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Relentless curiosity: David Bowie’s creative legacy

11 Jan

 

 

In the narrow focus demanded of us as we pursue our doctoral studies we so often lose sight of what David Bowie, creative polymath and one of the most influential musicians of his era, knew intuitively – it’s vital to take creative risks, and be on a constant quest for new ideas and inspiration. Even when you are facing death.

David Bowie, who has just died of cancer at the age of 69, was more than a pop star. It is no surprise that as news of his death became known the internet was flooded with respectful, grief filled tributes as people tried to grasp the complexity of Bowie’s career and creativity.

Only days ago, and without announcing he had cancer, Bowie released his 25th album Blackstar filled with songs that focused on death. Last month, Lazarus, the new musical featuring Bowie’s songs, and inspired by Bowie’s starring role in the 1976 cult film The Man Who Fell to Earth, opened to mixed reviews in New York. 

 

Despite his terminal illness Bowie was creatively active at an age when so many people have literally retired from creating anything new. Bowie remained so contemporary, so fresh and exciting because he was so willing to challenge and take risks.

It is no wonder then that Bowie’s music has been called the soundtrack to a generation and he has influenced countless musicians. Everyone from Iggy Pop to Sir Paul McCartney, from Madonna to Ricky Gervais, Kanye West to Midge Ure and British Prime Minister David Cameron has come forward with their own tributes on how Bowie inspired them.

And of course, as well as collective grief his fans are in shock. Despite Bowie’s heart attack in 2004 and lack of touring in recent years, Bowie had such an insatiable creative curiosity, such a vibrant mind and a talent that was a heat seeking missile for constant reinvention, that it seemed he’d evolve forever. He had just celebrated his 69th birthday. He had just put out an album.

Now he is gone.

The platitude ‘age is just a number’ takes on a new meaning when applied to the curious, to the intellectually hungry, and to the creative mind. That’s the energy and fuelled Bowie’s output.

I had insisted that my 17 year old son see the terrific “David Bowie Is” Victoria & Albert Museum touring exhibition at Melbourne’s ACMI in 2015. Not because I had a stack of well loved Bowie LPs that I treasured from my teenage days, or iconic Bowie posters that adorned by bedroom at that age – in truth, I had neither. If anything, I had come to Bowie through film – The Man Who fell To Earth, and The Hunger – both roles in which he was in some ways alien, isolated, abandoned, and fearful – all of which, it is revealed in the V & A exhibition catalogue are the subjects Bowie has always written about “even though the trousers may change”.

 

When I read this and felt I should not berate myself for being obsessed with writing about betrayal, obsession, revenge and jealousy. Like Bowie, the trousers (genre or writing style) may change, but my song remains the same.

My appreciation of Bowie came not because I was a ‘fan’, but because I was a writer and I had explored how his creative process unfolded. How he used his visual art background (his first job was as a graphic artist) and pursued the power of the visual image to propel his musical ideas and career as a performer. This visual literacy also manifests in his album covers as much as his reputation as a fashion icon.

I was keen for my son, an aspiring architect, to see the way Bowie channeled the avant-garde into his own work and immersed himself in art and literature and drama as well as music to produce something extraordinary that collapsed of boundaries between media as well as high art and low.

 

British Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted “I grew up listening to and watching the pop genius David Bowie. He was a master of re-invention, who kept getting it right. A huge loss.” Indeed – Bowie mastered the art of the narrative, via visual and aural mediums. He was a consummate story teller, drawing on the history of so many artforms. Yes, he is gone, but we can follow the bread crumbs he left, picking our way through Andy Warhol, Bertolt Brecht, Marshal McLuhan, Kansai Yamamoto, Nicholas Roeg, Lord Byron, Vaslav Nijinsky, Beau Brummell, and of course, Lindsay Kemp, whose influence can be seen so strongly in Bowie’s physical performances.

 

Bowie didn’t go to art school, he didn’t do a doctorate, but he never stopped exploring, learning, and finding inspiration outside music, outside his field. As Camille Paglia notes in her catalogue essay for the Bowie exhibition, “music was not only or even the primary mode through which Bowie first conveyed his vision to the world: he was an iconoclast who was also an image maker.”

While there is a necessary narrowing of focus in the doctorate, I am passionate about the lifelong benefits of a broad and wide ranging undergraduate degree. I sometimes wondered at the wisdom of my determination, as an 18 year old, to study visual art, and during the course, take a hefty amount of drama subjects and also pursue stage craft. Paglia notes that Bowie’s flair for choreography and body language has been developed by his study of pantomime and stagecraft with the innovative Lindsay Kemp troupe in London in the 1960s.

 

Watch the video of Lazarus from Bowie’s final album Blackstar that I shared at the opening of this blog – what he learned about movement at the beginning and the power of the body to express emotion through movement he takes with him to express the inevitability of his demise. So powerful.

Lesson – value the roads you travelled as an artist. I am not an actor, but the ability to perform for an audience should never be overlooked in this age of social media, and indeed, there is much to be said for a writer who can confidently take to the stage to read their work.

Bowie had an early ambition to be painter and continued to paint throughout his life, especially when he was having trouble writing songs, and likewise, I continue to draw and turn to images when I need to express something that my words cannot. Lesson – continue to do what you love, even if it won’t make your fortune or be your career.

But perhaps one of the most important things we can learn from Bowie is that creative reinvention and relevance come through lifelong learning – that intellectual and creative curiosity doesn’t have a time frame on it. Even once we complete our PhD, we do not ‘stop’, we are not ‘done’ – in his catalogue essay for the Bowie exhibition, Howard Goodall writes that Bowie’s discovery of the catalogue of German-American composer Kurt Weill (1900-50) “was made not as part of a university syllabus…but as an intrigued, self-motivated adult.”

As we reflect on Bowie’s legacy, take some of his lessons into our creative lives. Find inspiration in books, in art and in music, in collaborations with others, and in the works of the past. Don’t ever stop learning, or pursuing the creative work that you love.

 

 

 

 

 

Simply shocking: when our fiction writing pushes the boundaries

24 Mar
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.”

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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?

 

 

 

Creative arts: risky doctoral research in a climate of fear

9 Jan

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For those of us in academia the challenge is to continue to contribute to the world of ideas, knowledge and to produce relevant and challenging content despite the risks. In the wake of the murderous attack on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this week, we now more than ever have a responsibility to do just this – and not have our voices silenced in a climate of fear.

When gunmen stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, killing at least 12 people, they put into sharp focus the risks those in the creative arts take. In her blog, Sharon Waxman, Founder and CEO of The Wrap, said that in the wake of the murderous attack on the editorial staff of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, there is really only one way forward: publish, print, draw, film.

For those who are pursuing a Doctorate in Creative Writing, it often feels we face an uphill battle in our academic study, starting with the fundamental anxiety of whether what we are doing matters and is worth the effort. Will anyone read our work? Will our research have any impact? What’s it all for, anyway?

It can be too easy for people to sneer that academics – and doctoral students – are stuck in an ivory tower. Yet there has never been a time when academic research and creative output was more relevant.  The threats of self gagging and self censorship in political, creative and social commentary that threaten to be a fall out of the appalling massacre in Paris means that the need for those in the academy to continue pushing boundaries has never been more crucial.

As a doctoral candidate, it can be too easy to become dispirited about future employment prospects and your relevance in the world. What is the point, anyway, of a PhD in Creative Writing? A PhD in the Visual Arts?

Society needs creative practitioners to take risks and push boundaries. And we need to believe in the value of our work and research when we, as doctoral candidates in these areas, do the same. It is not a case of STEM work being important and the creative arts the ‘soft option’. As the attacks on freedom of expression in Paris have shown the world, a line drawn in ink can have more power than a gunshot. 

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There needs to be more people – not less – who are skilled at high level research, and can interrogate information and challenge accepted ideas. The world needs those who have the ability to articulate and speculate and imagine futures and scenarios. We should salute those who are not afraid to raise their voices and pens, just as we must join those in France to mourn those who have been killed because of what they have created.

What we are doing with doctoral research is pushing forward knowledge one tiny piece. Maybe your work isn’t going to put you at risk of staring down the barrel of an assault rifle, but never underestimate that the pursuit of knowledge and the challenging of the status quo will inevitably anger many, no matter what form your research takes. It is easier to burn books than write them. Silencing ideas and knowledge through violence and fear is a trope as old as time.

As a writer, when you tackle your creative project this year, are you prepared to put in the endless hours required to bring your ideas to life? Australian author Markus Zusak rewrote best selling novel The Book Thief 200 times because he believed it made the writing stronger. This powerful novel is the result of imagination, hard work and a determination not to let past atrocities be forgotten. It is brave writing about a dark time.

So, as you embark on another year of doctoral study, never give up faith that by producing the words and doing the research, you are achieving, even if you are having a bad day. You have a responsibility to overcome your fears and do the work even if it is less than perfect, rather than keeping the knowledge locked in your head until it emerges as a polished gem. Remember, a PhD isn’t a Nobel Prize. It simply has to be ‘fit for purpose’.

Perfectionism – doctoral misery – fear of failure – panic attacks – all these need to be put into perspective, or they will paralyse us. One of the best pieces of advice I heard during my PhD came from a visiting academic who was praised by a gushing professor for all the publications he had produced – and how did he do it? “Never under estimate the quality of work you can do when you are exhausted”, he replied. “Work more, work harder, write more and publish.” Do not sit on your ideas, don’t hoard knowledge; be bold enough to expose your findings to an audience.

We all have bad days, days we struggle to get out the words, days when what we want to communicate seems to fall flat. Alan Percy, head of counselling at the University of Oxford and spokesperson for BACP UC (British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy Universities and Colleges) says that the fears, confusion, hard graft and sometimes feelings of despair that virtually all PhD students go through from time to time are part of learning to become an independent academic researcher. In his blog post “Studying a PhD: Don’t Suffer in Silence” Percy writes that “building up the resilience and skills to cope with the uncertainty of researching a new area of academic knowledge is a great strength for all future academics, researchers and very useful for life in general”.

Words and images may have been temporarily silenced at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, but the legacy of intellectual freedom and freedom of expression will live on – it must continue. That’s the thing about ideas, they are more powerful than a gun. That’s reason that academics and intellectuals, artists and writers and journalists are historically in the firing line. So pick up your pen, hit the keyboard, produce. And your New Year’s resolution is to celebrate the fact you are alive and able to contribute to an intellectual life. No matter how much you despair about your academic study this year, pushing forward with your work and contributing to knowledge is the most fitting legacy for those who have had their lives so brutally taken from them.

Do not get paralysed by illusions of perfection, or forget that whatever your doctoral research, it is a small step to the advancement of knowledge and, though yours may seem like a tiny voice in an ocean of indifference, all those voices and insights of doctoral candidates around the world count in the wave against ignorance, cowardice, and fear.

Words and the bravery of the voice and pen to carry them, these are the weapons against attacks on freedom of expression and the right to be provocative with our imaginations, ideas and our pursuit of knowledge. Go brave with your work.

 

Happy Anniversary PhD: A Year of Living Post Doctorate

9 Dec

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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.

 

 

 

 

PhD time management rules: why life balance is a myth

28 Oct

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Want to finish your PhD on time? Wondering how you can juggle a creative life with work demands? Do you think you’ll never write that book unless you are given a grant or a fairy godmother taps you on the shoulder and turns that pumpkin into a quiet retreat where you can spend months thinking and perfecting your craft?

I can tell you how to achieve your goals, but you aren’t going to like it. Because you have to be focused, have tunnel vision and be obsessed. You have to concentrate on ‘A’s – higher order priorities – only.

You cannot waste your time trying to have balance in your life. I speak from experience. Anyone who completes their doctorate on time while doing what I did – juggling another full time job and children – does so at the expense of a balanced life. What you need is focus to the point of obsession. If you come out the other end and have managed to maintain friendships, if your body hasn’t been completely wrecked in the process – well, congratulations.

Where did you find the time? Because obsession is what it takes, my friends. Ruthless obsession. No half measures, no pausing for breath, no chilling out. You can do that later. Once you graduate. That’s when you get a life. or should I say – pick up the pieces.

 

I can tell you that it is possible to hold down a paid job and finish your doctorate. It is possible to have a paid job and write a book. It is possible to juggle all of these things and the demands of children. You just have to be prepared to give up a lot of other things in order to achieve your goals.

The work-life balance and completing your doctorate are a myth. You do not get to work full time and study full time and have a clean house. See friends. Exercise. Cook. You get to work on life-survival mode only.

I know this because I am laughingly now trying to embark on a ‘well balanced life’ and failing miserably at all the bits that veer off my comfort zone – namely work and writing. I spend hours cooking new meals to stock pile the freezer for my kids, do some gardening, walk the dog everyday and throw myself at my dance classes on the weekend. Only to find that I had hardly any time for writing after I have come home from a day at my university job.

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I keep saying to friends “I can’t understand how I managed to complete my doctorate full time and also work in a another paid job full time.”

Well, now I know. It’s because I did nothing else, really. Friends, the garden, the pet, my health – it all languished. Of course, I am now paying the price – there is always a price to pay, you understand. I am ‘wasting’ time with dance and pilates on the weekend because my body has seized up like the Tin Man in Wizard of Oz. The minute I take my eye off the garden, it reverts to type – and that is weed infested, scrappy, algae ridden mess of overgrown lawn, or the hedge threatening to poke out the eye of any innocent passerby, and a disused spa that is the alarming color of green.

All year I have been meaning to ‘do something’ about the empty spa, which the previous owners used as a sand pit. My kids are long past the stage of wanting to play in wet sand, and even the dog got bored in there, especially when it filled with water. I did wonder what to do, but I had a few papers to write. They took priority this year. And as I have mentioned previously, I am in two writing groups, tackling two novels. That takes time. And I have a full time job. And two children. So – the old spa filled with rainwater, and then mutated into the green sludge.

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I did empty it the past weekend, putting aside the nagging writing deadline. Perhaps procrastination is why I spent time bucketing out the toxic mess. And then, that night, it rained more than it had all year. The heavens opening up to spite me. As if to say ‘you wasted writing time on this? Pathetic’.

Evelyn versus life. Life wins. Again! The only thing to do, it seems, is focus. Be obsessed. When you see the achievements of people who do so much – be assured – they are getting very little done in other areas.

The question you must ask yourself is are you prepared to do what it takes to get what you want? Just what are you willing to sacrifice to get your PhD? “Fitzcarraldo” (1982) is one of those bold and sweeping films that reflects the passion of one person’s creative vision and a determination not to give up. Director Werner Herzog was obsessed about completing his film, featuring a 365 ton ship hauled up a 40-degree incline in the Peruvian jungle. As the German film maker says in “Burden of Dreams”, the documentary about making the movie, “I don’t want to be a man without dreams”.

 

As I have said before, the life of a writer is very much like being a doctoral student. Think deferred gratification, the constant pressure to write up and justify your ideas. Sweating over your unique point of view and losing yourself in research.

I am about to do an intensive weekend of pitching to publishers, and at this highly competitive workshop, where participants are hand chosen by our mentor, there is an enormous amount of anxiety and effort in getting one’s taster just right for the marketplace.

That takes time.

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Where does that time come from?

One thing that writers are obsessed about is time to write. Because give or take J.K. Rowling and a few others, most writers need a day job to keep the wolf from the door. They may juggle work in a bookshop, doing sessional teaching, or that classic standby – work in the hospitality industry, but they do work in jobs that pay a wage.

That means writing has to be squeezed into other time. One writer I know has a small child, a paid job four days a week and is also studying. “I am sick of getting up at 5.30 am every day to write, because my study time is in the evening after I have come home from work and done all the parenting things,” she said.

How admirable that she gets up at 5.30 am every day to write. That’s commitment. Of course, pick up any book on doctoral research and you will find, in the index “time management.” There are many sensible suggestions, such as Eviatar Zerubavel‘s in “The Clockwork Muse” which extols you to allocate writing to a specific daily or weekly time slot that ensures you get it done on a regular basis.

“If you cannot ‘find the time’ to write, you will most likely discover that, by establishing a regular weekly schedule that includes just forty-five minutes of writing every Tuesday and Friday morning, for example, you will inevitably manage to get some writing done!”  Zerubavel writes (“The Clockwork Muse”, page 5).

Yes, indeed. I totally agree you need to write regularly and never fall into the trap of needing great, uninterrupted blocks of time to do your writing. But the fact is,  as a creative writer, not just someone ‘writing up’ research – you need to get into the zone. You need to go deep, think deep, immerse yourself in writing. A doctorate in creative writing is all that and more. You have to give yourself over to the writing and research, and any doctoral student will tell you that calm and steady may be a fine and valid way to get things done, but the intensity of doctoral study means that you can’t do it all. You cannot raise a family, work full time, and embark on full time doctoral study without giving something up.

That something, of course, is ‘life’ – and so-called ‘balance’ – forget it. You can claw your way back to reality after you complete. You don’t have time for a well balanced life.

 

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Although I now have my doctorate, I still practice deferred gratification in order to complete writing tasks. It’s a matter of priorities. I regularly turn down social invitations, or cut short evenings out in order to get back to the keyboard. I am enjoying Stephen Fry’s new book ‘More Fool Me’ (unlike many reviewers) and he writes about how he never let a rip-snorting cocaine habit get in the way of his exemplary work habits. Even he would turn down extended sessions of substance abuse in salubrious establishments in order to hit the keyboard, or hit the screen the next day without having his work suffer.

Alas, I can’t report anything so fascinating. But I regularly spend my lunch hour in the library doing research, rather than walk around the city for relaxation and exercise. The truth is that if you want to achieve anything, you have to make choices. What are you doing with your time?

When it comes to time management, you have to accept that time is not on your side. It can slip through your fingers if you are not careful, frittered away on ‘life’. Forget the work-life balance. Forget “free time”. Say goodbye to endless socializing, and when push comes to shove, focus only on the necessary tasks at hand. Get up hours earlier and write. Or write long into the night. Use all your lunch breaks to read or research.

We all have the same 24 hours a day allocated to us. It’s up to you to decide if you want to squeeze the very last second out of those 24 hours to achieve your dreams.

From the time I was 18, I juggled creative writing, journalism and academic study at once. It is second nature to me to spend so called ‘free time’ on anything but relaxing. Like Stephen Fry I find work (writing) more fun than fun, and I am the first to admit I don’t even know how to relax. But each different creative strand I engage in feeds into the other.

And if I am boring, well, so what? Obsessed athletes are no doubt boring as well, and at least I am only obsessed with what I read and write, not eat, drink and exercise. In fact, before anyone admonishes me for my truthful admission that you have to work bloody hard to get a doctorate, think for a minute about athletes. Does anyone criticize Olympic contenders for being so utterly driven?

 

 

The fact of the creative life is that it takes a long time to see monetary rewards for your work, and if you aren’t prepared to live hand to mouth forever, you need to get a paid job to support the creative work. I have yet to see writers wearing T Shirts with sponsor logos from stationary suppliers in the way athletes wear T shirts with nutritional supplement sponsors emblazoned on their chest. maybe we are just useless at creative sponsorship. Or – just maybe – seeing a writer spend endless hours hunched over a desk is simply not that interesting. But it is endurance, none the less.

There is a reason no one wants to sit and watch writers cross out one word after another, to make painful progress across the keyboard. That’s because writing takes longer, and is harder, than many people can imagine. If you are not getting where you want in your work, ask yourself – are you putting in enough time? Really? 

 

Impostor syndrome: overcoming the fear of doctoral failure

25 May

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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.

Plu ca change: The post doctorate regime

14 May

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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.

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