My novel is a cyborg! Adventures with my Creative Writing PhD

7 Apr

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The PhD in Creative Writing makes demands of writer that simply getting down and dirty with the novel does not. Despite the fact that many newspaper columnists howl that writers should simply write, and higher education is no place for them.

I am reflecting on this at the end of a week that was going to be devoted to writing thousands of words of the doctoral novel. And while I have done that, I have realized some things about my writing method, and the demands of the creative writing doctorate, that perhaps I should have known, but do now.

This doctoral novel is a cyborg. Considering the topic of my exegesis, I should have known that it was never going to be a straightforward week of just the novel. Such binaries from someone immersed in the theories of Donna Haraway! Indeed – what on earth was I thinking? Out with this binary aspect approach to both the novel’s structure, and to the Creative Writing PhD.

Yes – my novel is a cyborg. This PhD is a cyborg.

It is better suited to analysis using the semiotic square by A.J Greimas  – this useful concept of narrative theory was provided by author Antoni Jach at his fiction masterclass that I have been attending. According to Louis Hébert, Professor, Université du Québec à Rimouski, Greimas’ semiotic square is a means of refining oppositional analyses by increasing the number of analytical classes stemming from a given opposition from two (life/death, for instance) to four (for example, life, death, life and death (the living dead), and neither life nor death (angels) to eight or even ten.

 So, my novel Almost Human is not just about the human and the animal – by mapping the key semantic oppositions I have the following; science-nature; change- stasis; evolution-devolution; …and many more besides.

I am exploring the chimera as a cyborg character in science fiction – a character that exists outside binaries. So why do I insist on torturing myself with such binaries about the writing process?

Let me explain.

My exegesis is an exploration of the manufactured human-animal chimera in science fiction, and I am investigating Haraway’s 1985 cyborg manifesto and taking what I hope is a unique approach to using it as a creative writing tool and method of understanding the cyborg-chimera. In this case, applying it to the manufactured human.

In A Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway develops a set of criteria for cyborg existence. According to Haraway, a cyborg is a hybrid that challenges the distinction between the organic/technological systems, human and animal life forms, mind/body and male/female. Calling the cyborg “a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction”, Haraway points to the fact that cyborgs have both a real and imagined context.

While Haraway uses the ironic metaphor of the cyborg to suggest a new way of constructing ideas of feminism outside traditional ideas of the women’s movement and politics, in A Cyborg Manifesto she sets out detailed theories about “the cyborg incarnation”.

I have seen people’s eyes glaze over at this point – so I won’t go on about it here. Suffice to say my research thrills me, but then so does creative writing. But when the two come together – that’s when the sparks fly. Creative sparks, to be sure, but also those little flints of retina fire migraine sufferers will know as the aura. The portent of pain.

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The PhD in Creative Writing is a strange beast, demanding two different parts of one’s brain at once – the free form, associating, creative, fiction writing side, and the logical, deductive and analytical side that researches and writes the exegesis.

But here is the thing – one needs to thread into the other, like Haraway’s Cat’s Cradle – except with “exegesis” and “creative Project” instead of “companion species”

And why should this intermeshing sit quietly within the confines of a chapter in the exegesis? No, this tug-of-war, this process, it’s not theoretical, it is actual. Theory-practice – it is a Cat’s Cradle.

The novel wants to break out – the writing process unbound – and jump from insight in research to dialogue on page. I had thought I would spend the whole blessed week on my creative project but it wasn’t to be.

I ended up with both files open, novel and exegesis, and worked from one to the other – here, an intense few hours, there a brief pitstop, and back and forth, like a busy worker bee cross pollinating between the two.

It achieves nothing except guilt to confess that despite my best intentions, I didn’t spend the entire week on just the novel. I made very good and interesting progress with it, but just as I do not spend all my time engaged in my doctorate – and what doctoral student does just that, anyway? – I could not concentrate on “just the novel”.

There was a deadline for a journal article that is actually a chapter in my exegesis. Back and forth I went – article, novel, article, novel…and back to the exegesis.

As I worked on the journal submission, I’d be struck with an idea for the novel.

I also had a climax scene and ending to write for the novel. While I am very satisfied with the results, it did take me to some places I wasn’t sure I was going. Somehow my characters ended up in the recent bushfires in NSW that threatened the site of Australia’s top observatories. That’s the great thing about fiction writing. It’s the ultimate in time travel. Your mind is the Tardis. It can go anywhere, back in time, forward into the future, off to other dimensions and parallel universes.

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All this travel around Australia was part of my protagonist’s race to hide her daughter from harm…before the teen kills and eats anyone else. (Well, I am writing about shapeshifting chimeras…)

And maybe I wouldn’t have gone for such a strong mother-daughter ending, but for a remark from someone in my writing masterclass. He said: “your novel is about how to love, really, and not just about monsters and mutants.”

It really struck me – he’s read many chapters now that I’ve workshopped, and sometimes,  you are not consciously aware of the subtext. You are writing for character, pace, plot and voice, the other things sweep along underneath like a subterranean river. Another experienced writer can step back, read away from your messy creative process, and see clearly. The wood for the trees.

It is the chance remarks from those who know your work that suddenly link everything in the Creative Writing PhD like a cosmic thread. They join, and you follow the path – and there you are, in an unexpected place. Like Siding Spring Observatory.

I wasn’t sure exactly how I ended there, but maybe my subconscious mind knew better than me, having set the penultimate chapter in a remote motel in country NSW. Once I realized where my characters were heading – into the path of the on coming bushfire – I used my own experiences for sensory layers over the narrative.

I’m a city girl, but you don’t have to live in the bush to know what the edges of a bushfire are like. While Australian cities cling to the coast, the ferocious blazes send smoke, falling ash and fear onto us all. Every country has its Achilles’ heel of natural disasters – bushfire is Australia’s. I know many who have been badly burnt, I’ve reported on many who have died. I fear the bone dry countryside in the height of summer. And as a writer, it is the fears we draw on when we trawl our nightmares for inspiration.

I use a lot of mythological references in my novel. When my protagonist leaves the man who betrayed her in a heap in the observatory, and flees with her daughter, the fact that he may rise again from the ashes – like a phoenix – it is quite fitting. And very like a horror movie. My style indeed. Bring it on!

I recall interviewing a very successful and well known Australian author who said she doesn’t write a word without knowing the outline of every single chapter down to who says what.

When I was a working journalist on a daily newspaper, I never recorded my interviews because I would then have to listen to it all over again and transcribe – a daily paper is a pressure cooker and there isn’t the time – I took shorthand and quickly got the feel for what to quote, what to paraphrase and what to observe and report.

I took that approach to fiction writing. For a long time I felt like I had to obsessively plot out everything if I was going to be a real fiction writer. How I tortured myself – while actually churning out the writing, I hasten to add!

IMG_4404But the creative writing doctorate is a cyborg – it’s a boundary transgression between the exegesis and the creative – one informs the other, and demanded a different approach from me.

It’s a game of ping pong, with the ball of ideas hitting one side of the table and then the other, transferring images, words, phrases, ideas along the way.

Luck, chance, serendipity, nightmares. You can set your logical mind to plan the nuances of a novel, and maybe even write it all down before you begin, but 70,000 words is a lot of world to remember in your head, and sometimes, things you imagined for your imaginary world get lost in the fog of other words. Especially if you are doing deep research, as I am, into how so many of the literary tropes about manufactured monsters have evolved in science fiction since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Besides, if you let go of pre-conceived ideas about the writing process, one result of immersion in academic research while writing a novel are the threads that emerge from the sub conscious mind. Along with the most surprising plot twists.

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