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

Simply shocking: when our fiction writing pushes the boundaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

notting hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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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 conferences, academic publications, creative writing, Early Career Reseacher, Publishing academic research

The doctorate unbound: publications versus the bound volume

2013-09-09 16.03.09

I was excited to see a fellow doctoral traveller’s thesis photographed on Facebook, leather bound, and with gold lettering. She is now a Dr, and her twinkling gold letters on the leather bound cover were a joy to behold. In contrast, my university ran a mile from having to store a hard copy of my doctoral research, uploading it instead onto a server.

I wasn’t that fussed, actually. While the newly minted Dr. I congratulated on Facebook had her doctorate conferred in London, and that might be the way things are done there, I see my university’s logic in the doctorate unbound. Literally and metaphorically.

Sure, I wanted to see my academic articles in print, of course, but not printed in a bound volume that I had achieved by taking it to the printers. I wanted those words critiqued by peer reviewers apart from my examiners, and accepted for publication in academic journals and/or book chapters.

However, I know of others who have long held the fantasy of getting their doctoral thesis bound, despite the fact that their university simply doesn’t want it. They went ahead and had it printed up anyway, fulfilling the long held dream of seeing their names in gold on the cover.

Of course, whether or not it is a requirement to have a bound volume of the doctorate for ready for submission, candidates are aware that what they hand in surely isn’t the last word on their research.

I think that eschewing the concept (and fetish) of the bound submission if possible reminds us that our doctoral research is the beginning of the journey.

It’s also important to remember that ‘research active’ isn’t just what happens after you land (if ever) an academic job. You should be presenting and publishing your research throughout your candidature – enough so that when you finally submit, your work is already in the public sphere.

Okay – maybe this doesn’t apply to STEM candidates (I’ve heard that their research is akin to state secrets) but sharing your work and progress, exposing your ideas and writing to the cold light of day – and an audience – are all part of doing a doctorate in creative writing.

 

Evelyn Tsitas chapter "Boundary Transgressions: the Human-Animal Chimera in Science Fiction"
Evelyn Tsitas chapter “Boundary Transgressions: the Human-Animal Chimera in Science Fiction”

 

I had my taste of the printed thesis back in the analogue years, when I was required to present my fourth year undergraduate fine arts mini thesis (10,000 words) this way. I have a copy of it in my unpacked books somewhere. There is no doubt a (very dusty) copy in the university archives. The research (on semiotics and 1980s art magazines) is bound, sealed, delivered. Who looks at it? No one. And it’s not enough to drag it from the shelves yourself, flicking through the pages of that hard grind of study that produced the tome. Research should be set free. It is the springboard to other research, and doesn’t live in between the printed pages of a book expensively printed by an academic printer.

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Of course, if your university demands you print the thesis as part of your submission requirements, you must print it. But if all that is required is an electronic version? Well then, I say print that disk or upload to USB and move on.

Granted, handing in a disk to the Graduate Research Office with my ‘final’ version as the rite of passage after being passed by examiners lacked a certain romance. But I can see it saves on storage space, and the work is searchable by the world at large.

It’s actually a tough call to publish as you progress through your doctoral studies. While my aims were to always have the thesis published and presented in stages, showing my research to the world in tentative steps, that required being judged for it all along. I remember my first presentations at conferences; sure, there were some tough questions, but I have to say the academy was welcoming. I made many friends and contacts across the globe in my key research areas when I presented at three Inter-disciplinary.Net conferences at Oxford University through my doctorate.  These are wonderful for the emerging academic and demand that everyone fully participate – a big difference to conferences where senior academics adopt an arrogant Fi-Fo (Fly in/Fly out) attitude of presenting their paper, listening to no one, and having a tax-right off holiday.

 

Evelyn Tsitas chapter " Strange Erotic Encounters: Speculative Fiction and the Trope of Bestiality"
Evelyn Tsitas chapter ” Strange Erotic Encounters: Speculative Fiction and the Trope of Bestiality”

 

Coming as I did from the media world and demands of daily journalism, I was amazed by the slow progress of academic publishing. Factor in the endless waiting after a paper is accepted and the endless waiting after submission to see if it might be accepted – the wheels turn at a pace which I’d say was glacial. Except in this era of global warming, glaciers can melt faster than the response time from many academic publications.

When a paper was accepted, it was a major cause for celebration – and rewrites! Each editor or editorial team has a particular style, and some desire more input than others. My exegesis chapters grew up to become real papers, and these have been pushed, pulled, restructured, massaged and cut back. Others have required lengthy additions, a refocus, and some demanded – hardly anything. What I can say is that I responded to all requests for changes, and made them. You can’t afford to be precious with your work, or arrogant.

That’s not to say it was easy! Sometimes the space between submitted paper; accepted paper and editorial request for changes can be lengthy indeed – a year or more. You move on, other work priorities take over, and it’s hard to get back into that headspace again. Not to mention the fact that several of my papers were accepted while I was frantically finishing my doctorate, and others were reworked at the beginning of this year – after I had officially graduated, and also moved house. All my notes – and books – were stacked in boxes in the basement…

Evelyn Tsitas chapter "Monstrous Breeding Grounds: Creation, Isolation and Suffering at Noble’s Island, Hailsham and Rankstadt"
Evelyn Tsitas chapter “Monstrous Breeding Grounds: Creation, Isolation and Suffering at Noble’s Island, Hailsham and Rankstadt”

That meant putting in all my time after work and on weekends going back to the exegesis. Not an easy task – or welcome one! And it meant that many other things I wanted to do with my creative writing were put on the backburner while I did these papers. It often felt like the equivalent of sticking a hot fork into my eye – utterly painful and pointless. But in the end, I can proudly say that four chapters of my exegesis have now been published, as well as presented at conferences in Australia and overseas. I find this more satisfying than getting the ‘final’ version of my exegesis printed in a leather bound book. Because the chapters have evolved since my doctoral submission.

And there is more to come. The well of four years of doctoral study has not dried up – the exegesis is a research gift that keeps on giving.

As part of my creative writing doctorate, I needed to explore the process of how the research impacted on my creative writing, and the methodology used to tackle the hybrid that is the creative writing doctorate. I’ve submitted an abstract based on this chapter for a conference next year in London. Fingers crossed.

Likewise, my final exegesis chapter on further explorations in my research has become the basis for an abstract I have submitted to another conference mid next year. Once must plan ahead!

 

Evelyn Tsitas chapter "Are We Not Men? When the Human-Animal Cyborg Talks Back"
Evelyn Tsitas chapter “Are We Not Men? When the Human-Animal Cyborg Talks Back”

 

I still feel I have several other abstracts lurking and papers arising from my exegesis, because it isn’t ‘finished’ as such, but the foundation of my continual research into issues of hybridity, identity, human-animal relations and monstrosity. My exegesis, like Frankenstein’s creature, is unbound. And that’s why it literally is unbound, as I do not want my research to be boxed in, held between the covers, and regarded as “complete”.

The next step is to develop the research into a book sparked by my ideas, and I am hoping that the fact that the work has been published and approved, as it were, by the academy in one form will give me the authority to present a different version of the work for a wider audience. As my supervisor often reminded me, it’s hard for me to totally remove myself from my past as a tabloid journalist.…always seeking a large audience, always aiming to make complex work accessible and interesting.

And what’s wrong with that? 

Indeed, the journey from thesis to book demands doctoral candidates look beyond their academic research, and consider marketing, product placement, competitors, unique point of view, their own author profile and potential audience.

Evelyn Tsitas two short stories "Xenos" and "Undeceive"

Evelyn Tsitas short story “Xenos”

As this is a blog about the creative writing doctorate, the question you are probably asking as you read this post is the same as my youngest son’s. “When are you publishing the creative component – the novel???!” I am working on it! So far, I have had the middle chapter of my doctoral novel published – in the collected short story book “Scarlet Stiletto: The Second Cut”.  My short story “Xenos” won the the Scarlet Stiletto Award-Dorothy Porter Prize for Innovation in Crime Writing and became the inspiration – and anchoring chapter – for my doctoral creative work.

But just like doing a creative writing PhD, there are two sides to the postdoctoral story as well – the exegesis and the creative. Getting the academic research published requires a different set of skills and part of the brain than writing the novel and getting it published. There will be many blog posts to come on the novel’s journey, don’t worry.

At the moment, while pitching the novel to publishers I am happy with having the exegesis out in the world. Unbound.

Roll Call: My exegesis chapters – and final publications

1. “Boundary Transgressions and the trope of the mad scientist” – became  “Boundary Transgressions: the Human-Animal Chimera in Science Fiction” in Vol 2, No 2 (2014) Relations. Beyond Anthropocentrism

2. Monstrous birth tropes and hybrid breeding grounds – became “Monstrous Breeding Grounds: Creation, Isolation and Suffering at Noble’s Island, Hailsham and Rankstadt” in Monstrous Geographies: Places and Spaces of the Monstrous. 2013

3. When the hybrid talks back – became “Are We Not Men? When the Human-Animal Cyborg Talks Back” (with Dr Lisa Dethridge) in Navigating Cybercultures, 2013.

4. The erotic nature of the hybrid – became ” Strange Erotic Encounters: Speculative Fiction and the Trope of Bestiality”, in “Forces of the Erotic”. 2014.

5. and the creative component – the middle chapter “Xenos” published in Scarlet Stiletto: The Second Cut.  Clan Destine Press. Ed Phyllis. King.

 

 

academic publications, Brand Identity, Early Career Reseacher, Publishing academic research

Holy Matrimony! The peril of the ‘married name’ for women in academia

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Mrs George Clooney may rue the day she changed her name after marriage to her Hollywood superstar. Statistics being what they are, she may want her name back. And that name is Amal Alamuddin – the name she used at university, the one she used to become a high flying lawyer (currently advising how Greece win back the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum) and the name she with which she basically made a name for herself.

At the same time, more or less, UK heiress Jemima Khan has announced a decade after divorcing Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan that she intends to revert to her maiden name. She writes in the New Statesman that she feels sad about it because she used her married name for so long. And for good reason – use it long enough, and a new name becomes your identity. A woman may build up her brand under the adopted married name, and that’s not an easy thing to change. Brands remain, for better or worse, longer than the shelf life of many relationships.

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Eleanor Robertson from The Guardian speculates that Amal Alamuddin Clooney may have decided on the American actress tradition of hitching the married name to hers – a double barrelled effort – but she still may be on dangerous ground when it comes to her brand and identity. For a man may take his name back if things turn sour.

Flamboyant Australian businessman Geoffrey Edelsten has waded into the debate about whether or not a woman should change her name on marriage by demanding that his estranged wife Brynne stop using his surnameAccording to Daily Mail Australia, an enraged Mr Edelsten said: ‘Stop using my last name, Brynne. You are only using it to get publicity and attention, it’s desperate.’

Edelsten has declared that Brynne, who has a reality TV show that is based on her brand as a glamour wife, ditch her married name, demanding that she “Make a name “ for herself [and] stop leaning on mine, it’s an embarrassment to me and a desperate act of attention.”

This is perhaps a cautionary tale about why women should not change their name on marriage – and a more convincing argument than any a feminist can muster. The former Brynne Edelsten is now Ms Brynne Gordon.

Eleanor Robertson defends Amal’s choice by arguing that “the political valences attached to taking your husband’s name are different for different groups of women, but the arguments we hear most centre the perspectives of feminists with a prominent platform.” However, it takes a woman a long time to build up her resume and credibility, and that shouldn’t be thrown away lightly, no matter if that knight in shining armour happens to be George Clooney.

As MamaMia blogger Jamila Rizvi observed, why wouldn’t the former Amal Alammudin – a renowned lawyer and person of note in her own right – want to keep the name under which she had accomplished so much? The name that she was born with? The name that says more about her culture and ethnicity than her husband’s name?

The fact is that these choices are not the same for men, and that women in academia should think carefully about casting aside their names. The lure of the wonderful and lavish wedding is embedded in popular culture. But isn’t it possible to have the ring, the big dress and the presents – and still keep your name, just as your husband is keeping his?

Amal’s choice is quite pertinent to doctoral students and post docs, because the higher degree journey comes at all stages of the lifecycle, and with it love, divorce, remarriage, recoupling, and conscious uncoupling. None of this means terribly much for men, but for women on the academic journey it comes with the political choice of surname.

If you meet that special someone while a doctoral student (don’t ask me how this is possible, because don’t you have study to attend to???) and decide to be married, will you, like Amal, opt to be Dr Mrs His Surname? Or Dr Mrs Mine & His Surname?

I married very young but was never expected or asked to give up my name. I kept my Greek name through all my degrees and decades of marriage, and though now uncoupled, when I received my doctorate, it was in the name I was born with. My children, who have their father’s name, have never felt confused that their mother has a different name. Indeed, I have a different name to my own mother, though she is still married to my father. She is not Greek and returned to her own more ethnically appropriate name decades ago after Women’s Studies courses at university caused her to question the convention of changing your name on marriage.

My mother taught me this – in your career your name is your business card. It is, like the former Amal Alammudin, the name with which you make your mark on the profession. As a writer, I take my name very seriously. A career in journalism taught me the importance of one’s byline. Indeed, fellow Australian and writer Kathy Lette, who defended Amal in the Herald Sun (Saturday 11 October 2014) has kept her own name despite her long marriage to UK lawyer Geoffrey Robertson.

If you think you can take for granted the fact that you may keep your new married name forever (or indeed, want to keep it forever), think again. Once conscious uncoupling has been achieved, you may find yourself with the added burden of starting over with your publication record and explaining your name change. Just because you are traditional and did your husband the huge ego boost of severing your identity and taking his name, doesn’t mean that when you tire of each other he will not decide that he has other uses for his name, and other partners-in-waiting with which to bestow his mighty gift. Or that he simply doesn’t like you having his name when he no longer has you.

Then again, you might feel you no longer want the name now you are by yourself, and remember, if you never changed your name in the first place at least you won’t be stuck with the name of someone you are no longer with.

You – my dear traditional female academic who has attached so much importance to your acquired name – may find that there is a battle over naming rights. Before you can say “look me up on Google Scholar” you may be asked to hand back your name. Your ‘married’ name that is. Yes, start again with your publication record.

It is simply something men in academia never have to contemplate.

Whether or not to take a man’s name on marriage is something that used to divide younger women from their older married cohorts. Back in the 1980s, no self respecting feminist would use the title ‘Mrs’ let alone dump their surname at the altar. These were the days of being proud to use Ms as a title (before you became Dr) and you could take comfort in watching strong female TV characters like Murphy Brown, who were single, feminist and making it  – and having a great time – in the tough world of media (with their own name).

These days, of course, young women are jumping at the chance to add “Mrs” to their name, and are keen to adopt their husband’s surname as a badge of pride, or, more likely, as a sign of success at having finally nabbed one of those commitment-phobic men.

Just what men think about this name changing game has rarely been investigated, presumably because we expect men to puffer up with pride that a woman will shed their identity for the privilege of being their wife.

But what about when the often inevitable split happens? It used to be one of the reasons women were cautioned not to through away their moniker. It’s not only time consuming to change all one’s official paperwork to a new name – come divorce, and it has to be changed back.

The trouble is, that name – the name you, a married woman, have adopted with such pride, is one that you worked hard to elevate as your own brand in whatever career you developed. You changed your twitter handle to hubby’s name – and now he wants it back? What’s your twitter handle going to be now? @Washisname? That maybe all very well if you have a reality TV show, less convincing if you are attempting a career in academia, for example.

I am intrigued by why men encourage and agree to women taking their name on marriage. Presumably it is an ownership deal for them. Perhaps, as a woman, I simply do not understand why men agree to a woman taking their name. It is not about love, that’s for sure. Love does not need to have matching names (unless you are very insecure). Why then?

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The trouble with taking a man’s name for an academic in need of a publication record is that few women pause to consider that their man’s name might be up for grabs in a divorce settlement. Perhaps it will be a chattel that is disputed in court, bartered, say, in exchange for jewellery given or fought over in return for part ownership of a holiday house?

And is a man’s name, like his fidelity and love, something that can be regifted over and over again in new marriages, leaving an endless trail of wives with the same surname? Or should the previous owners be forced to relinquish the naming rights?

Geoffrey Edlesten has revealed that a newly acquired name may be as transient as most marriages. According to The Daily Mail, Geoffrey has said that he wants his new paramour, Gabi Grecko, to take his name when he marries her. ‘I love Gabi and I want her to use my name once she feels comfortable to do so.’

I rather like the American celebrity ritual of adding the husband’s name to their name on marriage – such as Christy Turlington Burns and Robin Wright Penn. And then dropping it like Farrah Fawcett (Majors) or (as listed on wikipedia) the actress “previously credited as Robin Wright Penn” as they drop the bloke from their life. It suggests that coupledom is a temporary condition, one that should not impinge on one’s identity. It says ‘ I will placate your ego by hitching your name to mine, but like the caravan annex, it will be abandoned by the road side once I decide to pack up and make a getaway, without any costs to my identity.’

 

The image of abandoned surnames littering the highway of love is rather compelling.

 

Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, Early Career Reseacher, impostor syndrome, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, Publishing academic research, publishing the novel, the creative life, thesis writing, Writing strategies

Impostor syndrome: overcoming the fear of doctoral failure

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Hands up if you are a perfectionist. Hands up if you wilt and wither at rejection. Okay – we need to talk. You have to accept being less than perfect if you want to pass your doctorate because ultimately, you may be placing the bar too high.

A doctorate has to be ‘fit for purpose’ (ie: good). Not a Nobel Prize winning achievement. In fact, there is a great research paper titled “It’s a PhD Not A Nobel Prize” that I heard referred to throughout my doctorate, by fellow Australians Gerry Mullins and Margaret Kiley.

One of the key points is this – “All PhDs are not equal and yet most get through”. So there is no point in dropping out because you fear not being brilliant. Reality check – few doctorates dazzle. Sure, you want yours to be the one that does, but maybe there is time for that later, once you have that piece of paper and have learned how to speak the language of the academy. Trying to be perfect can so often lead to failure.

It’s no surprise that the pursuit of perfection cripples progress. Often it’s better to get the job done and warts and all, expose it to the glare of public opinion. We compare ourselves to people who are way ahead in the same game; we judge our work against work that they have honed to a shimmering patina.

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We look at art produced at the end of a career, not the beginning, we sigh and flip through an author’s 10th book and know we can never compete.

Practice, of course makes perfect, but as a doctoral student – or shaky legged newly minted post doc – each step we take is new, unsteady, unsure.

All I can say if you are on the start of the journey is that even after graduation, it doesn’t get easier. Now is the time when you really, really have to accept failure – when you start to expose your research to the cold light of day.

Being a writer doesn’t help. You have your doctoral novel, you hope that might open a few doors, but everyone seems to be doing a doctorate in creative writing these days. What’s your unique point of view? Your angle? Your brand? Your pitch? Are you relying on the power of your writing and imagination, or, lucky you, are you able to ride high on a memoir that mines personal tragedy that resonates with global misery or at least a salacious affair with some celebrity? Ah – I can hear the stampede of salivating publishers as I tap away at the keyboard.

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Writers are so often told “you only get one chance with a publisher?” or “if it’s not perfect then they won’t want it” We’ve all heard the tales of the countless knock backs successful writers have had on the way to publication.  That tends to freeze your soul a little. Especially when you spent four years slaving over your novel and accompanying research. You have passed the doctorate – you don’t want to fail with a publisher.

Get a large group of writers together in a room and you’ll feel the perfectionism and smell the fear of failure. And this is not all in the mind – just because you have had one or two books published means nothing these days. It’s perverse – the door opens, they let you in, then slam the door shut as you as you try for a second or third bite at the pie.

When a publisher takes on a writer, they do so because they hope the book will generate profits, so they take a punt – and hence the door closing if after one or two books those hopes are not delivered in the market place. As I say to my students, it’s not the publishing charity, it’s the publishing industry.

Writing a book is like shooting bullets in the dark and hoping it lands on an object somewhere. On the other hand, a doctorate satisfies a much, much smaller audience. For a start, you have to pass a confirmation hurdle, and then progress hurdles and then a completion hurdle, all in front of a panel that assess your ability to progress to the next level. You are being constantly guided to success, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

So, since there is support along the way in the doctorate or at least safety measures to ensure you are pushed towards success, why do so many doctoral students feel crippled by such self doubt, when they are obviously smart enough to get accepted into the degree in the first place?

“Life is but life, and death but death! Bliss is but bliss, and breath but breath! And if, indeed, I fail, At least to know the worst is sweet. Defeat means nothing but defeat, No drearier can prevail!”  Emily Dickinson, Poems by Emily Dickinson, Series One.

It’s the fear of failure and defeat that does it every time. We fear being unmasked as frauds, we fear not being able to speak the language, master the secret codes, come up with the theories or grapple with the methodology that matters in the doctorate.

I have sweated in the fear of failure, and all I can say is that this fear continues even after you have passed the doctorate. In fact, that’s when the fear of failure can be worst! Because now you have to take your research and creative work out of the sheltered workshop of the academy and impress not just a couple of examiners, your supervisor and an academic panel, but people who will put down money (hopefully) into your ideas and research.

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Now is the time you have to write proposals and pitches to publishers or industry. You have to get that research from journal article or lab results into commercial scrutiny. It’s equally as terrifying – if not more – than the four years of defending your research during the doctoral journey.

But be prepared to fail, my friends, because if you don’t try, sure, you’ll be safe, but you may never get anywhere. You have to go forth and be prepared to get your heart broken, again, and again, and again, when you fail to get your research picked up and your book published.

In her biography Bossypants comedian Tina Fey writes: “You can’t be the kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down that chute…you have to let people see what you write. It will never be perfect, but perfect is overrated…” (pg 123)

Because I enjoy research (code for I can waste a lot of time researching) and I’m a big Tina Fey fan (another Greek-German writer!) I thought I’d find out what else she has said on the subject of failure.

“For my first show at SNL, I wrote a Bill Clinton sketch, and during our read-through, it wasn’t getting any laughs. This weight of embarrassment came over me, and I felt like I was sweating from my spine out. But I realized, ‘Okay, that happened, and I did not die.’ You’ve got to experience failure to understand that you can survive it.” Fail big; you’ll live.

Look at it this way – what is the worst thing that can happen with your doctoral journey? That you won’t pass? Or that having passed, no one is interested in what you have researched anyway?

You see, at every stage, the fear of failure haunts us. Despite having passed the doctorate, the fear of my research being rejected is very front and centre in my mind. I know, I research everything, and what I feel has a name – impostor syndrome, discovered by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 – and still going strong, especially among women. Girls discover early on they are judged by the highest physical, behavioural and intellectual standards, and so perfection becomes the goal and every flaw or mistake is internalized, eroding self confidence. Hello, fraud syndrome. Hello fear of failure, my old friend.

Again, let us turn to Tina Fey for advice, who says “Ah, the impostor syndrome!? The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh god, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud. Seriously, I’ve just realised that almost everyone is a fraud, so I try not to feel too bad about it.”

This is beautifully illustrated in a very clever 1996 Whoopi Goldberg film The Associate , in which Whoopi’s character, a successful black woman, has to pretend to be a man to be taken seriously on Wall Street. However, her ruse is so successful she laments “even when I invent a man he ends up stabbing me in the back.”

 

 

According to Dr. Valerie Young’s book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive In Spite of It (Crown Business, Random House) “The thing about “impostors” is they have unsustainably high standards for everything they do. The thinking here is, If I don’t know everything, then I know nothing. If it’s not absolutely perfect, it’s woefully deficient. If I’m not operating at the top of my game 24/7, then I’m incompetent.”

The problem is that doctoral study breeds this type of thinking. Your literature review isn’t good enough! You haven’t published enough! If you published the journal isn’t ranked high enough! This dissertation isn’t going to win a Nobel Prize!

Really, it’s time to take Tina Fey’s advice. Chances are you are your own worst enemy and everyone else believes in you – except you. So get out, and believe in your work and expose it to the possibility of success as well as failure. That’s a scary thought, isn’t it?

As my youngest  son keeps reminding me, “mummy, it’s time to sit down, find a publisher and send your book out into the world. You need to get a book published and make lots of money.

Kids can be tough, can’t they? Mind you, I keep telling him the only failure is in not trying, so I suppose at least I have been successful in passing that message across.

creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Early Career Reseacher, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, Publishing academic research, publishing the novel, the creative life, Time management, Writing strategies

Plu ca change: The post doctorate regime

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People are intrigued by my life post PhD – it’s as though I have been studying for so long, no one is sure how to focus on me without the weight of that enormous workload and deadline weighing me down.

“What do you do with your time now?” they ask. And more to the point, as I have been quiet on the blogosphere as of late, they wonder where I have been. Some parallel universe, perhaps? What on earth am I doing anyway?

Well – what can I say? When a productive and creative woman suddenly goes off the radar, there are of course a number of reasons, usually to do with children, and the need to immerse oneself in a new creative project. Time, that’s what writers need, a little time to think, ponder and well – write.

Recently, singer Roísín Murphy, whose work, voice and style I admire,  has resurfaced after seven years with a new album: “I went away and had me babbies,” she says by way of explanation. She created life and now new projects. Even though my kids are teenagers, I get it. Sometimes, you just need a little time out to be with your kids, and indulge in domestic and creative mess. Especially after hauling them through the doctorate with you.

There is no one right way of being. Of creating. In fact, I wonder at those who churn out work endlessly without a pause. When do they ever get that time necessary to reflect and make something truly original? I think time away from the glare of the public gaze on one’s work in important to the creative process. A retreat into the pit of work is necessary before coming up for air. A time to daydream, to wallow in the luxury of not having to deliver work to a deadline, but play around with it.

I admit to still catching my breath in my year of transition, from doctorate student to early career researcher. In addition to my work as a communications strategist, and demands as mother of two, I am immersed in new writing projects. Ones totally different to my doctoral work on human animal hybrids.

However, the new manuscript is at that fragile embryonic stage where it is being hauled out to workshops and prodded and poked while I write and then explain and then listen to feedback. It needs lots of attention. I am fortunate to be involved in a robust writing group filled with highly educated and published authors for whom this process is meaningful and soulful at the same time. For let’s face it, writing is a solitary pastime in many ways. You need to dive down to connect with the imaginary characters inside, wrestle out their personalities and dialogue.

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On the other hand, nothing much good comes from sitting alone with your thoughts and never sharing them – never exposing your writing to the cold light of day and criticism. If you can’t take a writing group’s close scrutiny of your work, then how will you ever pitch to publishers or face the critics?

I’ve also been trying to balance filling the creative well by going out to theatre, meeting friends, reading copious literature (a drug that shows no sign of being shaken off), and pottering around my new house. Cocooning is addictive. One minute it’s throw rugs, the next cushions, and then fairy lights draped over the new bookcases. And some time soon, I am going to have to deal with all those boxes of books in the basement. Seriously.

I have barely had time for my new toy – a smart TV that  ensured I could catch up on every TV series I’d missed while doing my doctorate. And  guess what? I’ve watched an episode here or there, but no marathon has taken place in front of the screen. I’ve been doing catch up reading and catch up socialising and I have a mild addiction (another) to going out to see films. There’s a great art house cinema nearby and I make frequent use of it.

But it’s the unseen work that goes into the demands of the early career researcher’s workload that have eaten into my time – I have two conference papers to write, a conference to publicise, and an ebook to launch. Then there are the pitches to publishers, meetings and networking with those in industry, and the writing and publishing events. How am I ever going to get through all those episodes of 30 Rock that I missed or fell asleep in because I was so tired finishing my doctorate?

 

As French critic, journalist and novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote in the January 1849 issue of his journal “The Wasps”, plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose – ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. The only difference post doctorate is that all the pencils in my tool box are brightly colored and glorious, whereas for the last four years, they have been all black lead and serious. Life is still crowded with demands, but it feels like a rainbow washing over life, rather than the endless trudge to get to the end of that rainbow and earn my PhD.

Actually, I am so busy I can’t imagine how I studied and worked full time for all those years. I guess the answer is everything but the most urgent tasks were pushed aside, hidden in the corner to gather dust. And no, I still haven’t caught up with the ironing. Maybe that comes in retirement.

A post doctorate world is still busy and demanding, but with that all important milestone out of the way, it frees up space in the frontal lobe for dreaming, thinking, plotting. That space is where – for writers – books grow and are nurtured. How lovely to be able to do so without a gun of a deadline pressed to my head. Without a supervisor’s demand for that pound of flesh.

When I say I have no deadline – I lie by omission. In the post doctorate world I make my own way and deadlines. I have filled my diary with deadlines – applications for grants, positions, workshops, conferences and a trip overseas for research. One creates structure where there is none, a platform for the writerly dreams and plans to sit. Structure and deadlines are what carried me through the doctorate, so I guess its not surprising that I have recreated them as soon as I handed back the graduating gown, for even if I do not have an academic position in the university, I am what is called an ‘independent researcher’, and that’s as busy as you want it to be.

So, to answer the question, where have I been? The answer is here, right at my desk. And inside my imagination. Working, as usual, to another deadline.

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.