms – or my Greek surname.

Over the intervening years, those who were confused by my refusal to play by the gender rules (drones in banks, usually) became creative, opting to call me Mrs Tsitas because I was married, so I had to be Mrs, right?

Valentine says that while Miss and Mrs are still used, Ms will take on meaning not intended by the user. People will think it a term for lesbians and divorced women, and won’t accept it as marital neutral. However, the thing is, once I divorced, I didn’t get mail addressed to Ms.

Given the current push to eradicate binary assumptions around gender, the umbrage still taken to the honorific Ms seems very old fashioned. A growing number of businesses and government agencies now permit people to identify as the gender neutral “Mx” on official forms and paperwork. The title is pronounced “mux” and is becoming more widely accepted as an alternative honorific.

In April, the local arm of global banking giant HSBC started offering customers the choice of multiple “gender neutral” honorifics as part of a push to accommodate those who do not identify as strictly male or female, such as “Ind”, short for individual, “Misc”, for miscellaneous, “Mre”, meaning mystery, and “Msr”, a combination of Miss and Sir.

Of course, society frets about how to address people who marry outside the binary. There is a whole section of the internet devoted to this new etiquette, with MissManners@unitedmedia.com advising that as the plural of Mrs. is Mesdames and the plural of Mr. is Messrs, a married female couple with the same surname would be Mesdames Jenna and Aurora Acorn, and a married male couple would be the Messrs. Jackson and Hal Thornton.

Still, Valentine has tipped that the use of Ms is on the wane. “Life changes,” he warned, “and our language always reflects that. The hard thing is that it may not reflect the change you want.”

I have found a neat way around the gendered debate of honorifics. I no longer have to tick the box Ms, Miss or Mrs. Mind you, being Ms is certainly a sustainable honorific, seeing me through life as a single, married and divorced woman. Yet, as of three years ago, I ticked a box that will never go out of fashion, and will never reveal either my gender or marital state.

I became Dr Evelyn Tsitas.

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The day I graduated with my PhD, I stopped being Ms Evelyn Tsitas. I became Dr Evelyn Tsitas and found a whole new collection of haters to complain about my new honorific. Make no mistake, using Dr is not a neutral choice, because there is no neutral choice for women. Ever. We are dammed if we do, dammed if we don’t.

‘Oh! How dare she call herself Dr! She isn’t a full time academic!’ or ‘She isn’t a medical doctor! How dare she use the title!’

Welcome to the 21st century world of sessional academia, where the notion of a tenured workforce is as old and dog earned as a coffee stained paperback of David Lodge’s 1980s campus novels. I earned the right to be called Dr, and so, therefore, I will use it. It’s great for the apologetic gasp on the end of the line when someone from an overseas call centre asks robotically if you are ‘Miss or Mrs?’

‘Neither,’ I delight in replying. ‘I am Dr.’ Indeed, getting a PhD is worth it simply to have, as a woman, an honorific to use that a/ commands respect and b/ squashes forever the question of relationship status.

In fact, having Dr in front of one’s name is the ultimate finger to society intent on categorizing women.

academic cohort, Academic relevance, Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, parenting and study, Time management

Lessons from my doctorate

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The only thing sweeter than attaining your doctorate is the academic success of your children – especially if they have grown up in the shadow of your higher education study.

Admit it, if you are a mother, there is always that nagging voice somewhere – yours or some critic – that says ‘intense focus and study at the expense of much of everything else in your life will be bad for your young children.’

Rubbish.

Low expectations, complacency and laziness are limiting. Constantly pushing your boundaries and challenging your comfort zone, on the other hand, teach children not to be limited in their aspirations while at the same time reinforcing that anything worth achieving takes hard work, and sacrifice.

If you are completing your doctorate and fretting about your children taking a back seat, don’t worry. The mum up late studying, turning down social invitations, spending holidays at the computer or university library may be absent from her children’s lives in some ways, but she is abundantly present in ways which matter in the long term.

I can tell you first hand that far from harm my children, my back to back MA and PhD while my two sons were young gave them the gift of knowing success demands:

Perseverance, commitment, focus, determination, time management, and deferred gratification.

I never volunteered to help out at their school, I refused to play the game of keeping up domestic appearances, and I rarely even went to school social events. You know what? I speak from experience here – I was raised by a mother who studied, and I have friends who completed their doctorates while their children were young. We are here to tell you the world will not end, nor will social structures collapse, if you do not help out at your child’s school or socialise with the other mothers.

The school, and your children, can do without your input. Leave that to the mothers with nothing else to do.

Sounds harsh, but let’s face it, volunteering at the school, when your time could be better spent elsewhere – like on your own work – is often a matter of ego. You want to feel wanted. Does the bake sale really need your input? Do the other mothers really need to be organised like a pact of sheep to socialise at some cafe to bond every term?

And yes, note I say ‘mothers’. Even in the 21st century, no father frets he isn’t spending time helping out at the school or having coffee mornings with the other dads.

I understand that my views don’t make me popular. But they do produce results.

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The past 12 months in my household have been a demanding ones, with my eldest son completing his final year at school.And although it has been three years exactly since I graduated with my PhD, he still sees me work long into the night on my creative and academic writing, after a day of commercial writing in communications. He knows what it takes to achieve your goals.

And I have to say – he took note. We celebrated last month when his terrific exam results netted him a place in a prestigious university course and put him on track for the architecture career he aspires to.

Unlike many other teenagers, he wasn’t out at parties, he was at his desk. No pain – no gain. If there is one thing I have taught him over the years it is the success that comes from deferred gratification.

At his 18th birthday celebration, just before his last exams, he thanked me for being both supportive and a role model and showing me how it is done. It was so lovely to hear him say that, and I have been thinking since then how ‘doctoral mothers’ bring our particular focus to parenting.

As inevitably we do sessional teaching while studying, we are familiar with the university system, have friends who are also studying or working in universities, and are articulate advocates for our children as they navigate the next step in their education.

We are also networking, analysing, searching out information and generating new knowledge from our research. I am not the least surprised that the mothers I know who have pursued doctoral studies after an established career have all produced children who are similarly ambitious and engaged with their own learning.

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My son is going to university next month open to the possibilities and privileges of tertiary education – having his mind expanded and horizons broadened. The divergent and convergent thinking that one acquires are fundamental to succeeding as knowledge workers in the 21st century, and he is ready for the journey.

Next blog post I will continue on this theme, exploring lifelong learning – are you ever ‘too old’ to study?

creative writing, Creativity, living with books, reading, Uncategorized

The life-changing magic of a personal library

IMG_1450When my eldest son was little, he had some wonderful phrases. For instance, “I want the more”.  For those who have or are pursing a PhD ‘the more’ is exactly what they are after. More education. More chance to pursue research and engage with ideas. And yet, with a higher degree comes a higher level of stuff – experience, qualifications and also notes, books, and clutter.

 Did I mention books?

There is a declutter revolution going on, and I am not part of it. Put simply, I have a lot of stuff. I have a lot of stuff related to the great passions of my life, and that includes reading and research, and guess what? No amount of Japanese declutter guru Marie Kondo‘s advice about letting go is going to make me fold my stuff away, and wish it well, and bin it.

No.

I am keeping my stuff. And my vast, personal library. And my PhD notes. The photocopies, downloads, the stack of questionable DVDs in the horror genre (research), the endless notebooks from research strategy classes over the year.

I take copious notes. I am an obsessive note taker and I can rarely THINK without a pen in my hand. The long, long rows of notebooks in my bookcases reveal past talks, lectures, encounters. I take great notes, too. I consider them recipes for future ideas. Why should I throw these away?

They are all staying.

To paraphrase actresses like Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson, et al, a few frown lines bestow character on the face, I feel the same way about my books…and stuff. They give my home character.

A house without books is one devoid of character. Get rid of your books, and it’s like excessive Botox to the face. All character wiped out. In fact, one of the great joys of going to British stately homes is checking out the library, which has been added to over the centuries. Sure, there are glorious tomes bound in leather, and then there are more personal additions, supplemented over the years by those upper class descendants with perhaps less highbrow tastes than the discerning Lord of the Manor who purchased editions on the Grand Tour.

 

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Under the Kondo method, and her cult book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, these grand homes and their grander libraries would be forced to purge. Too much stuff! And – the constant question people ask bibliophiles – “but will you ever read it again”. Who cares!

Under Kondo Rules, I would be forced to make the choice of what to keep in a brutal assessment of the ‘worth’ of my stuff. If only joy-giving belongings remain, then how do I feel about several copies of Frankenstein, each purchased at a different time in my life, some with notes in the margins, others gloriously bound and illustrated. Do I have to choose?

What about the poetry that gave me joy as a 17 year old, but that I consider a bit juvenile now? I still remember defending my choice to enjoy a particular author’s works when a friend’s mother, older, wiser and doing her PhD, challenged me about its merits. I probably now agree with her, but I recall my feisty retort, and I am proud of standing my ground. Those books remind me of that passionate teenager.

I am not letting that stuff go. For a start, it comes in handy. I hate referencing everything on computer and am in the belief (tested, alas) we are but one flat battery and power failure away from losing everything. My advice (anti-Kondo though it is) is to Back up, analogue. That is, keep your stuff, your books and your notes. In physical, hard form.

Yet there seems to be something of a moral judgement about people who have much stuff. And by this I mean all the big stuff of life – lots of kids, lots of degrees, lots of accumulated things – be they houses, clothes, books, cars, furniture.

Not so with experiences. Isn’t it interesting that people can spend vast amounts of money (and track a large carbon footprint) on travel and accumulating experiences to quench their wunderlust, and not incur the wrath of the declutter experts. But stuffing your life with experiences (that, let’s face it, cost money in terms of travel expenses and time) is surely  as wanton and buying books, having children, and buying them stuff.

 

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I do sense a bit of ‘moral panic’ about the love of books, and the deep pleasure of a damn good personal library. Books are much hated – we are told we can have our entire library on an ebook reader, but so what – I don’t want to read like that. I work on a computer all day and enjoy having print under my fingers at home, and love picking up my books.

I have given over my house to books, and in each room I have bookcases devoted to different genres. Yes – even my bedroom has one wall of books. In my sitting room I decided to provide space to crime and horror. My study, logically, holds books on writing, writing technique, linguistics, and of course, research and pedagogy. In the music room – this is a little eclectic – I have biographies, lovely old books, strange travel books, books on houses and gardens, and books that were gifts, like glorious coffee table books.

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The dining room features, naturally, epicure, cooking, and literary fiction. In my art studio, there are (of course) art books, and in my bedroom can be found women’s writing, erotica, poetry and research books for the latest book I am writing. It’s probably excessive, probably a lot of ‘stuff’, but other people have lots of shoes.

And in answer to the questions – have you read all your books? No. But many I have read over and over, and I dip into others constantly, and others remind me of my life journey so far. There are comfort books to delve into when I am down, books that transport me, move me, engage my mind. Books for one day and not the next. Books to look at, treasure and hold. Books waiting for me, a new conversation to be had. Books I loved as a child and books I loved reading to my children. Books, just because. And finally, books, I tell the critics, are my tools of trade as a writer.

I have a PhD in Creative Writing – of course I have a lot of books!

On a recent weekend away with friends, I checked out their bookcases, and as they are both writers, my eyes lingered as much on the books I had in my own library as those I did not. Our slightly varied choices spoke of our different interests, yes, and also different preoccupations as writers – and our different PhD topics.

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But there was one book I spotted, like a magpie after shiny tinsel on the road, and dived at it, holding the gem in my trembling hands.

I begged to take it home. Please, may I borrow this book?

It was a small hardback, rectangular, and beautiful book. This exquisite book spoke to me despite all the books I own and others I am surrounded by. It begged to be picked up and opened.

Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books edited by Leah Price, is a delight. For a start, it explores the book as an object, and writers talking about their own personal libraries. Author Junot Díaz writes that when he was floundering with his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao “in the darkness of those years books were lanterns, they were lighthouses”. No surprise that it was given as a birthday gift from one of my writing friends to the other, purchased as a perfect souvenir from San Fransisco’s legendary City Lights Bookstore.

Price writes in her introduction to her book that allows authors to talk about their book collecting, “We read over the shoulders of giants; books place us in dialogue not just with an author but with other readers. Six months from now, this book may be supplemented by a Facebook site. What seems unlikely to change is our curiosity about what our friends and strangers read – or about what others will make of our own reading.”

Sure, I could consign my PhD research notes to the shredder now I have the doctorate under my belt. Or – I could keep them as a road map to four long, engaging and arduous years of thinking. And – refer to them again and the copious notes I made in the corners, on the backs, in highlighter, the frantic and sometimes insightful journey through the maze of my research.

If time, circumstance and lifestyle dictate, I may move on from here, once my children are grown, from this house that enables my large library to surround me.

But until then, I will refuse the siren call of the declutter experts.

 

 

 

Creativity, the creative life

Relentless curiosity: David Bowie’s creative legacy

Nach dem Konzert_ SO36_1982_Dittmer copy
After the concert, SO36, West Berlin, 1982. Photo by Anno Dittmer, used in the exhibition Geniale Dilletanten RMIT Gallery.

In the narrow focus demanded of us as we pursue our doctoral studies we so often lose sight of what David Bowie, creative polymath and one of the most influential musicians of his era, knew intuitively – it’s vital to take creative risks, and be on a constant quest for new ideas and inspiration. Even when you are facing death.

David Bowie, who has just died of cancer at the age of 69, was more than a pop star. It is no surprise that as news of his death became known the internet was flooded with respectful, grief filled tributes as people tried to grasp the complexity of Bowie’s career and creativity.

Only days ago, and without announcing he had cancer, Bowie released his 25th album Blackstar filled with songs that focused on death. Last month, Lazarus, the new musical featuring Bowie’s songs, and inspired by Bowie’s starring role in the 1976 cult film The Man Who Fell to Earth, opened to mixed reviews in New York. 

Despite his terminal illness Bowie was creatively active at an age when so many people have literally retired from creating anything new. Bowie remained so contemporary, so fresh and exciting because he was so willing to challenge and take risks.

It is no wonder then that Bowie’s music has been called the soundtrack to a generation and he has influenced countless musicians. Everyone from Iggy Pop to Sir Paul McCartney, from Madonna to Ricky Gervais, Kanye West to Midge Ure and British Prime Minister David Cameron has come forward with their own tributes on how Bowie inspired them.

And of course, as well as collective grief his fans are in shock. Despite Bowie’s heart attack in 2004 and lack of touring in recent years, Bowie had such an insatiable creative curiosity, such a vibrant mind and a talent that was a heat seeking missile for constant reinvention, that it seemed he’d evolve forever. He had just celebrated his 69th birthday. He had just put out an album.

Now he is gone.

The platitude ‘age is just a number’ takes on a new meaning when applied to the curious, to the intellectually hungry, and to the creative mind. That’s the energy and fuelled Bowie’s output.

I had insisted that my 17 year old son see the terrific “David Bowie Is” Victoria & Albert Museum touring exhibition at Melbourne’s ACMI in 2015. Not because I had a stack of well loved Bowie LPs that I treasured from my teenage days, or iconic Bowie posters that adorned by bedroom at that age – in truth, I had neither. If anything, I had come to Bowie through film – The Man Who fell To Earth, and The Hunger – both roles in which he was in some ways alien, isolated, abandoned, and fearful – all of which, it is revealed in the V & A exhibition catalogue are the subjects Bowie has always written about “even though the trousers may change”.

When I read this and felt I should not berate myself for being obsessed with writing about betrayal, obsession, revenge and jealousy. Like Bowie, the trousers (genre or writing style) may change, but my song remains the same.

My appreciation of Bowie came not because I was a ‘fan’, but because I was a writer and I had explored how his creative process unfolded. How he used his visual art background (his first job was as a graphic artist) and pursued the power of the visual image to propel his musical ideas and career as a performer. This visual literacy also manifests in his album covers as much as his reputation as a fashion icon.

I was keen for my son, an aspiring architect, to see the way Bowie channeled the avant-garde into his own work and immersed himself in art and literature and drama as well as music to produce something extraordinary that collapsed of boundaries between media as well as high art and low.

British Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted “I grew up listening to and watching the pop genius David Bowie. He was a master of re-invention, who kept getting it right. A huge loss.” Indeed – Bowie mastered the art of the narrative, via visual and aural mediums. He was a consummate story teller, drawing on the history of so many artforms. Yes, he is gone, but we can follow the bread crumbs he left, picking our way through Andy Warhol, Bertolt Brecht, Marshal McLuhan, Kansai Yamamoto, Nicholas Roeg, Lord Byron, Vaslav Nijinsky, Beau Brummell, and of course, Lindsay Kemp, whose influence can be seen so strongly in Bowie’s physical performances.

Bowie didn’t go to art school, he didn’t do a doctorate, but he never stopped exploring, learning, and finding inspiration outside music, outside his field. As Camille Paglia notes in her catalogue essay for the Bowie exhibition, “music was not only or even the primary mode through which Bowie first conveyed his vision to the world: he was an iconoclast who was also an image maker.”

While there is a necessary narrowing of focus in the doctorate, I am passionate about the lifelong benefits of a broad and wide ranging undergraduate degree. I sometimes wondered at the wisdom of my determination, as an 18 year old, to study visual art, and during the course, take a hefty amount of drama subjects and also pursue stage craft. Paglia notes that Bowie’s flair for choreography and body language has been developed by his study of pantomime and stagecraft with the innovative Lindsay Kemp troupe in London in the 1960s.

Watch the video of Lazarus from Bowie’s final album Blackstar that I shared at the opening of this blog – what he learned about movement at the beginning and the power of the body to express emotion through movement he takes with him to express the inevitability of his demise. So powerful.

Lesson – value the roads you travelled as an artist. I am not an actor, but the ability to perform for an audience should never be overlooked in this age of social media, and indeed, there is much to be said for a writer who can confidently take to the stage to read their work.

Bowie had an early ambition to be painter and continued to paint throughout his life, especially when he was having trouble writing songs, and likewise, I continue to draw and turn to images when I need to express something that my words cannot. Lesson – continue to do what you love, even if it won’t make your fortune or be your career.

But perhaps one of the most important things we can learn from Bowie is that creative reinvention and relevance come through lifelong learning – that intellectual and creative curiosity doesn’t have a time frame on it. Even once we complete our PhD, we do not ‘stop’, we are not ‘done’ – in his catalogue essay for the Bowie exhibition, Howard Goodall writes that Bowie’s discovery of the catalogue of German-American composer Kurt Weill (1900-50) “was made not as part of a university syllabus…but as an intrigued, self-motivated adult.”

As we reflect on Bowie’s legacy, take some of his lessons into our creative lives. Find inspiration in books, in art and in music, in collaborations with others, and in the works of the past. Don’t ever stop learning, or pursuing the creative work that you love.

First published in RMIT Blog Central, with the image used to promote Geniale Dilletanten: Subculture in Germany in the 1980s showing at the RMIT Gallery until February 27 2016.