Academic conferences, Academic Study, Academic success, Chimeras, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, PhD completion

Through the labyrinth: passing my doctorate

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At last – the long wait is over. The doctoral results have come through.  And it ended in rather dramatic circumstances. I discovered I had passed my doctorate via a text message from my supervisor: “call me NOW!!!” and an urgent email saying “OMG Evelyn – you are through and you have done it and done so well! Congrats!!!”

Where you are when the big news arrives is always important – and who you are with. I was in the university art gallery where I work as a publicist, emerging after a long meeting regarding an upcoming exhibition. The group of people from the music industry waited patiently for me to show them out, while I rushed to check my phone messages. It was after 6 pm and being a working mother, it’s always wise to see if there has been a hitch in the complex after-school child-minding procedures.

Suddenly I was jumping up and down and yelling out “I have passed! I have passed!”

They are used to dealing with major rock stars so I guess a little flamboyant gesture on my part meant nothing. “What have you passed?” one inquired, politely.

“My doctorate – I have passed my doctorate!”

There was hugging, pats on the back – and then the questions:

“So – do we have to call you Dr Evelyn?”

“What did you do your doctorate in?”

“How long did it take?”

My brain was in that adrenalin buzz when thoughts tangled like cotton wool on carpet. I mumbled, “No – not yet – paperwork- ceremony – humans animal hybrids in science fiction – took four years – felt longer…”

“Human animal WHAT???” came the bemused reply.

“Go on – tell them what your conference paper is about,” said the Gallery director, smiling.

You see, I had just outlined the dates of my upcoming holidays to the group at the meeting – telling them I’d be in Oxford in a few weeks, presenting a paper at the 8th Global Conference of  The Erotic: Exploring Critical Issues. They were about to find out what a strange topic it was that I had selected….

“The erotic and the non human – specifically, bestiality and science fiction…well, with hybrids…”

There was a moment’s silence. “Fantastic!” “Very interesting!” Well, these guys are used to dealing with big name rock stars and their foibles, so I guess the exhibition publicist travelling across the world to talk about mutants and erotica isn’t so alarming.

The advantages of working in the arts are that, frankly, no one is shocked by anything. The advantages of working in a university are that everyone understands and appreciates all the anxiety of the years wandering through the doctoral maze.

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When I told the esteemed musicologist who is curating the music exhibition with the director, he became quite emotional. “Oh – that is just so fantastic – I know how good it feels to have passed.”  It was a heartfelt comment – both as an academic who once jumped through that hoop himself, and as a supervisor mentoring his own students through the labyrinth. While everyone is happy for me, those who have been through the doctoral process, or are going through it now, know how it feels to have finally passed.

It feels fantastic!

As luck would have it, I was due to meet a fellow crime writer, the author Angela Savage , for drinks after work. She is also interested in doing a doctorate and I was to give her some tips, and celebrate the release of her latest novel, The Dying Beach. Now at least I felt qualified to give advice on the doctoral maze!

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I told her the good news straight away. Angela, an early adopter of social media, had her smart phone out in a flash and posted a picture of me looking happy and a little dazed on Facebook before I knew it. I am pictured sitting in The Moat, the bar and café located in the basement of the Wheeler Centre for Books and Writing in Melbourne’s grand State Library, smiling like a Cheshire Cat, sipping a red wine cheekily (and aptly) called Ladies Who Shoot Their Own Lunch  for like me, Angela is a winner of a coveted Scarlet Stiletto trophy for Crime Writing. I was proud to take a glorious photo of her beaming and triumphant when she won her Red Shoe trophy, so it felt like the tables were turned. Indeed, at that moment, it started to feel as if those four hard years were actually behind me.

But – not quite. I do have to some make minor changes to the exegesis, which are the dreaded ‘literals’ – misplaced words, errors found in errant upper and lower case, and so on – the sort of thing that a thorough going over by a copy editor would sort out. I can live with that. Juggling two children, a  full time job and a full time doctorate meant something had to give. So, if my final presentation was a little ‘wabi sabi’  at least I can be pleased with the fact that I didn’t have to change any of my arguments, ideas, or content in my novel – for both the exegesis (about 38,000 words) and the novel (about 70,000 words) were both part of my doctorate in creative writing.

I have a full three months to resubmit a pristine version of the exegesis, and I have two gratifyingly glowing reports from the examiners who loved both the academic work and the novel. In fact, I have quotes I’d be keen to use on the back of the novel as a selling point once it is published. I had the added bonus of examiners who had taken the time and effort to suggest ideas for further refining the manuscript before submitting to publishers. They put considerable effort into their reports, for which I am very appreciative. I know how hard it is to get such strategic and insightful feedback about your creative writing.

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As I am heading off overseas on my much deserved holiday – and conference trip – in early September, I will get this revision into the Graduate Research Office well before the three month period is up. I want this doctoral monkey off my back, and I want the paperwork finalised, ready for the next countdown – 100 days to graduation at the end of the year.

There have been endless hurdles along the way during the past four years – from confirmation of candidature to six monthly progress seminars and the final completion seminar, then submission – and the limbo wait for the examiners reports – and finally, minor revisions.

But I have also discovered there have been endless celebrations as well at the end – excited family and friends taking me out for indulgent events to mark submission and then the results. And I am not finished yet. As a lecturer told me once when I was an undergraduate – celebrate all your successes [for they may be few and far between]. How I feel now is best summed up by this exuberant song by Queen. “We Are the Champions”:

it’s been no bed of roses

No pleasure cruise

I consider it a challenge before

The whole human race

And I ain’t gonna lose

There is of course that big, final celebration of graduation, which I fully intend to participate in, floppy hat and all. It’s a rite of passage after the long journey through the maze of higher education – the Bachelor of Education (when I wanted to be an art teacher), the Graduate Diploma in Media Law (when I was a journalist), then the Master of Arts in Creative Writing (resetting the clock post children to a new post-newspaper career) and finally completing the Doctor of Philosophy. That’s more than a decade as a university student – though not undertaken all at once.

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I guess the other question that has come up in the past two weeks since I discovered I passed is whether I would do any more study. I know plenty of people who have a PhD and two Masters degrees. Others who have two doctorates. Am I done yet? I met someone at a party on the weekend who was about to embark on her second doctorate. I felt a little envious. Oh, a new start – a new topic – a new university – a new challenge…

It’s a bit like looking at your cute baby lying momentarily asleep and peaceful in the cot and thinking – I’ll have another one – without fully comprehending in the fantasy the complete upheaval in your life that frankly, never ends. So, maybe I should quit while I am ahead. Then again, unlike having children, there’s no biological clock when it comes to studying. Never say never – right?

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Academic conferences, Academic Study, Chimeras, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, horror, science fiction, Splice the Movie, thesis writing, Time management, Writing strategies

Doctoral companion species? The Creative Writing project and exegesis

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Just as I have spent the past four years exploring the hybrid in science fiction – a character that exists outside binaries – so I realized that the actualized Creative Writing doctorate also existed outside the binaries. 

Throughout the exegesis I have come to realize the hybrid stands slightly outside the human, never properly human or animal, never allowed to fully participate in the human community – or the animal pack. Never human enough, never animal enough. Actually, that’s how I felt growing up – never Greek enough, never Australian enough. A hybrid.

Although they spend the days fighting, at least my cat and dog can play together as well. And the cat can always run away. Take one good swipe at the dog. Or both can retreat and bury their differences. Not so the human-animal hybrid in science fiction. There is nowhere to go.

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It’s the same with the Creative Writing doctorate. The novel and the exegesis have to get along, play nice, and find some common ground. I can hear myself getting increasingly frustrated, saying – “for goodness sake, the damn exegesis has to let me spend some time with the novel – enough already!” And still it demands! Doesn’t it realize it is a hybrid – unable to exist without its other half?

Yes, I am at that “I am so sick of it, I can’t read another word” stage of my research. I have even begun footnoting in my dreams – and worrying about whether I am getting the damn referencing system correct.

In my exegesis, I argue that the hybrid exists in both human and animal categories simultaneously, challenging but never destroying either category. The great fear for the human characters is that the animal within the hybrid will harm them. The good news is, this happens in my novel as well. Or it would. If I ever get time to do the final edit. And, as I have discovered this is the fear writers have when they start the Creative Writing doctorate.

A relatively new higher degree, this doctorate isn’t taken seriously by those who have decided that a/ writers should never undertake a higher degree, and b/  it isn’t like it’s a “real” doctorate anyway as it is “just writing”. Add the fact that I am doing mine on beings that don’t actually exist…well. You get the picture!

That actually fits with my research. By the 21st Century, in science fiction the hybrid’s danger is acknowledged to be its human side. As illustrated in this scene from the 2009 movie Splice, where the scientists examine scans of the newborn hybrid Dren and ponder her potential threat:

Elsa: Not all animals have predatory elements.

Clive: There’s the human element.

That brings me to Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto. Here, Haraway argues that dogs are not about oneself. They are dogs – not a projection, nor the realization of an intention, not the telos of anything.  (The Companion Species Manifesto: Dog, People, and Significant Otherness. 2003. Prickly Paradigm Press – p 11).

This makes more sense to me now I actually have a dog. I small, joyful, mess creating, life enhancing puppy. Finally asleep in his basket at my desk. He likes to keep an eye on me long into the night.

A friend told me when I got the puppy that things I never expected to get destroyed would. I could batten down the hatches as much as I liked, but things would happen I couldn’t control.

A metaphor for academic research if ever I heard one.

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So, what’s that got to do with the Creative Writing doctorate?

Maybe sometimes we need to look at it for what it just is. Just a dog. Just a thing in its own right and not an end to anything. I think those of us in the thick of it know this, and are too caught up in it and too darn tired working on it to fight the popular opinion that challenges us as to why we are doing it. After all, no one asks why anyone does a doctorate in a science related subject, do they? But somehow, many people do not think it is valid to study – and write – fiction in higher education. But I didn’t start this doctorate to learn how to write – I can do that, thanks. I did it because I wasn’t about to do one in architecture, philosophy or bioethics. Writing is what I do, and that was the dog I was going to study, so to speak. I wanted to push that writing boundary as far as I could, challenge myself and stretch myself in my area. And I don’t feel I have to justify this.

I do argue, however, that many creative writers embarking on a doctorate in Creative Writing fear the “other half” of the work required. They imagine they are “either” a creative writer “or” a researcher, and often feel they do not have the academic language or research skills required to merge the two together. Even those in the media have queried whether this doctorate should be allowed to exist – much the same way that creation of scientific hybrids are debated. 

Will they be good for the community? Or destroy humanity as we know it? Yes – by that I mean both the Creative Writing doctorate, and scientific chimeras. And, while we are at it – fictional hybrids.

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The fear many writers have is that their academic research will harm them, make them less creative, and take away their spontaneity. This is one side of the hybrid dominating the other. Yet it is interesting that unlike, for instance, the skills needed to be a professional tennis player that are seen to need coaching and training, writing is viewed as a gift from God – (quite mythological) a skill that can’t be taught. If you don’t have it, you can’t learn it. But those in higher degrees in creative writing would argue otherwise.

The research, while pulling you away from the creative, deepens your involvement with it. The images in this blog were taken from a tapestry at the Ashmolean Museum last year when I was in Oxford to take part in two conferences related to my doctorate. I think they perfectly illustrate the doctoral battle for creative writers – one part trying to dominate the other, the exegesis trumping the novel, and vice versa. Yet while I went to Oxford to present my academic research, it caused me to explore new areas in my creative project. The impact of that trip is still resonating in my work, in the exegesis and the novel and other interesting ways. I am going back in September 2013, to present the final chapter of my exegesis, on the erotic nature of the hybrid at the Exploring The Erotic conference.   I see this as an invaluable experience. Getting feedback on your ideas and research from your peers – indeed defending your ideas and research to them – pushes forward your work and gets you used to taking your work into the public sphere. 

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My creative project came into being as a hybrid. It was based on a short story I started writing several years ago at a bioethics conference in Queensland, where I was presenting a paper for my MA in Creative Writing. I was listening to a paper about the perils of xeno transplantation – the use of animal parts in humans – when the voice of my protagonist Ariadne came to me. It was one of those creative moments when you realize that something has clicked. As a science fiction/crime writer – itself a hybrid genre, I felt a deep resonance with the idea of xeno transplantation and hybridity.

The short story that resulted was Xenos, a “hard boiled” speculative crime thriller (this is itself a hybrid of cross disciplinary genre) that won the Dorothy Porter Innovation Prize in the 2007 Sisters In Crime Scarlet Stiletto Awards and has become a middle chapter of my doctoral creative project. The short story has been published in Scarlet Stiletto – The Second Cut, available in ebook.

So there you have it – my doctoral creative project sprung to life like a mythological character, plucked from the centre of my Masters research, a hybrid from the start. A direct result of my academic research. Which part of the hybrid dominated?

A metaphor for academic research if ever I heard one.

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

Somewhat distracted: when your doctorate is more real than life

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It looks as if someone has had a wedding in my house. By that I do not mean it is festooned with flowers, or in a state of elegant expectation. By that I mean there is a thin layer of rice on the floorboards, and I have no idea where it came from.

One day, I arrived home from work to find this mystery greeting. The children denied all knowledge. Of all the things they could consume from the pantry, uncooked rice, they assured me, was not one of them. Still, I insisted the rice be cleaned up, and this request – not surprisingly – has fallen on deaf ears. Some rudimentary attempts were made, I believe, and since them – perhaps a few weeks ago now (I have lost count) I have been kicking the rice under the couch as I walk past. Well, I figure, it will keep.

The quantity seems to be dissipating, and I am now wondering whether it is Marty’s handiwork (I have named my resident rat after Heidegger – read on).

Today, as it is furiously windy, and the weekend, the doors are open. The kids and me are at our respective computers, and doors are slamming shut – left, right and centre. I tell the kids to down put the door stop, the really pretty one I got at the expensive interior decorating shop. The one that cost as much as a nice meal somewhere. The one filled with…rice.

Oh, dear.

We have a new puppy, and I recalled the puppy enjoyed playing with this door stop. And now that I think about it, the door stop was last seen at the same time the layer of rice appeared on the floor.

Have we found the culprit?

My 14 year old shrugs. “He’s probably buried it.” Indeed. So the doors continue to slam. The rice remains on the floor. The rat that the cat brought in to teach the puppy how to kill is now eating the rice from the door stop the puppy killed.

But that is not the worst of it. Oh no.

With three and a bit weeks to go until handing in, strange things have happened. Well – to me. The clearer my research becomes, the less real life appears. In fact, just as Heidegger makes sense, I forget people’s names. I forget their faces.  And my mind hears everything in a far off scramble.

For instance: one of my youngest son’s friends had a birthday party, and his mum texted me the details. Which I read as “Tazer tag party.”

Well, it took a moment to sink in. Tazer tag – a bit adventurous for 12 year old? Hm. Maybe a little – dangerous? Or am I out of touch? So I texted my concern back. She quickly responded with “LOL! tazer tag! It’s lazer tag!!!!” This has now become somewhat legendary in the playground.

Standing at the supermarket with four items in the fast checkout, I present the basket then numbly wonder if in fact $90 is a little excessive for some bananas, milk and bread. Or has milk gone up recently? Should I query – or not? The woman behind the checkout seems to be in a hazy fog as I say “Uh – $90???”

She bursts out laughing “Wow! That’s excessive – it’s actually $9…” And then, when I apologise, she is very sweet. She says, “it’s still early in the morning – it’s before 9 am – maybe you need a coffee?”

The kids joke about finding me caffeine patches and other alternative methods of caffeine release in the body. Maybe not.  I already consume vast amounts of coffee and Diet Coke. Anyway, it’s not that I am tired – it’s that I am so absorbed in my research that I really can’t focus on the world. I spend lunchtimes either in the library or reading philosophy or editing my exegesis, or writing a journal article. Luckily, as I work in a university, this sort of behavior is not only normal, it’s expected and supported. Oh yes, when it comes to being focused on your research to the point of being a little detached from reality, a university – and the other academics in it – are enablers.

Very late one night, I am desperate to discuss philosophers Heidegger and Agamben with someone, to talk about an idea I have had about the hybrid and Dasein. You know how these things just can’t wait? So I send an email to an academic I know, who has been engaging in these discussions with me for several years. Ping! Early the following morning they send back a thoughtful reply, and no explanation is needed – there is the unspoken acceptance of this crazed time.

I bump into a doctoral FB friend on the steps of the university gallery where I work and we engage in a burst of conversation about terminology in our respective doctorates, which is a topic more compelling to us than her recent wedding. Yes, she’s just married and in love, but she is also in love with her research (when she doesn’t want to kill it).

“Hybrid or chimera”? I ask. She counters – “I know – resistance or rebellion?! It’s doing my head in!” We are in our own worlds, oblivious to the bemused expressions on those around us. In our little universe, the choice of word is crucial as it aligns one with a school of thought, a theorist, and gurus; it’s all a code to other readers (and examiners). Every word means something. And something else. In the art world, for instance, one does not select or edit, one curates. This says something about the critical eye and the curatorial rationale behind the choice of works in an exhibition.

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Author Imelda Evans, who came to speak to the postgrads in my entrepreneurship for writers class, turned to me during her talk and said “by the way, I really think you should go back to hybrid – chimera has mythological connotations I just don’t think are right.” Her 14 year old looked up from her book at the back room, and agreed. A discussion ensures. What can I say? At some point, in these crazy last 100 days to the doctorate, your work (if you blog about it as I do) becomes open for public discussion – as it should. Just as we need to be open about our research as academics, we should also be open about the process of discovery, the curves, false starts, and the changes in direction. Indeed, the process of becoming an academic, of owning our research.

As I mull over the hybrid concept, I have been walking head down in thought when away from the keyboard. From the distance, it seems, I eventually hear my name being said, over and over again.

“Evelyn! Evelyn..? Evelyn…???”

And I slowly look up. I am sorry to say that it takes me a little while to place who that person is – and sometimes their name (even if I know them well!) escapes me.

The response from those around the university is the same: “Don’t worry about it! I’ve been there! I know what’s like!” and then they quickly turn away; “I’ll call you – in a few months, okay?”

Indeed, this is what happened when I literally ran into a professor and knocked her spinning as I was deep in thought.

“Evelyn! Watch out!”

“Huh? – Oh, sorry…”

“You look absorbed.”

“I’ve have been thinking about this scene I’m writing, where my protagonist wakes up to discover she has someone’s undigested hand in her mouth…”

“Oh my God – that’s utterly revolting!” said the professor. Then she smiled. “Keep up the good work!”

Academic Study, Chimeras, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral misery, Frankenstein, horror, PhD completion, thesis writing, Time management, Writing strategies

My novel is a cyborg! Adventures with my Creative Writing PhD

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The PhD in Creative Writing makes demands of writer that simply getting down and dirty with the novel does not. Despite the fact that many newspaper columnists howl that writers should simply write, and higher education is no place for them.

I am reflecting on this at the end of a week that was going to be devoted to writing thousands of words of the doctoral novel. And while I have done that, I have realized some things about my writing method, and the demands of the creative writing doctorate, that perhaps I should have known, but do now.

This doctoral novel is a cyborg. Considering the topic of my exegesis, I should have known that it was never going to be a straightforward week of just the novel. Such binaries from someone immersed in the theories of Donna Haraway! Indeed – what on earth was I thinking? Out with this binary aspect approach to both the novel’s structure, and to the Creative Writing PhD.

Yes – my novel is a cyborg. This PhD is a cyborg.

It is better suited to analysis using the semiotic square by A.J Greimas  – this useful concept of narrative theory was provided by author Antoni Jach at his fiction masterclass that I have been attending. According to Louis Hébert, Professor, Université du Québec à Rimouski, Greimas’ semiotic square is a means of refining oppositional analyses by increasing the number of analytical classes stemming from a given opposition from two (life/death, for instance) to four (for example, life, death, life and death (the living dead), and neither life nor death (angels) to eight or even ten.

 So, my novel Almost Human is not just about the human and the animal – by mapping the key semantic oppositions I have the following; science-nature; change- stasis; evolution-devolution; …and many more besides.

I am exploring the chimera as a cyborg character in science fiction – a character that exists outside binaries. So why do I insist on torturing myself with such binaries about the writing process?

Let me explain.

My exegesis is an exploration of the manufactured human-animal chimera in science fiction, and I am investigating Haraway’s 1985 cyborg manifesto and taking what I hope is a unique approach to using it as a creative writing tool and method of understanding the cyborg-chimera. In this case, applying it to the manufactured human.

In A Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway develops a set of criteria for cyborg existence. According to Haraway, a cyborg is a hybrid that challenges the distinction between the organic/technological systems, human and animal life forms, mind/body and male/female. Calling the cyborg “a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction”, Haraway points to the fact that cyborgs have both a real and imagined context.

While Haraway uses the ironic metaphor of the cyborg to suggest a new way of constructing ideas of feminism outside traditional ideas of the women’s movement and politics, in A Cyborg Manifesto she sets out detailed theories about “the cyborg incarnation”.

I have seen people’s eyes glaze over at this point – so I won’t go on about it here. Suffice to say my research thrills me, but then so does creative writing. But when the two come together – that’s when the sparks fly. Creative sparks, to be sure, but also those little flints of retina fire migraine sufferers will know as the aura. The portent of pain.

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The PhD in Creative Writing is a strange beast, demanding two different parts of one’s brain at once – the free form, associating, creative, fiction writing side, and the logical, deductive and analytical side that researches and writes the exegesis.

But here is the thing – one needs to thread into the other, like Haraway’s Cat’s Cradle – except with “exegesis” and “creative Project” instead of “companion species”

And why should this intermeshing sit quietly within the confines of a chapter in the exegesis? No, this tug-of-war, this process, it’s not theoretical, it is actual. Theory-practice – it is a Cat’s Cradle.

The novel wants to break out – the writing process unbound – and jump from insight in research to dialogue on page. I had thought I would spend the whole blessed week on my creative project but it wasn’t to be.

I ended up with both files open, novel and exegesis, and worked from one to the other – here, an intense few hours, there a brief pitstop, and back and forth, like a busy worker bee cross pollinating between the two.

It achieves nothing except guilt to confess that despite my best intentions, I didn’t spend the entire week on just the novel. I made very good and interesting progress with it, but just as I do not spend all my time engaged in my doctorate – and what doctoral student does just that, anyway? – I could not concentrate on “just the novel”.

There was a deadline for a journal article that is actually a chapter in my exegesis. Back and forth I went – article, novel, article, novel…and back to the exegesis.

As I worked on the journal submission, I’d be struck with an idea for the novel.

I also had a climax scene and ending to write for the novel. While I am very satisfied with the results, it did take me to some places I wasn’t sure I was going. Somehow my characters ended up in the recent bushfires in NSW that threatened the site of Australia’s top observatories. That’s the great thing about fiction writing. It’s the ultimate in time travel. Your mind is the Tardis. It can go anywhere, back in time, forward into the future, off to other dimensions and parallel universes.

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All this travel around Australia was part of my protagonist’s race to hide her daughter from harm…before the teen kills and eats anyone else. (Well, I am writing about shapeshifting chimeras…)

And maybe I wouldn’t have gone for such a strong mother-daughter ending, but for a remark from someone in my writing masterclass. He said: “your novel is about how to love, really, and not just about monsters and mutants.”

It really struck me – he’s read many chapters now that I’ve workshopped, and sometimes,  you are not consciously aware of the subtext. You are writing for character, pace, plot and voice, the other things sweep along underneath like a subterranean river. Another experienced writer can step back, read away from your messy creative process, and see clearly. The wood for the trees.

It is the chance remarks from those who know your work that suddenly link everything in the Creative Writing PhD like a cosmic thread. They join, and you follow the path – and there you are, in an unexpected place. Like Siding Spring Observatory.

I wasn’t sure exactly how I ended there, but maybe my subconscious mind knew better than me, having set the penultimate chapter in a remote motel in country NSW. Once I realized where my characters were heading – into the path of the on coming bushfire – I used my own experiences for sensory layers over the narrative.

I’m a city girl, but you don’t have to live in the bush to know what the edges of a bushfire are like. While Australian cities cling to the coast, the ferocious blazes send smoke, falling ash and fear onto us all. Every country has its Achilles’ heel of natural disasters – bushfire is Australia’s. I know many who have been badly burnt, I’ve reported on many who have died. I fear the bone dry countryside in the height of summer. And as a writer, it is the fears we draw on when we trawl our nightmares for inspiration.

I use a lot of mythological references in my novel. When my protagonist leaves the man who betrayed her in a heap in the observatory, and flees with her daughter, the fact that he may rise again from the ashes – like a phoenix – it is quite fitting. And very like a horror movie. My style indeed. Bring it on!

I recall interviewing a very successful and well known Australian author who said she doesn’t write a word without knowing the outline of every single chapter down to who says what.

When I was a working journalist on a daily newspaper, I never recorded my interviews because I would then have to listen to it all over again and transcribe – a daily paper is a pressure cooker and there isn’t the time – I took shorthand and quickly got the feel for what to quote, what to paraphrase and what to observe and report.

I took that approach to fiction writing. For a long time I felt like I had to obsessively plot out everything if I was going to be a real fiction writer. How I tortured myself – while actually churning out the writing, I hasten to add!

IMG_4404But the creative writing doctorate is a cyborg – it’s a boundary transgression between the exegesis and the creative – one informs the other, and demanded a different approach from me.

It’s a game of ping pong, with the ball of ideas hitting one side of the table and then the other, transferring images, words, phrases, ideas along the way.

Luck, chance, serendipity, nightmares. You can set your logical mind to plan the nuances of a novel, and maybe even write it all down before you begin, but 70,000 words is a lot of world to remember in your head, and sometimes, things you imagined for your imaginary world get lost in the fog of other words. Especially if you are doing deep research, as I am, into how so many of the literary tropes about manufactured monsters have evolved in science fiction since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Besides, if you let go of pre-conceived ideas about the writing process, one result of immersion in academic research while writing a novel are the threads that emerge from the sub conscious mind. Along with the most surprising plot twists.

Academic Study, Chimeras, creative writing, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, horror, PhD completion, science fiction, Writing strategies

Chimera or hybrid? The pain of naming the monster

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There is a flip side to having a hottie research topic that I hadn’t really considered until now. When you research monsters in SF, it’s such a fascinating subject that everyone wants in.

I am investigating the scientifically created animal-human chimera in science fiction and while that is a mouthful, it is necessary to state my parameters even in casual conversation. Because, believe me, everyone has an opinion on what I am doing, and how I should be doing it.

For a start – is it a chimera, or a hybrid?

I spent this weekend at a writing masterclass and needed to justify my decision to call the “manufactured monster” – the human-animal created by science -– a hybrid, rather than a chimera.

In my creative writing exegesis, I justified the term “hybrid” to describe the creature resulting from the scientific fusion of human and animal, rather than “chimera”. Why?

Chimera refers in popular language to mythical creatures and monsters, and in Greek mythology chimeras were fire-breathing creatures composed of the parts of multiple animals.

In scientific practice, there is no universal definition of a chimera. There are many groups in different countries involved in producing definitions for these new human-animal mixtures in science and the terms are debated (Hinterberger 2011).

So, I opted for the term “hybrid” to rule out any allusion to mythology that may be caused by the word “chimera”.

Hybridity is also a term used in literature and cultural studies and is understood to contest hierarchical binaries of nature/culture, self/other, male/female, human/nonhuman. (Heffernan, 2003) Also, Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1985), that I am using as methodology, challenges such binaries.

But it got me thinking.

Not the least because the person questioning me was a very experienced author with a formidable track record and extensive background working in the scientific area in just this field.

At lunchtime, over a salad, she told me about what goes on inside an Animal House and the scientific labs, because she’d been in them. She’d helped design them. And she said, “I’m telling you, the correct term is chimera, not hybrid.”

Sigh. I had just written several paragraphs in my exegesis introduction as to why I had chosen to call the creature a hybrid. Not to mention the four years of drafts and hundreds of thousands of words that described my research into the human animal hybrid in SF.

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I should be pleased that those I meet are even remotely interested in a research area that has consumed me for nearly five years. I mean, I can (understandably) see people’s eyes glaze over as I speak about my research. But just as it is impossible to read every journal article and every book on a subject, it is also impossible to keep up with everyone’s suggestions.

And by everyone, I mean everyone. This colleague’s point was valid, and had me hit the search and change function on all my files. From now on – it’s chimera, bot hybrid!

But what do you do with all the other comments? From the other school mum in the supermarket checkout, to my hairdresser, the guy who fixes my car, my kid’s friend’s parents – even my kid’s teenage friends – they all want in.

And just like being pregnant, and having to put up with advice from strangers, it becomes harder to hear the closer you are to your due date.

I am now 7 weeks from handing in my PhD. At this teary stage, I am fragile and sleep deprived. I guess I am gestating an exegesis and novel. That’s like – well, carrying twins!

If I was doing what many consider “serious” research – by that I mean something in engineering, science or computing that few have any understanding of let alone the vocabulary to speak about it – then I guarantee I wouldn’t be getting all these well meaning comments and advice. Even from a lot of academics.

However, I work in the humanities, and everyone feels free to wade in with an opinion. Especially as I work in SF and popular culture and you can’t swing a cat without coming into contact with images of the post human. All around us are films, computer games, television series and books that feature the augmented human, human hybrids/chimeras, and enhanced humans. From the most recent version of Total Recall, to covert operatives, chemically enhanced and physically and mentally uplifted in the latest installment of The Bourne Legacy, not to mention the cool and sexy Swedish drama Real Humans, depictions of humans changed by science are all around us.

I suppose over the years I have also become more confident in speaking about my research, and like a woman in love, I can’t stop dropping my beloved’s name every opportunity I get. Human-animal hybrids! Um, Chimeras! Monster Theory! My enthusiasm must be contagious, because it seems that everyone now feels an expert in my area. Some recent comments:

  • “Surely you mean chimera, not hybrid?”
  • “Have you watched The Blob?”
  • “What about Beauty and the Beast?”
  • “Why Frankenstein? He wasn’t an animal hybrid, was he?”
  • “Why not mythological creatures?”

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  • “What’s your opinion on The Centipede, anyway?”
  • “Aren’t you disgusted researching bestiality?”
  • “Is zoonosis about – zoos?”
  •  “How as a feminist can you include a misogynistic movie like Splice in your exegesis?”
  • “Why haven’t you considered aliens in your research?”
  • “What about Cordwainer Smith’s works?”
  • “I’d steer clear of Lacan if I was you.”
  • “Have you considered another expert in narratology?”
  • “I would really be looking at Deleuze and Guattari at this point.”

Of course, I get more and more paranoid that I haven’t considered all the above, and why not? With only 7 weeks to go before I hand in my PhD, how could I have missed any vital areas in my research?

I am not sure what the answer is. Learn to ignore everyone? Say, actually, Frankenstein’s creature was created from parts of the dead and animals? “The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of  my materials…” (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.) My bold.

All I know is there is more pain ahead before I complete.

Oh, and it is chimera now – not hybrid!