Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, parenting and study, PhD completion, thesis writing, Time management, Writing strategies

Before Midnight: Women, Motherhood and Creativity

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Do creativity, academic study and having children mix, or is this an oil and water combination best avoided by female writers seeking fame, glory, a doctorate – and publication?

In the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight trilogy, the love affair between American writer Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and French singer and student Celine (Julie Delpy) begins because of an impulsive decision by Jessie to ask Celine to hop off a train with him and see what happens – all because they felt a spark after talking to each other.

In Before Midnight  we see the couple after nearly 20 years, with their unfulfilled dreams rising like bile. As I watched the middle aged versions of  Celine and Jessie argue in the final, cringe making “he said, she said” scene in the Greek hotel at the end of the movie, the dialogue succinctly captured the dilemma women face with their creativity. To paraphrase:

Celine said: you never stopped writing or being creative even after we had children, and that’s because I do all the work – I earn a stable living, and I am home every night on time to deal with the kids. What about me, when do I think and have time to be creative?

Jessie says: I wish you’d just take the time and do it, be a bit more selfish about what you need and stop looking after everyone.

I think that says it all, really. Not enough women are selfish about the work that matters to them, and in order to be creative, you need to  spend time alone with yourself, thinking, working, doing the daily grind of writing and making your work. You have to keep up fluency, you have to keep up an inner dialogue with yourself.

The number one advice I’d give anyone wanting to do a doctorate who has family responsibilities is that you have to be selfish with your time.

I attended a very good session early on in my PhD research by Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner.  This had nothing to do with my research but plenty on how to approach the doctoral journey. I kept their booklet “The Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Research Students” and read and re-read it religiously. Every time I got that cold, sweaty panic of “I can’t do this!” I would pull out the booklet and read it again.

Here are the seven secrets according to Kearns and Gardiner:

  1. It’s your thesis – you need to be the driver
  2. Write and show as you go
  3. Be realistic
  4. Say no to distractions
  5. It’s a job
  6. Get help
  7. You can do it!

Apart from points 1 and 2, which are related to work and study skills (more on this in future blogs), the rest of the seven tips are about time management and approach to study.

Here are Kearns and Gardiner’s versions through the motherhood prism:

Be realistic:

Don’t sweat the domestic stuff. Let other people help out and look after your children, and don’t think you have to be the only one to do everything. I have one iron clad rule – who ever is looking after the children is in charge. We have a saying in my house and that’s “if grandma has you, it’s grandma rules”. The kids know this, and obey. Don’t try to rule remotely – let the designated minder take the authority.

In Before Midnight, Julie Delpy makes salad in the kitchen and then complains about this in the hotel room – “look at you, you are the big writer, talking about the next book with your genius friends while I make the salad you stuff down your face!”

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If you don’t want to end up resentful about cooking – don’t cook. Simple. The only people I will cook for are my children, and even then I have taught them how to fend for themselves. Women are prone to being domestic martyrs, and my attitude is – Nigella Lawson has a lot to answer for. It is frankly unhealthy for women to glamorize being in the kitchen, making food for men. Unless you are writing your doctorate about cooking, get out of the kitchen.

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Now, if I was the Julie Delpy’s character Celine, I’d pour a glass of wine, stroll down to the terrace overlooking the ocean, and take my guitar with me and write a song and chat to the men. I wish I could play music, so in my case, I’d take a sketch book instead and draw – and chat to the men. And leave the salad making to the other women for whom this is a creative outlet. Bless the people who like to cook and do it well, for they shall feed you. The bottom line is – seriously, no one wants to eat my cooking, not even me, or my dog. I did not make the Greek dish featured above, although I have tried. It is never as good as my cousin’s, possibly because she spends as much time cooking as I do writing. You need to put in the work for anything to be good.

Say no to distractions:

Children do not in fact impede a creative life, not if you are judicious about what you do and when you do it. I am not the only female writer to find I am more efficient – and selfish – with her time once she had children.

How do we do it? Say no to distractions. This is what Jessie (Ethan Hawke) tells Celine (Julie Delpy) in Before Midnight – put yourself first.

Women make many obstacles for themselves, that men do not. Perhaps this is a form of excuse to back away from the demands and intensity of the creative life.

It’s a job:

Sure, we all know a doctorate is a job – but what if you have a full time job and family responsibilities? Then you need to get serious about your time and what you can set aside and what you do with it.

Kearns and Gardiner recommend writing for two hours a day on your thesis – every day. This is good advice. If  you are doing a creative writing doctorate, like me, then you have to juggle that writing time with time on your doctoral novel and time on the exegesis.

I found it impossible to switch from one to the other every day. The best thing was for me to spend a week on the novel, and then swap to the exegesis. And to take small bites at the writing, rather than feel I have to write a huge amount every day. Kearns and Gardiner call this “snack writing”

When research would spark ideas for the novel, I would have the two files open on the computer – exegesis and novel – and write little chunks of each.

A career in journalism has made me a deadline junkie. Give me a word limit and a deadline and I’ll give you a story – it’s almost a reflex action. Therefore, I found it really useful to present my novel writing at workshops and writing groups, or to look around for short story competitions and enter chapters in those.

This same approach served me well for the exegesis – I blogged about my ideas, turned those blogs into conference abstracts, and those conference papers into chapters. By treating the doctorate as a job – professional writing – and chunking that writing and research up into real-world outcomes – conference papers and competition entries – I had my 100,000 word limit and arguments ready within four years.

Get help

My university has a great graduate research centre and I spent my lunch hour going to every class on offer. I also made friends with my liaison librarian and you know that enthusiastic, talkative doctoral student who speaks to everyone – and I mean everyone – at a conference? That was me. Even when I had no idea what I was doing or saying, I waded in, and listened, contributed and learned. Throwing myself in the deep end from the beginning rather than sitting quietly in my room researching made all the difference.

In the last 100 days, I was lucky enough to get even more help – my wonderful second supervisor, who held my hand, did a close reading of my exegesis and really pushed me forward. Then friends from the academy and publishing who offered to do beta reads and provided much needed advice, support and proof reading. Sometimes just knowing at this final lap – the last month or so – someone had your back was enough to get you through the last desperate days. I can’t thank them all enough.

This is what Jessie tells Celine in Before Midnight – don’t try to do everything yourself. Get help.

You can do it!

Yes, you can. You are smart enough, if you made it into a doctoral program. Though I bet like me you have tried to Google “I am not smart enough for my PhD”. It’s not intelligence that gets you through (that’s a given) – it’s persistence. What my grandfather called “stick-ability”. Just don’t give up. The four year journey is one of constant hurdles, ups and downs, dead ends, false starts, brilliant insights, corrupted computer files, library fines, exhaustion, depression and then there is everything your regular life can throw at you as well.

So, what’s the secret? Be persistent – and selfish. Don’t go offering to make anyone’s salad, unless you gave birth to them, and then, start nurturing some self reliance in your children. They can actually cope without you being their servant. If you do everything for them, and other people, you and your doctorate will suffer and your creative life will wither. Learn to say yes to yourself first.

Julie Delpy – I love your movie but I wish Celine was more selfish and less bitter. I am pleased that in this interview, Julie Delpy says she is not the same sort of mother as Celine, but that motherhood helped her contribute to writing the movie. And as Ethan Hawke observes, there are consequences to following your dreams. Indeed – that’s what makes the future, and the unknown, so tantalising. A bit like starting out on the doctorate. Who knows where you’ll end up after a couple of years? It’s a leap of faith.

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