creative writing, Doctoral misery

Doctoral despair: what to pack for the bear hunt


Doctoral misery and deadline pressure love company. So I have to say I was somewhat relieved to hear from a fellow traveller on this journey that she too was having completion issues.

To put this in perspective, I am not talking about some mythical PhD slacker who spends the days on a scholarship playing Solitaire on the computer. Though I have heard they exist…

No, this woman a motivated self-starter who presents at conferences around the world, publishes and teaches. So when she sends me an email saying that she is in the last two months – and too scared to count the days – and things are not moving as swiftly, or as smoothly as she would like, I know that feeling.

Yes, I am having what she’s having. And that’s the fear of the last part of the journey. It’s no longer about formulating ideas, drafting version of the thesis, reading and commenting on journal articles – it’s not even about writing articles or conference papers.

Hell no, this is the real thing. This is fear. This is what sports stars must feel just before the race begins.

It has nothing to do with competence; it’s all a mind game now, in the same way that writing fiction is actually a mind game. This is what internationally best selling author Douglas Kennedy has to say about it about it:

“Writing is a confidence trick you play on yourself… and one which you must perpetuate on a daily basis.”

I’d recommend reading Kennedy’s blog: “left handed writing, right handed thoughts” for an insight into so many aspects of the writing life – confidence tricks, completion, and the curiosity with which he observes people and the world and weaves that into his books. No, he isn’t in my doctoral bibliography – no mutants here, just an acute skill at rendering the complexities of the human condition. Sometimes a little respite from the Gothic is called for….

As for my friend? She writes, ”I shall look forward to seeing you all on the other side of the PhD, although I can barely imaging what that place might look like!”

I had her pinned for an effortless finish and am now somewhat relieved I am not the only one tearing my hair out. At the moment, nothing I write seems profound enough or sounds scholarly enough…yes, it’s the inevitable descent into The Valley Of Shit. This is something that Dr Mewburn wrote so eloquently about in her Thesis Whisper blog entitled – The Valley of Shit.

The Thesis Whisperer is a newspaper style blog dedicated to helping research students, and is edited by Dr Inger Mewburn, director of research training at the ANU.

I met Inger when she was working at RMIT and she asked me to contribute some blogs to her site, which I was more than happy to do – you can read them here.

I have a theory that any time spent reading The Thesis Whisperer is not procrastination, but actually a thinly disguised therapy session….

Inger writes: “There are a few signs you are entering into The Valley of Shit. You can start to think your whole project is misconceived or that you do not have the ability to do it justice. Or you might seriously question if what you have done is good enough and start feeling like everything you have discovered is obvious, boring and unimportant.”

Indeed, the photo that accompanies today’s blog was taken on a visit to my father’s village in northern Greece. It seems to sum up this state of mind perfectly. Because I cannot speak a word of Greek, the signs didn’t really help me as we started to trek up the mountain. If I got lost, I couldn’t ask for help. That’s what The Valley of Shit feels like – you can see from the signs that you are there, but you don’t know what they say, and don’t know how to get out.

If you too are in this dark and smelly place, you just have to do what I am doing, and believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps because I am a fiction writer, I am well-used to walking through The Valley of Shit, and know there are only three things you can do – do not lose your nerve, keep on working, and believe in your ability.

As Douglas Kennedy says about being a novelist:  “Even when you’ve hit the twenty year mark, are you also willing to accept the fact that, even when others think you have arrived as a novelist, any truly good and serious writers knows one central truth of this calling, this profession: you never arrive.  You just keep on working.”

That’s right – just keep on working. That’s all you can do when you hit The Valley of Shit – take comfort in knowing everyone completing their doctorate probably ends up here, and probably gets out alive. You just have to keep on working through it.

I am reminded of a book I used to read my boys when they were little – We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Michael Rosen. I loved this book even more than they did, as it seemed to sum up the very meaning of persistence so perfectly. I’d bounce the kids on my knee and sing along with the team on Playschool:

“We’re going on a bear hunt…we’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day, we’re not scared! Uh oh, a river – a deep cold river! We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it – oh no! We’ve got to go through it….”

Who needs the philosophy according to Pooh? I’ll take Rosen any day. Good luck!

Body hair

The Brazilian: the fur line between the human and the animal?

In Almost Human, the novel I am writing as part of my doctorate in creative writing, my protagonist manages to keep her mixed species heritage a secret, and uses the power of her animal side to her advantage.Image

Ariana can “pass” for human, and she luxuriates in her animality and physicality. Alas, being part animal, she also has to wax a lot, but let’s face it, that makes her not so different from 21st century women and the aesthetic demands on their time.

I recently heard an interesting program on the Radio National show The Body Sphere, on body hair.  It explored the trend for Brazilian waxing, especially among young teenage girls. It raises again the joke, widely known among those who studied art history, that artist and Victorian age political thinker John Ruskin couldn’t consummate his marriage because once his bride stripped bare, he realized she had – the shock of it – body hair.

Biographers have rushed to Ruskin’s defence (they say his wife was menstruating, that’s what revolted him, not her pubic hair….) and we await a long delayed movie about Ruskin’s life that will hopefully shed new light on this secret. Ruskin would have only been 47 years old when he would have seen Gustave Courbet’s painting L’Origine du Monde in 1866 – I wonder what he thought of this display of a woman’s genitals and pubic hair? 

Yet it must be said, if we can laugh at Ruskin, is the joke on the modern man? For after all, if we read and listen to the comments of women and teenage girls, all that painful waxing is about one thing only, and that’s so they don’t have to endure the humiliation of a Ruskin-style bedroom episode. It’s social pressure, real or perceived, that entices them to part with their time and money to conform to the trend.

Of course, with every fashion trend, there is a counter trend, and when everyone must be waxed, it is seen as (perhaps) stylish and (certainly) subversive to be different. Isn’t it always?

When I was in Paris last year, I saw a the first retrospective in France of the work of Helmut Newton since his death in 2004. What struck me was how dated the images of the gorgeous super models in his “Naked and Dressed” and “Big Nudes” series seemed today. The women were buxom, buffed and naked – and had pubic hair.

Okay – not as much coverage as a particularly erotic photo of “plus-size” model Crystal Renn posing with her fur exposed in a slick red patent leather coat for French Vogue in 2010, but in Sex In The City parlance – it wasn’t a “whole lot of nothing” going on down there either. I wonder what’s actually more shocking – the glam-pix of Renn in Vogue eating, eating meat or having pubic hair? And why do many find these things uncomfortable? Because she should be thin to be socially acceptable and sexy, because she should be vegan to be animal and eco-friendly, or she should be waxed, to be not the least bit “animal”?

In Almost Human, body hair is a sure-fire species giveaway, and therefore waxing is a prohibited act. We now live in an age when the species divide is so effortlessly breached with biotechnology and genetic modification. I find it fascinating that at this exact point in history, women now live in fear of having their very own intimate Ruskin moment if they fail to be as smooth and hairless as a young child. The naked ape, indeed.

Academic Study

100 Days to the Doctorate – and Beyond


Dr Evelyn Tsitas started 100 Days to the Doctorate in 2013 with literally 100 days to go before she handed in her doctorate in Creative Writing at RMIT University, investigating the human animal hybrid in science fiction.

As a journalist exploring literary journalism and creative non fiction through blogs, Evelyn decided to go public with the trials and hopefully, triumphs ahead in her doctoral journey, and the intense pressure-cooker of life with two kids, two pets, and a full time job and part-time teaching load on top of full time doctoral study. It was a wild ride!

In the second year of this blog, Evelyn offers hard-won advice for completing a doctorate, and explores writing, life and career opportunities after post graduate study. Reflection about this is useful – why do a doctorate when academic employment opportunities are rapidly shrinking around the globe? Doesn’t a Creative Writing doctorate by its very nature suck the life and creativity out of a creative writer? How do you fit in full time doctoral study around parenting and a full time – and unrelated – job? To also teach or not to teach as part of the doctoral journey?

This blog is now called 100 Days to the Doctorate – & Beyond to encompass the reflective nature of the post graduate life. What was it all about, anyway? Was it worth the long years of delayed gratification? Evelyn knows all too well the questions that plague successful doctoral graduates at this point: What do I do with my career now I have a PhD? How do I get my novel published? Can I turn my Creative Writing exegesis into a book as well? How does not just what I have studied – but how I studied and learned to research – impact on my thought process?

Evelyn also blogs about doctoral and other matters at Online Opinion and The Thesis Whisperer, and on her main website and also motherland Evelyn Tsitas Motherland. She writes about the academic journey, the writing life, parenting, feminism, social change and social commentary.

A literary journalist, Evelyn puts herself in the story. As the late Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Heartburn) observed, “everything is copy”.

Please join Evelyn in this (mostly) weekly blog about the doctorate – and beyond!