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Lessons from my doctorate

11 Feb

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The only thing sweeter than attaining your doctorate is the academic success of your children – especially if they have grown up in the shadow of your higher education study.

Admit it, if you are a mother, there is always that nagging voice somewhere – yours or some critic – that says ‘intense focus and study at the expense of much of everything else in your life will be bad for your young children.’

Rubbish.

Low expectations, complacency and laziness are limiting. Constantly pushing your boundaries and challenging your comfort zone, on the other hand, teach children not to be limited in their aspirations while at the same time reinforcing that anything worth achieving takes hard work, and sacrifice.

If you are completing your doctorate and fretting about your children taking a back seat, don’t worry. The mum up late studying, turning down social invitations, spending holidays at the computer or university library may be absent from her children’s lives in some ways, but she is abundantly present in ways which matter in the long term.

I can tell you first hand that far from harm my children, my back to back MA and PhD while my two sons were young gave them the gift of knowing success demands:

Perseverance, commitment, focus, determination, time management, and deferred gratification.

I never volunteered to help out at their school, I refused to play the game of keeping up domestic appearances, and I rarely even went to school social events. You know what? I speak from experience here – I was raised by a mother who studied, and I have friends who completed their doctorates while their children were young. We are here to tell you the world will not end, nor will social structures collapse, if you do not help out at your child’s school or socialise with the other mothers.

The school, and your children, can do without your input. Leave that to the mothers with nothing else to do.

Sounds harsh, but let’s face it, volunteering at the school, when your time could be better spent elsewhere – like on your own work – is often a matter of ego. You want to feel wanted. Does the bake sale really need your input? Do the other mothers really need to be organised like a pact of sheep to socialise at some cafe to bond every term?

And yes, note I say ‘mothers’. Even in the 21st century, no father frets he isn’t spending time helping out at the school or having coffee mornings with the other dads.

I understand that my views don’t make me popular. But they do produce results.

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The past 12 months in my household have been a demanding ones, with my eldest son completing his final year at school.And although it has been three years exactly since I graduated with my PhD, he still sees me work long into the night on my creative and academic writing, after a day of commercial writing in communications. He knows what it takes to achieve your goals.

And I have to say – he took note. We celebrated last month when his terrific exam results netted him a place in a prestigious university course and put him on track for the architecture career he aspires to.

Unlike many other teenagers, he wasn’t out at parties, he was at his desk. No pain – no gain. If there is one thing I have taught him over the years it is the success that comes from deferred gratification.

At his 18th birthday celebration, just before his last exams, he thanked me for being both supportive and a role model and showing me how it is done. It was so lovely to hear him say that, and I have been thinking since then how ‘doctoral mothers’ bring our particular focus to parenting.

As inevitably we do sessional teaching while studying, we are familiar with the university system, have friends who are also studying or working in universities, and are articulate advocates for our children as they navigate the next step in their education.

We are also networking, analysing, searching out information and generating new knowledge from our research. I am not the least surprised that the mothers I know who have pursued doctoral studies after an established career have all produced children who are similarly ambitious and engaged with their own learning.

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My son is going to university next month open to the possibilities and privileges of tertiary education – having his mind expanded and horizons broadened. The divergent and convergent thinking that one acquires are fundamental to succeeding as knowledge workers in the 21st century, and he is ready for the journey.

Next blog post I will continue on this theme, exploring lifelong learning – are you ever ‘too old’ to study?

Done Is Better Than Perfect: Push Past PhD Perfection Syndrome

5 Nov

DONE IS BETTER

What has The Hacker Way got to do with Higher Education? Why look to Facebook’s internal mantra “Done is better than perfect” and the company’s five core principles (Focus on impact, Move Fast, be Bold, be Open, Build Social Value) as a way to tackle your doctorate?

Because it might just get you past PhD Perfection Syndrome and those other common doctoral P’s – Procrastination and Painful obsession with your research and get you Passed – and Published.

I am a Recovering Perfectionist. I have the Facebook mantra “Done is Better Than Perfect” written on a sticky note on my screen monitor. It reminds me that real artists ship, and to beware of the Curse of Perfect.

Actually, I have to admit, this is a recent addition to my psychological arsenal against my Negative Self (writers all have the Negative Whisperer as the hideous beast twin who shares their lives, doctoral students have one as well. If you are doing a Creative Writing PhD – you need all the self esteem weaponry you can get).

In February 2012 when Facebook filed its Registration Statement in 2012 to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, I was deep in the heart of my doctorate. I was too preoccupied with my research to read Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s statement about the company’s purpose, which in hindsight actually has a lot to say about getting your research done, and believing in your work.

These two things are an issue for many doctoral students, who are at the mercy of supervisor’s dire warnings, their own insecurities, and their swot like perfectionism.

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According to Martin Lindstrom (FastCompany) “Done is better than perfect” is not about coming up with ideas; it’s about believing in them. And having an attitude that compels you to run with the idea before it’s too late.

Isn’t that what finishing the doctorate is all about? Running with your ideas rather than perfecting them? Because you have to continue with that work after you complete your doctorate.

Let’s look more closely at what The Hacker Way has to show doctoral – and postdoc – students. Zuckerberg’s statement about the company’s purpose reveals that hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done.

Which is what a doctorate can be as well – punch out the research and writing in four years, test the boundaries and leave room for continuous improvement after you have completed the task. Your work doesn’t stop once you have graduated. Your research – if it is any good – will continue, and you will continue to grow and develop as a researcher.

A doctorate is just like getting a probationary driving licence – you can drive, but you aren’t out of the woods yet. You are a newbie. I still have my academic P plates on. But that’s better than not having completed the doctorate!

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I had every reason and excuse to take longer than four years full time. I could easily have opted for part time study with two kids and a full time job demanding my time and attention. But remember this – your PhD is not a Nobel Prize body of work. It just has to be Fit For Purpose.

Mack Collier (founder of #blogchat) takes some tips from Zuckerberg’s “Done if Better Than Perfect” mantra in his terrific advice about blogging: “Blogging is like anything else, it’s a learning process.  The more you blog, the easier ideas come to you.  The more chances you have to see how people react to a particular topic you cover, or the tone you use.  As a result, your overall writing becomes better and the entire blogging process becomes easier for you. As a byproduct, your platform expands.  Not only is your blogging improving, but more people are being exposed to your ideas because they are being shared more often.”

Sounds like the process of writing up your doctorate – or completing a Creative Writing PhD. Write, write often and write without fear. Don’t worry about being perfect – Done is better than Perfect. Also – take your research ideas out for a play. Share them. Find friends for them. Go to conferences, submit to journals and learn to accept rejection.

The trouble is, this attitude isn’t what got you to higher level study in the first place. Chances are, like me, you work on getting things done and perfect. You are used to being good – being very, very good, in fact, and hate rejection. That’s all well and good, and perhaps sustainable in certain phases of your life – like when you are “time rich” as a fellow newbie post-doc and mother described a twenty-something.

Time rich is when you don’t have compelling family responsibilities pulling at your coat strings and compelling financial reasons (to support that family) pulling at your purse strings. Time rich is when you can afford to go hard and lean in and not worry about getting home to make the dinner.

I had that life for many years as an undergraduate, in my career and in my first incarnation as a postgraduate student. But I was a mother when I did my MA and my PhD and now I am working full time, juggling my research, fiction writing and blogging after hours, as well as raising two children as a single parent.

Unless I adhered to Done is Better Than Perfect, I would never write – or publish – anything.

Two things I am passionate about are being brave enough to take your research public when you are a student (and post doc) and sharing your research and ideas through publishing via blogs, and other forums (as well as ) academic journals.

This isn’t just something relevant to the Creative Writing PhD or other humanities based doctorates – the HackYourPhD is a community created in France in January 2013 by Célya Gruson-Daniel and Guillaume Dumas. It gathers various profiles (researchers, PhD students and students, entrepreneurs, designers…) around the issue of Open Science.
This movement aims to bring more collaboration, transparency, and openness in the current practices of research.

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Let’s visit Facebook’s five core principles and apply them to your doctorate:

Focus on impact – this is the Class 101 of Why Your Research Matters. What is the point of your work? Why does it matter? Who cares?

Move fast – your ideas won’t be unique forever. If someone else doesn’t jump on the research, they will go stale, so –

Be bold – get out there and publish, present at conferences, show your work. Publish. Don’t be afraid to raise your voice.

Be open – Share, share, share. (See HackYourPhD) It will come back to you bigger than ever. Scared, controlling researchers and writers will never get the same audience as more generous emerging academics

Build social value – well, why not – all research can advance human knowledge just a fraction, right? How can your research be taken into the world to improve things, and if not an answer to humanitarian needs, then what about enhancing the human spirit, or the human existence? Everyone needs entertainment, beauty and wonder in their lives. Even if your work doesn’t challenge, enlighten or provoke, can you see it making people’s lives, at least for some brief time, in some way more enjoyable?

The writing retreat: how will you finish your doctorate?

25 Oct
Time out but busy as a bee: photo by Justine Phillip, 2015

Time out but busy as a bee: photo by Justine Philip, 2015

I have a starling piece of news. I have actually never gone on a writing retreat. The reasons are entirely practical – for the past 17 years my presence has been required at home with my children.

The other reason is also practical. After a career in daily journalism, I find it easy enough to focus and write among people, noise and distractions. Sure, some people and distractions may be more annoying than others, but for me writing has always been a job and always been like breathing – second nature and essential.

So, I never felt the need to get away from it all. I have always had a room of my own, no matter where I lived. Yes, it is a luxury, but no matter how small, I have always claimed a space as my own study, a place where no one else is permitted. While some may see this an indulgent, I regard it as essential. Even once I had children, they were only allowed into my writing space with permission, and never on my computer.

I know women who easily give away their personal space and these women are by and large resentful and frustrated. I don’t give a damn about being thought selfish for carving out my own writing life and zone, and it means I am also a pretty content soul.

So, I never felt I had to pack everything up and get away to focus on my writing. That said, I totally understand women who do. What if you have no separate space to call your study? What if the boisterous interruptions of domestic life intrude as you are trying to write up your doctorate?

When I was in that final, crucial writing up stage of the PhD, I took my annual leave from my job and bunkered down in my study; over summer, the kids were preoccupied with their own interests and wonderful friends took them for outings with their own kids – I am ever grateful for this.

To have actually gone away to a retreat would have added a whole other level of complexity to my juggling that would only cause more stress than it was worth. Even now, with the kids with their father on the weekend, if I was to go away on retreat it would mean finding somewhere for the dog to go, and why leave an house I have all to myself to pack up my notes and go somewhere else?

That said, I can see the benefits of a retreat and fantasise about its glories. And I admit to feeling a pang of longing when a friend and doctoral student Justine Philip sent me a link to the blog post she had written about her recent eco retreat, when she took time off to focus on a critical chapter of her dissertation due for completion in 2016.

Remote: BREW eco-writers retreat. Photo by Justine Phillip, 2015

Remote: BREW eco-writers retreat. Photo by Justine Philip, 2015

Justine drove seven hours north of Melbourne to reach the retreat – something I would never do for a start. I loathe driving long distances, and into the country. I also fail miserably at lighting potbelly stoves and trekking to an outhouse…though 10 days solitude sits comfortably with me. I have always made a habit of travelling alone, and regard my overseas research and conference trips as a retreat of sorts, away from the demands of teenagers and pets.

What I have found is that I am not necessarily productive as a writer when I am away, but that I gather the experiences and images and emotions garnered and bring them into my work.

Justine’s thesis explores a shared human-dingo history. No prizes for guessing how we came to meet – a mutual interest in human-animal relations has seen us present at several conferences together and we shared a panel (with artist Debbie Symons) at the 2014 ASLEC-ANZ Affective Habitus conference in Canberra.

While Justine went to the BREW residency in NSW to sort through three years of data and write a chapter due, I recall a similar timeline of weekends holed up at home, bunkered down in my study and ignoring almost everything as I slogged it out to get my dissertation complete. I took my annual leave to finish, and spent the summer inside, blinds down, and wrote. When the kids felt in need of food or a cuddle, they’d charge in and our beloved dog was then a little teething puppy, and slept at my feet, surreptitiously gnawing at journals articles spread around me until they were a wet, pulpy mass.

Remington Holiday. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas, 2014

Remington Holiday. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas, 2014

Justine’s retreat is on trend with what is offered by universities around the globe. The University of Miami Graduate School offers a Dissertation Writing where for three intensive days, doctorate students from all disciplines meet in a quiet space for extended blocks of time dedicated to writing, sharing daily writing goals and getting feedback. Write Out, a week long retreat for doctoral students from all disciplines at the University of Illinois at Chicago who study race and ethnicity.

Kylie Budge researched the retreat fantasy in The Thesis Whisperer in 2013, and discovered that spatial distance plays a role in creative cognition.

While part of me wants to use this as a good excuse to bunker down in my family’s house in a very small village in northern Greece, where I can barely speak the language but everyone knows me and my relatives generations back, I fear I will not be as productive as in my own study, where I have all my books and notes on hand. For a start, travelling from Australia is time consuming and expensive, so while language and geographical isolation may focus the mind, mine wants to be out absorbing new images and ideas, rather than writing the task at hand.

Northern Greece - village life. Photo 2013 by Evelyn Tsitas

Northern Greece – village life. Photo 2013 by Evelyn Tsitas

Yet there is something to be said for having the respite of a retreat to focus constructively during the doctorate. I spoke to another mother and doctoral student who told me the benefit of retreats during her writing up stage, as she lived in a small house with her three children and had no place to spread out her work or have quiet time alone with her thoughts. “I think that the writers retreat is different from writing at home – it is an excuse to put the rest of life on hold and spend days not just hours at the keyboard for a short length of time. Now I am back writing at the visiting scholars room at the university I am finding it easier to balance home/writing life than before I went away.”

However, I find that my writing time when my children are at their father’s house is actually no more productive than when they are with me. There is no more efficient worker than a mother with limited time to write. Have all the time in the world, and you will squander it.

This probably ties in with ‘mother guilt’ – another factor for doctoral students who are mothers. One woman told me she desperately needed to get to a retreat so she could write up huge chunks of data, and spread the research papers out everywhere and concentrate – and not have to pack it away when the kids needed to use the room or wanted dinner. She was happy if she found a shack somewhere with a wood fire stove and outside dunny (Australian slang for toilet) but that when she was offered a friend’s retreat – and discovered it had a coffee machine, inside plumbing and a fabulous, lake-side view, she was overcome with mother guilt. Suffering for your study is fine – but solitude in salubrious circumstances? Cue mother guilt!

Outside dunny: we we feel less 'mother guilt' if we rough it at a retreat?Photo by Evelyn Tsitas, 2014

Outside dunny: we feel less ‘mother guilt’ if we rough it at a retreat?Photo by Evelyn Tsitas, 2014

I wondered if there was something wrong with me for not yearning for a writing retreat, until I interviewed successful author Graeme Simsion recently. His internationally best selling book The Rosie Project – currently being made into a Hollywood movie starring Jennifer Lawrence – was written without time at a retreat. His advice – if you need to go away on a retreat to write, that’s not sustainable. You have to be able to write anywhere, anytime.

That’s good advice but what if you are not writing for a living? Then maybe some quality time away with your research is what you need. Then again, if your domestic arrangements won’t stretch to accommodating your absence – as mine did not at the time – then all is not lost.

I particularly liked the advice from Nancy Whichard PhD, PCC, a dissertation and academic career coach. She wrote that when she needed to make a space for writing—a cottage, if you will—inside her house, she put a sign on her home office door that read “Mom’s in Maine.” Nancy, who has successfully coached to completion doctoral candidates from all over the world, acknowledges that it is really difficult for mothers to find quiet time to write. Where do you find quiet time and space? Yes, you need a room of your own, and firm rules about being distracted, but that’s not always possible with space issues, and parenting demands.

I grew up with a mother who was always engaged in academic study, so learned to respect her tiny work space and her time. Unlike many women I know, I refuse to let my children onto my computer or into my space, and they haven’t suffered. It is important for children, and sons in particular, to understand a woman’s thinking time is important, and to respect her work.

I think women, generally, are far less willing to be selfish with their writing time than men. In fact, one of the most common things I hear from women like myself who are divorced is the sweet luxury of having your own space and quiet time to write or think without anyone complaining you are not giving them attention.

My ultimate fantasy retreat? Having an architecturally designed writing studio in some glorious location separate from the house and domestic chores, but in the same compound, so one can wander in on life after wrangling with the muse. And here, I swooned at writer Elizabeth Bishop’s glorious writing snug built by her Brazilian lover, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares, in the wonderful movie ‘Reaching for the Moon’ (Flores Raras) which I just viewed as part of the Latin American Film Festival at RMIT. A bold, creative life and love might be as much a fantasy as a writing retreat perched up in the trees, with a glorious view and hand made desk. But we can all dream.

** Bush Retreats for Eco-Writers (BREW) is an emerging network of eco-writing centres initiated by leading Australian environmental philosopher Professor Freya Mathews. The centres are located on ecologically significant private properties in various parts of Australia. Eco-writers can apply for the BREW network retreats in NSW. Click here for more information. 

Fit to write: staying healthy enough to be creative

1 Apr

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I have learnt my lesson. I know that I can work myself to the point way beyond exhaustion and still keep going. I have such a hard time switching off that I hardly ever do. And that, my friends, is not a recipe for a long and productive life.

It’s certainly not good for a writing life, which needs space to breathe and think and weave and imagine.

And it’s not good for the academic journey, either. You need to know how to make yourself rest and look after your health if you are going to get to the end of your doctorate – and beyond.

I know what burnout is and so do the legion of other doctoral graduates who have come before me. Is it any wonder we all collapse into the post PhD blues after the ‘birth’ of our projects?

In some ways, it is pointless for me to tell you that you need to allocate some time to your health and mental wellbeing when you are a doctoral student. Pointless because I know it isn’t going to happen. Like doctoral students who have come before, you are probably going to work yourself so hard at the end you too will get sick and wonder why you feel so awful when you have achieved so much. Welcome to the world post doctorate.

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Why is this so? Because the doctoral journey demands absolute focus and determination. It’s not about a balanced life. Only a few, even in the crowded world of higher education, really come through compared to the rest of the population, so why be surprised that it exacts such a huge toll? You will, like I did, probably ruin your health getting there. If you had the luxury of taking it at an even pace, chances are you had an easy run in other aspects of your life. That’s not my world, or that of my friends.

This is a true story:

Doctoral intensity demands that you are at your desk, during a ferocious thunderstorm, and when the power blacks out and a loud explosion is heard, you grab a torch and keep writing that journal article by back up battery power. Only to find the next day your car has been struck by lightening.

That happened to a friend of mine who is currently recovering from a bad bout of flu that has seen her in bed for three weeks. Three weeks, she somewhat cheerfully told me, she can use at the end of her scholarship to extend the submission time next year. Only a doctoral student can see such light in illness.

I spent so much time at my desk in the final six weeks to submission that I would sleep only a few hours before staggering back to the computer and sitting there for 15 hour stints. I worked my body harder than a machine – I know, as I was outraged when the people who ran the university photocopy centre refused to run their machines as I demanded, at the rate I wanted, saying it would ‘kill them’.

“But I demand as much from myself!” I yelled at the person in charge.

“Maybe you should rethink your attitude,” came the curt reply.

This was actually rather prescient – no doubt born out of having seen burn out before. The last person anyone should be around is a doctoral student about to submit.

And indeed, it came to pass that I handed in, got my doctorate, and my body broke down. In every possible way. I was gripped with searing hip pain so bad it felt like a chainsaw being through over my body and I am a woman who has had two children. I am well acquainted with that horrific pain. “No core strength,” muttered my physiotherapist. “What have you been doing? Sitting down for years without moving?”

Well, hello – welcome to the world of the doctorate.

“I HAVE moved,” I protested. “Some of the books I needed on the stacks require me to bend – and stretch!

While we are on the subject of core strength, it’s probably not worth remarking on the fact that sugar is what keeps many a doctoral student going towards the end of the stretch. All good intentions are out the window as the bran screams for something to keep it going. And- think about it – where does that sugar go if not being worked off via exercise because you are desk bound? Exactly. Who hasn’t emerged from such intense effort looking like they did post childbirth?

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It’s one thing to say ‘whatever gets you through the night’. It’s quite another to get your body back into shape after submission.

For me, this involved a year long program of diet and exercise and twice weekly sessions of clinical pilates. I was in really, really bad shape and could hardly move. In fact, so wretched was I in the last year before submission that a friend overseas who saw me a few months after I had submitted the doctorate commented “well, you are certainly looking a lot – fitter!” Indeed.

Once I got my health – and body back – my particular passion became a combination of dance and pilates, slogged out at the barre twice a week, and my body thanks me for it, as I stretch out the parts of my body only too happy to collapse in front of the computer.

Let’s face it – my muscle memory is nothing more than sitting in front of the keyboard.

And so, I diligently walk every day, and if I don’t make the commitment, I suffer – my old friend sciatica snakes its tingling, searing pain down my leg in glee at having been woken again.

Yet I realise my commitment to exercise is only half of the battle. There is a mental health aspect to pushing myself to the limit that I find hard to shake. And that’s a habit as dangerous as sugar, inertia and excess coffee.

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Having read transmedia writer Natacha Guyot’s excellent blog post Be Kind To Yourself  I was reminded of how unkind I am to myself, and how I should be nicer. I am a real bitch and slave driver when it comes to myself – as no doubt are many similarly ambitious, driven, focused, Type A’s out there who have taken on the academic challenge and writing as well. Natacha’s post resonated with me!

My second worst habit is going without sleep to fit everything in.  My worst habit is my determination to constantly have it all. I don’t want to give anything up and refuse to make compromises with myself; I want the children, career, creative life, intellectual life, and (after rediscovering it again post doc) the social life.

Okay – so the social life tends to fall off first and I drop off the radar when I have a deadline, and then it is sleep that I let slip – I am always reminded that former British Prime Minister the late Margaret Thatcher ran the country on four hours sleep a night – an impressive woman who also had two children, she got a lot done and had high standards of herself and others regardless of what you think of her politics.

The thing is, physically and mentally, what drives us as writers and academics and what is our strength is also our weakness – our ability to focus and concentrate at the exclusion of all else.

It’s no secret that universities are breeding grounds for stimulant abuse, and it’s not partying that’s the reason. It starts with coffee, caffeinated beverages, caffeine tablets and esculates to whatever can be purchased legally or illegally over the counter or over the Internet. I am not condoning the practice – just stating the reality that is well documented on the internet. Perhaps we could even call it the dirty little secret of academic study.

So – post doctorate, how do you come down off the adhrenalin high? Well, for a start, your body just gives up. You get sick. You are in pain. Your body does it for you. That’s the post doc blues. Most people say they look older. Haggard.

And so you rebuild. Slowly. You don’t get away with flogging your body and life mercilessly without pay back. Folks – it’s going to take some time to put Humpy Dumpty back together again. You really do have to submit and then find time to smell the roses. Daydream again. refuel the mind, body and spirit.

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I can safely say that after 18 months, I am in recovery. I exercise, go to dance class, I am not in pain, I have lost weight, see my friends, cook for my children, read for pleasure and factor pleasure into my life – and fun. Which is probably why people are starting to comment that it must be time I had a book or two published, isn’t it? After all, what on earth am I doing with my time now I have finished and passed my doctorate?

Yet doctoral study habits are hard to break, and I think that a warped sense of what we should be achieving could be a lasting legacy of higher academic study. I am pretty sure it is yet another thing that sets those with a PhD apart from everyone else.

Stop. Be kind to yourself. Look after your body and your mind, and take a break! You have to make sure that you can last the distance or you won’t be fit to write. Anything.

 

 

Carpe Diem: Living and writing in the moment

2 Mar

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

Creative arts: risky doctoral research in a climate of fear

9 Jan

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For those of us in academia the challenge is to continue to contribute to the world of ideas, knowledge and to produce relevant and challenging content despite the risks. In the wake of the murderous attack on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this week, we now more than ever have a responsibility to do just this – and not have our voices silenced in a climate of fear.

When gunmen stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, killing at least 12 people, they put into sharp focus the risks those in the creative arts take. In her blog, Sharon Waxman, Founder and CEO of The Wrap, said that in the wake of the murderous attack on the editorial staff of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, there is really only one way forward: publish, print, draw, film.

For those who are pursuing a Doctorate in Creative Writing, it often feels we face an uphill battle in our academic study, starting with the fundamental anxiety of whether what we are doing matters and is worth the effort. Will anyone read our work? Will our research have any impact? What’s it all for, anyway?

It can be too easy for people to sneer that academics – and doctoral students – are stuck in an ivory tower. Yet there has never been a time when academic research and creative output was more relevant.  The threats of self gagging and self censorship in political, creative and social commentary that threaten to be a fall out of the appalling massacre in Paris means that the need for those in the academy to continue pushing boundaries has never been more crucial.

As a doctoral candidate, it can be too easy to become dispirited about future employment prospects and your relevance in the world. What is the point, anyway, of a PhD in Creative Writing? A PhD in the Visual Arts?

Society needs creative practitioners to take risks and push boundaries. And we need to believe in the value of our work and research when we, as doctoral candidates in these areas, do the same. It is not a case of STEM work being important and the creative arts the ‘soft option’. As the attacks on freedom of expression in Paris have shown the world, a line drawn in ink can have more power than a gunshot. 

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There needs to be more people – not less – who are skilled at high level research, and can interrogate information and challenge accepted ideas. The world needs those who have the ability to articulate and speculate and imagine futures and scenarios. We should salute those who are not afraid to raise their voices and pens, just as we must join those in France to mourn those who have been killed because of what they have created.

What we are doing with doctoral research is pushing forward knowledge one tiny piece. Maybe your work isn’t going to put you at risk of staring down the barrel of an assault rifle, but never underestimate that the pursuit of knowledge and the challenging of the status quo will inevitably anger many, no matter what form your research takes. It is easier to burn books than write them. Silencing ideas and knowledge through violence and fear is a trope as old as time.

As a writer, when you tackle your creative project this year, are you prepared to put in the endless hours required to bring your ideas to life? Australian author Markus Zusak rewrote best selling novel The Book Thief 200 times because he believed it made the writing stronger. This powerful novel is the result of imagination, hard work and a determination not to let past atrocities be forgotten. It is brave writing about a dark time.

So, as you embark on another year of doctoral study, never give up faith that by producing the words and doing the research, you are achieving, even if you are having a bad day. You have a responsibility to overcome your fears and do the work even if it is less than perfect, rather than keeping the knowledge locked in your head until it emerges as a polished gem. Remember, a PhD isn’t a Nobel Prize. It simply has to be ‘fit for purpose’.

Perfectionism – doctoral misery – fear of failure – panic attacks – all these need to be put into perspective, or they will paralyse us. One of the best pieces of advice I heard during my PhD came from a visiting academic who was praised by a gushing professor for all the publications he had produced – and how did he do it? “Never under estimate the quality of work you can do when you are exhausted”, he replied. “Work more, work harder, write more and publish.” Do not sit on your ideas, don’t hoard knowledge; be bold enough to expose your findings to an audience.

We all have bad days, days we struggle to get out the words, days when what we want to communicate seems to fall flat. Alan Percy, head of counselling at the University of Oxford and spokesperson for BACP UC (British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy Universities and Colleges) says that the fears, confusion, hard graft and sometimes feelings of despair that virtually all PhD students go through from time to time are part of learning to become an independent academic researcher. In his blog post “Studying a PhD: Don’t Suffer in Silence” Percy writes that “building up the resilience and skills to cope with the uncertainty of researching a new area of academic knowledge is a great strength for all future academics, researchers and very useful for life in general”.

Words and images may have been temporarily silenced at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, but the legacy of intellectual freedom and freedom of expression will live on – it must continue. That’s the thing about ideas, they are more powerful than a gun. That’s reason that academics and intellectuals, artists and writers and journalists are historically in the firing line. So pick up your pen, hit the keyboard, produce. And your New Year’s resolution is to celebrate the fact you are alive and able to contribute to an intellectual life. No matter how much you despair about your academic study this year, pushing forward with your work and contributing to knowledge is the most fitting legacy for those who have had their lives so brutally taken from them.

Do not get paralysed by illusions of perfection, or forget that whatever your doctoral research, it is a small step to the advancement of knowledge and, though yours may seem like a tiny voice in an ocean of indifference, all those voices and insights of doctoral candidates around the world count in the wave against ignorance, cowardice, and fear.

Words and the bravery of the voice and pen to carry them, these are the weapons against attacks on freedom of expression and the right to be provocative with our imaginations, ideas and our pursuit of knowledge. Go brave with your work.

 

Show Me The Story: Creating Your Doctoral Narrative

6 Nov

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Once you have your doctorate, don’t imagine the progress reports stop. Don’t think you can say goodbye to explaining what your research means, or why it is important and whether anyone should care. In fact, once you graduate, the demands for you to sell your doctoral story have never been greater. Now you have your doctorate, you are expected to deliver your story about your research in razor sharp, fully focused, bite sized pitches. To everyone.

Some great advice I received shortly after graduating was to start practicing my story. Not the story of what I wrote about – but the story of me; my doctoral research, my journey – both what I did and what I planned to do. I had to curate myself.

In short, you have to be able to sell yourself. “Let everyone know who you are, that’s no easy thing,” I was warned. My mentor is a fellow doctoral traveller, fast tracked on those research only spheres, and I took frantic notes over lunch, as if I was back in a research study methods class early on in the PhD.

I was reminded of the need to be able to tell the story of my work again when I listened to a consummate performer and terrific writer Graeme Simsion at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. Simsion is the Melbourne author of the bestselling novel ‘Asperger’s romcom’ The Rosie Project. 

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I have the good fortune to live in Melbourne, a UNESCO City of Literature, and to work at RMIT University literally one block from the Wheeler Centre for Books and Writing (my second home), where I regularly attend lunchtime and evening writer’s talks and events, and many weekends every year honing my craft at writing workshops and meeting with my regular writing cohort.

Like so many who have enjoyed Graeme Simsion’s romantic Asperger comedy The Rosie Project, including Bill Gates who called it “profound” I had marvelled at Simsion’s clean and sparse style and economical use of language, as well as pace. But I also know many who know Graeme (it’s a small writing world in Melbourne, and indeed Australia) so I also know the dedication that goes into perfecting his craft, and in writing a sequel of his successful first novel. All the more reason to appreciate his work and also enjoy listening to him speak – in particular, on the value of stories.

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Take heart, fellow doctoral students in creative writing. When someone challenges you on why you are doing something so ‘nebulous’ and not a doctorate in say communications or public relations, reply, as I do “because I believe in the value of stories”.

In fact, post doctorate, I work in strategic communications where I use my doctoral skills daily – and use the power of the narrative to shape communications. It’s a gift to be able to tell a story, but a craft to spin a yarn across all mediums.

In his talk, Graeme Simsion stood and spoke, engaged with the audience – a full house of adoring fans, and said loud and clear “I have found the value of stories”.

Interestingly, while Graeme said he was inspired to write the character of geneticist Don Tillman in The Rosie Project by a friend’s story (an IT wiz with Aspergers), he didn’t want to write his story.

How do you go about taking a real person and turning it into a character? One way is to create a character and then place them in not the same situation as the real person, but an exaggerated one – raise the stakes, throw everything at the character. And don’t worry about going with the comedy if that seems to be the way the character is dictating the story.

“If you are lucky enough to be gifted a character who makes good comedy, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” said Graeme – who learnt this gem from Australian comedy writer Tim Ferguson, whose motto is “make them laugh, make them cry, make them think.”

 

The crucial thing for Graeme was that he didn’t set out to deliver a message, but to tell a story. As I was listening to this, I reflected on the doctorate in creative writing, where we are compelled to both tell a story (with the novel) AND deliver a message (with the exegesis). This is one of the hardest things for the candidate because the brain is going “exposition, exposition” for half the required work, and “show, don’t tell” for the other half of the doctorate. One has to deal with writing time and focus, and always the need to refrain from adding the message we are learning from our research into the novel, instead of letting the novel tell the story.

Graeme said “if you write a story that has your values, you might succeed”. And I think that’s the key – to go so deep into your research, and know it so well, that it comes out in your writing in an organic way. This is a far cry from “I am going to get a scholarship and take four years from other work and write my novel – oh, and I’ll throw together that pesky exegesis to keep the examiners happy.” I think to be really successful at both sides of the creative doctorate, you have to pursue both research and writing with equal passion. And that’s not easy.

Of course, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Oh – they are? Point taken, well then, even more writers would be doing the creative writing doctorate than they are already!

The other thing that Graeme said is that he doesn’t want to get too influenced by other people’s portrayals of fictional characters ‘on the spectrum’. So he doesn’t watch Big Bang Theory. No Sheldon Cooper for Graeme, lest he be swayed by that approach. Many writers say the same thing – though in some ways it’s counter intuitive with academic research. We endlessly swot over other academic’s papers, for instance. And the worst thing that could happen if you are writing an academic paper about fictional characters with Aspergers in TV sitcoms is not to have watched The Big Bang Theory – or read other papers on the topic. How often as a doctoral candidate did I hear “We don’t care what you think, you stand on other people’s shoulders – and what does your academic guru think?” In creative writing, however, your voice should be unique.

 

Graeme’s view is that there are a range of people in real life with Aspergers, just like, for instance, knowing one person who is gay doesn’t provide you with an understanding of every gay person on the planet. “We need to be able to see a range of people in fiction, not stereotypes,” he said.

Graeme has a successful background in IT, which proves that you can’t stereotype writers – no working in a bookshop or living off writing grants and a bit of sessional teaching but rather a career that taught him that “there are craft things you learn when you take on a new discipline.”

I admire this methodical approach, and perhaps that’s the sweet spot where STEM and the creative arts meet. I was so intrigued by Graeme’s logical breakdown of turning a screenplay into a novel that I pass these suggestions of Graeme’s onto you. Remember, a novel allows the reader deep into the inner world of the character, especially if it is a novel in first person, as is the Rosie Project. How do you translate this inner world into a screenplay?

“Sometimes you don’t,” admitted Graeme. “A book is a book and some things a book does better. You can always go to that book and get into the inner world.” One of the reasons people have buddies in films said Graeme, is so they can externalise their thoughts and their inner world.

But there are tricks, said Graeme. Such as the voice over. This is either liked or loathed. I was reminded of watching Blade Runner again recently, with a friend who had never seen it, and her son, who studied it at school. Even though we watched the Director’s Cut, I still had the 1982 Theatrical Release in my head, expecting Rick Deckard’s (contentious) voice over as Replicant Roy Batty dies.

The 21 year old, who had never seen this version, looked at me in amazement. “Why would anyone think the audience needed a voice over?” he asked. A film does some things, and as Graeme Simsion said, “A book is a book and some things a book does better.”

Why indeed. The death scene with just the close up on Deckard’s face is far more poetic, filled with longing – for life. Is the voice over needed? The beauty of films that we fill in the internal monologue through music, cinematography, and acting.

However, when we are telling the story of our doctorate, we cannot assume anything as we are selling our research to a varied group of people. We may not have a captive audience, the lighting and sound may be bad and we have not had time to develop our characters. It could be a short ten minute interview for a coveted academic job, and we are one of many vying for the post. In that case, go for the obvious, sum it up, make it snappy. Give them the Deckard voice over in the Blade Runner Theatrical release. “I didn’t know how long we had together – who does?”

Yes, give it to them, curate yourself with a little story. Practice on your friends.  Like any story, the story of your doctorate gets easier with the telling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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