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.

 

 

 

 

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Academic Study, Brand Identity, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Early Career Reseacher, Marketing, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, publishing the novel, writing workshops

Show Me The Story: Creating Your Doctoral Narrative

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Once you have your doctorate, don’t imagine the progress reports stop. Don’t think you can say goodbye to explaining what your research means, or why it is important and whether anyone should care. In fact, once you graduate, the demands for you to sell your doctoral story have never been greater. Now you have your doctorate, you are expected to deliver your story about your research in razor sharp, fully focused, bite sized pitches. To everyone.

Some great advice I received shortly after graduating was to start practicing my story. Not the story of what I wrote about – but the story of me; my doctoral research, my journey – both what I did and what I planned to do. I had to curate myself.

In short, you have to be able to sell yourself. “Let everyone know who you are, that’s no easy thing,” I was warned. My mentor is a fellow doctoral traveller, fast tracked on those research only spheres, and I took frantic notes over lunch, as if I was back in a research study methods class early on in the PhD.

I was reminded of the need to be able to tell the story of my work again when I listened to a consummate performer and terrific writer Graeme Simsion at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. Simsion is the Melbourne author of the bestselling novel ‘Asperger’s romcom’ The Rosie Project. 

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I have the good fortune to live in Melbourne, a UNESCO City of Literature, and to work at RMIT University literally one block from the Wheeler Centre for Books and Writing (my second home), where I regularly attend lunchtime and evening writer’s talks and events, and many weekends every year honing my craft at writing workshops and meeting with my regular writing cohort.

Like so many who have enjoyed Graeme Simsion’s romantic Asperger comedy The Rosie Project, including Bill Gates who called it “profound” I had marvelled at Simsion’s clean and sparse style and economical use of language, as well as pace. But I also know many who know Graeme (it’s a small writing world in Melbourne, and indeed Australia) so I also know the dedication that goes into perfecting his craft, and in writing a sequel of his successful first novel. All the more reason to appreciate his work and also enjoy listening to him speak – in particular, on the value of stories.

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Take heart, fellow doctoral students in creative writing. When someone challenges you on why you are doing something so ‘nebulous’ and not a doctorate in say communications or public relations, reply, as I do “because I believe in the value of stories”.

In fact, post doctorate, I work in strategic communications where I use my doctoral skills daily – and use the power of the narrative to shape communications. It’s a gift to be able to tell a story, but a craft to spin a yarn across all mediums.

In his talk, Graeme Simsion stood and spoke, engaged with the audience – a full house of adoring fans, and said loud and clear “I have found the value of stories”.

Interestingly, while Graeme said he was inspired to write the character of geneticist Don Tillman in The Rosie Project by a friend’s story (an IT wiz with Aspergers), he didn’t want to write his story.

How do you go about taking a real person and turning it into a character? One way is to create a character and then place them in not the same situation as the real person, but an exaggerated one – raise the stakes, throw everything at the character. And don’t worry about going with the comedy if that seems to be the way the character is dictating the story.

“If you are lucky enough to be gifted a character who makes good comedy, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” said Graeme – who learnt this gem from Australian comedy writer Tim Ferguson, whose motto is “make them laugh, make them cry, make them think.”

 

The crucial thing for Graeme was that he didn’t set out to deliver a message, but to tell a story. As I was listening to this, I reflected on the doctorate in creative writing, where we are compelled to both tell a story (with the novel) AND deliver a message (with the exegesis). This is one of the hardest things for the candidate because the brain is going “exposition, exposition” for half the required work, and “show, don’t tell” for the other half of the doctorate. One has to deal with writing time and focus, and always the need to refrain from adding the message we are learning from our research into the novel, instead of letting the novel tell the story.

Graeme said “if you write a story that has your values, you might succeed”. And I think that’s the key – to go so deep into your research, and know it so well, that it comes out in your writing in an organic way. This is a far cry from “I am going to get a scholarship and take four years from other work and write my novel – oh, and I’ll throw together that pesky exegesis to keep the examiners happy.” I think to be really successful at both sides of the creative doctorate, you have to pursue both research and writing with equal passion. And that’s not easy.

Of course, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Oh – they are? Point taken, well then, even more writers would be doing the creative writing doctorate than they are already!

The other thing that Graeme said is that he doesn’t want to get too influenced by other people’s portrayals of fictional characters ‘on the spectrum’. So he doesn’t watch Big Bang Theory. No Sheldon Cooper for Graeme, lest he be swayed by that approach. Many writers say the same thing – though in some ways it’s counter intuitive with academic research. We endlessly swot over other academic’s papers, for instance. And the worst thing that could happen if you are writing an academic paper about fictional characters with Aspergers in TV sitcoms is not to have watched The Big Bang Theory – or read other papers on the topic. How often as a doctoral candidate did I hear “We don’t care what you think, you stand on other people’s shoulders – and what does your academic guru think?” In creative writing, however, your voice should be unique.

 

Graeme’s view is that there are a range of people in real life with Aspergers, just like, for instance, knowing one person who is gay doesn’t provide you with an understanding of every gay person on the planet. “We need to be able to see a range of people in fiction, not stereotypes,” he said.

Graeme has a successful background in IT, which proves that you can’t stereotype writers – no working in a bookshop or living off writing grants and a bit of sessional teaching but rather a career that taught him that “there are craft things you learn when you take on a new discipline.”

I admire this methodical approach, and perhaps that’s the sweet spot where STEM and the creative arts meet. I was so intrigued by Graeme’s logical breakdown of turning a screenplay into a novel that I pass these suggestions of Graeme’s onto you. Remember, a novel allows the reader deep into the inner world of the character, especially if it is a novel in first person, as is the Rosie Project. How do you translate this inner world into a screenplay?

“Sometimes you don’t,” admitted Graeme. “A book is a book and some things a book does better. You can always go to that book and get into the inner world.” One of the reasons people have buddies in films said Graeme, is so they can externalise their thoughts and their inner world.

But there are tricks, said Graeme. Such as the voice over. This is either liked or loathed. I was reminded of watching Blade Runner again recently, with a friend who had never seen it, and her son, who studied it at school. Even though we watched the Director’s Cut, I still had the 1982 Theatrical Release in my head, expecting Rick Deckard’s (contentious) voice over as Replicant Roy Batty dies.

The 21 year old, who had never seen this version, looked at me in amazement. “Why would anyone think the audience needed a voice over?” he asked. A film does some things, and as Graeme Simsion said, “A book is a book and some things a book does better.”

Why indeed. The death scene with just the close up on Deckard’s face is far more poetic, filled with longing – for life. Is the voice over needed? The beauty of films that we fill in the internal monologue through music, cinematography, and acting.

However, when we are telling the story of our doctorate, we cannot assume anything as we are selling our research to a varied group of people. We may not have a captive audience, the lighting and sound may be bad and we have not had time to develop our characters. It could be a short ten minute interview for a coveted academic job, and we are one of many vying for the post. In that case, go for the obvious, sum it up, make it snappy. Give them the Deckard voice over in the Blade Runner Theatrical release. “I didn’t know how long we had together – who does?”

Yes, give it to them, curate yourself with a little story. Practice on your friends.  Like any story, the story of your doctorate gets easier with the telling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, publishing the novel, Writing strategies

It’s not me, it’s you: falling out of love with your fictional character

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My dearest fictional character – we’ve been together for many years, and you’ve sat with me long into the night as we have tried to work it out. You’ve gone deep into the heart of academia with me, you’ve faced the Master of Creative Writing examiners – and passed, with flying colors – and I have good friends who will go into bat for you.

And I have loved and cared for you, it’s true. I made you from nothing but the figment of my imagination. I gave you flesh and blood and backstory. I fashioned your hair and clothes and gave you your name. You feel like you are part of me.

But recently, or actually, not so recently, things haven’t been the same between us. I’ve noticed your flaws. Those charming idiosyncrasies that at first were just slightly annoying, but have now started grating on me. Even though, it is true, I was responsible for everything about you, even the awful bits.

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But some of the things you’ve done, and let’s be honest, the people you’ve killed in my Gothic horror novel, have indicated that you are unbalanced. And people don’t necessarily like that.

There is no harder word to defend in fiction than ‘antagonist’. Except perhaps the words ‘female antihero’.

No one likes a woman who kills in fiction. They like her even less if she kills her lover’s wife. It’s true that even in the horror genre, people get very moralistic like that. Though I agree with you, the wife had it coming to her. She after all turned your lover’s life support off, didn’t she? And if that’s not motivation enough to propel you on your bloody journey of revenge, I don’t know what is.

And I thought refusing to say ‘till death do us part’ was romantic. Apparently not.  People just think you are unhinged.

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You see, Xanthe, I have a new set of people reading about you. And they don’t like you, not one little bit. One author was ready to throw you against a wall – a pretty strong reaction to a fictional character, I know. She said it out loud, to my face. “I just don’t like her.”

Others in my new writing workshop have started saying it as well. It began with a read through and a glass of wine. They called you objectionable. That hurt. To be told that the person you cared about – even if only fictional – was not quite up to scratch. Not worthy of me. Not only that, they didn’t even like the man you loved. I was trying to make him sympathetic, but I was told he was too perfect. They said he needed to be flawed, cheating man that he is – he needed to be real. Everyone likes the bad boy in books.

What’s that I hear you say? You think I am being unfaithful with my writer’s affections? Okay. So, I admit it. There’s someone else. That’s the truth. They are as intense as you, but less neurotic. And for some reason, even though he (yes, it’s a man this time) inhabits a world where he has sold his soul to the devil, and you still have yours, people prefer him.

How did that happen?

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I am the writer who created you both, and people prefer JD Howard to you, Xanthe. It’s just the way it is. They want me to leave you, toss you aside, and move in with him, so to speak.

In fact, when I presented the latest piece of writing at my workshop featuring you, Xanthe, this is what they said.

“Oh, we were hoping for more of Howard, after what we read last time. We loved Howard, he was ambiguous, morally objectionable, but interesting – well dressed, dark, mysterious, and we loved the way he tried to seduce that nurse in the first chapter…”

And you, my poor dear Xanthe, love of my heart, a woman I so painstakingly created throughout my Masters degree – they just thought you were crazy. They didn’t get you at all.

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So now, after all this time, I have decided to consign you to third person. Howard is going to take the prized first person protag place in my novel.

What can I say, Xanthe? It’s not me, it’s you. I think you are the reason my novel hasn’t found a publisher. Now, maybe I am being too harsh, that’s not totally the case, but in all relationship breakups, someone has to take the blame, so it might as well be you.

If I wanted to be really honest, I could tell you this – obviously in the course of the four years that I have pursued my doctorate in creative writing, I have grown stronger, leaner, meaner, better as a writer, and you, my dearest, just don’t cut it any more.

Yes, I know we go back a long way, and you are the first love of my MA. But now it is time to face the facts. We have grown apart. I have outgrown you, and it’s over. It really is.

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I could let you down gently, I suppose, tell you that I just need some space to think about things. But actually, I have told you those lies already. How many years now have I said to you that I am too busy to spend time with you? That I can’t pursue our endless redrafts any more because I have to work on other projects, or I have a conference to attend? I keep saying I’ll get back to you in due course, but it never happens, does it? You should have realized then there was another book taking my time and affections.

You should have realized my neglect was actually an indication of a deeper betrayal – that of lack of interest. But it hurts me to do this. To create another you. A better you. A you without the flaws. A you perfectly drawn, who will do what I want, when I want. The thing is, Xanthe. I am selfish. I want to get my novel published. And you are holding me back.

You see, Xanthe, now I have submitted that other novel as part of my doctorate, I am ready to come back to the MA novel, and I don’t like what I see anymore. I don’t like you, Xanthe.

So here we are now, with me about to commit the ultimate in writer’s divorce. I am going to move all our work together into an old draft folder, and start again.

That’s it. I have had enough. I have tried and tried, but it’s just not working. I have to be mature about this, and do the right thing by you – and by me – and call it quits. I can’t waste any more time with you. I can’t keep providing you with better dialogue, more complex motivations that still render you believable. I need to have time to write the book my book could be without you.

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Even though I spent years creating you, and rewriting you, it’s not working. You are not working. It’s over. I want to start afresh with someone else. Another character. A clean slate. Someone I can project my darkest fantasies upon. Someone who will do what I want and have the readers cheering.

Goodbye Xanthe. If this were a Stephen King novel, you’d stab me in my sleep for ending it this way. I know you – you are like that, aren’t you?

Just as well you are not real. Only a figment of my imagination.