documentaries, Frankenstein, Marketing, Ownership of stories, Splice the Movie

Why ethics approval really matters – even in storytelling

As a storyteller who works across fiction, communications, journalism,  and marketing, I am interested in whether the participants of the new Australian documentary television series Struggle Street really understood what it means to give consent to their story being ‘sold’ by the media – not just ‘told’ by journalists.

Now that Struggle Street has aired in all its three part ‘poverty porn’ glory, the ratings are in. The series was a winner, but in nabbing such a large audience, who were largely tuned in for a voyeuristic peek into the underclass of the ‘Lucky Country’, it has caused the media to ponder issues of consent in the documentary genre.

The controversial documentary series first aired on Australian television station SBS on 3 May and was the focus of outrage even before it was first screened. Objectors launched a petition for SBS to suspend the broadcast.

Unlike those in the media, who need to use a standard consent form before entering the lives and minds of their subject and then broadcasting that around the country – doctoral students must go through a lengthy process to get ethics approval when using real people.

It is clear that Struggle Street’s phenomenal ratings appeal is the door being kicked open to a new and brutal form of storytelling and marketing when it comes to people’s lives. And one that should force all of us involved in any aspect of the media to pause and question exactly what informed consent really means when we ask people to expose themselves to public scrutiny.

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I did my PhD in Creative Writing so my subject matter – fictional scientifically created human hybrids – didn’t actually exist, so I didn’t need to get ethics approval to research them.

On the flip side, I was writing about fictional scientists in works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and director and screenwriter Vincenzo Natali’s Splice, which explores the fall out caused by people who really should have sought ethics approval before embarking on their projects.

Imagine trying to hand in a documentary like Struggle Street for your creative project without human ethics approval. In an excellent post in The Thesis Whisperer, Judy Redman writes “I’ve been told by a significant number of experienced researchers that completing the ethics application form helps them to clarify exactly what it is that they hope to find out.”

That’s not a bad thing, surely.

Saliently, Redman answers this following question in her article, which is at the heart over the media’s concern about what happened to the participants of Struggle Street.

Why do I need to do an ethics application?

“We have responsibilities towards our research participants. People are giving up their time (and sometimes also putting themselves at risk) to enable you to do your research. We need to ensure they can give free and informed consent to their participation and ensure their safety, particularly vulnerable groups.”

However, this matter of consent and whether real informed consent about the editing and marketing of the Struggle Street story was given by the participants is at the heart of the controversy about the documentary.

A television series like Struggle Street is aimed at garnering large ratings. To do that, the show must be constructed for audience expectations – tastes that have been weaned on reality television and sensationalism.

In this genre the audience wants to see excess, be it the voyeuristic and aspirational appeal of ostentatious wealth or the suffering and struggle of the underclass.  Participants may willingly let the media into their lives, but remain ignorant of how their stories will be shaped in the editing suite and in the subsequent marketing campaigns.

Yes, Struggle Street was a highly successful documentary. It attracted a large number of viewers. But is it enough to win a ratings war? Media analysis has now rightly focused on the issue of consent – specifically whether it is enough to gain written consent from people who may have no idea what happens once the cameras stop.

I suggest that consent can only really be given when participants are fully informed of the final campaign that will be used to sell their story.

In the communications business the client understands their story will be used to sell the product. In this case, the telling and the selling of the story are entwined. The client sees the final product and has been briefed on the marketing campaign, and is a part of all different stages of the process. They see the rough cut, the edited version and have the right to veto the story and steer the tone of the marketing campaign.

This is not the case in journalism, where the documentary filmmaker asserts control, obtains consent to film, and then the subject hands over their life and good will, not understanding that this is simply one part of the process.

According to SBS Chief content officer Helen Kellie, quoted here in Mumbrella, the role of the program-maker was to “make sure we’re not showing the story the participants wish they could tell…We are telling the story as it unfolded through the six months of filming.”

Indeed, the curation of content is contingent on more than just the filming, or collection and compilation of the images. It is in the editing that a political slant can be made, that references, relationships and dialogue are brought into focus. It is in the final ‘package’ of the story that the participants may feel their lives and views have been distorted to conform to an over arching narrative that is not their own.

In a comprehensive look at the issue of consent and Struggle Street, Denis Muller in The Citizen (7 May) asked: “Has SBS done over the people of Mount Druitt?” pointing out that the editing and of the series raised “questions about betrayal of trust, fairness of portrayal and the effects of stereotyping. But consent, as a cornerstone of professional ethics, is fundamental.”

Journalist Michael Lallo (Sydney Morning Herald May 9) reviewed the first episode of Struggle Street  more kindly than most commentators, writing that the show didn’t mock or degrade its participants, who mostly were portrayed as doing the best they could in circumstances of poverty, and drug abuse, with dignity and resilience. For Lallo, Struggle Street offered “a complex and nuanced look at how some people fall through the cracks”.

Brian McNair, writing in The Conversation (7 May)  also added, “Struggle Street was not racist, nor was it anymore voyeuristic than any reality TV show of the last two decades”.

Yet later commentary, after the massive success of the three part documentary, raised more serious concerns about consent. Michael Bodey (The Australian 18 May) noted that “the ethical issue of consent will be tested more frequently in the future after the success of the three part series”.

I would also add consent for the marketing campaign should be obtained before anyone signs off on giving over their lives to a documentary. Because when it is all said and done, the ‘success’ of Struggle Street is not about whether it effectively tells a story about the inequalities of Australian society but whether that story sold, and how well it sold, and how it was sold.

When success is measured in ratings and marketing spin, then consent must be given on this basis, and the residents of Mount Druitt should have been briefed on the marketing campaign, and allowed final veto of the end product or offered a say in the reediting, just as with any stakeholders in a communications campaign.

So, before you complain about ethics committee approval, think about the controversy surrounding Struggle Street. And then, ask the following question – should the media take lessons from academics about consent and the need for ethics approval?

An Edited version of this blog post was published at:

Online Opinion

RMIT Blog Central

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Academic conferences, conferences, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Early Career Reseacher, Frankenstein, networking, science fiction

Academic conferences: Performing for the crowd

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There comes a time when you have to share your research with the world. Or at least, your world – your academic world. Yes, you have to take the pigs to market. The academic community is your audience, and the pigs you are taking to the market are your research and ideas. Are they fat enough to pass muster?

You might think they are just little runts not ready for public scrutiny, but those pigs have to be put up for public display and be judged. The time comes in every emerging academic’s professional life when one must walk the walk and talk the talk.

I am putting the finishing touches to a paper I am presenting at the Affective Habitus:  New Environmental Histories of Botany, Zoology and Emotions conference in Canberra this week.

Affective Habitus conference at The Australian National University, Canberra (19-21 June 2014) will provide a forum for a new collaborative approach between environmental humanities and ecocriticism; two exciting new academic fields forming part of the conversation.

Even though I have been presenting at conferences every year since I started my Masters degree, this one is different.

For a start, it’s the first conference I am presenting at where I am no longer a post grad student. I have now earned the title Doctor and I am firmly in that stage of having burst through the cocoon and am sitting on the branch, gently fluttering my wings. A little hesitant!

Secondly, this is the first conference for which I have proposed a panel – a practitioner-led response in the creative arts to issues of climate change. I invited  visual artist Dr Debbie Symons and scientific photographer, doctoral student and writer Justine Philip to participate with me. It was even more nerve wracking waiting to see if the abstracts were accepted, as I was pushing others along with me.

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Image: >2 degrees of separation <2028: Akira and <2 degrees of separation <2028: Akira. 2012. Copyright: Josh Wodak. Used With Permission from the Artist for promotion of the Affective Habitus Conference.

I will be speaking about the new field of “Cli-Fi” which is a new genre of climate fiction – I’ll be referring to eco-catastrophe films such as I am Legend, Noah, Splice and others that have ecological disaster at the heart of the extinction of humanity as we know it.

In her introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment  (2014), editor Louise Westling says Kate Rigby, in her chapter ‘Confronting catastrophe: eco-criticism in a warming world’ surveys ecological disaster texts and suggests that confronting catastrophe might open a path to ecosocial transformation and a vision of transpecies justice. It is this vision of transpecies justice that I explore in my doctoral novel.

I’ll be reading some of my novel to the conference audience, and wonder what the reaction will be – the first time I tried an early piece of writing from the manuscript, at an Animal Studies conference, I was met with looks of utter shock. Let’s just say sex, violence and transpecies cannibalism is a lot to stomach for a vegan audience. However, I’ll say it now – no one is simply eaten gratuitously in my novel.

I am somewhat pleased our panel is on the first day, as being the postgraduate representative for ASLEC-ANZ I am one of two people in charge of live tweeting (follow us at #ecohab14) so I will be kept very busy – as well as listening to other papers for my own interest.  I expect to have my brain filled and expanded by the papers at Affective Habitus – with confirmed keynotes (a stellar cast in eco criticism) including: Tim Collins, Tom Griffiths, Eileen Joy, Michael Marder (remotely), John Plotz, Elspeth Probyn, Ariel Salleh, Will Steffen (remotely), Wendy Wheeler, Linda Williams and Gillen D’Arcy Wood.

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I found when doing my doctorate in creative writing that I would have two computer files (or paper notebooks) going at once – one for the academic research and the other for the creative ideas that flowed from that. The idea for my novel came when I was listening to a paper at a bioethics conference.

My first conference as a Masters student was terrifying. I stepped into the big league with my fledgling research into the scientifically created human in fiction and pitched to a major bioethics conference. My paper was accepted and I was given the prime spot of last paper on the last day.

“Don’t worry,” assured one of my supervisors. “All the academics will be hung over from the conference dinner or going to the airport early, no one will come, just view it as a test run in front of the three other post grads you become friendly with.”

Well, I spent the conference chatting over coffee with those academics about my research – a rather sexy topic amongst the philosophical and scientific analysis of end of life procedures and transplantation. I was writing gothic horror, and using Mary Shelley and Jodi Picoult in my work on the place of the creative arts in bioethical debates.

At that time, every second presenter was reading Picolt’s novel “My Sister’s Keeper” on the plane trip to the conference and discussing “savior siblings” created to hopefully save the life of a dying child. And mention Frankenstein at a bioethics conference and everyone turns to you as they munch their biscuits and drink coffee. One academic said to me “when I die they can take whatever they like from my body – but not my eyes!”

 

The punch line of my first conference is that I had a full house for my presentation. All those professors I had sat in awe in front of for the past few days were now sitting in front of me (okay, with their suitcases next to their feet ready to dash for the airport), and I will never forget that moment of sheer terror realizing I had to speak in front of them.

But – they were engaged and supportive and I have to say, made me feel like I had a place taking my first steps in the academy. Thank you to all of them.

So, as I finish my paper for the Affective Habitus paper, I try and think back to how terrified I was of that first step onto the public academic stage, and how far I have come since then. From a first year Masters student at an academic conference, feeling like it was my first day at school, to taking my first steps as an emerging academic.

Back then, I was swimming in a vast sea of knowledge, looking around for where I might find land, seeing only a far horizon. Now, with most of my thesis already presented and published, I am claiming to be something more than a student stumbling into the light of knowledge – I am trying to claim a place of my own in the academy.

 

 

 

 

 

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

Time’s up: crossing the doctoral finish line

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I had replayed the scene in my head many times – actually walking into the shop and getting my exegesis and novel printed up as per the regulation temporary binding – three copies in total for the examiners – and then delivering them to my supervisor. But in truth rather than joy or elation, I felt sick with exhaustion. Still, it wasn’t me who burst into tears on seeing all the copies snug in the plastic bag, ready for delivery right slap bang on the due date – it was a colleague!

“Why are you crying?” I asked. “You should be happy I am finally handing in.”

“But for as long as I have known you, you’ve been doing this doctorate,” she said. “It’s all I ever hear about – it’s like it is part of you.”

I was given the most lovely pot of pink flowers from a student (thanks Yvette!) to congratulate me on handing in. But it still didn’t feel real until I received the longed for text from my supervisor, who hand delivered the bundles of joy (more like writhing mutants) to the Graduate Research Office, after the Dean’s sign-off: “All fine. Well done! Time to relax”. 

When I came home tonight, late after teaching, my teenage son said “well, what now, mum? You can’t tell me you’re going to do another one?”

“No way,” I said. “If you do it right, one PhD is all you need. And I don’t have the energy for two!”

“Well – what are you going to do?”

Well, tonight – sleep! No one staggers to the end of the finish line of a doctorate without being totally shattered, no matter how much support they have. I am humbled by how everyone has come through behind Team Evelyn – from practical support with proof reading, copy editing, helpful academic advice, simply endlessly listening and the friends and family who have helped out by organising diversions and play dates for my kids so I could work in peace, it has all been enormously helpful. And never underestimate the importance of a cheer squad in boosting morale. There’s a reason the home team has an advantage. That boost is the wind beneath one’s wings. Maybe this blog post should be titled “It takes a village to do a doctorate”.

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I started 100 days to the doctorate as a way of doing what I do best –  writing for an audience. Trained as a journalist, where I worked in the cut and thrust of the newsroom of Australia’s largest selling daily newspaper for a decade,  it is second nature for me to put my words on the line. To share the experience, the words, the journey.

By blogging about the manic end of the doctorate, I aimed to articulate [to myself!] what was going on. The last 100 days is the culmination of four years of finding one’s way. Of nudging into the academy, learning names and faces, getting it wrong, stumbling, learning the language, getting it right and then, taking one’s place at the table – well, at the very end…down at the bottom of the table.

Over the past four years, I have blogged extensively about my work, and those ideas have ended up in conference papers that in turn morphed into the exegesis and into journal articles. I have done the ‘working out’ in public, and that has been a very useful step in owning the work, and in seeing myself as part of the academy.

Ah, writers. We sell ourselves short in the academy, I think. Yet here is the thing – a lot of those in the humanities would like to be writers, in fact. And one of the most important things I learned from feminist theorist Donna Haraway’s work was her love for words, narrative and SF. But the Creative Writing doctorate is a strange and demanding beast, as much a mutant I think as the mutants I have been researching. We have to create a compelling work of fiction, and an exegesis that ticks all the boxes for academic research. There is much to write about this process, and indeed, I do so in a chapter of my exegesis, so it is still too raw and fresh to write about it here.

So – for now – there is a hiatus, of sorts, as the doctoral submission goes to the examiners – and I wait.

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As Mary Shelley wrote of her hopes for her novel Frankenstein: “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. ”

I also hope my hideous progeny, my exegesis and novel about hybrids, mutants and monsters, passes the test. 

Not that my youngest son will have any of that. He threw himself into my arms tonight and declared “it’s Dr Mummy!” which is very sweet. I told him, “no, not just yet – a few more hoops to get through first, one way or another.”

“But – it’s in, right? You got it in on time?” he asked.

“Yes, darling – mummy got it in on time.”

“Great!” He gave me a big hug. “Can my friend come over for a sleepover on the weekend now I don’t have to be really quiet the whole time so you can study?”

Maya, the hard, driven CIA operative in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the decade long hunt for Osama bin Laden, had no idea what to do with herself after her quest ended.

I know exactly what I am going to do with my time. It’s like that when you are a mum – I have a couple of Scout badges to sew onto my son’s shirt, a whole backlog of domestic tasks to tackle, a journal paper to submit in a day and a book I am co-editing due in three weeks. Then – there is the bigger ‘tomorrow’ to embrace.

But at least I will sleep tonight knowing I reached that most prized of a doctoral student’s many milestones (except for actual graduation) and that is the timely completion.

The time-bomb intensity of the race to the end that is 100 Days To The Doctorate comes to an end – but I will keep blogging weekly with updates to share the story of what is next on the academic journey – and what I learned in the past four years – and also, what I wish I had discovered earlier. Yes, it is easy to be wise after the event. 

So, what am I thinking of now?  Just like President Bartlet at the conclusion of my favourite TV show The West Wing.   I am thinking of – tomorrow.

 

Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Frankenstein, Time management, Writing strategies

It’s all in your head: the psychological game of fiction writing

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The reason there are so many fabulous moments on screen of writers struggling with their prose – more so than, say, dentists struggling to make crowns or fit orthodontics, is that – drum roll please – writers are the puppet masters pulling the narrative strings. In short we glamorize ourselves and our work as writers because – we can!

Fiction writing struggles have been part of my life this week, as I have been busy editing the novel for my Creative Writing doctorate. That’s involved shuffling scenes, “killing my darlings” and doing the hard, grunt work of streamlining.

A writer’s battle takes place in their head. We start with a blank page or screen, our imaginations, throw in some real life, some observations, a whole truck load of unresolved issues from our past, a few nightmares, maybe some glorious memories. As well as plot, character, narrative, dialogue and structure, writers come to the table with a head full of just about every book they’ve ever read or film they have seen or conversation they have had.

Whether we are writing creative non fiction, or fiction, writers are shameless about plundering life. I joke that if you cross me, you’ll end up a mutant in my novel. But seriously, we can’t but help be inspired by those in our lives, in our orbit, both the good and the bad.

That doesn’t mean we use people without having them undergo a filtering process first. Mary Shelley could have been writing about the way writers write when she described how Dr Frankenstein made his creature, from pieces of body parts both animal and human. Because, if we are honest, writers are utterly shameless about what they steal from life. And who they take from. It’s the horror of our ‘secret toil’.

Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818

Like Dr Frankenstein, I have taken someone’s looks, or height, or hair, or mannerisms, and stitched that to someone else’s nationality or accent or trait, and sewn in some other piece of life story, a little dialogue from somewhere else, and then maybe added sartorial style from a newspaper clipping. But I take from the living, mostly. Beware.

The character takes on its own life

The fascinating alchemy is that at some point – if you are good at your job – the creature takes on their own life, and refuses to be seen as a composite. They demand a name, an origin story, they want to be taken seriously, and loved. I once tried to squash a character back into the person I knew, but the creature rebelled! He pursued me relentlessly until I gave in, and realized I had made something that now had an independent life. Here is a great example of a film about a character coming to life –

Ruby Sparks: What happens when your character comes alive? And you can control everything they do? Okay – what writer hasn’t had this fantasy? Writer’s block, inspiration, and the obsessive compulsive nature of creativity, it’s all here in this brilliant movie directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, with a screenplay by Zoe Kazan, who also stars as Ruby.

The thin line between reality and fiction

Now, I love reading about writers in fiction as much as the next writer. I also adored Douglas Kennedy’s book The Moment because it swept me along a writer’s journey. I kept dog earring the pages and if I had a pencil handy would write in the margins and underline phrases, such as this: ‘writers – as somebody once noted – are always selling somebody out.’ (Douglas Kennedy, (p93) The Moment.) I also enjoyed watching the film of Kennedy’s book The Woman In The Fifth, which asked viewers to ponder the thin line (perhaps) between creativity and madness. If you create characters and stories that seem very real – especially to you – how do you know that they are simply fiction?

The Woman In the Fifth: (from a book by Douglas Kennedy). Tortured writer, crime, obsession, maybe madness – what price would you pay as a writer for inspiration?

Another film about the writer crossing the line between reality and fiction – perhaps an occupational hazard, is The Swimming Pool. François Ozon’s stylish thriller with Charlotte Rampling as a writer struggling with ‘the block’ who takes a rest cure at her publisher’s fabulous house in France…and imagines things happening, which may be real, or not, or a damn good avoidance tactic. Writers know only too well that when everyone else sees ‘real life’ they see it distorted through the prism of what might be. An open door, a bump in the night, a curtain pushed back…

Use your imagination

‘Writing what you know’ doesn’t mean writing about the reality you know – writers have their imaginations, and that’s one giant tool in their workbox. Write what you know is about learning to mine the emotional truths and apply them to your world and your characters. Wherever your characters are, they are still human – even if they may not be entirely human – and therefore they are subject to the timeless tropes (or themes) of storytelling.

I grew up going to see Woody Allen movies with my beloved uncle, so even if it’s not one of his best, I’ll love one of Allen’s movies. And Midnight in Paris is, I think, one of his best. Owen Wilson plays successful screenwriter Gil Pender, who wants to write something substantial. Inspiration strikes when he is transported to the past, Meets the Fitzgeralds, and he gets words of advice from the likes of Earnest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein herself. (Read this ‘cultural cheat sheet’ about the movie) Five stars for fulfilling every writer’s fantasy. And also telling it like it is. As Hemingway warns Gil “You don’t want the opinion of another writer – writers are too competitive.”

Understanding human nature is vital for writing powerful fiction, which is why so many great books are written by authors who are older. They have had years to perfect their craft – and writing is a craft just like learning how to play professional tennis is a craft. Older writers have also been around the block of life a few times, had their hearts broken, trust betrayed, tasted power and defeat, all the things that big or small build up the layers the writer can mine for a story.

Behind great dialogue is not just an ear for how people speak, but their intentions. I love the way people can hide behind seemingly innocent sentences in novels, and then the ways writers can make a character reveal themselves by their actions. Let’s look at the 1977 film Julia, where Jane Fonda portrays playwright Lillian Hellman. Apart from the iconic moment where the writer throws the typewriter out the window in frustration, this movie explores among many other things a writer doubting her talent, and Hellman’s 30 year affair and creative partnership with fellow writer Dashiell Hammett.

Hammett tells Hellman, “if you really can’t do it [writing] you’d better find a job.” But here is the thing – even if you love words, love nothing more than to make them dance – it’s a job. It’s a job as much as any other job. But it is, for a fiction writer, about creating a made-up world. How do you know you have done your job well? When a reader gets inside that world, and believes in it, and believes in those characters, the ones you have sewn together.

Shake it up. Leave to settle. Pour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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