academic cohort, Academic relevance, Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, parenting and study, Time management

Lessons from my doctorate

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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?

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creative writing, Creativity, living with books, reading, Uncategorized

The life-changing magic of a personal library

IMG_1450When my eldest son was little, he had some wonderful phrases. For instance, “I want the more”.  For those who have or are pursing a PhD ‘the more’ is exactly what they are after. More education. More chance to pursue research and engage with ideas. And yet, with a higher degree comes a higher level of stuff – experience, qualifications and also notes, books, and clutter.

 Did I mention books?

There is a declutter revolution going on, and I am not part of it. Put simply, I have a lot of stuff. I have a lot of stuff related to the great passions of my life, and that includes reading and research, and guess what? No amount of Japanese declutter guru Marie Kondo‘s advice about letting go is going to make me fold my stuff away, and wish it well, and bin it.

No.

I am keeping my stuff. And my vast, personal library. And my PhD notes. The photocopies, downloads, the stack of questionable DVDs in the horror genre (research), the endless notebooks from research strategy classes over the year.

I take copious notes. I am an obsessive note taker and I can rarely THINK without a pen in my hand. The long, long rows of notebooks in my bookcases reveal past talks, lectures, encounters. I take great notes, too. I consider them recipes for future ideas. Why should I throw these away?

They are all staying.

To paraphrase actresses like Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson, et al, a few frown lines bestow character on the face, I feel the same way about my books…and stuff. They give my home character.

A house without books is one devoid of character. Get rid of your books, and it’s like excessive Botox to the face. All character wiped out. In fact, one of the great joys of going to British stately homes is checking out the library, which has been added to over the centuries. Sure, there are glorious tomes bound in leather, and then there are more personal additions, supplemented over the years by those upper class descendants with perhaps less highbrow tastes than the discerning Lord of the Manor who purchased editions on the Grand Tour.

 

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Under the Kondo method, and her cult book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, these grand homes and their grander libraries would be forced to purge. Too much stuff! And – the constant question people ask bibliophiles – “but will you ever read it again”. Who cares!

Under Kondo Rules, I would be forced to make the choice of what to keep in a brutal assessment of the ‘worth’ of my stuff. If only joy-giving belongings remain, then how do I feel about several copies of Frankenstein, each purchased at a different time in my life, some with notes in the margins, others gloriously bound and illustrated. Do I have to choose?

What about the poetry that gave me joy as a 17 year old, but that I consider a bit juvenile now? I still remember defending my choice to enjoy a particular author’s works when a friend’s mother, older, wiser and doing her PhD, challenged me about its merits. I probably now agree with her, but I recall my feisty retort, and I am proud of standing my ground. Those books remind me of that passionate teenager.

I am not letting that stuff go. For a start, it comes in handy. I hate referencing everything on computer and am in the belief (tested, alas) we are but one flat battery and power failure away from losing everything. My advice (anti-Kondo though it is) is to Back up, analogue. That is, keep your stuff, your books and your notes. In physical, hard form.

Yet there seems to be something of a moral judgement about people who have much stuff. And by this I mean all the big stuff of life – lots of kids, lots of degrees, lots of accumulated things – be they houses, clothes, books, cars, furniture.

Not so with experiences. Isn’t it interesting that people can spend vast amounts of money (and track a large carbon footprint) on travel and accumulating experiences to quench their wunderlust, and not incur the wrath of the declutter experts. But stuffing your life with experiences (that, let’s face it, cost money in terms of travel expenses and time) is surely  as wanton and buying books, having children, and buying them stuff.

 

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I do sense a bit of ‘moral panic’ about the love of books, and the deep pleasure of a damn good personal library. Books are much hated – we are told we can have our entire library on an ebook reader, but so what – I don’t want to read like that. I work on a computer all day and enjoy having print under my fingers at home, and love picking up my books.

I have given over my house to books, and in each room I have bookcases devoted to different genres. Yes – even my bedroom has one wall of books. In my sitting room I decided to provide space to crime and horror. My study, logically, holds books on writing, writing technique, linguistics, and of course, research and pedagogy. In the music room – this is a little eclectic – I have biographies, lovely old books, strange travel books, books on houses and gardens, and books that were gifts, like glorious coffee table books.

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The dining room features, naturally, epicure, cooking, and literary fiction. In my art studio, there are (of course) art books, and in my bedroom can be found women’s writing, erotica, poetry and research books for the latest book I am writing. It’s probably excessive, probably a lot of ‘stuff’, but other people have lots of shoes.

And in answer to the questions – have you read all your books? No. But many I have read over and over, and I dip into others constantly, and others remind me of my life journey so far. There are comfort books to delve into when I am down, books that transport me, move me, engage my mind. Books for one day and not the next. Books to look at, treasure and hold. Books waiting for me, a new conversation to be had. Books I loved as a child and books I loved reading to my children. Books, just because. And finally, books, I tell the critics, are my tools of trade as a writer.

I have a PhD in Creative Writing – of course I have a lot of books!

On a recent weekend away with friends, I checked out their bookcases, and as they are both writers, my eyes lingered as much on the books I had in my own library as those I did not. Our slightly varied choices spoke of our different interests, yes, and also different preoccupations as writers – and our different PhD topics.

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But there was one book I spotted, like a magpie after shiny tinsel on the road, and dived at it, holding the gem in my trembling hands.

I begged to take it home. Please, may I borrow this book?

It was a small hardback, rectangular, and beautiful book. This exquisite book spoke to me despite all the books I own and others I am surrounded by. It begged to be picked up and opened.

Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books edited by Leah Price, is a delight. For a start, it explores the book as an object, and writers talking about their own personal libraries. Author Junot Díaz writes that when he was floundering with his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao “in the darkness of those years books were lanterns, they were lighthouses”. No surprise that it was given as a birthday gift from one of my writing friends to the other, purchased as a perfect souvenir from San Fransisco’s legendary City Lights Bookstore.

Price writes in her introduction to her book that allows authors to talk about their book collecting, “We read over the shoulders of giants; books place us in dialogue not just with an author but with other readers. Six months from now, this book may be supplemented by a Facebook site. What seems unlikely to change is our curiosity about what our friends and strangers read – or about what others will make of our own reading.”

Sure, I could consign my PhD research notes to the shredder now I have the doctorate under my belt. Or – I could keep them as a road map to four long, engaging and arduous years of thinking. And – refer to them again and the copious notes I made in the corners, on the backs, in highlighter, the frantic and sometimes insightful journey through the maze of my research.

If time, circumstance and lifestyle dictate, I may move on from here, once my children are grown, from this house that enables my large library to surround me.

But until then, I will refuse the siren call of the declutter experts.

 

 

 

Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, writing retreat, Writing strategies

The writing retreat: how will you finish your doctorate?

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. 

creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Marketing your research, Writing strategies

No laughing matter – 10 lessons in taking comedy off the page

Simon Mallory in The Heckler
Simon Mallory in The Heckler

One thing that universities rarely do well is getting students to think beyond the doctoral completion and how to sell their product. This is a problem if that ‘product’ is the result of four years of a Creative Writing PhD. I can vouch for the fact that while I had to sweat through classes in research methods, advice on pitching to an agent, writing a killer synopsis and finding a publisher were not taught. Or – even mentioned.

Perhaps there needs to be a post doc course in ‘making the research count in the real world’. Who wouldn’t sign up for that? More to the point – why isn’t it taught? Instead of lamenting the fact, I went to some experts for advice. And by experts, I mean people who have made the successful leap from theory and research to industry success.

Writers Steve Mitchell and Graeme Simsion, who both met as screenwriting students at RMIT, wrote and produced The Heckler , which recently won the “Best Ensemble Award’ at the LA Comedy Festival.

The Heckler is an out-of-body feature in the tradition of the great Ellen Barkin comedy from the early 1990s, Switch. Like that movie, The Heckler’s protagonist Steve isn’t entirely likeable or laudable. So when the self obsessed stand-up comic’s body is hijacked by a jealous heckler following an accidental death after a gig, it provides the opportunity for Steve to start literally waking up to himself and rebuilding his relationship with those around him. The movie features some wonderful twists and sight gags, and a truly sexy and romantic kiss that in the way of body swap happens between two women.

Steve Mitchell’s background is in IT. As an emerging comedy writer who has many TV credits under his belt, he jokes that he sometimes performs stand-up comedy to “prevent his self-esteem from reaching acceptable levels” (stand up obviously has much in common with sending articles to academic journals). Steve studied filmmaking at VCA and Professional Screenwriting at RMIT (where he met Graeme Simsion), and has the stand up gift of making everyone in the audience feel that he is speaking directly to them – a skill that is invaluable when promoting his movie.

Graeme Simsion is the author of the 2013 best-seller, The Rosie Project; translation rights to his book have been sold to over 35 countries, and a film of his novel is in the pipeline with Sony Pictures. When Graeme came to the screenwriting course, he already had a PhD (in Data Modelling) under his belt and says that helped him overcome any fear of writing a large project. I rather like the fact that the producer of a movie about hecklers on the comedy circuit has not one but two PhDs – Graeme received a Doctor of Communication Honoris Causa from RMIT in 2014.  Lesson # 1– doctoral skills transfer, and as a mature age student you bring skills and life experience that will help you leverage your research into industry.

I got together with Graeme and Steve at a café near RMIT to discuss creative careers, collaboration, and advice for students hoping to see their stories on the screen.

Steve Mitchell promoting The Heckler
Steve Mitchell promoting The Heckler

Graeme wanted to dispel one myth first – that creative writing students have it tough because there is no defined pathway into a career after they graduate. “There is actually no defined pathway after a commerce degree either, and I built a career as I went in IT. I had to adapt to what’s changing; the arts are not madly different.”

Steve agrees that ‘you make the path’. Lesson # 2 – don’t be too defined in your career path because it might be a long and winding road to where you want to go But that’s fine – don’t be so precious about what you want to do. As a writer, every encounter and experience is copy. Take notes.

Now this is all well and good, except if you are grinding through your doctorate and wondering what comes next, if that creative project that has to pass through the examiners will ever see the light of day in the commercial world. Here is their advice – stop looking at the end goal and the ‘Hollywood movie’ (or best selling novel) as the big dream. That, says Graeme, is a million miles away. Lesson # 3 – major success may be so far down the track, break up your goal into smaller chunks – keep revising your goal with what you learn on the way.

Ironically, The Rosie Project started out life as a screenplay, and ended up as a book when Graeme changed his goal to something he felt was more attainable. Don’t lock yourself in. “The journey is important,” said Graeme. “You have to enjoy all the little goals along the way.”

GraemeSimsion. Photo credit James Penlidis
Graeme Simsion. Photo credit James Penlidis

This attitude is necessary in surviving – and thriving – in the creative industry. Just last week it was announced that Jennifer Lawrence, who was to play Rosie in The Rosie Project, had to pull out of the movie. The director Richard Linklater then followed. Graeme’s response to media was that he was disappointed “that the deal with Ms Lawrence didn’t happen” but he was getting on with writing his next book. Lesson #4 – don’t lose sight of the work, and don’t measure yourself against massive goals. Anything could happen.

The Heckler is a movie that came to the screen via networking. The sort of networking within an academic cohort that we so often overlook because as doctoral students we are focused on word counts, deadlines and completion. But your academic cohort are your network, and you need to put the effort in to meet them and work with them.

Not surprisingly, Graeme and Steve gravitated to each other during their course as they both put in the time and effort above and beyond what was expected. They instantly recognized each other as kindred spirits – ex IT, ambitious, mature age – and immediately partnered up to help each other with writing and editing. Steve was Graeme’s writing buddy from the inception of The Rosie Project, back when it was The Klara Project, and Graeme is credited as an editor and producer on The Heckler.

Lesson #5 – working within your cohort and finding the people among them who have similar ambitions and experience is important. Find writing partners, writing groups, academic reading groups – but make sure these are with people of a similar level of experience and energy. You don’t want to carry a dead weight.

But what about external networking? You know – making contacts in industry, pressing the flesh, finding out who can help you get a job inside or outside academia? How does that work?

Steve laughs. “You shouldn’t work the room when you are starting out. What do you have to offer? It’s not about what someone in power can offer you – it’s what you can offer them.”

Steve Mitchell (right) at the opening night of The Heckler.
A dream realised – Steve Mitchell (right) at the opening night of The Heckler.

Well, what can you offer? Look at it this way – you are smart, ambitious, and want to get ahead. Offer your time, and your hard work. Contribute to joint projects, volunteer. I volunteered my communications and journalism expertise to promote and support an academic conference as soon as I completed my doctorate – a way of getting to know those in the industry and also supporting the academics who supported me in one way or another during those four years of study. Lesson # 6– when it comes to networking, put in, help out, be humble and learn. No one will help you unless you offer to help first. Your efforts will be recognised as will your attitude.

While having a movie such as The Heckler, or a book published, is a major achievement, those in the creative arts need smaller calling cards to alert people to their ability to manage a project to completion. Do you have one? Lesson #7 – get a calling card. Make something and put it in the public eye so people can see what you can do. Send your stories to smaller literary journals. Publish a poem. Start your own blog – get your writing out there.

Graeme put in money as The Heckler’s producer, but he only did so because he knew Steve had the runs on the board as a writer and director. Steve received development funding from Film Victoria for his AWGIE-nominated feature ‘The Non-Believers’ and he wrote and directed ‘The Unusual Suspects’, which was a finalist at the 2012’s Tropfest Film Festival. Lesson #8 – submit your writing, put it out there for grants and festivals and awards. As someone reminded me when I was wavering about whether to put in the time and effort pitching for a project I didn’t think I’d get – opportunity involves being there to begin with.

By now, it should be clear that as funny and uplifting as The Heckler is for someone sitting in the audience, the path to the screening has been a long, arduous and unpaid one for the writer. That didn’t change once Graeme was on board as producer. “The last thing I want to do is give someone money for a salary,” Graeme said. “Writers are going into the ultimate capitalist world and people expect them to work for nothing. This is where courses get it wrong by telling students to go and get grants. It’s not about grants – you can’t write a book or film in three weeks or three months, you can’t write it while on a retreat, if you can’t do it without a grant, chances are you can’t do it.”

The length of time that Steve worked – unpaid – on The Heckler before Graeme came on board as producer was three years. Lesson #9 – be prepared to put in many long years of unpaid labor before you get your break. Even The Heckler’s final sound mix and mastering was achieved via crowdfunding with a Pozible campaign to raise the required $20,000.

Finally, both Graeme and Steve have a piece of advice for writers who feel pressured to build a social media presence in order to sell their work. Lesson #10 – work on your writing rather than your social media profile, and get the product as good as it can be. It’s ready to go once you are proud of it.

Steve agrees, “even with all the years I spent on The Heckler, once we committed to the shoot we did two more tighter drafts and made it as good as it could be, because once it is made, it is forever, and while the act of movie making has never been easier, making people care has never been harder.”

Graeme agrees. “In the end, your best promotion is word of mouth. Don’t worry about the critics.”

The Heckler is screening at selected venues around Australiawhere to see the movie

The Heckler is also available to download on iTunes.

Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, Creativity, Doctoral completion, Doctoral misery, post submission blues, staying healthy, Time management, Uncategorized, work-work balance

Fit to write: staying healthy enough to be creative

bex

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.

window snake

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?

cakes

 

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.

coffee

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.

sky

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.

 

 

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

Simply shocking: when our fiction writing pushes the boundaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

notting hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

Carpe Diem: Living and writing in the moment

IMG_3307

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

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

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

still alice

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

front row

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Carpe Diem. Seize the moment.