Lessons from my doctorate

11 Feb

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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?

The life-changing magic of a personal library

23 Feb

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.

 

 

 

Relentless curiosity: David Bowie’s creative legacy

11 Jan

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Life post PhD – embracing the moment at last

21 Dec

xmas yardI have a friend I have been trying to see for a few weeks. It’s nearly Christmas and everyone is catching up as if the world is about to end. Yet each time we set a date she cancels. And I totally I understand why. She is in doctoral lock down.

Indeed, last time she cancelled I told her I didn’t expect to see her until June 2016. In fact, if I did, something must be wrong. Because in the last hurdle of the doctorate nothing else matters but the looming deadline.

I know the feeling all too well.

From where she is sitting, with the panic and fear and dread and utter anxiety of writing up ahead of her, my words can seem like platitudes. Because I have done it – I ran the race, I finished and now I have the PhD.

In truth, part of me misses that doctoral bubble because doing a PhD is pretty much free reign to just think, even if like me you also held down a full time job.

It’s hard to constantly set the same goals you did when you were doing a doctorate – that narrow focus, and every six months another public milestone to achieve – a graduate research progress report, or a conference, a journal article, and then checking in with your supervisor.

Once you have that PhD, you are on your own, baby. When it comes to your research, no one cares what you do and when you do it, or if you never achieve anything ever again. However, you will also find a lot of other people who don’t have a PhD but think they should start being rather unpleasant to you. Over the past two years, I have had many bitchy comments such as “you can’t do THAT? But I thought you were smart – you have a PhD!” and “only academics call themselves Doctor and YOU AREN’T ONE so I wonder why YOU bother?”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognise professional jealousy, but I understand why many people (especially in Australia) hide their academic achievements. Certainly it’s not something you’d put up on a dating site.

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I admit that angst over ‘doctoral embarrassment’ (the state of being apologetic for being more highly qualified than those who resent you) may seem like distant dream to those like my friend who are battling to actually complete their PhD on time. I get that.

Just as I get the ‘life on hold’ pain that comes with the final stage of the doctoral journey. It’s head down, bum on seat, and focus, focus, focus.

And yet….I think that intensity and focus, the necessity of having to defer so much life and gratification, is part of the pleasure of academic study’s intense focus. You get a free pass in not caring about anything other than your work. Strange as it may sound, enjoy. It will not come your way again (well, until you do another doctorate…)

On a recent walk with the dog, I saw a young woman studying in her bedroom window. It was a Sunday night, and rather than watching TV, talking to friends, or anything else, she was at her desk, the light on, head down, and working. Outside, her family had strung up Christmas lights around the garden. Inside, the only light was her desk light, shining brightly on her to guide her way.

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I felt a pang of nostalgia – I knew well that focus, and in a way, missed it. Now all timetables are self directed. What am I writing now? It’s up to me. I can wander around at dusk with the Corgi checking out the fairy lights. I have the time for life. And the opposite of that, its intimate partner, is that I have to motivate myself to write and research.

Throw yourself into life, my friend, and there isn’t much left over for the mind. Balance? I’ve yet to find it. Maybe that’s why I miss the doctoral zone.

Of course, those years of focusing on my work meant something had to give, and it was my domestic and social life, which I am now enjoying making a priority again.

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Yet it seems very indulgent, still, to meet a friend on a Sunday afternoon and bake Christmas ginger biscuits and decorate them with my youngest son. A whole Sunday afternoon! That is five hours I would never have allowed myself when I was doing the PhD.

As I sprinkled coloured sugar crystals over the xmas biscuits and joked with my son and reminisced with my friend, I felt  myself being utterly in the present in a way that a doctoral student never is truly there when engaged with life.

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So, Merry Christmas to my friend and all of you who are in the last few months of your PhD – heartfelt good  wishes for your success and while you will no doubt find it hard to relax during the holiday season, remember that a time will come when you, too, can ‘waste’ a Sunday baking gingerbread biscuits. And each bite will be all that sweeter for having deferred the gratification.

 

Done Is Better Than Perfect: Push Past PhD Perfection Syndrome

5 Nov

DONE IS BETTER

What has The Hacker Way got to do with Higher Education? Why look to Facebook’s internal mantra “Done is better than perfect” and the company’s five core principles (Focus on impact, Move Fast, be Bold, be Open, Build Social Value) as a way to tackle your doctorate?

Because it might just get you past PhD Perfection Syndrome and those other common doctoral P’s – Procrastination and Painful obsession with your research and get you Passed – and Published.

I am a Recovering Perfectionist. I have the Facebook mantra “Done is Better Than Perfect” written on a sticky note on my screen monitor. It reminds me that real artists ship, and to beware of the Curse of Perfect.

Actually, I have to admit, this is a recent addition to my psychological arsenal against my Negative Self (writers all have the Negative Whisperer as the hideous beast twin who shares their lives, doctoral students have one as well. If you are doing a Creative Writing PhD – you need all the self esteem weaponry you can get).

In February 2012 when Facebook filed its Registration Statement in 2012 to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, I was deep in the heart of my doctorate. I was too preoccupied with my research to read Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s statement about the company’s purpose, which in hindsight actually has a lot to say about getting your research done, and believing in your work.

These two things are an issue for many doctoral students, who are at the mercy of supervisor’s dire warnings, their own insecurities, and their swot like perfectionism.

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According to Martin Lindstrom (FastCompany) “Done is better than perfect” is not about coming up with ideas; it’s about believing in them. And having an attitude that compels you to run with the idea before it’s too late.

Isn’t that what finishing the doctorate is all about? Running with your ideas rather than perfecting them? Because you have to continue with that work after you complete your doctorate.

Let’s look more closely at what The Hacker Way has to show doctoral – and postdoc – students. Zuckerberg’s statement about the company’s purpose reveals that hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done.

Which is what a doctorate can be as well – punch out the research and writing in four years, test the boundaries and leave room for continuous improvement after you have completed the task. Your work doesn’t stop once you have graduated. Your research – if it is any good – will continue, and you will continue to grow and develop as a researcher.

A doctorate is just like getting a probationary driving licence – you can drive, but you aren’t out of the woods yet. You are a newbie. I still have my academic P plates on. But that’s better than not having completed the doctorate!

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I had every reason and excuse to take longer than four years full time. I could easily have opted for part time study with two kids and a full time job demanding my time and attention. But remember this – your PhD is not a Nobel Prize body of work. It just has to be Fit For Purpose.

Mack Collier (founder of #blogchat) takes some tips from Zuckerberg’s “Done if Better Than Perfect” mantra in his terrific advice about blogging: “Blogging is like anything else, it’s a learning process.  The more you blog, the easier ideas come to you.  The more chances you have to see how people react to a particular topic you cover, or the tone you use.  As a result, your overall writing becomes better and the entire blogging process becomes easier for you. As a byproduct, your platform expands.  Not only is your blogging improving, but more people are being exposed to your ideas because they are being shared more often.”

Sounds like the process of writing up your doctorate – or completing a Creative Writing PhD. Write, write often and write without fear. Don’t worry about being perfect – Done is better than Perfect. Also – take your research ideas out for a play. Share them. Find friends for them. Go to conferences, submit to journals and learn to accept rejection.

The trouble is, this attitude isn’t what got you to higher level study in the first place. Chances are, like me, you work on getting things done and perfect. You are used to being good – being very, very good, in fact, and hate rejection. That’s all well and good, and perhaps sustainable in certain phases of your life – like when you are “time rich” as a fellow newbie post-doc and mother described a twenty-something.

Time rich is when you don’t have compelling family responsibilities pulling at your coat strings and compelling financial reasons (to support that family) pulling at your purse strings. Time rich is when you can afford to go hard and lean in and not worry about getting home to make the dinner.

I had that life for many years as an undergraduate, in my career and in my first incarnation as a postgraduate student. But I was a mother when I did my MA and my PhD and now I am working full time, juggling my research, fiction writing and blogging after hours, as well as raising two children as a single parent.

Unless I adhered to Done is Better Than Perfect, I would never write – or publish – anything.

Two things I am passionate about are being brave enough to take your research public when you are a student (and post doc) and sharing your research and ideas through publishing via blogs, and other forums (as well as ) academic journals.

This isn’t just something relevant to the Creative Writing PhD or other humanities based doctorates – the HackYourPhD is a community created in France in January 2013 by Célya Gruson-Daniel and Guillaume Dumas. It gathers various profiles (researchers, PhD students and students, entrepreneurs, designers…) around the issue of Open Science.
This movement aims to bring more collaboration, transparency, and openness in the current practices of research.

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Let’s visit Facebook’s five core principles and apply them to your doctorate:

Focus on impact – this is the Class 101 of Why Your Research Matters. What is the point of your work? Why does it matter? Who cares?

Move fast – your ideas won’t be unique forever. If someone else doesn’t jump on the research, they will go stale, so –

Be bold – get out there and publish, present at conferences, show your work. Publish. Don’t be afraid to raise your voice.

Be open – Share, share, share. (See HackYourPhD) It will come back to you bigger than ever. Scared, controlling researchers and writers will never get the same audience as more generous emerging academics

Build social value – well, why not – all research can advance human knowledge just a fraction, right? How can your research be taken into the world to improve things, and if not an answer to humanitarian needs, then what about enhancing the human spirit, or the human existence? Everyone needs entertainment, beauty and wonder in their lives. Even if your work doesn’t challenge, enlighten or provoke, can you see it making people’s lives, at least for some brief time, in some way more enjoyable?

The writing retreat: how will you finish your doctorate?

25 Oct
Time out but busy as a bee: photo by Justine Phillip, 2015

Time out but busy as a bee: photo by Justine Philip, 2015

I have a starling piece of news. I have actually never gone on a writing retreat. The reasons are entirely practical – for the past 17 years my presence has been required at home with my children.

The other reason is also practical. After a career in daily journalism, I find it easy enough to focus and write among people, noise and distractions. Sure, some people and distractions may be more annoying than others, but for me writing has always been a job and always been like breathing – second nature and essential.

So, I never felt the need to get away from it all. I have always had a room of my own, no matter where I lived. Yes, it is a luxury, but no matter how small, I have always claimed a space as my own study, a place where no one else is permitted. While some may see this an indulgent, I regard it as essential. Even once I had children, they were only allowed into my writing space with permission, and never on my computer.

I know women who easily give away their personal space and these women are by and large resentful and frustrated. I don’t give a damn about being thought selfish for carving out my own writing life and zone, and it means I am also a pretty content soul.

So, I never felt I had to pack everything up and get away to focus on my writing. That said, I totally understand women who do. What if you have no separate space to call your study? What if the boisterous interruptions of domestic life intrude as you are trying to write up your doctorate?

When I was in that final, crucial writing up stage of the PhD, I took my annual leave from my job and bunkered down in my study; over summer, the kids were preoccupied with their own interests and wonderful friends took them for outings with their own kids – I am ever grateful for this.

To have actually gone away to a retreat would have added a whole other level of complexity to my juggling that would only cause more stress than it was worth. Even now, with the kids with their father on the weekend, if I was to go away on retreat it would mean finding somewhere for the dog to go, and why leave an house I have all to myself to pack up my notes and go somewhere else?

That said, I can see the benefits of a retreat and fantasise about its glories. And I admit to feeling a pang of longing when a friend and doctoral student Justine Philip sent me a link to the blog post she had written about her recent eco retreat, when she took time off to focus on a critical chapter of her dissertation due for completion in 2016.

Remote: BREW eco-writers retreat. Photo by Justine Phillip, 2015

Remote: BREW eco-writers retreat. Photo by Justine Philip, 2015

Justine drove seven hours north of Melbourne to reach the retreat – something I would never do for a start. I loathe driving long distances, and into the country. I also fail miserably at lighting potbelly stoves and trekking to an outhouse…though 10 days solitude sits comfortably with me. I have always made a habit of travelling alone, and regard my overseas research and conference trips as a retreat of sorts, away from the demands of teenagers and pets.

What I have found is that I am not necessarily productive as a writer when I am away, but that I gather the experiences and images and emotions garnered and bring them into my work.

Justine’s thesis explores a shared human-dingo history. No prizes for guessing how we came to meet – a mutual interest in human-animal relations has seen us present at several conferences together and we shared a panel (with artist Debbie Symons) at the 2014 ASLEC-ANZ Affective Habitus conference in Canberra.

While Justine went to the BREW residency in NSW to sort through three years of data and write a chapter due, I recall a similar timeline of weekends holed up at home, bunkered down in my study and ignoring almost everything as I slogged it out to get my dissertation complete. I took my annual leave to finish, and spent the summer inside, blinds down, and wrote. When the kids felt in need of food or a cuddle, they’d charge in and our beloved dog was then a little teething puppy, and slept at my feet, surreptitiously gnawing at journals articles spread around me until they were a wet, pulpy mass.

Remington Holiday. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas, 2014

Remington Holiday. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas, 2014

Justine’s retreat is on trend with what is offered by universities around the globe. The University of Miami Graduate School offers a Dissertation Writing where for three intensive days, doctorate students from all disciplines meet in a quiet space for extended blocks of time dedicated to writing, sharing daily writing goals and getting feedback. Write Out, a week long retreat for doctoral students from all disciplines at the University of Illinois at Chicago who study race and ethnicity.

Kylie Budge researched the retreat fantasy in The Thesis Whisperer in 2013, and discovered that spatial distance plays a role in creative cognition.

While part of me wants to use this as a good excuse to bunker down in my family’s house in a very small village in northern Greece, where I can barely speak the language but everyone knows me and my relatives generations back, I fear I will not be as productive as in my own study, where I have all my books and notes on hand. For a start, travelling from Australia is time consuming and expensive, so while language and geographical isolation may focus the mind, mine wants to be out absorbing new images and ideas, rather than writing the task at hand.

Northern Greece - village life. Photo 2013 by Evelyn Tsitas

Northern Greece – village life. Photo 2013 by Evelyn Tsitas

Yet there is something to be said for having the respite of a retreat to focus constructively during the doctorate. I spoke to another mother and doctoral student who told me the benefit of retreats during her writing up stage, as she lived in a small house with her three children and had no place to spread out her work or have quiet time alone with her thoughts. “I think that the writers retreat is different from writing at home – it is an excuse to put the rest of life on hold and spend days not just hours at the keyboard for a short length of time. Now I am back writing at the visiting scholars room at the university I am finding it easier to balance home/writing life than before I went away.”

However, I find that my writing time when my children are at their father’s house is actually no more productive than when they are with me. There is no more efficient worker than a mother with limited time to write. Have all the time in the world, and you will squander it.

This probably ties in with ‘mother guilt’ – another factor for doctoral students who are mothers. One woman told me she desperately needed to get to a retreat so she could write up huge chunks of data, and spread the research papers out everywhere and concentrate – and not have to pack it away when the kids needed to use the room or wanted dinner. She was happy if she found a shack somewhere with a wood fire stove and outside dunny (Australian slang for toilet) but that when she was offered a friend’s retreat – and discovered it had a coffee machine, inside plumbing and a fabulous, lake-side view, she was overcome with mother guilt. Suffering for your study is fine – but solitude in salubrious circumstances? Cue mother guilt!

Outside dunny: we we feel less 'mother guilt' if we rough it at a retreat?Photo by Evelyn Tsitas, 2014

Outside dunny: we feel less ‘mother guilt’ if we rough it at a retreat?Photo by Evelyn Tsitas, 2014

I wondered if there was something wrong with me for not yearning for a writing retreat, until I interviewed successful author Graeme Simsion recently. His internationally best selling book The Rosie Project – currently being made into a Hollywood movie starring Jennifer Lawrence – was written without time at a retreat. His advice – if you need to go away on a retreat to write, that’s not sustainable. You have to be able to write anywhere, anytime.

That’s good advice but what if you are not writing for a living? Then maybe some quality time away with your research is what you need. Then again, if your domestic arrangements won’t stretch to accommodating your absence – as mine did not at the time – then all is not lost.

I particularly liked the advice from Nancy Whichard PhD, PCC, a dissertation and academic career coach. She wrote that when she needed to make a space for writing—a cottage, if you will—inside her house, she put a sign on her home office door that read “Mom’s in Maine.” Nancy, who has successfully coached to completion doctoral candidates from all over the world, acknowledges that it is really difficult for mothers to find quiet time to write. Where do you find quiet time and space? Yes, you need a room of your own, and firm rules about being distracted, but that’s not always possible with space issues, and parenting demands.

I grew up with a mother who was always engaged in academic study, so learned to respect her tiny work space and her time. Unlike many women I know, I refuse to let my children onto my computer or into my space, and they haven’t suffered. It is important for children, and sons in particular, to understand a woman’s thinking time is important, and to respect her work.

I think women, generally, are far less willing to be selfish with their writing time than men. In fact, one of the most common things I hear from women like myself who are divorced is the sweet luxury of having your own space and quiet time to write or think without anyone complaining you are not giving them attention.

My ultimate fantasy retreat? Having an architecturally designed writing studio in some glorious location separate from the house and domestic chores, but in the same compound, so one can wander in on life after wrangling with the muse. And here, I swooned at writer Elizabeth Bishop’s glorious writing snug built by her Brazilian lover, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares, in the wonderful movie ‘Reaching for the Moon’ (Flores Raras) which I just viewed as part of the Latin American Film Festival at RMIT. A bold, creative life and love might be as much a fantasy as a writing retreat perched up in the trees, with a glorious view and hand made desk. But we can all dream.

** Bush Retreats for Eco-Writers (BREW) is an emerging network of eco-writing centres initiated by leading Australian environmental philosopher Professor Freya Mathews. The centres are located on ecologically significant private properties in various parts of Australia. Eco-writers can apply for the BREW network retreats in NSW. Click here for more information. 

No laughing matter – 10 lessons in taking comedy off the page

21 Oct
Simon Mallory in The Heckler

Simon Mallory in The Heckler

One thing that universities rarely do well is getting students to think beyond the doctoral completion and how to sell their product. This is a problem if that ‘product’ is the result of four years of a Creative Writing PhD. I can vouch for the fact that while I had to sweat through classes in research methods, advice on pitching to an agent, writing a killer synopsis and finding a publisher were not taught. Or – even mentioned.

Perhaps there needs to be a post doc course in ‘making the research count in the real world’. Who wouldn’t sign up for that? More to the point – why isn’t it taught? Instead of lamenting the fact, I went to some experts for advice. And by experts, I mean people who have made the successful leap from theory and research to industry success.

Writers Steve Mitchell and Graeme Simsion, who both met as screenwriting students at RMIT, wrote and produced The Heckler , which recently won the “Best Ensemble Award’ at the LA Comedy Festival.

The Heckler is an out-of-body feature in the tradition of the great Ellen Barkin comedy from the early 1990s, Switch. Like that movie, The Heckler’s protagonist Steve isn’t entirely likeable or laudable. So when the self obsessed stand-up comic’s body is hijacked by a jealous heckler following an accidental death after a gig, it provides the opportunity for Steve to start literally waking up to himself and rebuilding his relationship with those around him. The movie features some wonderful twists and sight gags, and a truly sexy and romantic kiss that in the way of body swap happens between two women.

Steve Mitchell’s background is in IT. As an emerging comedy writer who has many TV credits under his belt, he jokes that he sometimes performs stand-up comedy to “prevent his self-esteem from reaching acceptable levels” (stand up obviously has much in common with sending articles to academic journals). Steve studied filmmaking at VCA and Professional Screenwriting at RMIT (where he met Graeme Simsion), and has the stand up gift of making everyone in the audience feel that he is speaking directly to them – a skill that is invaluable when promoting his movie.

Graeme Simsion is the author of the 2013 best-seller, The Rosie Project; translation rights to his book have been sold to over 35 countries, and a film of his novel is in the pipeline with Sony Pictures. When Graeme came to the screenwriting course, he already had a PhD (in Data Modelling) under his belt and says that helped him overcome any fear of writing a large project. I rather like the fact that the producer of a movie about hecklers on the comedy circuit has not one but two PhDs – Graeme received a Doctor of Communication Honoris Causa from RMIT in 2014.  Lesson # 1– doctoral skills transfer, and as a mature age student you bring skills and life experience that will help you leverage your research into industry.

I got together with Graeme and Steve at a café near RMIT to discuss creative careers, collaboration, and advice for students hoping to see their stories on the screen.

Steve Mitchell promoting The Heckler

Steve Mitchell promoting The Heckler

Graeme wanted to dispel one myth first – that creative writing students have it tough because there is no defined pathway into a career after they graduate. “There is actually no defined pathway after a commerce degree either, and I built a career as I went in IT. I had to adapt to what’s changing; the arts are not madly different.”

Steve agrees that ‘you make the path’. Lesson # 2 – don’t be too defined in your career path because it might be a long and winding road to where you want to go But that’s fine – don’t be so precious about what you want to do. As a writer, every encounter and experience is copy. Take notes.

Now this is all well and good, except if you are grinding through your doctorate and wondering what comes next, if that creative project that has to pass through the examiners will ever see the light of day in the commercial world. Here is their advice – stop looking at the end goal and the ‘Hollywood movie’ (or best selling novel) as the big dream. That, says Graeme, is a million miles away. Lesson # 3 – major success may be so far down the track, break up your goal into smaller chunks – keep revising your goal with what you learn on the way.

Ironically, The Rosie Project started out life as a screenplay, and ended up as a book when Graeme changed his goal to something he felt was more attainable. Don’t lock yourself in. “The journey is important,” said Graeme. “You have to enjoy all the little goals along the way.”

GraemeSimsion. Photo credit James Penlidis

Graeme Simsion. Photo credit James Penlidis

This attitude is necessary in surviving – and thriving – in the creative industry. Just last week it was announced that Jennifer Lawrence, who was to play Rosie in The Rosie Project, had to pull out of the movie. The director Richard Linklater then followed. Graeme’s response to media was that he was disappointed “that the deal with Ms Lawrence didn’t happen” but he was getting on with writing his next book. Lesson #4 – don’t lose sight of the work, and don’t measure yourself against massive goals. Anything could happen.

The Heckler is a movie that came to the screen via networking. The sort of networking within an academic cohort that we so often overlook because as doctoral students we are focused on word counts, deadlines and completion. But your academic cohort are your network, and you need to put the effort in to meet them and work with them.

Not surprisingly, Graeme and Steve gravitated to each other during their course as they both put in the time and effort above and beyond what was expected. They instantly recognized each other as kindred spirits – ex IT, ambitious, mature age – and immediately partnered up to help each other with writing and editing. Steve was Graeme’s writing buddy from the inception of The Rosie Project, back when it was The Klara Project, and Graeme is credited as an editor and producer on The Heckler.

Lesson #5 – working within your cohort and finding the people among them who have similar ambitions and experience is important. Find writing partners, writing groups, academic reading groups – but make sure these are with people of a similar level of experience and energy. You don’t want to carry a dead weight.

But what about external networking? You know – making contacts in industry, pressing the flesh, finding out who can help you get a job inside or outside academia? How does that work?

Steve laughs. “You shouldn’t work the room when you are starting out. What do you have to offer? It’s not about what someone in power can offer you – it’s what you can offer them.”

Steve Mitchell (right) at the opening night of The Heckler.

A dream realised – Steve Mitchell (right) at the opening night of The Heckler.

Well, what can you offer? Look at it this way – you are smart, ambitious, and want to get ahead. Offer your time, and your hard work. Contribute to joint projects, volunteer. I volunteered my communications and journalism expertise to promote and support an academic conference as soon as I completed my doctorate – a way of getting to know those in the industry and also supporting the academics who supported me in one way or another during those four years of study. Lesson # 6– when it comes to networking, put in, help out, be humble and learn. No one will help you unless you offer to help first. Your efforts will be recognised as will your attitude.

While having a movie such as The Heckler, or a book published, is a major achievement, those in the creative arts need smaller calling cards to alert people to their ability to manage a project to completion. Do you have one? Lesson #7 – get a calling card. Make something and put it in the public eye so people can see what you can do. Send your stories to smaller literary journals. Publish a poem. Start your own blog – get your writing out there.

Graeme put in money as The Heckler’s producer, but he only did so because he knew Steve had the runs on the board as a writer and director. Steve received development funding from Film Victoria for his AWGIE-nominated feature ‘The Non-Believers’ and he wrote and directed ‘The Unusual Suspects’, which was a finalist at the 2012’s Tropfest Film Festival. Lesson #8 – submit your writing, put it out there for grants and festivals and awards. As someone reminded me when I was wavering about whether to put in the time and effort pitching for a project I didn’t think I’d get – opportunity involves being there to begin with.

By now, it should be clear that as funny and uplifting as The Heckler is for someone sitting in the audience, the path to the screening has been a long, arduous and unpaid one for the writer. That didn’t change once Graeme was on board as producer. “The last thing I want to do is give someone money for a salary,” Graeme said. “Writers are going into the ultimate capitalist world and people expect them to work for nothing. This is where courses get it wrong by telling students to go and get grants. It’s not about grants – you can’t write a book or film in three weeks or three months, you can’t write it while on a retreat, if you can’t do it without a grant, chances are you can’t do it.”

The length of time that Steve worked – unpaid – on The Heckler before Graeme came on board as producer was three years. Lesson #9 – be prepared to put in many long years of unpaid labor before you get your break. Even The Heckler’s final sound mix and mastering was achieved via crowdfunding with a Pozible campaign to raise the required $20,000.

Finally, both Graeme and Steve have a piece of advice for writers who feel pressured to build a social media presence in order to sell their work. Lesson #10 – work on your writing rather than your social media profile, and get the product as good as it can be. It’s ready to go once you are proud of it.

Steve agrees, “even with all the years I spent on The Heckler, once we committed to the shoot we did two more tighter drafts and made it as good as it could be, because once it is made, it is forever, and while the act of movie making has never been easier, making people care has never been harder.”

Graeme agrees. “In the end, your best promotion is word of mouth. Don’t worry about the critics.”

The Heckler is screening at selected venues around Australiawhere to see the movie

The Heckler is also available to download on iTunes.

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