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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a true story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, Early Career Reseacher, Graduation ceremony, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, post submission blues, Publishing academic research, publishing the novel, the creative life

Happy Anniversary PhD: A Year of Living Post Doctorate

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My mother, who is not Greek, recalls nostalgically that for the first year after she married into my father’s Greek family she was referred to as ‘nifi’ – or bride. After the first anniversary however, it was, she says “no more nifi’. Brides were now a fully paid up member of the married set, no longer a precious newlywed, and afforded no special treatment. It’s a bit like that post PhD. I am at the end of my first year post graduation. After December, I’ll no longer have ‘just got’ my doctorate. The anniversary is nearly here.

I know that next year I won’t be a special new graduate. The clock, in fact, is ticking on how much I can achieve until my PhD becomes, well, irrelevant. As publishers are quick to point out, a writer only gets one chance at newness. Everyone loves a bride, a puppy, a debut author, a recent graduate.

Happy anniversary PhD. Now what?

I think it takes at least a year after graduating to overcome the exhaustion of completing a doctorate. My brother (the other Dr Tsitas in the family) warned me not to make any major life decisions for at least two months after submission. He was right. It’s an enormous achievement to have submitted and passed – and the actual graduation is a highpoint of course.

And then what?

Unlike Bella’s rapid transformation in The Twilight Saga – Breaking Dawn – when she becomes a vampire, the process of becoming who you are post doctorate takes longer, alas. If only we could wake up transformed from our experience, remade somehow from our doctoral journey.

Life isn’t like Bella’s transformation. Change comes in spurts, identity forms from experience and confidence is hard earned – especially in creative writing. I’ve met many people who graduated with a PhD in creative writing – from different universities, at the same time as me, and the story is the same. Some have sent the manuscript of their creative project confidently out to every publisher around, only to be knocked back time and time again. Others have applied for writing grants and submitted to competitions confident that four years of research would stand them in good stead.

Nothing. Even with a polished piece manuscript, it’s a hard slog, especially for those who have opted for the notoriously hard to crack literary fiction market. And while I know those who have had creative non fiction published, they are quick to point out that the rewards are hardly financially lucrative.

Let’s put it this way – even with a book published, a successful graduate in creative writing on their first PhD anniversary may find themselves in a sessional teaching position – that’s if they are lucky – and wondering what’s next?

For many there is the anxiety and grind of trying to find a job post doctorate – and I am not talking about a coveted, academic job – simply any full time job that will pay and lift them out of poverty. You have to wonder at the wisdom of spending years on research and playing your part in advancing knowledge when it is not rewarded by society. In fact, it is actively punished. Many PhD graduates sadly omit their highest degree from their resume when not applying for academic jobs.

The only thing that comes close to this disparity of effort and reward is working in the creative arts. Society rewards those who make money, while perversely holding to contempt those who have sacrificed to pursue research.

Although I suffered the post doctoral slump and exhaustion as hard as anyone else in my first year post doctorate, at least I wasn’t in the black hole that so many find themselves in. I already had an interesting full time job in a university, so I wasn’t fretting about why I did the doctorate if it didn’t magically produce an academic job.

And while I haven’t got the creative project out widely to publishers, I have had all the chapters of my exegesis presented at conferences and published in academic books and journals and am ready to pitch the research as a book, and send the novel to publishers.

It really is a long, hard slog to find your place post doctorate, and on the eve of my first anniversary, I am pretty happy with where I am.

I have always seen the doctorate as the long game – like long tail marketing, it has a slow burn pay off in every aspect. Although it is hard to see the reason you did a doctorate after the initial euphoria of submission has passed, especially if it doesn’t lead to an academic job. But I have discovered the following things in my year of living post doctorate.

In your honeymoon period post doctorate you can:

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  •  Watch box sets of all the TV series you didn’t have time for while studying. Then realise you don’t have the energy or concentration to follow a story arc over 60 episodes of anything and no one wants to talk to you about Mad Men anyway as that’s ancient history.
  • Read for enjoyment and indeed enjoy non academic books so much you keep forgetting to get off at your train stop (or, in one case, forget to get on a plane).
  • Go back to the gym/yoga/walking/running and immediately have to see a physiotherapist to repair damage from lack of core strength gained sitting on your bum for four years
  • Embrace the school ground again and actually talk to other parents at school functions – and realise that you have nothing to say to them anymore.
  • Defend your thesis so well in public that you you bludgeon everyone with a lengthy explanation of your research. Everyone. Such as the person you meet at the dog wash. The guy who delivers the box of fresh vegetables. Your hairdresser.
  • Change all your business cards to the title Dr. And don’t care if people think you are a wanker for doing it. You have earned it!

Indeed, I think there is a certain settling in period, or honeymoon period, post thesis that lasts from when you graduate to when the new batch of doctoral candidates graduate. In that year, you and those around you are getting used to your new status, and your new pace of life.

And in the age of everyone it seems getting a doctorate, how do you make your achievement stand out, how do you justify the years and sacrifices spent on obtaining your goal?

In an excellent post in The Thesis Whisperer by Associate Prof Martin Davies Principal Fellow in Higher Education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne, and a Senior Learning Advisor at Federation University Australia, he talks about what he learnt from one doctorate that was transferable to the second.

Yes, I know. The idea of doing a second doctorate seems inconceivable that first year post doctorate. A bit like having another baby less than 18 months after giving birth. But just as there are women who have large families, there are people who do two doctorates. Mind you, a year post doctorate is a little like getting through that first year with a new baby – you start to sleep through the night again, go back to the gym, see friends and enjoy life. I imagine it’s as hard to go back to doctoral study as it is to unfold those ugly maternity clothes and imagine swelling up into them again…

If you have spent your first year post doctorate wondering why you spent four years of your life on deferred gratification, stress, overwork and anxiety, and are wondering if you will ever see any rewards from your efforts, the following tips gleaned from Associate Prof Martin Davies blog post may be useful.

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 After a doctorate, you now know how to:

  • Manage a large project over a long time period, with an immanent deadline, and with virtually no assistance.
  • Take on a project and finish it on time, and without help.
  • Transfer the skills developed in doing a PhD – such as academic literacy, constructing an argument, marshalling evidence, citing sources, and so on, to anything else one does in the academic domain.
  • Write an academic book between 80-120,000 words in length, and on any topic.
  • Construct an argument on a unique topic of your own choosing
  • “Narrow down” a topic within a few weeks to something manageable, and interesting, and focus.

Happy anniversary PhD.

 

 

 

 

Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Early Career Reseacher, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, post submission blues

Post Doctoral Wilderness: life as an Early Career Researcher

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There is no danger of me dropping out of my PhD studies. That’s simply because I went the distance and completed and graduated. My crisis of faith is coming post doctorate. I am like one of Baudrillard’s simulacrum, going through the motions, a mere copy of my former driven self as a doctoral candidate. I have gone through the PhD journey and come out the other end. My reward is this – I am an Early Career Researcher. Whatever that means.

It seems ridiculous to be still complaining of doctoral burnout when I graduated nearly nine months ago. But as this is a warts and all personal insight into the doctoral – and post doctoral – journey, I am telling you like it is.

That nebulous period of being an ‘Early Career Researcher’, of which there is no exact definition, is a hard one to navigate. I work with artists who have had to ‘PhD up’ in their long term jobs as university expectations have changed. A doctorate now allows them more security and the ability to lobby for a pay increase.

For those who have come through ‘the system’ hard and fast as young students, the ECR phase is one where they may grapple with their first foray into the ‘workforce’ and struggle to find a position.

Then there are those like me, and others I know, especially in the creative writing field, who have had varied careers, careers in the media (which has rapidly changed beyond recognition) and for whom a doctorate is no ‘deal breaker’ in the employment stakes. In fact, it may well be considered a hindrance, especially in Australia.

I know that some of the most common refrains about doctoral studies concern completing, and the anxiety of simply staying the distance. So many candidates drop out. But there is also a problem at the other end – the end where we PhD students are extruded from the system like sausage meat. And that problem is called ‘what do we do now’? It is, in short, a crisis of vision.

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It’s sure as hell one your university isn’t bothered answering. Or has probably considered. Heck – they get money for simply signing you up and having you complete. You expect them to care about what happens when you finish? You want vision – that’s up to you.

Actually, I have found that if you look hard, there is actually some consideration to this ECR dilemma, and there are some universities that do offer support. And, why not? There is counselling after all for drug offenders, for alcoholics. There should also be similar support for those who have completed a doctorate.

I would like to see all universities take some of the fat they creamed from doctoral students and actually put serious effort into addressing the post traumatic stress disorder that comes from completing four years of doctoral study. And I am not joking. Post Traumatic Doctoral Study Disorder (PTDSD) is a thing. 

The minute you graduate, the university is there with its begging cap cajoling for alumni handouts. The entire four years, I can guarantee most students will have had indifferent supervision and support from the university. Yet the minute you have any success, the university is there, media cap in hand, begging for a free ride on your publicity. And I must declare here that I have worked in both Alumni and media sections of academia and they are only doing their job and are not responsible for the grief your supervisor or Dean or examiners caused you!

And so it is. But doctoral students should get something from their university in return for all the financial aid they provide to its coffers, and that’s support for every single one for five years after they graduate with a doctorate. Support that deals with the psychological fall out of higher education, with the agonizing career and research issues, and help in finding a purpose and voice for their work.

Other wise, what on earth is it all about, anyway? Or is it too cynical of me to think the universities are just doing it for the money?

I actually think the most critical phase of the doctoral journey begins once the graduation gear gets handed back.

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This is the nebulous phase of the ‘Early Career Researcher’. This is the point at which one may be within five years of having received the doctorate, and be, basically, floundering for something else.

It would be a job. More likely, it is a career and direction. It is a job of some meaning, it is the five year plan and future job satisfaction. It is getting published and getting published in the right places. It is impacts, and citations, and brilliantly constructed resumes and it is getting published.

It is making a name for ourselves. It is questioning why we spent four or more years on doctoral studies. It is falling in and out of love with our research. It is wondering if our research is even relevant any more. It is questioning the faith. It is, ultimately, anxiety, lack of direction, and all on top of bone numbing study burn out.

Hell – I know where I felt like this before. This wandering around in the dark in utter fear. This terrifying identity crisis of not being in control but everyone assuming you are the expert. This shattering life changing period of just having gone through an amazing, physically and mentally challenging period of generation only to be then left raising properly the thing that you have created – this squalling, demanding, blubbering, nascent bundle of knowledge called – your research.

Oh yes, I am a mother of two and I can cast my mind back almost 16 years exactly to what it felt like to be a first time mother and holding my baby and wondering ‘what the hell do I do now?’

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Again – a doctorate is like childbirth, pregnancy, parenting – it is the closest thing men (and many women) have to knowing what it is like to create and birth and then be solely responsible for something. And for the mothers with doctorates, it is a strangely familiar place to be. The academic world for ECRs is as competitive as it is for new mothers. Who has the more glamorous role? Who can afford to outsource? What name did you give your research? Is it the best dressed? Is it going to the best journals? Or is your research that kid with the name no one can spell, with snot marks over its face? And are you the mum who looks like they slept in their clothes after a rough night of teething? Or the sleek corporate mum who can afford to take a little sessional teaching on the side while spending their time submitting polished pieces to top journals while the pesky aspect of working for a living and supporting the family is taken care of by a separate primary breadwinner?

For the record, I’m the mum up all night blogging and submitting to journals and scrambling the get the kids to school on time and then writing and blogging for my day job in a university gallery. I know the hell that is multi tasking, and the plight of being an invisible ‘mummy track’ Early Career Researcher without an academic position or tenure.  Or that mythical ‘research day’. Strange, though, that I have published far more than those lucky sods who have this research day. No points for guessing which mum I empathise with in the movie ‘Motherhood’.

 

If my thesis holds correct, then there will be a way through the forest. At some point – hey, that mythical five years down the track time when I will no longer be an Early Career Researcher – my ‘research’ – my ‘baby’ – will be at school. Able to trade sandwiches, bully and get bullied, start standing up for itself and be independent. Yes. My baby – my research, will have a name for itself, and make my name in the academy.

I hope.

Then again, there are many parents who do a crap job and ruin their kids chances for life. If you ignore your kid and never speak to it or never socialize it or spend time with it – well, bad things happen, right? Said kid will wither and perish one way or another. Same thing with your research and academic career, I suspect. Except there is no State Care or welfare organization to take the research off you for being negligent. No, that’s it, unless you make an effort, your hard doctoral work can just go to hell and be forgotten. There is no such thing as a doctorate being a ticket for life. It is simply the start of the whole journey.

Have I made you feel really anxious yet?

That’s how I felt at a workshop on the perils and pitfalls of being an Early Career Researcher. I came away feeling defeated. Like I had already failed my research by not sending it to the best A Star Preschool (journal). That I hadn’t organized my research enough play dates with the Cool Kids of Academia. My research had to get by with bursts of love while I dealt with its siblings – my actual biological human children, and my actual day job/career that supports everyone. Poor research, it gets attention lavished on it and then has to fend for itself.

The only glimmer of hope was being told at this workshop that ‘you have to start somewhere’ when getting published. And that having some sort of profile – like a blog – was a good thing. And that all the others in the workshop felt the same as me and none of us had the genius research-child, we all had the kids that didn’t sleep through the night and were on the lower percentile growth chart when it came to stellar publication success and giving us all a leg up in an academic career.

We were also, just like a new mothers group [and an Early Career Research group is just like a suburban new mothers group] in that post birth, traumatic stress disorder state. We had burn out, apathy, and a major amount of fear.

Let me tell you – no one and I mean no one at that workshop was confident, focused and optimistic about a tenured position as an academic in the field they wanted to work in. Those with children or commitments were mired in one city – in this case Melbourne – and grateful for whatever sessional work they could get, or unrelated professional work that wasn’t face to face teaching. Others had a coveted ECR position – in which the clock was ticking, in some cases very loudly before funding ran out.

Those who were young (ish) were prepared to chase three year contracts around the globe. Regardless of where they were job wise, everyone was in the same position regarding publication. Oh research – our research babies – are so demanding, and the field is so competitive. Just as well we love you, research baby.  We have a big journey ahead.

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I feel that by attending the ECR workshop, I avoided the common pitfall of wandering around in a post doc wilderness for longer than necessary. I am not sure I have a compass yet, but at least the workshop pointed me to a door and said “that one – ”

I was reassured that having had the door opened, anyone can do very well if they decide to!  It’s hard work, but the main reason many academics do not do as well as they could, is because the door is often not opened for them. 

I do believe that just as parenting skills need to be taught post birth, so should universities offer Early Career Researchers similar education classes about navigating the stormy uncharted waters of their careers ahead. And for the record, I believe that the definition ECR needs to be those who graduated from the university and not just those lucky enough to score a job in one after graduating.

Academic conferences, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, post submission blues

Fallow time: Waiting for the literary muse to show

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I don’t agree with sitting around and waiting for anything, much less a muse to come and whisper in my ear. As a writer, I am too impatient, too demanding – very demanding, in fact. And yet, it is as if the muse is laughing at me now. Because I have landed in the becalmed sea of fallow time. The post doctoral submission state of limbo.

In short, I feel inert. I suppose this is to be expected when a major project comes to an end, and a period of great focus and intensity such as the doctorate in creative writing comes to its conclusion. There was no period from when I applied to do the course through to submitting my first proposal and then jumping every hurdle placed before me over the four years – culminating with submission – that I allowed myself time for any reflection.

That time is now.

Well, ‘now’ is actually a relative term because, like all good workaholics, I have made sure that on top of my full time job in arts communication, I am again teaching an evening class in entrepreneurship for creative practitioners. As we explore how a writer can sell themselves, without selling out, it makes me reflect about my own work. That old question – who am I? It’s not a bad thing to pause and explore this, take some time out from doing to being.

In my job in a large public art gallery, the cycles of intensity revolve around each exhibition. I have become accustomed to the ebbs and flows of this world over the past four years, but this is the first doctorate I have done, and therefore, the end of studying has been a blessing and a curse. I am probably not alone when I say there is a sense of loss from the structure and the focus – and indeed the need to block out all other distractions in order to complete.

In The Thesis Whisperer, Lauren Gawne, a PhD student in the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, writes of this post submission limbo. She writes “I was lucky I had teaching lined up in my department, and a conference to look forward to. It’s weird enough waking up without thinking about what I need to do on my thesis after 4 years of it, so I’m glad I had some structure to fill that. ”

I have structure – my full time job, my part time job, my children and my writing – but still…..it is as if there is a big hole in my life, possibly because it was overfull to begin with. And now that the super structure of the doctorate has gone, I am forced to look at the world around me.

On the plus side, the distractions have flooded back in – and though they are life itself, friends and family and the odd, wonderful realisation that there is a world out there beyond my desk – it means I am getting less done as I do more, well ‘life’. That to me is an odd feeling.

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And then a glance at the diary indicates it’s only weeks until I head overseas, to present the final chapter of my exegesis at a conference, and also do research for the other two books in the trilogy I started with Almost Human – my doctoral novel. In Europe, I will be catching up with friends that tyranny of distance puts between us, even in the age of electronic communication. Melbourne is a long, long way from the rest of the world.

Yet as much as I long to see them again, I also feel strongly there is someone else I need to reconnect with after this doctoral journey. And that’s myself. As I wander around, unsure of what I have achieved, unable to put my finger on why I am so flat, and in a fog about starting anything new creatively, I realise that it is because I am trying to find who I am in this post doctoral state. Maybe I will reconnect with that ‘me’ in Europe, where I can be truly introspective. Especially in countries where I do not speak the language!

People keep on saying to me – what now? Where are you going? What’s next? And in truth, I don’t know. When you undertake any major project, you only think about getting to the end. Getting through – you really have no idea of how you will emerge after the journey, and where those experiences will take you.

You are in a sense, missing – searching for yourself. The new you. The old you, too, that you perhaps put aside while you studied so hard. Maybe that ‘you’ doesn’t really exist anymore…

The trouble with this period of reflection is that I am too exhausted and flat to enjoy it. I suppose that is to be expected. My most popular blogs at 100 Days To The Doctorate are ones that talk about doctoral misery – and it seems a quick glance on the Internet reveals that this comes in several forms – the misery of doing the doctorate, of having finished the doctorate, and are wondering why the hell you did the doctorate when there aren’t enough academic jobs out there.  Mind you, I am not so sure if I want an academic job. The more I read about life in the academic lane, the less appealing it sounds.

But that’s not why one does a doctorate, surely. I certainly didn’t opt for a vocational course, not with creative writing!

Let’s move on to misery. The misery of actually doing a doctorate is for me a blur of highs and lows and focus. The lows were not so much giving up things so I could work and study – it’s amazing how the body and soul adjusts to social solitary confinement like that – but were in fact the lows of the hard, and it must be said, often tedious grunt work. For instance, it’s harder to make sure you are up on all the administrative details of your doctoral process than it is to make sure you are aware of the latest journal article in your field. The constant academic hurdles – every six months or so, confirmation, progress, and then finally completion. Paper work, more paperwork, and often conflicting advice. Sometimes – no advice. After all, at this point, you should be able to go solo, right?

Now – the joy. The great joy of doctoral study, besides the sheer buzz of research and writing (well, I say this as a writer) was engaging on an intense level with people passionate about the same things.

I spent the four years presenting at seven conferences, and each one drew me to people who expanded my life somehow, people I would not have met if I hadn’t undertaken this journey.

I imagine the worst thing would be to try and undertake doctoral study without engaging with other students and peers in your area. For me, the highs were actually forming concepts and exploring ideas based on my research, and the giddy feeling of exploration and eureka moments of discovery along the way – especially when shared with others. And I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to sit and hear about other people’s research as well, and hear the passion in their voice – yes, the struggle and the pain as well, and the constant fear of ‘am I good enough’? But conferences are where we can shine, and spread our wings, show our true colors – it’s worth the leap of faith in exposing yourself and your ideas to the academy.

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But – that doctoral journey demands its pound of flesh. Yes, if you are determined, organised, selfish, ruthless, clever, attentive, gracious, and bloody minded, you will emerge and hopefully be able to relish the feeling of having achieved a major academic hurdle – submitting your doctorate.

Just don’t expect to come through in one piece! At a writing workshop a few days ago, I quizzed other authors who had done the doctoral slog and asked if they got sick – and depressed – after submission. Yes! It was a resounding reply. One they don’t tell you about at the Gradate Research Office when you submit.

One author had such bad eye strain he got a tear behind his retina. Another was sick for months. I promptly came down with a major sinus infection that hit hard, so hard I was in bed for a week. And then came a strange inability to commit to my writing. Oh no –

Was I having – writer’s block?

“Oh good!” said a friend, gleefully. “It will make the rest of us feel better! At last you are not doing five projects or more at once…”

Postscript:

Of course, fallow time, in the end, didn’t lasted that long, thank goodness. No sooner than I wrote this blog and let it languish a day or two on the computer screen than the call came from my supervisor that heralded the start of the next phase of the doctoral journey.

But you know what? Like all good crime writers, I am going to leave this blog on a cliffhanger, and keep you waiting until next blog tell you the news.

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Academic conferences, Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, post submission blues, Publishing academic research, science fiction, Time management, University life

Far from the normal crowd: when your doctorate sets you apart

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This week, an academic turned to me in a meeting for my opinion on a survey he wanted to conduct with the general public. “As a normal person, how would you answer this question?” he asked. Quick as a flash, everyone else around the table responded with “but she’s not a normal person!”

When your upcoming holiday plans involve presenting a conference paper in Oxford on the erotic and the non human, as I am doing in September, this is widely regarded as placing you in the “not normal” category.

Indeed, if there is one thing that doctoral study does it is to set you apart from the ‘normal’ people. This of course can be a problem if your friends and family belong to that ‘normal’ group and you have moved away from them because of what you are studying.There are many advantages to coming from a family with several PhDs.

For instance, in my family, we speak the same language – the language of happiness deferral; of long tail gratification; of holidaying in conference zones, unreasonable academic hurdles, and so on.  This is a good thing, as no one feels alienated. My kin understand and appreciate the hard work, sacrifices and the emotional exhaustion at the end of the doctorate. And they also have shown me that there is a life post-PhD, even beyond coveted academic tenure.

It’s just as well, because as Rita says in “Educating Rita” once you have gone down the path of academic – the old you has gone – and this is who has taken your place. Maybe not everyone likes this new you. Even if you do.

The scene where Rita interrupts Dr. Frank Bryant – the middle-aged university lecturer – to tell him about seeing her first play – Macbeth – and her excitement “I just had to tell somebody!” – is a wonderful example of how finding people who can speak your language becomes so important when you are surrounded by ‘normal people’ – who perhaps don’t share your enthusiasms.

I love the shorthand I have with those who share my academic interests. For instance, I was recently sent a link to an article in New Scientist about growing human organs inside pigs by someone who just knew I would find it fascinating (thanks Emma!) – and perhaps my predilection for the macabre aspects of biotechnology are the very reason others think I am ‘not normal’.

I can’t help it. As part of my doctorate in creative writing, I have been researching the human animal hybrid in science fiction for the past four years, and I love it when life imitates art.

For instance, what I find fascinating about the recent turmoil in Australian politics is that our newly returned Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who disposed Prime Minister Julia Gillard in rather Shakespearean circumstances in the lead up to our upcoming election, has a bovine heart valve.  Now, considering that our first female Prime Minister had to endure endless comments about her childlessness, her figure, her unmarried status and her basic femaleness, I find it interesting that this animal fact goes unremarked.

Rudd even said he promised not to ‘moo’ in public. I however, seem to be the only one who remembers this, or is interested.

As a science fiction writer, I speculate on the following – if Natalie Cole feels a connection with Hispanic culture since receiving a kidney four years ago from Salvadorian donor, and claims this cultural transplant link has given her the strength to record her first post-operation album — totally in Spanish – then does Kevin Rudd have a similar connection to animals? Is he or has he become a vegan since receiving the bovine heart value? This could have implications in many areas of policy relating to the treatment of animals farmed for food.

This speculation of course, has nothing to do with the serious matter of politics. Just as the abuse “vitriol and bullying, often of a sexual nature” that Julia Gillard received as first female Prime Minister of Australia had nothing to do with politics, but rather, as many feminists such as Anne Summers claim, everything to do with gender. And also, perhaps, that I have strayed far from the pack into that zone where my research seems real, but life seems just plain weird. I mean, why lambast the then Prime Minister Gillard with questions about whether her partner is gay because he is a hairdresser, and then have the more excitable sections of the media silent on whether the now Prime Minister Rudd will moo in public or not?

Of course, the intensity and – shall we dare say – absurdity – of the doctoral journey means none of us come out unscathed. I am an Australian creative writing PhD student, not an American science PhD student – but even I howled with the laughter of recognition at this trailer for The PhD Movie. 

I mean, what PhD student doesn’t know that “jump to attention and do the impossible right NOW” – demands from supervisors and administrative staff? I remember just two weeks out from handing in receiving an email to say I had to do my completion seminar within weeks. The first thing I did was look at my diary and figure out how I could organise this. It was – seriously – only after a bewildered email to my supervisor wondering if this was a second completion seminar on top of the one I had done six months before that it was revealed to be an administrative error. But there I was, like a little lab rat, ready to keep running around that wheel.

One of the reasons so many agony posts on the Internet warn about not doing a doctorate is the slim chance these days of finding a job in the area you have committed four years of your life. I have spent years understanding this reality through dinner table conversations with my relatives – and it didn’t stop me doing a doctorate.

I know many people with doctorates who have gone back and done a vocational Masters degree to make them more employable. A recent Australian radio report investigated the current situation many PhD graduates find themselves in of having made the long journey and found there isn’t the job they want at the end.

I guess it comes back to what we consider normal. What are your expectations, anyway? And after all, I am a fiction writer, in Australia, a country with a small population – it goes without saying that I always knew I would have to get a paid job that wasn’t the same as my passion job.

I was told bluntly six months ago (by a fellow traveller in academia) that I was a fool to have done a doctorate in creative writing and in fact should have opted for public relations instead. My response was – maybe that is the more sensible, employable option, but I am a writer, and as the Indigo Girls sang in “Virginia Woolf” – a ‘woman of the page’ – carving words and stories that I hope touch people now and in years to come. I am part of a long tradition of writers through history who write and be damned.

Writers don’t do it for fame, fortune or anything other than the desire to tell stories and communicate with an audience. What if Virginia Woolf had pursued a ‘sensible option’ such as public relations instead of writing? Think of all who have been touched and moved and inspired by her work. Think of all that would be lost if Virginia had played it safe. If she’d been one of the ‘normal’ people – the world would be poorer.

So then, with no rewards in sight, no possibility of an academic job, and the certainty that you will end up distancing yourself from the pack of ‘normal’ people – why do a doctorate?

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Testing your boundaries is always a leap of faith and there are plenty of people who feel cheated by the time, effort and money they spent pursuing a doctorate. And let it be said there are plenty of people who regret other major decisions they have made – opting out of the workforce to raise children; buying a house; putting their savings in shares; getting married; not pursuing love; travelling instead of settling down and vice versa.

Life is risk and in living comes the possibility of regret and failure. Whatever the outcome of your doctorate, it is only absolute passion that will make the commitment worth the effort. Normal be dammed.

creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, PhD completion, post submission blues, Time management, Writing strategies

Spinning a yarn: don’t ask for permission

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I have always been a writer. My path from an undergraduate studying drawing, painting and metal work to my recently submitted doctorate in creative writing may seem a meandering academic journey, but it is all about observation and communication.

I spent a great deal of my time as an undergraduate working on the student newspaper as well as co-editing a literary magazine. I learned the secret early on – that you might not get paid, but you can have a fascinating life as a writer. Just don’t ask for permission. Because chances are, no one will give it to you.

I got to review films, plays, interview authors, celebrities, theatre directors, I got to go through the door marked ‘closed’ – all with a notebook and pen in my hand and an insatiable curiosity about people. I just turned up in the student newspaper office and stayed there until I found something to do, or someone to interview. In those days, well before blogs and the Internet, publicists were only too happy to have student writers ready to promote their clients.

It was probably no surprise that with my bulging portfolio – having interviewed the likes of celebrated South African writer André Brink when I was just 18 – I walked into my first job as a cadet journalist on a newspaper as soon as I left university. Suddenly, I was writing – with a regular wage coming in. I never did teach art. And I never did ask permission to be called a journalist or a writer – I just did it.

Along the way – and especially since starting the doctorate – I have been asked what is the best way to become a writer. My answer is always the same. Write – and read – obsessively. No one is going to tap you on the shoulder and give you permission. In fact, writing is a vocation where people actively discourage you from pursuing your dream. So – do it anyway.

When I was a little girl, I listened to those voices of the adults around me and this is what they said – “you’ll never make any money from it”, or “it’s too competitive”.  Or “no one can be a writer in Australia – there is no audience.” I listened – but thankfully I didn’t let it stop me doing what I wanted.

Ah – I hear the doubters say. “You can’t make money from writing fiction.” Or “try poetry” or indeed “screenwriting – a joke!” Well, okay then, especially in a country like Australia, where there is a small population, it is harder to make a living by writing in these categories exclusively– and still be able to pay the rent.

But who said life was as black and white as an old film clip by The Animals, anyway? What I was never, ever told as an aspiring writer was that you can actually have your cake and eat it too.

You can have a wonderful, interesting and creative life as a writer, and at some level, you can make a living as a writer – you just need to supplement it with other things. Most writers I know do this; they work in an area that demands good writing and communication skills, and they spend their evenings and weekends and holidays writing fiction. I spent 15 years working on newspapers and magazines and now work in arts communications. And I have always written what I wanted to in my own time.

You can actually carve up a decent chunk of time out of your life to write, even if you have children and a paid job – and even doctoral study – if you really want to. Just toss aside the things that don’t matter, starting with watching television, and then other trivial time wasters, in a descending order of priorities (for me it’s cooking and housework).

Never give up, either. Depending on your genre, you may win the popularity jackpot with your work, and find a big audience – and decent royalties. Or, maybe you’ll win the literary fiction prizes and critical acclaim. Either way, it’s still rare enough in Australia for this to be sustainable without supplementing your income with other work.

Melbourne based author Carrie Tiffany, who recently won The Stella Prize, the inaugural Australia literary award for women writers, works as an agricultural journalist while also writing her fiction. Her novel Mateship for Birds is set in rural Australia, something she is familiar with in her work as an agricultural writer.

Yes, Tiffany admits the AU$50,000 prize money (AU$10,000 of which she graciously shared with the others on the shortlist) will buy her time to write, but she also added she hoped it would be a ‘blessing not a curse’. She has juggled freelance writing and children and fiction writing.

She’s a great example of someone who carved out time to write while doing something else – that still involved writing – for a living. Her first novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living (2005) was shortlisted for numerous prestigious awards, but it has taken eight years for her to publish her second novel Mateship with Birds. Time and commitment – that’s also what’s needed to write.

The conundrum of the doctorate in creative writing is that although it is four years of focus on your writing, it is a balancing act as well – time must be spent on the exegesis and the research, the academic writing, and the novel has to fit in between.

Now that I have submitted, and am slowly rising out of the daze of exhaustion, the one thing that’s keeping me focused again is my writing. Unlike giving up many other careers, a vocation in the arts means that you never retire. One creative project simply rolls into the next.

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As I have never made a living from my fiction, the money is never a driving factor. I am not waiting for a grant, a publisher, or anyone to give me the go-ahead to start the next book.

I just get on with it. Since submitting the doctorate six weeks ago, I have been asked to join a writing group and presented 5000 words of a new chapter of a  novel (a supernatural literary horror) that languished as I completed the doctorate. It’s getting its much needed revision. I am also co-writing books with another two authors and have a collaborative artist book and short story collection I am about to start on.

I can see all the characters from these books sitting across from me, bidding me to return to them and make them whole. They are all my creations, and have been patient, but now they are calling out to me – “It’s my turn!” they say. I can hear them as they struggle with plots about necromancy, the occult, revenants and aliens.

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It wasn’t until a friend suggested I explore the darkness of the human condition that I realized the link between these very different novels. This is best explained by writer-director Jennifer Lynch, who says of her own films; “I didn’t want to make a horror film in the traditional sense of the word. It is a film about horrific acts and pains. To me, it is a different thing.”

As improbable as it might seem, my varied writing projects are in some way about my own life; not necessarily about what I have experienced, but what I observe in some small way, and what I have felt. As Carrie Tiffany writes, ‘art starts with noticing.’

A friend who submitted her doctorate more than 15 years ago proposed that the post submission blues is actually about loss – “We like the security of our routines. We like having a purpose and knowing why to get up in the morning.”

Perhaps there is truth to this. And if so, the routine of writing, and the next project – is the reason to get up in the morning.

For a writer – that’s always the reason.

Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, post submission blues

Bouncing back post doctorate: what’s it all about, Alfie?

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The post-doctoral slump is a reality fuelled by the inevitable intensity and narrow focus that are par for the course of the four years, and certainly the last six months – and indeed the last 100 days – of the endurance effort of higher education. The trick is overcoming the malaise.

A writer I know dubbed this “PhDitis”. Readers have debated my dust and dog hair anxiety on Twitter. Friends constantly ask whether I have “bounced back” yet. There has been some concern I might actually be depressed rather than simply post-doctoral.

I can see their point. Readjusting to life without the ever present doctorate hovering over me is taking some time, especially as it came on the back of two previous years of academic intensity with the Master of Arts in creative writing by research.

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While I am not actually depressed – far from it – there is that nagging question that keeps coming into focus. What’s it all about, anyway?

Why did I spend all this time doing the doctorate?

A friend wrote to me the other day, assuring me that not only are PhDs are all consuming, but “somehow we think they make a difference. The result for me  was the journey rather than the end product that counted.”

I am not sure this is what I wanted to hear, at this point! Surely my doctorate will make a difference? And yet, as I do a head count of those around me with a PhD, only a few are working as academics in the area that they actually studied.

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As for me, I am a writer, and I wrote before I enrolled in university, and I wrote through the course often on things unrelated to what I was studying. Even eight months before I handed in, I wrote 30,000 words of a new novel totally unrelated to hybrids in science fiction. It is set in Lisbon in 1930 and concerns Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s meeting with an intriguing Australian modernist painter.

So why do a doctorate? And now it’s over, what’s it all about, Alfie?

Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s 1965 theme song to the movie “Alfie” (originally starring Michael Caine) might be about a feckless womanizer, but the lyrics are also rather apt for the post doctoral slump.

In this 2012 version, Stevie Wonder performs the theme song “Alfie” (including brilliant harmonica solo) in as a tribute to Hal David and Burt Bacharach as part of the “In Performance at the White House: Burt Bacharach & Hal David: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song”.

what’s it all about Alfie 
is it just for the moment we live
what’s it all about when you sort it out Alfie
are we meant to take more than we give 

Indeed – what’s it all about? The journey? The discipline? The determination? The permission to remove yourself from the world and focus on one thing? I think it is going to take me more than a few weeks to figure out the answer. What I can tell you is that from my experience, and those who have been through the doctoral mill, is that it is a quest that changes you.

The trick is realizing not everyone around you is on the same parallel universe of doctoral intensity. They do not necessarily share your tunnel vision. For instance, when you say that maybe the late Margaret Thatcher was a cyborg in a way that relates to Donna Haraway’s ground breaking essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” that observation might only make sense to you. And your doctoral supervisor.

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In the past week, I caught up with my writing partner and friend Caroline, who handed in her doctorate in creative writing about three weeks after me. We met with a mutual friend at a preview of the new musical King Kong that debuted in our home town. I started to discuss the mighty ape in the context of my doctoral research, while Caroline, who had immersed herself in Roland Barthes work so thoroughly she admitted “it felt like I slept with him in the end”, was a similar basket case.  “Things have meanings,” she intoned, as we pondered the model of the Empire State Building in the foyer of Melbourne’s grand Regent Theatre, and sipped our Jungle Juice cocktails, joking about the glowing phallic tip of the tower where the blonde heroine would be marooned with the hulking beast at the climax of the musical. We looked at each other, realized we were over analyzing the celebratory evening out, me with my hybrids, her with semiotics – and shook our heads and laughed at ourselves.

We are both in a strange post submission-pre examination limbo, not sure how what identity to wear. A little like Bella in Twilight after she changes into a vampire and has to learn to act human again.

That’s the thing about doctoral study, you forget how to mentally slouch.

In the interests of this blog, I pressed Caroline for more details on how she felt after handing in. The news, dear readers, isn’t good. “I feel awful!” she said. “Just terrible anxiety about what I did or didn’t do and if it was good enough.”

I know that feeling.

We are expecting fireworks or at least a warm glow and all we get is nausea. And it doesn’t get easier. It takes time to adjust to the new reality of the post-doc world. Or at least, the odd limbo of the submitted but not yet examined state.

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A few days later, Caroline hopped onto a plane for Europe to present her doctoral research at a conference, which is what I will be doing in September. When she returns to Melbourne, she’s thinking of dancing and cooking lessons to get into a different head space.

Readers of my blog know my views on cooking. My miserable efforts in the kitchen only got worse with the stress of the doctoral deadline. At the lowest point, every single thing I made was so inedible that my children begged me not to bother. I recall tossing a particularly rubbery but oddly slimy omelete into the puppy’s bowl to be greeted by a look of canine disbelief. My eldest son sniggered. “The dog has some pride,” he said.

Not one to take anything lying down, much less a post doctoral slump, I wrote a list of all the things I could do to pull myself out of the hole (that didn’t involve chocolate). Like a Surrealist whose hand automatically moves apart from the rational brain, my fingers clenched a pencil and wrote “go back to the gym”.

Yes – physical exercise. The ancient Greeks of course, believed in a healthy mind and body and this one has sadly only been taking the puppy for daily walks.

In Fay Weldon’s 1983 novel The Life and Loves of a She Devil, the drab heroine – as an act of revenge – undergoes a complete body transformation via plastic surgery in an effort to look like her partner’s new lover. Her plastic surgeon however, doesn’t know what to make of her:

 “You could learn a language,” he suggested, worrying for her.

“Why should I?”

“You may want to travel,” he said, surprised. “Afterwards. People often do. They like to show themselves off.”

“Let them learn my language,” she said.

“Well it would be something to do,” he repeated. She made him feel forlorn, as if he were the servant of her desires, and not their master. “There’s a lot of waiting around in this business. Besides, surely improvement of the mind is a good thing, for it’s own sake?”

“I am here to improve my body,” she replied. “There was never anything wrong with my mind.” (Fay Weldon, The Life and Loves of a She Devil, p 215)

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It has been 18 months since I entered a gym and I made a commitment to myself to go back so I could get reacquainted with another part of myself – that part that doesn’t involve sitting down for hours and just writing. Or reading. Friends know I never undertake anything lightly – intensity being my middle name. My diary is now full of yoga, Zumba, Body Balance and Pump classes.

And – at my mother’s insistence – line dancing.

Talk about getting out of the comfort zone. Apparently two years ago I had assured my mother that as a show of gratitude for all her help with the children while I was studying, I’d go line dancing with her after I submitted.

Before you can say “Rumpelstiltskin” that time has come.  I am more than a little apprehensive about my first class next week – not because of the music (they don’t dance to country anymore) or the clothes (ditto cowboy boots or hats) but because of the demanding level of endurance required. These classes go for three hours! If I am having problems getting up from my keyboard now after a one hour Zumba class, what will three hours of line dancing do to me?

Still, being physically exhausted is a good way of getting out of a mental slump. And as my mother (who takes classes every day and often twice a day) says, there could be a book in it. Mind you this is always what she says when she wants me to do something I don’t want to do.

And it’s got to be better than cooking classes.