Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, post submission blues

The post submission blues: the doctoral let down

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It may be less than two weeks since I submitted in my doctorate, but that “rush of love” and “the intellectual satisfaction” of submission that dear friends with doctorates advised would appear has not yet descended.

If this were a jazz song, the lyrics would go “Baby, I got the post submission blues…” Admittedly, this is a good space to be in – better than “Baby, I need an extension…” or “Darn it, honey, I couldn’t submit on time…”

But I have to tell you there is no smug satisfaction from submission – not right now.

There is the anxiety of waiting for the examiners’ reports, similar to the anxiety of the results when you send off writing to a competition, the publisher’s response to the first three chapters of your book (what, no bidding war?) or the editor’s report when you send off to a journal. Magnified, of course. To a truly sickening level.

In fact, the last time I felt this anxious was after my youngest son was born and was whisked away to the special care unit for several days. To put it into perspective, not being able to hold your baby because he has to get help – now! – will never be on the same level as needing to respond to requests for changes, minor or even major – in an examiner’s report. At the crossroads of life and death, you realise what is important, and what, in the end, probably just comes down to more work if necessary – and ego.

I realise I am not alone in my anxiety. I searched out post submission blues and discovered that this is a recognised, though not talked about aspect of the doctoral process. It’s good to know I’m not alone. Ailsa, from Auckland, who has just submitted her PhD in education, relates her anxiety and that limbo land feeling. She turned to making patchwork quilts. I simply turn to my true north – writing. Knowing that this post submission anxiety is standard issue makes it less of an issue. Sort of like knowing that it actually takes a few days for your milk to come in after giving birth (called the ‘let down’), despite all the time and effort in pregnancy and childbirth.

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So I’ll coin the phrase “the doctoral let down” – waiting for the reports to come in. My mental lethargy probably makes sense after the intensity of the last few weeks. When it came to getting the submission printed – a trial that is well known and features in The Thesis Whisperer this week, I was quite indignant that one copy centre I approached warned they let their machines have “a little rest” during the day and therefore couldn’t guarantee same day printing for all my copies.

Well, I gave them a serve. If I could sit at my desk writing for a 12-hour stretch, how dare a mere machine need a rest. The voice on the other end of the phone understood but was firm. They had obviously dealt with the crazed caffeine-fuelled doctoral student close to submission before. It was gently suggested that maybe it was this particular doctoral student who needed a “little rest” – and that they would not be flogging their machines to death for me.

While established mums pass on information to new mothers, there seems to be no such informal information swap doing the rounds about different stages of the doctorate. While in that intense 100 days phase, I was given sage advice from older hands who had never uttered a word of such things before (probably because they knew I wasn’t ready to hear it), no one mentioned “post submission blues”.

Once you have had a kid you never bother to tell a pregnant first timer some of the grim realities post birth. Not because you don’t want to scare them, but because you know they have baby brain and can’t hear you. It’s nature’s way of ensuring the human race continues. If people realised what would happen to one’s body and life after a baby, zero population growth would have happened a long time ago. Prince William has admitted to worrying about the lack of sleep that awaits him. Clever man. Fear is good.

Now that I think about it, post submission blues is like the postbaby blues they warn you about and is very real. As much as you wanted a baby, there is a hormone crash after three or four days that makes you weepy. Then there is sleep deprivation. For many unlucky women there is crippling postpartum depression as well – I managed to avoid that, but the reality of parenthood is that you are consumed with a new baby and its demands. Whereas post doctoral submission, there is no instant gratification of a new person to care for and hold. There is just waiting. And waiting leads to anxiety.

As university students, we are expected to celebrate at the final graduation. All that mortarboard flinging in their air, the wild parties, the excitement. And it is exciting – the family gathered, the photos, the ceremony.

But post submission? Nothing. A few “well done” comments and hugs, some cheering from those closest to you and those who have been through the mill. If you are lucky as I am, you have good friends who understand and celebrate with you. But the rest are leaving the “big moment” to the “real thing” – that end of year graduation event where you get to finally wear the floppy hat.

Mind you, my wonderful mother presented me with a beautiful necklace after I submitted, and I did take the opportunity to buy myself an artwork of a Kingfisher with a huge fish in its beak, symbolic I thought of biting off more than you can chew and then chewing like mad.

This state of limbo is a strange and exhausting time. I feel like I am a slow moving cog on the wheel of life, hardly able to concentrate on returning emails in the evening, much less applying the mental clarity to new work that I mustered every night after work for the past four years. Whereas doctoral life was a steady hum of work, kids, study, writing, conferences and writing workshops, it has dwindled into work, kids – bed!

While I have returned all those overdue library books, my study is still a bombsite of stacked journal articles, piles of drafts, and towering piles of books on transhumanism, monsters, mutants, and Human-Animal Studies. Friends have been scrambling to get their hands on my novel and are reading – and enjoying it – but that’s not the same as the examiners’ reports.

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One thing we are never given any preparation for at university is the post submission blues. Or how fragile we will feel after we hand in. If we think about it as similar to the end of a theatre performance for an actor that makes more sense because live performance is emotionally draining.  And the come down is equally confronting. We have used up all our mental strength and physical energy creating a major work. One old hand warned me today not to make any major decisions for two months because post submission was like a version of post traumatic stress disorder. He had found himself in a similar state of shell shock.

Indeed, my sneaky body knows a major project has been handed in, even if my mind refuses to accept it. My body, the little engine that could, has been chugging along on minimal sleep, a lot of caffeine and social outings comprised entirely in the past six months of going to work, dropping the kids at school and taking the dog for a walk and studying for hours every night. Now as I venture out again with friends, my body is finding ways to fight back.

Indeed, malaise, aches, pains and sheer exhaustion mental and physical have been my lot. It is as if my body has said “right, that’s it!” – and the affects of 100 days of massive exertion and adrenalin leaving my body have seen me numbly flicking through magazines at lunch time while staring into space for the most part. Then a sinus infection took up residence in my head, landing me in bed. I have very dark hair in contrast to my skin, and when I get sick I look like an extra from Twilight. A fact commented on by all around me; “you look so pale – what happened?”

I have just handed in my doctorate!

As much as I am loathe to admit it there has been the shock realisation since submitting that that I am not, after all, a machine. Damn. Because one of the kids just asked me to contribute to the school bake sale. You know, make a cake after work tomorrow night as I don’t have a doctorate to do any more. I hate cooking with a passion. That second PhD is starting to look appealing, even now…

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Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, doctoral deadlines, Frankenstein, parenting and study, PhD completion, thesis writing, Time management, University life, Writing strategies

Time’s up: crossing the doctoral finish line

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I had replayed the scene in my head many times – actually walking into the shop and getting my exegesis and novel printed up as per the regulation temporary binding – three copies in total for the examiners – and then delivering them to my supervisor. But in truth rather than joy or elation, I felt sick with exhaustion. Still, it wasn’t me who burst into tears on seeing all the copies snug in the plastic bag, ready for delivery right slap bang on the due date – it was a colleague!

“Why are you crying?” I asked. “You should be happy I am finally handing in.”

“But for as long as I have known you, you’ve been doing this doctorate,” she said. “It’s all I ever hear about – it’s like it is part of you.”

I was given the most lovely pot of pink flowers from a student (thanks Yvette!) to congratulate me on handing in. But it still didn’t feel real until I received the longed for text from my supervisor, who hand delivered the bundles of joy (more like writhing mutants) to the Graduate Research Office, after the Dean’s sign-off: “All fine. Well done! Time to relax”. 

When I came home tonight, late after teaching, my teenage son said “well, what now, mum? You can’t tell me you’re going to do another one?”

“No way,” I said. “If you do it right, one PhD is all you need. And I don’t have the energy for two!”

“Well – what are you going to do?”

Well, tonight – sleep! No one staggers to the end of the finish line of a doctorate without being totally shattered, no matter how much support they have. I am humbled by how everyone has come through behind Team Evelyn – from practical support with proof reading, copy editing, helpful academic advice, simply endlessly listening and the friends and family who have helped out by organising diversions and play dates for my kids so I could work in peace, it has all been enormously helpful. And never underestimate the importance of a cheer squad in boosting morale. There’s a reason the home team has an advantage. That boost is the wind beneath one’s wings. Maybe this blog post should be titled “It takes a village to do a doctorate”.

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I started 100 days to the doctorate as a way of doing what I do best –  writing for an audience. Trained as a journalist, where I worked in the cut and thrust of the newsroom of Australia’s largest selling daily newspaper for a decade,  it is second nature for me to put my words on the line. To share the experience, the words, the journey.

By blogging about the manic end of the doctorate, I aimed to articulate [to myself!] what was going on. The last 100 days is the culmination of four years of finding one’s way. Of nudging into the academy, learning names and faces, getting it wrong, stumbling, learning the language, getting it right and then, taking one’s place at the table – well, at the very end…down at the bottom of the table.

Over the past four years, I have blogged extensively about my work, and those ideas have ended up in conference papers that in turn morphed into the exegesis and into journal articles. I have done the ‘working out’ in public, and that has been a very useful step in owning the work, and in seeing myself as part of the academy.

Ah, writers. We sell ourselves short in the academy, I think. Yet here is the thing – a lot of those in the humanities would like to be writers, in fact. And one of the most important things I learned from feminist theorist Donna Haraway’s work was her love for words, narrative and SF. But the Creative Writing doctorate is a strange and demanding beast, as much a mutant I think as the mutants I have been researching. We have to create a compelling work of fiction, and an exegesis that ticks all the boxes for academic research. There is much to write about this process, and indeed, I do so in a chapter of my exegesis, so it is still too raw and fresh to write about it here.

So – for now – there is a hiatus, of sorts, as the doctoral submission goes to the examiners – and I wait.

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As Mary Shelley wrote of her hopes for her novel Frankenstein: “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. ”

I also hope my hideous progeny, my exegesis and novel about hybrids, mutants and monsters, passes the test. 

Not that my youngest son will have any of that. He threw himself into my arms tonight and declared “it’s Dr Mummy!” which is very sweet. I told him, “no, not just yet – a few more hoops to get through first, one way or another.”

“But – it’s in, right? You got it in on time?” he asked.

“Yes, darling – mummy got it in on time.”

“Great!” He gave me a big hug. “Can my friend come over for a sleepover on the weekend now I don’t have to be really quiet the whole time so you can study?”

Maya, the hard, driven CIA operative in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the decade long hunt for Osama bin Laden, had no idea what to do with herself after her quest ended.

I know exactly what I am going to do with my time. It’s like that when you are a mum – I have a couple of Scout badges to sew onto my son’s shirt, a whole backlog of domestic tasks to tackle, a journal paper to submit in a day and a book I am co-editing due in three weeks. Then – there is the bigger ‘tomorrow’ to embrace.

But at least I will sleep tonight knowing I reached that most prized of a doctoral student’s many milestones (except for actual graduation) and that is the timely completion.

The time-bomb intensity of the race to the end that is 100 Days To The Doctorate comes to an end – but I will keep blogging weekly with updates to share the story of what is next on the academic journey – and what I learned in the past four years – and also, what I wish I had discovered earlier. Yes, it is easy to be wise after the event. 

So, what am I thinking of now?  Just like President Bartlet at the conclusion of my favourite TV show The West Wing.   I am thinking of – tomorrow.

 

Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Frankenstein, Time management, Writing strategies

It’s all in your head: the psychological game of fiction writing

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The reason there are so many fabulous moments on screen of writers struggling with their prose – more so than, say, dentists struggling to make crowns or fit orthodontics, is that – drum roll please – writers are the puppet masters pulling the narrative strings. In short we glamorize ourselves and our work as writers because – we can!

Fiction writing struggles have been part of my life this week, as I have been busy editing the novel for my Creative Writing doctorate. That’s involved shuffling scenes, “killing my darlings” and doing the hard, grunt work of streamlining.

A writer’s battle takes place in their head. We start with a blank page or screen, our imaginations, throw in some real life, some observations, a whole truck load of unresolved issues from our past, a few nightmares, maybe some glorious memories. As well as plot, character, narrative, dialogue and structure, writers come to the table with a head full of just about every book they’ve ever read or film they have seen or conversation they have had.

Whether we are writing creative non fiction, or fiction, writers are shameless about plundering life. I joke that if you cross me, you’ll end up a mutant in my novel. But seriously, we can’t but help be inspired by those in our lives, in our orbit, both the good and the bad.

That doesn’t mean we use people without having them undergo a filtering process first. Mary Shelley could have been writing about the way writers write when she described how Dr Frankenstein made his creature, from pieces of body parts both animal and human. Because, if we are honest, writers are utterly shameless about what they steal from life. And who they take from. It’s the horror of our ‘secret toil’.

Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818

Like Dr Frankenstein, I have taken someone’s looks, or height, or hair, or mannerisms, and stitched that to someone else’s nationality or accent or trait, and sewn in some other piece of life story, a little dialogue from somewhere else, and then maybe added sartorial style from a newspaper clipping. But I take from the living, mostly. Beware.

The character takes on its own life

The fascinating alchemy is that at some point – if you are good at your job – the creature takes on their own life, and refuses to be seen as a composite. They demand a name, an origin story, they want to be taken seriously, and loved. I once tried to squash a character back into the person I knew, but the creature rebelled! He pursued me relentlessly until I gave in, and realized I had made something that now had an independent life. Here is a great example of a film about a character coming to life –

Ruby Sparks: What happens when your character comes alive? And you can control everything they do? Okay – what writer hasn’t had this fantasy? Writer’s block, inspiration, and the obsessive compulsive nature of creativity, it’s all here in this brilliant movie directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, with a screenplay by Zoe Kazan, who also stars as Ruby.

The thin line between reality and fiction

Now, I love reading about writers in fiction as much as the next writer. I also adored Douglas Kennedy’s book The Moment because it swept me along a writer’s journey. I kept dog earring the pages and if I had a pencil handy would write in the margins and underline phrases, such as this: ‘writers – as somebody once noted – are always selling somebody out.’ (Douglas Kennedy, (p93) The Moment.) I also enjoyed watching the film of Kennedy’s book The Woman In The Fifth, which asked viewers to ponder the thin line (perhaps) between creativity and madness. If you create characters and stories that seem very real – especially to you – how do you know that they are simply fiction?

The Woman In the Fifth: (from a book by Douglas Kennedy). Tortured writer, crime, obsession, maybe madness – what price would you pay as a writer for inspiration?

Another film about the writer crossing the line between reality and fiction – perhaps an occupational hazard, is The Swimming Pool. François Ozon’s stylish thriller with Charlotte Rampling as a writer struggling with ‘the block’ who takes a rest cure at her publisher’s fabulous house in France…and imagines things happening, which may be real, or not, or a damn good avoidance tactic. Writers know only too well that when everyone else sees ‘real life’ they see it distorted through the prism of what might be. An open door, a bump in the night, a curtain pushed back…

Use your imagination

‘Writing what you know’ doesn’t mean writing about the reality you know – writers have their imaginations, and that’s one giant tool in their workbox. Write what you know is about learning to mine the emotional truths and apply them to your world and your characters. Wherever your characters are, they are still human – even if they may not be entirely human – and therefore they are subject to the timeless tropes (or themes) of storytelling.

I grew up going to see Woody Allen movies with my beloved uncle, so even if it’s not one of his best, I’ll love one of Allen’s movies. And Midnight in Paris is, I think, one of his best. Owen Wilson plays successful screenwriter Gil Pender, who wants to write something substantial. Inspiration strikes when he is transported to the past, Meets the Fitzgeralds, and he gets words of advice from the likes of Earnest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein herself. (Read this ‘cultural cheat sheet’ about the movie) Five stars for fulfilling every writer’s fantasy. And also telling it like it is. As Hemingway warns Gil “You don’t want the opinion of another writer – writers are too competitive.”

Understanding human nature is vital for writing powerful fiction, which is why so many great books are written by authors who are older. They have had years to perfect their craft – and writing is a craft just like learning how to play professional tennis is a craft. Older writers have also been around the block of life a few times, had their hearts broken, trust betrayed, tasted power and defeat, all the things that big or small build up the layers the writer can mine for a story.

Behind great dialogue is not just an ear for how people speak, but their intentions. I love the way people can hide behind seemingly innocent sentences in novels, and then the ways writers can make a character reveal themselves by their actions. Let’s look at the 1977 film Julia, where Jane Fonda portrays playwright Lillian Hellman. Apart from the iconic moment where the writer throws the typewriter out the window in frustration, this movie explores among many other things a writer doubting her talent, and Hellman’s 30 year affair and creative partnership with fellow writer Dashiell Hammett.

Hammett tells Hellman, “if you really can’t do it [writing] you’d better find a job.” But here is the thing – even if you love words, love nothing more than to make them dance – it’s a job. It’s a job as much as any other job. But it is, for a fiction writer, about creating a made-up world. How do you know you have done your job well? When a reader gets inside that world, and believes in it, and believes in those characters, the ones you have sewn together.

Shake it up. Leave to settle. Pour.