creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, doctoral deadlines, editing, writing workshops

Falling in love again: the (re) writing zone

set of pens

There are many sorts of writing, just as there are endless ways to read. Snack, bite sized and on the run – or delightfully languorous, never looking at your watch. As for those on a doctoral deadline, we all know frantic and deadline driven writing and reading. But then, after you have submitted, there is the hardest of them all – revisiting old work that needs an over haul.

Just as it’s hard to get back into a book you’ve stopped reading and put away for a few months (do you ever really finish one of those tomes?) so is the pain of revisiting fiction you have put aside. Because no one gets their work out to publishers while the exhaustion of doctoral completion is fresh. So, how do you come back to the work in six months, or a year? You have have passed your Creative Writing PhD, but your novel probably still needs some work before it hits the publisher’s email.

How do you fall in love again with your work and care enough to tackle it afresh?

That’s been my preoccupation these past few days, as I have a manuscript I am working on that still needs a wrangle. The trouble is, it goes further back than the doctorate – the work I am revisiting is the novel I wrote for my MA. You probably have one of these yourself – the knowledge that you want your manuscript in the best possible shape before you send it to a publisher, but there is an aspect that just doesn’t work. Or work well enough to catch the eye of someone who wants to sink money into it. And that’s why you have left it, because apart from nibbles and some interest, it’s not quite there yet.

The worst thing about putting such a manuscript away and working on something else is that it is damned hard to revisit again – without getting into the zone.

I admit it – I am a deadline junkie as much as the next journalist but this old habit from an old working life doesn’t really cut it when you are doing a doctorate, because there is too much work for a final sprint at one deadline. You have to chunk it up and give yourself mini deadlines.

This is also a way of reentering the orbit of a work that has gone off your radar. If you are anything like me, other priorities take over, and it is only the arrival of a red letter and non negotiable deadline that makes you open the file, delve deep back into the world you created and – start again.

The problem is, unlike making bread where the combination of flour and water and yeast and heat may rise, with a manuscript that has been left, if the plot and characters haven’t got the chemistry to work together, they will still fall flat and prove difficult to fashion into a tasty product no matter how long you let it sit.

rising bread

Or maybe not. Perhaps only tweaks are needed, maybe you need to change the voice, or the tone, or the characters. But perhaps a fresh perspective could also help.

Enter the workshop doctors.

If you can find yourself an intensive professional writing group – the sort that only works with those of your standard, not hobbyists, then this could be the boot camp you need to get a fresh take on your work.

I joined such a group when completing my doctoral novel, and it was invaluable. Now I am revisiting my masters novel, and while I have had two chapters published already in literary journals, the time has come for a serious edit and revise.

The trouble is, getting back into the zone. The zone of ideas that created the work in the first place.

Chances are you are not the same person you were when you started writing your book. In the time that you put the work down to ‘breathe’ and start something else, you may have moved on, found other interests, fallen in and out of love, perhaps had a child, travelled. Well – you might have put the book away for six months or six years – so how do you come back to that place that spawned those ideas?

Life is conflict, there are small and large battles every day, and the trick is to both write, and be a writer, and also have a life, move forward from the fears and ghosts that are holding us from joy but without sacrificing the shadows that helped us with the necessary chiaroscuro for drama in the first place. It’s one thing to write, it’s another to maintain both a life, a writing life and an inner life necessary to conjure up work from nothing, and maintain the head space and practical surrounds to develop this into fiction. It is a skill, and as my writing mentor admits, one that requires a high degree of difficulty. And higher chance of failure. Are you wasting your time? Your reader’s time?

There are several tips about entering the general writing zone that apply to re-writing – write every day, make a writing plan, read widely and every day, immerse yourself in reading about books and writers. Yet as a professional writer, this doesn’t go to the problem of reentering the zone of work you have put aside.

In that instance, as well as re reading the manuscript, you really need to enter the zone of ideas that created it. Hopefully, if the book is about something that you really are compelled to explore, you will have been doing this even as the incomplete work languished – or was left to breathe.

I know I am still obsessed about the themes in my work, which I am now revisiting. And those in my circle who have read the manuscript are still pestering me to get it out into the light of day. because those ideas are still compelling.

I keep reading fiction that explores ideas around the emotional or narrative core of the book. Just as it isn’t necessary to write about an exact experience, or indeed person, but rather the emotional resonance of a real event, it’s not necessary to only read fiction in the genre you are revisiting. In fact, I think it hinders, as we can get swayed by another ‘voice’. Many writers like to read non fiction in areas of their current subject interest for that reason.

Two books have helped me reenter the zone in the past few weeks – Joan Didion’s heartbreaking 2005 novel The Year of Magical Thinking and Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s 2009 novel The Angel’s Game. Quite different books, that have both had an impact on my way of approaching my work again. Of course, a little obsessive behavior is always good when finding the zone – block out the outside world, let the kids fend for themselves as you bark “not now I’m writing!” and try as far as possible to screen out pesky things like current affairs, world news and local elections while you sink deep into the fictional world you are creating.

There is no getting around the fact that writing is a solitary and selfish exercise. Not much fun to be around when the process is going on – about as much fun as sitting watching dough rise in a warm car. No, unless you are going to participate by offering your naked back as services for a writer’s quill, or be there to support, perhaps it’s best that writers should be left to wrestle with their work, thrash and howl alone. There is simply nothing exciting about the process, especially when revisiting the bloody site of work that needs more work. That’s the spot to avoid at all costs. Like a car accident. And there is no way around it – revisiting the zone and rewriting is going to be its own form of torture.

An invaluable exercise in finding 3000 words (and new writing on the piece) for the upcoming writing workshop was being forced to answer three questions about the book that had been bothering me – and also contextualizing the novel, and the piece from that which I submitted to the group.

Ask yourself  – what isn’t working about your novel? What would you like a reader to look at if they were given a chapter? Is it plot, character? Voice? Drill down – be specific.

For me, the hardest thing was projecting myself into the work again. This was a world I had made, these were characters who didn’t exist until I put them on the page. To change the protagonist because of feedback I received from readers who said they didn’t like her is one thing. But to wonder whether she would have been better of as I had her – an obsessive, overly emotional and deeply superstitious woman on an unlikely quest – is another again. If I change her slightly, and make her more stable, wise cracking, more modern, then would be bizarre journey be as believable?

That’s a question I put to the workshop – but to do that, and not just throw in a speculative question, I had to create the other version of my protagonist, and also her love interest, and also the location of the opening scene.

So, not so much a revisit as a rewrite. But then, all writing is rewriting.

As I watched my son make bread under my friend’s guidance on the weekend, we searched for a warm place to leave the dough to rise – Melbourne’s famously erratic weather meant even in mid summer it was a cool day, and I suggested the inside of my car. This one of my grandmother’s tricks – because the inside of cars left in the sun warm up quickly.

bread in tin

My son wondered what would happen if we forgot about the dough, and came back hours later – we imagined the yeast rising and taking over, oozing forth out of the car because it was not tamed into submission by the baking process.

An apt metaphor I think, for the novel that never gets finished, but constantly added to.

Perhaps my anxiety at the keyboard today had a lot to do with the knowledge that this beast of mine must be kneaded into shape, and put in the oven to cook (read sent to publishers) and then the moment of truth, of seeing whether it all falls flat or not.

I am pleased to announce my 13 year old cooked his first successful loaf of bread, which was very quickly eaten. The challenge is now on for me to again get into the zone of my novel, and knead it into shape, whatever its new shape may be.

“So, how did your writing go today?” I asked my friend who is tackling a few major deadlines.

“It was really enjoyable,” came the reply. Ah – to be in the zone, while I struggled to find that space. It made me realise how hard it is to revisit the past. My mother always warned me, don’t look back, you will turn into a pillar of salt. But we must look back as writers, and re-enter the zone.

To do so, immerse yourself in the ideas and the themes and characters you created in the first place, and then pull it apart and see if tackling it differently brings a better outcome. Rewrite from first person to third? Kill your darlings – favourite characters who have become redundant? Or make the voice stronger, harsher, ore younger and more innocent. Ah – choices. Once you re-enter the zone, stay there, move around and play with your work. Write like you have never written this book before, write like you are discovering the ideas all over again.

That’s where the enjoyment comes in. That’s the zone. Bite into it.

sliced bread

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements
Academic success, Body hair, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, editing, parenting and study, PhD completion, Time management

Staying power: how to finish your doctorate

anguish IMG_2892

One of my grandfather’s favourite sayings is that you need to have ‘stickability’. Well, I’ve certainly got that. I stay long after the party is over, long past the bitter end. When the going gets tough, I simply put my head down and get on with it. That’s how I finished my doctorate on time.

I blame a career in journalism, where only the tough survive the rigour of daily newspapers. All I can say is has made me appreciate every aspect of working in a university. When academics bleat on about how times have changed and how tough it is now they are accountable, I just laugh.

One newspaper where I worked had the charming practice of daily humiliation; little errors from one’s copy were added to a black list and pinned to all notice boards with your name added.  I suppose in these days of HR molly coddling, they’d never get away with it now.

No wonder I have a very high pain tolerance when it comes to people treating me badly, which is one of the reasons I survived the doctorate and completed on time, despite also working full time in a demanding career and raising two children.

I had a very clear vision of graduating, and nothing was going to stop me. That’s not to say I didn’t encounter road blocks and problems, of my own making, from the university, or simply sideswipes from life. Of course I did – we all do. It’s how you overcome them that separates those who finish from those who flounder.

In a blog written by The Thesis Whisperer – “Why do people quit their PhD?”,  a number of reasons for doctoral failure are suggested by Ernest Rudd in his book “A New look at post graduate failure”, I realise I have encountered many of these problems, and had overcome them. Unlike movie stars and models who will lie and tell you they never do Botox and eat what they like, I’ll offer the cold, hard truth.

Here are the problems doctoral students have – and my tips:

Problems with motivation, including boredom, disenchantment and laziness

My biggest problem comes from my years as a journalist – I am a deadline junkie. If I had an open-ended four years with a final deadline, I’d only get cracking seriously at the final hurdle. My doctorate – like yours, I am sure, had built in deadlines every few months when I had to present progress reports. On top of that, I created my own deadlines by presenting papers at conferences. The annual spate of conferences – I averaged two a year, many overseas – meant I kept motivated and interested. As for laziness – it’s not in my DNA. And I think maybe it is easier to do a doctorate when you are a mature age student with a lot of commitments and people replying on you. I never had the luxury of being lazy. Also, I had no social life so I never felt I was missing out by spending all my time studying. Bonus!

Failed lab work

lab workIMG_0250

I never did lab work, but I failed many times on the way to completing my doctorate – dead ends, false starts, ideas that didn’t get off the ground and when they did fell into a bloodied mess. Then too many ideas that threatened to overwhelm. Failure is just another way of moving forward. As a writer, I know you can never achieve anything without failure. Being a writer is actually a great preparation for doing a doctorate because all of the things that people complain about with a doctorate – no hope of a good job, no financial rewards, the isolation, the constant rewriting, the endless justification of your work and ideas to those in power, hours hunched over your desk, the tunnel vision of research and the misery of it all – are actually pretty much what being a writer is all about.

Injury or Illness

Luckily I never encountered injury or serious illness, but I have two children and they frequently got sick and threw my schedule into chaos; I learnt early on to make sure I gave myself enough time to factor in roadblocks. I also made sure I did enough regular walking to physically make it to the end of the doctorate without completely falling apart.

Family commitments, including marriage breakdowns

I have written before about the need to be selfish with your time and need to study. My house was a mess, because my priorities were my paid work, my academic study and my children and everything else got left behind. Sometimes when there is blackness all around, the best work gets done because that becomes a focus and escape.

Loneliness

One of the good things about working full time and studying full time while you raise children is that loneliness is not an issue. Lack of sleep is an issue. If your life is full, if you are really giving in all areas that you can, then you will relish the solitude when you can get it. And it may not be human or physical contact you need either – a pet can help, as can blogging! At the 100 day mark to the doctorate I did two rather crazy things which actually kept my sanity and motivation – I started this blog, and gave into my son’s pleas for a dog (and found I was the one walking it daily – surprise!)

the path IMG_2771

Lack of University jobs / attraction of a job offer

This is a lame excuse for dropping out of a doctorate. I never imagined it would be easy to get an academic position and have been proven right. You don’t do a doctorate for future career prospects or expectation of a higher salary. I am not sure what the reason for doctoral study is, but it’s certainly not to achieve material gain.

Problems in choice of topic

If you are going to get nothing out of four years of hard intellectual slog except for the indulgence of burying yourself in your research and pushing the envelope in what you can achieve, you’d better be passionate about your topic or you will fail. I didn’t choose a topic because someone else thought was a good idea. I did what I wanted and everyone else be damned. Which is perhaps not the best way to get an academic job, but then again, there seems something soulless about pursuing a topic because it is currently in vogue. Because fashions change. (As Cameron Diaz warned young women embarking on permanent pubic hair removal)

Cross disciplinary research issues (see “Is your PhD a Monster?”for more on this topic)

Hey – my research gets a mention in this Thesis Whisperer blog! One thing I can say about cross disciplinary research issues is that just as my hybrid research revealed our fears of crossing boundaries, straying from a discipline path reveals similar fears. Many supervisors don’t like you crossing over into other areas. How many times did I hear “you are not in the school of philosophy!” or “You are not doing a doctorate in journalism!” Ditto any attempt to seriously look at ethics, bioethics, or any other area not considered on the path to a straight and narrow submission.

However, just as in fairy tales and horror stories, the most interesting things happen when you stray from the conventional path. Yes, it’s hard, but hard can be more rewarding. And while on the subject of fairytales, I do believe that the most interesting directions happen in a doctorate when you start the journey with a story – a “what if?” story….

Problems with ‘writing up’.

I took my cues here from the Thesis Whisperer articles and (lucky me) research talks she gave at RMIT – I was the swot who spent every lunch time at every free talk on research that was available, often repeating the sessions several times. (I also found the talks that supplied sandwiches because I am good at multi tasking) One of the things I have learned is that you need to start writing up immediately. As a writer I will tell you this – all writing is rewriting. I also tested my theories out in blogs, and cast the thoughts out in the public sphere this way; blogs became abstracts for conference papers, which then became articles. Sure, many got knocked back, but eventually, after taking it on the chin, and going back to the computer, reworking and honing my academic language, I achieved success. 90 per cent of my exegesis is now published.

supervision issues (including neglect, incompetence and personality clashes)

supervisors IMG_0248

Again, maybe this is my tough as nails journalism background, but who said you were going to get your hand held when you did a doctorate? Also, haven’t you spoken to anyone or read anything about how bad supervisors are? It’s a universal complaint – so don’t complain. Suck it in, grin and bare it and find the help you need elsewhere if you are stuck with a lazy, tenured supervisor who road blocks you and offers no real assistance. You are not the first or last to be in this situation. Get out and network at conferences and find a cohort you can talk to and trust. I was lucky enough to find people, and don’t discount second supervisors or outside support. Ultimately, it’s up to you. As the late Nora Ephron, a wonderful writer across genres, said in an address to the graduates of Wellesley  in 1996, “Above all be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

 

 

Academic conferences, Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, Doctoral misery, editing, PhD completion, The Hero's Journey, thesis writing, Time management, Writing strategies

Return with the Elixir: The Hero’s Doctoral Journey Concludes

IMG_3806

As the large official stamp went down with a thump on my form, the woman wielding the object at the School of Graduate Research looked up at me and said “So, feel any different – now you are a doctor?”

“No different from a second ago,” I said. How can that be? This is something I worked long and hard to achieve for the past four years. Now I had the literal seal of approval in my hands. I just felt exhausted.

Dr. Evelyn Tsitas.

Yes – it’s official. I have now jumped every hurdle.  I have completed, submitted, been examined, made the minor amendments, and handed in the ADR – in Australia, that is the Appropriate Durable Record. At my university, an impressive bound copy of your thesis is no longer desired – rather a few files on a disk that can be uploaded into an Electronic Thesis Repository.

Maybe not as pretty, but certainly global.

I was handed the stamped form. “You may now call yourself Dr Evelyn Tsitas, how does it feel?”

My senior supervisor who was there as I submitted all the signed forms – from the Head of School, the Dean and everyone else on the academic food chain – insisted “You must feel different – it does feel different, doesn’t it?”

Did I miss something? Did I suddenly get sprinkled with gold dust? Did the earth suddenly open up and a chasm of light rise from the centre, did a mass choir burst into song and the seas part? Well, of course not. But I’ll be damned if some sort of secret handshake didn’t almost get enacted amongst those in that office, and there was some sort of respect that hadn’t been there a mere thirty seconds before the official stamp sealed me as Dr. Evelyn Tsitas.

This doctorate has been the mythic hero’s journey – Joseph Campbell’s metaphor for the deep inner journey of transformation. In his book Myth and the Movies, writer Stuart Voytilla says this path leads the hero on predictable movements of separation, descent, ordeal and return. The final stage on this quest is Return With the Elixir, where the hero comes home and shares what has been gained on the quest, which benefits friends, family, community and the world.

Don’t we hope our doctoral research does just that?

Using the example of Woody Allen’s film classic 1977 romance Annie Hall, Voytilla says that the end of the movie finally shows the ability to look back on the good times in a relationship and acknowledge the elixir. He writes “relationships are irrational, crazy, and painful, but we keep going through them because we need the good times.”  That sounds a lot like a doctorate – it’s not all bad. People keep doing them because there are rewards, and some good times. And there is something within us that drives us to complete the enormous task – that quest for knowledge.

As I diligently went through all the corrections required by my doctoral examiners – such as formatting and editing (para 2, page 86 It’s (Its), Page 83: para 3, unclosed quotation marks, etc….I wondered if the final remark from one examiner – that I should have done nothing but the exegesis (and the novel) in the four years – no conferences, papers, certainly no ‘extra curricular’ writing as I am want to do – much less a full time job – was correct.

But what’s more important – handing in a pristine exegesis, devoid of a single typing error OR – making some sort of impact with your research, reaching out to the international community, having the guts to publish your research and make your name in the field? And actually trying to squeeze in a bit of life in those four years as well? Have just a little fun along the way?

This is the dilemma every doctoral student must face.

IMG_4110

Let’s talk about perfection – especially perfection in print.

I have spent most of my career as a journalist, on everything from suburban weekly newspapers, to magazines and daily newspapers as well as freelancing and blogging and here is the thing – there are teams of sub editors to read through and check for grammatical errors that sneak through even the cleanest copy. As writers, we read what we expect to read, and the only way I can see around having to do any minor corrections of formatting and grammatical or typing errors is to pay for several stages of professional editing before handing in the thesis.

Yet this is the real world, where you work until the last nano second on your doctorate, you don’t have a lot of cash to burn, and you do your best, but just like with daily newspapers and published books there are errors.

As long as they are not errors of fact, we accept them. Just as I accept that the doctorate is not a perfect finished and polished gem, as one examiner said it should be, at the expense of everything else.

Another academic suggested a doctorate should be ‘fit for purpose’. It is, after all, the springboard for a research career. No one publishes an exegesis as is. The day of the monograph is over. You use your work to create a series of journal articles, you also turn your thesis into a book, but not without going through a major edit with a publisher.

And as for the Doctorate in Creative Writing, the novel you submit will go through many changes after it has found a commercial publisher. These are the realities.

In hindsight, should I have done less as the examiner suggested, and handed in a ‘perfect’ exegesis? I wasn’t asked to change any of my arguments and my research wasn’t questioned, so I can live with correcting typing errors and formatting problems.

Looking back over the past four years, what would I have changed to ensure a ‘perfect’ rather than ‘fit for purpose’ result?

Some things I had to do, such as be a full time worker, mother and doctoral student. Others, such as teaching post graduates, blogging, writing, and editing outside the doctoral structure and presenting my research at conferences around Australia and internationally as well as submitting to academic journals, were all extra curricular.

But would I end up a better academic if I just simply focused on just doing the exegesis? No, I think I would have ended up insular and timid.

Especially in this competitive time when the academic environment has changed so rapidly, it is now crucial to get your research out to a wide audience, and to start making your name with your research as soon as possible, and prove you have a strong network in your field. I went to Oxford last year to present at two conferences, and am back again in September, to present the last chapter of my exegesis. I would rather have those experiences and the connections I made rather than a perfect doctorate without one little error.

IMG_4306

And so it comes down to this – the CV or the minor amendments on the exegesis as requested by the examiners?

I chose the later. And now I have done those pesky changes, I have the stamp on the official form that says I am Dr Evelyn Tsitas, as well as an impressive academic resume and two and a half years of tertiary teaching experience under my belt.

In the meantime, I have lost a lot of sleep, any social life and what little cooking skills I had. Even my microwave reheating techniques are a little dodgy. My kids have become a lot more resilient, though if I want to scare them into behaving I just say the magic words ‘mummy will do another PhD’. That subdues them.

It may contain a grain of truth, in fact. After a break of about nine weeks from the intensity of the doctoral deadline once I had submitted, I didn’t cope with the post-submission limbo very well. I was like a runner, swimmer or any endurance athlete after the finish line – exhausted but flat after the high of competition.

But plodding away at the minor amendments, I started to get the doctoral high again. I enjoy the peace of writing and studying long into the evening after the children are in bed, the dog is quiet and the words start flowing. It’s hypnotic, really. For me, writing is like my favourite scene from Jane Campion’s wonderful 1993 film The Piano.  Just substitute being at the piano keys for the computer keyboard. This scene so beautifully captures the rapture of creativity, when you can totally immerse yourself  in your art, so that nothing else matters; the children amuse themselves, others wait patiently, the light fades, but you are not forced to move on until you are done.

The doctoral pain dissolves, and I can feel that urge again…maybe I’m not quite finished yet? I wouldn’t be the first person in my immediate family to go back and get a second Masters after a doctorate. I wonder…is this Higher Degree Stockholm Syndrome?