creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, PhD completion, post submission blues, Time management, Writing strategies

Spinning a yarn: don’t ask for permission

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I have always been a writer. My path from an undergraduate studying drawing, painting and metal work to my recently submitted doctorate in creative writing may seem a meandering academic journey, but it is all about observation and communication.

I spent a great deal of my time as an undergraduate working on the student newspaper as well as co-editing a literary magazine. I learned the secret early on – that you might not get paid, but you can have a fascinating life as a writer. Just don’t ask for permission. Because chances are, no one will give it to you.

I got to review films, plays, interview authors, celebrities, theatre directors, I got to go through the door marked ‘closed’ – all with a notebook and pen in my hand and an insatiable curiosity about people. I just turned up in the student newspaper office and stayed there until I found something to do, or someone to interview. In those days, well before blogs and the Internet, publicists were only too happy to have student writers ready to promote their clients.

It was probably no surprise that with my bulging portfolio – having interviewed the likes of celebrated South African writer André Brink when I was just 18 – I walked into my first job as a cadet journalist on a newspaper as soon as I left university. Suddenly, I was writing – with a regular wage coming in. I never did teach art. And I never did ask permission to be called a journalist or a writer – I just did it.

Along the way – and especially since starting the doctorate – I have been asked what is the best way to become a writer. My answer is always the same. Write – and read – obsessively. No one is going to tap you on the shoulder and give you permission. In fact, writing is a vocation where people actively discourage you from pursuing your dream. So – do it anyway.

When I was a little girl, I listened to those voices of the adults around me and this is what they said – “you’ll never make any money from it”, or “it’s too competitive”.  Or “no one can be a writer in Australia – there is no audience.” I listened – but thankfully I didn’t let it stop me doing what I wanted.

Ah – I hear the doubters say. “You can’t make money from writing fiction.” Or “try poetry” or indeed “screenwriting – a joke!” Well, okay then, especially in a country like Australia, where there is a small population, it is harder to make a living by writing in these categories exclusively– and still be able to pay the rent.

But who said life was as black and white as an old film clip by The Animals, anyway? What I was never, ever told as an aspiring writer was that you can actually have your cake and eat it too.

You can have a wonderful, interesting and creative life as a writer, and at some level, you can make a living as a writer – you just need to supplement it with other things. Most writers I know do this; they work in an area that demands good writing and communication skills, and they spend their evenings and weekends and holidays writing fiction. I spent 15 years working on newspapers and magazines and now work in arts communications. And I have always written what I wanted to in my own time.

You can actually carve up a decent chunk of time out of your life to write, even if you have children and a paid job – and even doctoral study – if you really want to. Just toss aside the things that don’t matter, starting with watching television, and then other trivial time wasters, in a descending order of priorities (for me it’s cooking and housework).

Never give up, either. Depending on your genre, you may win the popularity jackpot with your work, and find a big audience – and decent royalties. Or, maybe you’ll win the literary fiction prizes and critical acclaim. Either way, it’s still rare enough in Australia for this to be sustainable without supplementing your income with other work.

Melbourne based author Carrie Tiffany, who recently won The Stella Prize, the inaugural Australia literary award for women writers, works as an agricultural journalist while also writing her fiction. Her novel Mateship for Birds is set in rural Australia, something she is familiar with in her work as an agricultural writer.

Yes, Tiffany admits the AU$50,000 prize money (AU$10,000 of which she graciously shared with the others on the shortlist) will buy her time to write, but she also added she hoped it would be a ‘blessing not a curse’. She has juggled freelance writing and children and fiction writing.

She’s a great example of someone who carved out time to write while doing something else – that still involved writing – for a living. Her first novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living (2005) was shortlisted for numerous prestigious awards, but it has taken eight years for her to publish her second novel Mateship with Birds. Time and commitment – that’s also what’s needed to write.

The conundrum of the doctorate in creative writing is that although it is four years of focus on your writing, it is a balancing act as well – time must be spent on the exegesis and the research, the academic writing, and the novel has to fit in between.

Now that I have submitted, and am slowly rising out of the daze of exhaustion, the one thing that’s keeping me focused again is my writing. Unlike giving up many other careers, a vocation in the arts means that you never retire. One creative project simply rolls into the next.

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As I have never made a living from my fiction, the money is never a driving factor. I am not waiting for a grant, a publisher, or anyone to give me the go-ahead to start the next book.

I just get on with it. Since submitting the doctorate six weeks ago, I have been asked to join a writing group and presented 5000 words of a new chapter of a  novel (a supernatural literary horror) that languished as I completed the doctorate. It’s getting its much needed revision. I am also co-writing books with another two authors and have a collaborative artist book and short story collection I am about to start on.

I can see all the characters from these books sitting across from me, bidding me to return to them and make them whole. They are all my creations, and have been patient, but now they are calling out to me – “It’s my turn!” they say. I can hear them as they struggle with plots about necromancy, the occult, revenants and aliens.

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It wasn’t until a friend suggested I explore the darkness of the human condition that I realized the link between these very different novels. This is best explained by writer-director Jennifer Lynch, who says of her own films; “I didn’t want to make a horror film in the traditional sense of the word. It is a film about horrific acts and pains. To me, it is a different thing.”

As improbable as it might seem, my varied writing projects are in some way about my own life; not necessarily about what I have experienced, but what I observe in some small way, and what I have felt. As Carrie Tiffany writes, ‘art starts with noticing.’

A friend who submitted her doctorate more than 15 years ago proposed that the post submission blues is actually about loss – “We like the security of our routines. We like having a purpose and knowing why to get up in the morning.”

Perhaps there is truth to this. And if so, the routine of writing, and the next project – is the reason to get up in the morning.

For a writer – that’s always the reason.

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

Bouncing back post doctorate: what’s it all about, Alfie?

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The post-doctoral slump is a reality fuelled by the inevitable intensity and narrow focus that are par for the course of the four years, and certainly the last six months – and indeed the last 100 days – of the endurance effort of higher education. The trick is overcoming the malaise.

A writer I know dubbed this “PhDitis”. Readers have debated my dust and dog hair anxiety on Twitter. Friends constantly ask whether I have “bounced back” yet. There has been some concern I might actually be depressed rather than simply post-doctoral.

I can see their point. Readjusting to life without the ever present doctorate hovering over me is taking some time, especially as it came on the back of two previous years of academic intensity with the Master of Arts in creative writing by research.

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While I am not actually depressed – far from it – there is that nagging question that keeps coming into focus. What’s it all about, anyway?

Why did I spend all this time doing the doctorate?

A friend wrote to me the other day, assuring me that not only are PhDs are all consuming, but “somehow we think they make a difference. The result for me  was the journey rather than the end product that counted.”

I am not sure this is what I wanted to hear, at this point! Surely my doctorate will make a difference? And yet, as I do a head count of those around me with a PhD, only a few are working as academics in the area that they actually studied.

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As for me, I am a writer, and I wrote before I enrolled in university, and I wrote through the course often on things unrelated to what I was studying. Even eight months before I handed in, I wrote 30,000 words of a new novel totally unrelated to hybrids in science fiction. It is set in Lisbon in 1930 and concerns Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s meeting with an intriguing Australian modernist painter.

So why do a doctorate? And now it’s over, what’s it all about, Alfie?

Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s 1965 theme song to the movie “Alfie” (originally starring Michael Caine) might be about a feckless womanizer, but the lyrics are also rather apt for the post doctoral slump.

In this 2012 version, Stevie Wonder performs the theme song “Alfie” (including brilliant harmonica solo) in as a tribute to Hal David and Burt Bacharach as part of the “In Performance at the White House: Burt Bacharach & Hal David: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song”.

what’s it all about Alfie 
is it just for the moment we live
what’s it all about when you sort it out Alfie
are we meant to take more than we give 

Indeed – what’s it all about? The journey? The discipline? The determination? The permission to remove yourself from the world and focus on one thing? I think it is going to take me more than a few weeks to figure out the answer. What I can tell you is that from my experience, and those who have been through the doctoral mill, is that it is a quest that changes you.

The trick is realizing not everyone around you is on the same parallel universe of doctoral intensity. They do not necessarily share your tunnel vision. For instance, when you say that maybe the late Margaret Thatcher was a cyborg in a way that relates to Donna Haraway’s ground breaking essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” that observation might only make sense to you. And your doctoral supervisor.

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In the past week, I caught up with my writing partner and friend Caroline, who handed in her doctorate in creative writing about three weeks after me. We met with a mutual friend at a preview of the new musical King Kong that debuted in our home town. I started to discuss the mighty ape in the context of my doctoral research, while Caroline, who had immersed herself in Roland Barthes work so thoroughly she admitted “it felt like I slept with him in the end”, was a similar basket case.  “Things have meanings,” she intoned, as we pondered the model of the Empire State Building in the foyer of Melbourne’s grand Regent Theatre, and sipped our Jungle Juice cocktails, joking about the glowing phallic tip of the tower where the blonde heroine would be marooned with the hulking beast at the climax of the musical. We looked at each other, realized we were over analyzing the celebratory evening out, me with my hybrids, her with semiotics – and shook our heads and laughed at ourselves.

We are both in a strange post submission-pre examination limbo, not sure how what identity to wear. A little like Bella in Twilight after she changes into a vampire and has to learn to act human again.

That’s the thing about doctoral study, you forget how to mentally slouch.

In the interests of this blog, I pressed Caroline for more details on how she felt after handing in. The news, dear readers, isn’t good. “I feel awful!” she said. “Just terrible anxiety about what I did or didn’t do and if it was good enough.”

I know that feeling.

We are expecting fireworks or at least a warm glow and all we get is nausea. And it doesn’t get easier. It takes time to adjust to the new reality of the post-doc world. Or at least, the odd limbo of the submitted but not yet examined state.

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A few days later, Caroline hopped onto a plane for Europe to present her doctoral research at a conference, which is what I will be doing in September. When she returns to Melbourne, she’s thinking of dancing and cooking lessons to get into a different head space.

Readers of my blog know my views on cooking. My miserable efforts in the kitchen only got worse with the stress of the doctoral deadline. At the lowest point, every single thing I made was so inedible that my children begged me not to bother. I recall tossing a particularly rubbery but oddly slimy omelete into the puppy’s bowl to be greeted by a look of canine disbelief. My eldest son sniggered. “The dog has some pride,” he said.

Not one to take anything lying down, much less a post doctoral slump, I wrote a list of all the things I could do to pull myself out of the hole (that didn’t involve chocolate). Like a Surrealist whose hand automatically moves apart from the rational brain, my fingers clenched a pencil and wrote “go back to the gym”.

Yes – physical exercise. The ancient Greeks of course, believed in a healthy mind and body and this one has sadly only been taking the puppy for daily walks.

In Fay Weldon’s 1983 novel The Life and Loves of a She Devil, the drab heroine – as an act of revenge – undergoes a complete body transformation via plastic surgery in an effort to look like her partner’s new lover. Her plastic surgeon however, doesn’t know what to make of her:

 “You could learn a language,” he suggested, worrying for her.

“Why should I?”

“You may want to travel,” he said, surprised. “Afterwards. People often do. They like to show themselves off.”

“Let them learn my language,” she said.

“Well it would be something to do,” he repeated. She made him feel forlorn, as if he were the servant of her desires, and not their master. “There’s a lot of waiting around in this business. Besides, surely improvement of the mind is a good thing, for it’s own sake?”

“I am here to improve my body,” she replied. “There was never anything wrong with my mind.” (Fay Weldon, The Life and Loves of a She Devil, p 215)

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It has been 18 months since I entered a gym and I made a commitment to myself to go back so I could get reacquainted with another part of myself – that part that doesn’t involve sitting down for hours and just writing. Or reading. Friends know I never undertake anything lightly – intensity being my middle name. My diary is now full of yoga, Zumba, Body Balance and Pump classes.

And – at my mother’s insistence – line dancing.

Talk about getting out of the comfort zone. Apparently two years ago I had assured my mother that as a show of gratitude for all her help with the children while I was studying, I’d go line dancing with her after I submitted.

Before you can say “Rumpelstiltskin” that time has come.  I am more than a little apprehensive about my first class next week – not because of the music (they don’t dance to country anymore) or the clothes (ditto cowboy boots or hats) but because of the demanding level of endurance required. These classes go for three hours! If I am having problems getting up from my keyboard now after a one hour Zumba class, what will three hours of line dancing do to me?

Still, being physically exhausted is a good way of getting out of a mental slump. And as my mother (who takes classes every day and often twice a day) says, there could be a book in it. Mind you this is always what she says when she wants me to do something I don’t want to do.

And it’s got to be better than cooking classes.

Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, PhD completion, Publishing academic research

Savage remarks cut deeply: The Eddie McGuire Fallout

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A few weeks ago, I submitted my doctorate in creative writing. One of the requirements is showing evidence of original contribution to knowledge. I am analysing the human-animal hybrid in science fiction – and writing a novel about it. My work explores the abuse and exploitation of the Other – those who society deems should be banished or marginalised.

I have been asked by those outside the academy what relevance my research has when I am not even investigating anything “real”. After all, human-animal hybrids don’t exist except in fantasy, fiction and mythology. And then Australian media personality and President of the Collingwood Football Club, Eddie McGuire, opens his mouth, linking Australian Rules Footballer – the dual Brownlow medallist Adam Goodes – with the new musical King Kong, only five days after a 13-year-old girl called the indigenous player an ape at a match at the MCG.

Suddenly, I find my work is indeed relevant beyond the page, beyond the doctoral submission. My research material becomes shockingly, sadly pertinent. Maureen Duffy’s 1981 novel GorSaga, about a scientist who impregnates a gorilla with his own semen to create a hybrid, follows Gor Bardfield through his troubled life where no one knows his species hybridity but they do know he is different. And when someone is different, a human trait is to brand them as Other, and the ultimate Other is – animal:

You’re very dark, Bardfield. Are you a blackie?”
“He’s very hairy. He’s a monkey.”
“He’s a black monkey.”
They gathered around, pointing and shouting. (Duffy, GorSaga, p.123-124)

Media commentators have gathered in force to support or decry McGuire’s words (and subsequent apology) in the past week. Columnist Andrew Bolt devoted a page to supporting McGuire: “…I am ashamed I helped a vile mob to punish McGuire more than is remotely fair, pushing him to tears.” (Herald Sun, June 3, 2013) The headline: “Sorry Eddie” neatly turning the story away from the victim of the racial attack. In his article, Bolt beseeches Goodes (and anyone else unfortunate enough to be the brunt of a racial abuse) to turn the other cheek.

However, McGuire’s comments cannot be so easily dismissed. It matters that he used the words he did. It matters how we respond to them as a society. In her 2011 Pilgrim Award acceptance speech from the Science Fiction Research Association, feminist theorist Donna Haraway argues:

“It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.”

How we as a country debate the Eddie McGuire fallout matters a great deal. For his were indeed savage remarks. The exhibition Human Zoos at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris last year highlighted the brutal meaning behind likening people to apes. Others – people not like us – were viewed as those on the margins of humanity, existing on the borderline of the animal world, hence “wild” or “savage” beings. Human zoos displayed those deemed different or other as savages, objects of prurient curiosity under the guise of science. The exhibition of imported Others was a profitable industry. A photo-card from Austria in 1890 depicts an “Aborigine Troupe” on display.

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Indigenous Australians were exhibited in public theatres and scientific laboratories across the United States and Europe from 1884. Only three were still alive when they were displayed in France, represented in photographs that were intended to present the Other as inferior but civilisable. At the end of the 18th century, Dutch naturalist Petrus Camper’s anatomical drawings were used to lend weight to a theory of racial hierarchies based on aesthetics. At one end was the ideal (white) person, at the other (non-white) end, according to Camper, were those who resembled monkeys.

In 2008, former international footballer Lilian Thuram, the most capped player in the French national team, put his name and profile behind the Liliam Thuram Foundation, which educates against racism. On the website, the stark and simple message is one that Eddie McGuire might do well to read – along with his supporters. “We are not born racist, we become racist … Racism is an intellectual and – above all political – construct.”

In his preface to the Human Zoos catalogue, Thuram wrote that “even today, for many communities, the best way of defining themselves is to oppose themselves to others: ‘They are like that and we are not’. Are we not capable of enjoying self-esteem without denigrating the Other?”

Perhaps it is telling that McGuire’s comment was not a well thought-out one, but one that by his own admission was “a slip of the tongue” (AM with Tony Eastley May 30). According to French philosopher Gaston Bachelard “thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths.” If this is the case, then McGuire’s subconscious remark reveals we have a long way to go before we stop thinking of “us” and “them”.

Australia’s own Thuram, football great and The Long Walk founder Michael Long, has suffered racist remarks on the field. He told Herald Sun chief football writer Mark Robinson that the only way forward is with education: “By saying ‘ape’, where did that girl get it from? It came from someone else, it had been passed down in their history.” (Herald Sun, June 1, 2013)

Melbourne is home to a sports museum. We have the venerated hide of the celebrated Australian racehorse Phar Lap on display at the Melbourne Museum. Perhaps we should take a leaf from Europe and accept that as a nation, the time has come to reflect deeply on our past without the fear of being branded a “screeching New Racist” (Andrew Bolt, Herald Sun, June 3).

If a seasoned media personality such as Eddie McGuire can make such a devastating and casually reckless remark about a fellow human, perhaps the rich, powerful and influential of our land could get behind a collective push to establish a museum that specifically celebrates diversity and is responsible for holding as confronting and challenging exhibitions about our own country’s past as the one on Human Zoos.

Never underestimate the power of cultural diplomacy – or the impact of sport in helping shape public opinion. This is not simply a story about Eddie McGuire or about how sorry he feels, or about whether or not Australia is a racist country. As Thuram explains, he has encountered racism wherever he has been. It is foolish to think that Australia is immune.

* This blog was first published at RMIT Blog Central

Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, parenting and study, PhD completion, post submission blues, Time management

PhD Student vs Life: How To Do It All But Not All At Once

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Four weeks post submission: I am still wandering around like a dazed zombie trying to get remotely interested in life. An official letter has arrived from the university. My status has now been changed to “submitted”. It is about this point that people are expecting that you have ‘bounced back’ into the world of the living. Everything still appears as if through a thick pane of glass. Ah – that may be because of the other deadlines.

Accusingly, the dust seems to rise higher everyday in the house. I don’t care. I have become so adept at not looking at what’s going on around me, I wonder if I will ever be able to focus again on the things that once mattered. Will my home ever be again the palace of my dreams?

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Regular readers of my blog will have noticed a little hiatus in my postings. Ah – the post submission illness and general malaise has been hard to shake, as have the children’s understandable demands now that “mummy is back”.

I wonder why I am feeling this way, when I get a frantic call on the mobile. “I’m driving in now – can you text me the name of that printing place?” It’s my friend and long time writing partner, Caroline. She’s about to submit her doctorate and I can hear in her voice the same crazed about to submit panic that I had in my voice less than a month ago. It’s coming back – like childbirth.

I sent Caroline an email a few days before, alerting her to the fabulous commercial printer that I used – the one who doesn’t have to “let the machines have a little rest” and can deal with a tearful, sleep deprived doctoral student with kindness and calm.

After Caroline submits later that day – oh, joy! – I receive an ambitious text from her. “Right, now we are off to the theatre! I’ll book the tickets, we’ll have a drink to celebrate!”

I text straight back. “NO! Organise nothing – I am still a train wreck – you won’t believe how bad you’ll feel. Prepare for the great post submission blues.”

I had a back-to-back task of co-editing an academic book directly after my submission, and that was even harder than submitting the doctorate, as I had no energy left whatsoever and was sick as well.

Post submission, people are asking me how I managed the four-year juggle of young children, full time work, full time doctorate and part time teaching and blogging and still managed to submit on time. The answer is simple. Like Vincent Freeman in the film Gattaca I saved nothing for the swim back. If you want to achieve something – push it to the max.

At the time, I didn’t exactly realize this was my strategy. I worked hard from the outset, meeting all my goals – and the university goals – along the way. I spent just about every lunch break in the library or attending research strategy classes held by the university’s School of Graduate Research. In my final year I snuck into the sessions for emerging supervisors to get the inside track on what examiners were looking for (these sessions even had free food…) I spent my holiday leave presenting papers at conferences. I blogged about my research ideas, and turned these blogs into papers, articles and finally chapters in my exegesis. And I won’t even begin on how I plundered those around me for dialogue and characters in my doctoral novel.

In short, I never took my foot off the pedal. And in the last 100 days, I worked around the clock, hard and focused. It certainly explains how I feel now! And I am not sure that this is a strategy anyone wants to hear (or for that matter, follow), but the only way to ‘do it all’ is realize that something has to give. I did not by any means have a ‘balanced life’. My house looks like a bomb site, I more or less stopped socialising. At different points over the four years, some things had the volume turned up in my life and I had to deal with them with periods of brief intensity, but otherwise, I shut out that which would cause me to go off track. I simply ignored many important aspects of my life.

And now I am far from shore, and I need to swim back. At the moment, I am floating in the water, looking up at the sky and thinking, can I just drift a little longer before I have to start making it to land? Before I have to deal with ‘real life’ again?

I have found great resonance in the work of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, reading The Poetics of Space.  It is perhaps fitting in my current state of mind that I prefer to read about Bachelard’s analysis of housework than actually do any – I understand his idea of making housework a creative activity and that by approaching it with consciousness it rejuvenates everything.

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That said, I still balk at the layers of dog hair and the soul destroying topography of a teenage boy’s room.  I threw out a large garbage bag of suspect food from my fridge (what lurked at the back shelf could probably be classified as a biological weapon) but the long overdue cleanout of the pantry can wait. Oh, Bachelard, the housewife may awaken furniture that was asleep, but shifting forgotten tins of flour just awakens the weevils.

I plan on seeing Caroline next week, and over that joint celebratory glass of wine will ask her how she managed her candidature, full time lecturing and three (adult) children. I will report back – hopefully she will have saner advice than me.

However, like me, I suspect that she will say she cut back on many things to focus on what was important. Come to think of it, it’s been at least 18 months since we had a purely social get together. Most catch ups have been frantically wedged into a spare half hour at a café on campus.

The truth is that as far as time management goes, the only way to ‘have it all’ is to accept you can’t have it all at once. And it complete a doctorate with a Big Life you must let just about everything else fall by the wayside.

Seriously, I have been staggering around with a grand post submission plan of “getting the house in order” when I realize the task is simply beyond me.  Apart from the occasional cursory clean and survival cooking, the fact that the house is standing at all is a testament to the power of dust to hold everything together – and the fact that the kids have learned to help with the housework.

My mother – who graduated from two universities in one day – always told me that ‘dust will be there tomorrow’. However, as Bachelard noted, a human being likes to ‘withdraw to his corner’ and that it gives him physical pleasure to do so. And that’s hard when the corner is a little – squalid.  My mother would say, sit somewhere else, and read a book – then you won’t notice the mess.

So, in that spirit, for those of you still slogging away on the doctoral-kids-work juggle, here is my adopted anthem about endurance and perseverance – Sail On Sailor, by The Beach Boys; lyrics by Brian Wilson, Tandyn Almer, Jack Rieley and Ray Kennedy.

Seldom stumble, never crumble
Try to tumble, life’s a rumble
Feel the stinging I’ve been given
Never ending, unrelenting
Heartbreak searing, always fearing
Never caring, persevering
Sail on, sail on, sailor

Sail on swots– with the wind beneath your sails. Ignore the dust. I guarantee it will still be there when you submit. Keep your eye on the prize instead.