academic cohort, Academic conferences, academic courage, Academic rituals, blogging, Creative Writing PhD, fear of failure

Conference papers: the pleasure & pain of presenting your academic research

stand up blog

It’s that time of the year again – conference time. Sure, it’s exciting to be presenting new work at two overseas conferences, but that also means facing the lengthy plane flight to the other side of the world. And, oh, that other thing – actually writing the papers. 

Yes – presenting your academic research is a fine line between pleasure and pain. As Chrissy Amphlett from the Divinyls sang; “you got me once, you can do it again”. To my mind, the iconic 1985 song Pleasure and Pain is a soundtrack for how I feel right now. Certainly Amphlett’s signature air thumping rage and frustration in the middle of this video feel all too familiar. Who hasn’t experienced it when trying to prod a paper into shape?

I have realised that this annual experience of writing conference papers and getting up in front of your cohort to present is a sort of Groundhog Day for academics. No matter how many times you have done it, the thrill and the chill are the same. But though it feels like we are in the same place again – I have a appear to write! I have a plane to catch! I have to stand up in front of everyone and appear credible! – we are not reliving the same experience…because we are different each time.

Many universities are moving heavily in the direction of journal papers rather than conference presentations, which is certainly cheaper in so many ways, and ruthlessly time efficient. It also rules out that pesky human factor. You don’t get to make connections with people, you don’t get to hear about other people’s research, and you really don’t get to network.

Conferences, done well, are about being exposed to new ideas and getting valuable feedback for yours. They are about linking into a global academic community that no amount of emailing and skyping and journal submissions can do. But – they are also about pleasure and pain. They are about standing up in front of an audience in a way that quietly submitting to a journal is not.

It’s a thrill to be accepted into the conference. It’s a terrifying to stand in front of everyone and talk about new research. It’s exhausting and agonising and oh, so demanding on top of everything else to actually do the work in the first place.

Because writers are life’s great procrastinators. Journalists are worse. We can’t move except when there is a deadline. So, it should come as no surprise that despite carefully plotting my papers, diligently organsing all aspects of my solo trip to Europe for three weeks (including alternative arrangements for the care and feeding of my children and pets), I still find myself faced with the prospect of all nighters as I grimly write the words. Time for another coffee.

coffee hit blog

But first – before writing – some research (or is that procrastination?) Sometimes Australia seems very far away. Not just in terms of the cost and time to get to Europe for the conferences, but in strange ways such as deciding I needed – absolutely had to get – Francois Ozon’s movie Ricky on DVD, as research for a paper I am presenting next week on monstrous motherhood and human animal hybridity.

The synopsis to Ozon’s film “Is the baby who has wings an angel or a monster?” sent shivers of joy up my spine. Oh – come on – I HAD to watch this movie! A baby born with wings! A mother working with noxious chemicals in a factory….not folklore, but a strange merging of science and speculation.

Film still from Francois Ozon's movie 'Ricky' http://www.rickylefilm.com/
Film still from Francois Ozon’s movie ‘Ricky’
http://www.rickylefilm.com/

Problem – the only copy I could get sent to Melbourne at a reasonable cost (Sorry Ozon, but I am loathe to pay $85 for the DVD from Amazon!) came via an eBay seller – in Thailand. And so I watched Ozon’s wonderful French film dubbed in Thai with English subtitles. It’s like eating French food with microwave plastic melted into the top layer – every mouthful is unpalatable, but underneath it sort of tastes like it could be somewhat authentic.

I wouldn’t call it a peak cinema experience, but it is a terrific movie for my research, and I tried to avoid hearing the dubbed Thai by keeping the sound low and focusing on the narrative and visuals – film really is a silent medium, after all. Still, my desire to use the movie and the unfortunate way I had to go about watching it in Melbourne seemed to me a fit metaphor for the relentless pursuit of knowledge – we do it at whatever cost, no matter how unpleasant some parts may be, because we really believe in the final benefits. So – this is where I will be very shortly:

Motherhood and Culture International and Interdisciplinary Conference

15-17 June 2015 Iontas Building, Maynooth University, Co. Kildare, Ireland

Key Note Speakers: Professor Nancy Chodorow (University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance) Professor Andrea O’Reilly (York University, Toronto and Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI))

After the conference in Dublin, I am off to London to the 2015 Great Writing Conference, 18th Anniversary Conference, where I will present a paper on the issues most doctoral students face with the Creative Writing PhD – the exegesis and the creative project and the tension between the two. My way ‘out’ of the problem was to blog about my research, which is a little like what I am doing now – blogging about writing a paper for the conference, rather than writing it.

Now, some – many – would call that procrastination. But they are not writers. Writers of course count vacuuming instead of writing as part of the ‘process’. In fact, I am sure someone has written a PhD in Creative Writing looking at domestic activities and procrastination as apart of the creative process. And if not, I am sure someone will.

I have written many blogs on the similarities between parenting, pregnancy and childbirth and the creative process and the doctoral journey. It occurs to me that the pain of conference presentation is like childbirth – one forgets the reality of the pain until the first contractions are felt. And so it is with conferences.

Getting in the ‘conference way’ is fun – sending off abstracts in the dead of night on a whim – but there comes a time and it’s usually many, many months away (sometimes even 9 months away) when you have to deliver the goods. The discipline needed to produce the goods when you have so many other deadlines, let alone all the travel to arrange to even get to the conference, is akin to being handcuffed to your computer.

blog pleasure pain

Because unlike a baby, a conference paper doesn’t just gestate itself while you are doing other things. You have to sit down and do the work, the thinking work, and that’s the painful part. Yes, it will be great when you have finished the paper, and you are on the plane and at the conference.

In the meantime, you have to push that baby out. Write the paper. I have been presenting at conferences since I was in my first year of my Master of Arts. And let me tell you – it always hurts at this point. I am always regretting my decision to pitch an abstract. I always say I won’t do it again – I’ll take a holiday and sit by the pool and ready trashy novels like everyone else (instead of well, writing them…) or maybe I tell myself, I’ll just stay in Melbourne, sit in my study and submit to journals. I never learn.

Or, should I say – I always learn that I learn so much connecting with others in my field, and I always forge such great networks and learn from other people’s papers, that I am here again, at my desk, wanting to plunge that fork into my eye as I write the paper. But why? When I am excited by the research. I mean, how many people get to talk to others about flying babies, and be taken seriously? Who wouldn’t love my job? Yes, welcome to the world of writing.

Film still from Francois Ozon movie Ricky. http://www.rickylefilm.com/
Film still from Francois Ozon movie Ricky.
http://www.rickylefilm.com/

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than doing a conference paper is not doing one.

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academic courage, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Publishing academic research, the creative life, writing and criticism, Writing strategies

Simply shocking: when our fiction writing pushes the boundaries

Photo taken at 'The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk', at The National Gallery of Victoria. By Evelyn Tsitas
From ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas

I admit I am hard to shock. As a journalist and a writer and academic, as someone who has spent my entire career working in the creative arts, that’s a given, really. It doesn’t work being a prude when studying art history. Or working in an art gallery. or writing speculative fiction.

Being a practitioner in the creative arts – whatever your medium – means being exposed to ideas and concepts that you may not agree with, but will push your boundaries. That’s why a lot of people fear the arts. That’s why on one hand they are derided as a ‘soft option’ and on the other hand, they are condemned for leading to the breakdown of civilization.

People are confronted by what they see in art galleries, museums, on the stage and on film and certainly between the pages of books, newspapers and magazines. Perhaps even more so than a screen grab on the Internet, where everything goes anyway. The authority held by the printed word still sways, and there is always the sort of person for whom breaking the spine of a ‘salacious’ book and opening the pages of a ‘naughty’ novel is akin to watching someone open their legs. Reading what they consider transgressive material is an act, for them, of promiscuity.

Photo taken at 'The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk', at The National Gallery of Victoria. By Evelyn Tsitas
From ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas

So, if to indulge in transgressive creative arts as a spectator can change you – for the worse – according to those who hold such values, what does it mean to make art that challenges? Do you become tainted by association? What sort of person, in fact, writes certain things in certain ways?

In short, if my fiction includes sexuality – am I what I write? Do people assume that I live the life of my protagonist? While agonising about this with my writing friends, I have had one reaction only. Amazement. Complete amazement that I could be worried about this, that I could consider it an issue.

“Do people assume because I write about killers, that I am a murderer?” asked one woman. By day she is a primary school teacher, married, and a grandmother. After hours she writes very successful True Crime.

We are not what we write. But are we our imagination?

The Mask, Dolls House installation by Evelyn Tsitas
The Mask, Dolls House installation by Evelyn Tsitas

More than one writing friend snorted and added “it’s called fiction for a reason, you are called a creative writer for a reason – no one in their ‘right’ mind would think a ‘writer’ is what they write.”

If you are an actor, do the public assume you are your roles? Many times, yes. Rita Hayworth used to say, They go to bed with Gilda; they wake up with me.”

notting hill

In a quote from the movie Notting Hill, the 1999 romantic comedy by Richard Curtis, the blurred lines some men have between reality and fiction are deftly explored:

Anna Scott: Rita Hayworth used to say, “They go to bed with Gilda; they wake up with me.”
William: Who’s Gilda?
Anna Scott: Her most famous part. Men went to bed with the dream; they didn’t like it when they would wake up with the reality. Do you feel that way?
William: You are lovelier this morning than you have ever been.

As a writer whose creative and academic practice pushes the boundaries, I felt for actress Dakota Johnson when it was revealed that her mother, the actress Melanie Griffith, was uncomfortable with her star role on the controversial movie Fifty Shades of Grey. I have had people close to me also feel uncomfortable about my work, and to question what it means for me to write work that challenges, to write characters in fiction that transgress, that are frankly outside the moral code of the mainstream. And yes, that worries me, even though my writing cohort say it should not.

The fact is, that if we are writing a work such as Fifty Shades of Grey, we must explore the darker parts of our imagination, and be aware of the secretive, transgressive nature of much sexuality.

But does doing this make us a worse person than the average punter? My Secret Garden, Nancy Friday’s groundbreaking book published more than 40 years ago on women’s sexual fantasies revealed taboos such as:

  • Pain and masochism
  • Domination
  • The sexuality of terror
  • The thrill of the forbidden
  • Transformation
  • The Zoo
  • Incest
  • Rape

Is a fiction writer who trawls these fantasies in effect simply taking one for the collective unconscious, for popular culture, or art – or the ‘team’ – if you like? Or are they just a nasty pornographer who should keep the door to the room marked ‘other’ firmly locked and away from the prying eyes of the world?

I don’t write or conduct academic research into the areas of the human and animal, the power struggle of the occult, or the bleakness of different aspects of grief and organ donation to shock. Although I know, outside my literary and academic circles, that it does. I do what I do because I want to explore certain aspects of the human psyche, the darkness of the human condition, and the point at which obsession renders the end result more important than the destructive path leading to that final point. My tropes are the about the use and abuse of power, betrayal, and transgression. Hardly the stuff of chick lit and romantic comedy, but the stuff of life.

From ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas
From ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas

I have published and presented academic papers on bestiality in science fiction, on issues of body ownership that are very upsetting for people; I have angered internet commentators with my articles relating to pro-choice (despite having published a high risk pregnancy book which explored why women – including myself – are so determined to carry a child to term despite the great risks to their own health), and I have drawn in a room full of bioethicists and scientists wanting to hear how the creative arts can and does shape and inform bioethical debates.

But while journalism and academia are good forums for these discussions, fiction writing is better. For instance, just because science can do something, should humanity follow? I can give no better example for the way than the way that fiction – and science fiction in particular – has spearheaded this debate than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Written by an 18 year old Mary Shelley, no stranger at that age to the searing heartache and near death experience of several miscarriages, the book about a scientist who create a human without the intervention of woman, and if you so chose to call it that – God – is a touchstone for any current debate on stem cell research, and reproductive technology that pushes so many boundaries we no longer talk about two parents, but a myriad of biological entities and processes that will result in a child who has multiple ‘parents’ biological and often social as well.

South Metope 11 - Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum; the human Lapith forces his centaur opponent down, gripping him by the throat. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas
South Metope 11 – Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum; the human Lapith forces his centaur opponent down, gripping him by the throat. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas

But just because we can do something – should we? I am not saying any one person has the answer, and am loathe to leave things to the status quo (don’t rock the boat until its ready) but it is important as a society to investigate the social, emotional, and maternal-paternal implications of this, and the creative arts are the place where a narrative can be put on the facts. We all understand things a lot clearer when someone sits down in front of the community at the camp fire and says ‘let me tell you a story…’

It’s embedded in our DNA as humans, this need for stories, and in the Internet age this need for a narrative bleeds across the creative arts. Film is a powerful medium in that it provides the visual along with the story, and that for people is very immediate, engaging – and confronting.

So when Dakota Johnson’s mother says that she can’t see her daughter Dakota’s film Fifty Shades of Grey because of the sexual content, I feel for Dakota, because she is simply part of the story telling process. She is acting out in front of the collective camp fire, putting three dimensional representation to the words from a page. I know what it is like to be judged on your work and the choice of your content. How easy it must be to write inoffensive children’s fiction, or dry political commentary, or paint by numbers commercial fiction which can be read with distraction and no raised eyebrows on public transport. These writers do not have anyone looking over their shoulder, questioning their values, morality or integrity.

Sculpture and ring by Lisa Roet
Sculpture and ring by Lisa Roet, photo by Evelyn Tsitas (who proudly owns and wears the ring, made in the shape of a chimp finger)

Because to push the boundaries as an artist is the be the ultimate outsider – even if society comes around eventually to the place where you are right now – far, far out to sea, waving the flag, saying ‘look, guys, I can see this clearly – it isn’t nice, but I am not scared to look and report back. Meet me at the campfire, and I’ll tell you a story.”

I have been told “you can’t divorce the person from the writing” – meaning – there must be something very dark and ‘wrong’ with me as a person for daring to move my academic research into places that are upsetting, and frightening for some people.  Yes, of course, reading and publishing fiction is subjective. But I do not write by committee. Fiction writing is not a democracy. It is a little totalitarian state; my world, and I while listen to criticism – especially from publishers, and I will consider tweaking, changing and rewriting, I am also the first and last person my writing has to please.

 

Photo taken at 'The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk',  at The National Gallery of Victoria. By Evelyn Tsitas
Photo taken at ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. By Evelyn Tsitas

Love it or hate it, EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey – and the subsequent film, of which James is Executive Producer – gives women agency over their sexual fantasies. And let’s face it, at the heart of the book, the story of young woman selling her looks and sexuality to an older, wealthy man is a powerplay that goes back to the first campfire stories. But what is remarkable about James – and hats off to her for reaping the financial rewards – is that she has had the guts to stray from the pack of the everyday dissenters and go public with her work, and has found a willing audience.

Those of us who take a risk in the creative arts do so knowing that not everyone in the world at large will be happy with our choices. But what is the alternative? Silence? Pouring waster over the campfire and ordering everyone back into the darkness of the cave, where ideas, both glowing and darkly bitter, can flourish and fester without challenge?

 

 

 

academic courage, Academic Study, blogging, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, writing and criticism, Writing strategies

Carpe Diem: Living and writing in the moment

IMG_3307

If there is a horror movie no academic wants to watch it’s Still Alice, with a stand out performance by Julianne Moore, who deservedly won the Oscar gong for best actress for her portrayal of a 50 year old academic whose field is linguistics but suddenly discovers she can’t find the right word.

Alice is haunted in her own mind by loss. The loss of words, concepts, the lightening speed associations she has always taken for granted. Her vacant stare at the audience as she loses the thread while presenting a lecture is horrifying for those in academia whose minds are on sharp display in the public arena.

Chronicling the swift descent into complete memory loss (and loss of her identity as an academic and writer)  that is early onset dementia, the chilling words from the protagonist’s neurologist that “it hits the brightest” pack a harder for punch than any looming shadow behind Ripley in the Alien movies.

still alice

I told a colleague I planned on a watching the film and she shook her head. “Why? Why would you put yourself through that?”

Why indeed. Moore portrays the beautiful, fit Alice who jogs her usual route only to look up and have no idea where she is. A fast tracked career academic who literally has it all by the age of 50 – the three adult children, the published books and intelligent and caring husband – and a picture perfect home as well. Then loses her ability to make sense of any of it as her mind unravels. She begins to face the lecture theatre with dread.

A bright mind with the pathways fading. It’s like a haunted house, empty but of ghostly memories that pop up in the inappropriate places. 

As someone who relies on their mind and the layers of memory and lightening speed connections needed for writing, the thought of being lost for words is a nightmare.

 

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As the neurologist explains to Alice, highly functioning people mask the symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s disease for years, delaying treatment. They are smart enough to find clever coping mechanisms. Which, when you think about it, is what doctoral students do with stress, obligations, work and study demands. We find clever ways to cope.

The final scene (spoiler alert) of Still Alice is every writer’s fear. Alice loses the ability to speak, to even respond to her daughter. And – fade out. Yet there is a strong message of living in the moment, and at a lot to be said for living life full throttle and grabbing every last piece of it – children, career, writing and love – so that whatever end comes, at least you can face it in the knowledge that you have grasped your share of life as hard as possible.

 

But as for the question of how to live in the moment – especially as we are planning and living our careers – I am no expert. Certainly, writing a blog, putting the words and ideas out there, indeed, writing for a large audience is a way of writing in the moment. That’s always been the appeal of journalism, and by contrast, the long delays of academic publishing make a mockery of doing anything in the moment.

I love the immediacy of blogging for a large and diverse audience. Indeed, of arguing my point to people who also want to listen. Not that they necessarily agree. I look at the list of 71 comments for my latest blog on the media using topless girls to sell papers, published at Online Opinion, a monthly journal of political and social opinion. I don’t wish to read any of the comments.

Not because I fear what they will say, but because I do not want to write with anyone looking over my shoulder. While we seek feedback and support as writers, there comes a time when you have to say, ‘enough’. No one gets ring side seats to judge your work. As a writer, you can shut down your own creativity better than anyone. You don’t need a chorus of dissent to help the darkest side of your low self esteem flourish. Sure, an audience is entitled to say what they like, and when your work is in the public domain, it will attract all sorts of opinion. The trick is to not letting it change what you want to write and affect what you need to say.

front row

Indeed, that’s the thing about doctoral study. Over the four years, you have to learn to feel out the territory alone, and accept that what you discover with your research, and what you write about it, will not always be to everyone’s satisfaction. But you have to have the guts to take the research out there anyone, and publish and be dammed.

If there is one lasting legacy of a doctorate, it is finding the courage of your convictions. After four years of slogging away on your research, you are not going to take lightly anyone telling you what to write.

And of course, as writers, those of us who live and die by our words know all too well the impact of our stories and ideas on others. We do not take this lightly, but neither are we going to be cowered. I was reminded of this when a dear writing friend was attacked for his work. How did he feel?

Simply – as if he had touched the nerve he was hoping to touch. He responded, “as someone who appreciates how deeply words can cut or send jitters of thrill or dismay through a person” this impact was to be expected.

I reflected then about the reaction my own writing has had on people, as I place it out there in academic journals and literary publications, such as my book chapter “My Lover’s Eyes” published in this special issue of Writing From Below, (Vol 2, No 1, 2014) remixes Death and the Maiden, examining the motif and other associated themes and subjects through a range of critical and creative works.

There is a point, as in Still Alice, where we as writers and academics need to reflect on the choices we have made and the sacrifices we have made for our work.

While I write Gothic Horror, the breakdown of the body and the cold winds of the pull towards the end are around me and those close to the people I care about right now. So I am naturally reflective about this question.

On one hand, it could be said the co-called ‘pointless’ nature of doctoral study in an area of creative writing isn’t worth the time it takes from our lives. If early onset dementia lurks around the corner, like in a Hollywood movie, why bother to study?

And if the end can snake out of the darkness while you are juggling your life and writing, is it worth the struggle to keep all the balls in the air, or is it better to take it easy, smell the roses, and relax?

One of the uplifting messages in Still Alice is that the demands we put on ourselves in fact shape us and at least let us burn brightly while we can. And to do so, with the blessing of family, friends and perhaps a partner with us, means we simply need to juggle harder, cram in everything and make more demands on ourselves. There is everything to be said for living for the moment, and living that moment as fully as possible.

Grab life, opportunities and throw yourself into fulfilling your dreams despite the knockbacks. Finish the doctorate, despite the many sacrifices. Publish your writing – and be damned if you must. 

The alternative is to come home, sit down in front of the television, and give up. So don’t. No matter what the precarious future may hold, the choice we make with academic study and the choice we make as writers, is to extend ourselves and be amazing. And no matter what the outcome of your research, that’s a gift right there.

 Carpe Diem. Seize the moment.