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.

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Academic conferences, Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, Doctoral misery, editing, PhD completion, The Hero's Journey, thesis writing, Time management, Writing strategies

Return with the Elixir: The Hero’s Doctoral Journey Concludes

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As the large official stamp went down with a thump on my form, the woman wielding the object at the School of Graduate Research looked up at me and said “So, feel any different – now you are a doctor?”

“No different from a second ago,” I said. How can that be? This is something I worked long and hard to achieve for the past four years. Now I had the literal seal of approval in my hands. I just felt exhausted.

Dr. Evelyn Tsitas.

Yes – it’s official. I have now jumped every hurdle.  I have completed, submitted, been examined, made the minor amendments, and handed in the ADR – in Australia, that is the Appropriate Durable Record. At my university, an impressive bound copy of your thesis is no longer desired – rather a few files on a disk that can be uploaded into an Electronic Thesis Repository.

Maybe not as pretty, but certainly global.

I was handed the stamped form. “You may now call yourself Dr Evelyn Tsitas, how does it feel?”

My senior supervisor who was there as I submitted all the signed forms – from the Head of School, the Dean and everyone else on the academic food chain – insisted “You must feel different – it does feel different, doesn’t it?”

Did I miss something? Did I suddenly get sprinkled with gold dust? Did the earth suddenly open up and a chasm of light rise from the centre, did a mass choir burst into song and the seas part? Well, of course not. But I’ll be damned if some sort of secret handshake didn’t almost get enacted amongst those in that office, and there was some sort of respect that hadn’t been there a mere thirty seconds before the official stamp sealed me as Dr. Evelyn Tsitas.

This doctorate has been the mythic hero’s journey – Joseph Campbell’s metaphor for the deep inner journey of transformation. In his book Myth and the Movies, writer Stuart Voytilla says this path leads the hero on predictable movements of separation, descent, ordeal and return. The final stage on this quest is Return With the Elixir, where the hero comes home and shares what has been gained on the quest, which benefits friends, family, community and the world.

Don’t we hope our doctoral research does just that?

Using the example of Woody Allen’s film classic 1977 romance Annie Hall, Voytilla says that the end of the movie finally shows the ability to look back on the good times in a relationship and acknowledge the elixir. He writes “relationships are irrational, crazy, and painful, but we keep going through them because we need the good times.”  That sounds a lot like a doctorate – it’s not all bad. People keep doing them because there are rewards, and some good times. And there is something within us that drives us to complete the enormous task – that quest for knowledge.

As I diligently went through all the corrections required by my doctoral examiners – such as formatting and editing (para 2, page 86 It’s (Its), Page 83: para 3, unclosed quotation marks, etc….I wondered if the final remark from one examiner – that I should have done nothing but the exegesis (and the novel) in the four years – no conferences, papers, certainly no ‘extra curricular’ writing as I am want to do – much less a full time job – was correct.

But what’s more important – handing in a pristine exegesis, devoid of a single typing error OR – making some sort of impact with your research, reaching out to the international community, having the guts to publish your research and make your name in the field? And actually trying to squeeze in a bit of life in those four years as well? Have just a little fun along the way?

This is the dilemma every doctoral student must face.

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Let’s talk about perfection – especially perfection in print.

I have spent most of my career as a journalist, on everything from suburban weekly newspapers, to magazines and daily newspapers as well as freelancing and blogging and here is the thing – there are teams of sub editors to read through and check for grammatical errors that sneak through even the cleanest copy. As writers, we read what we expect to read, and the only way I can see around having to do any minor corrections of formatting and grammatical or typing errors is to pay for several stages of professional editing before handing in the thesis.

Yet this is the real world, where you work until the last nano second on your doctorate, you don’t have a lot of cash to burn, and you do your best, but just like with daily newspapers and published books there are errors.

As long as they are not errors of fact, we accept them. Just as I accept that the doctorate is not a perfect finished and polished gem, as one examiner said it should be, at the expense of everything else.

Another academic suggested a doctorate should be ‘fit for purpose’. It is, after all, the springboard for a research career. No one publishes an exegesis as is. The day of the monograph is over. You use your work to create a series of journal articles, you also turn your thesis into a book, but not without going through a major edit with a publisher.

And as for the Doctorate in Creative Writing, the novel you submit will go through many changes after it has found a commercial publisher. These are the realities.

In hindsight, should I have done less as the examiner suggested, and handed in a ‘perfect’ exegesis? I wasn’t asked to change any of my arguments and my research wasn’t questioned, so I can live with correcting typing errors and formatting problems.

Looking back over the past four years, what would I have changed to ensure a ‘perfect’ rather than ‘fit for purpose’ result?

Some things I had to do, such as be a full time worker, mother and doctoral student. Others, such as teaching post graduates, blogging, writing, and editing outside the doctoral structure and presenting my research at conferences around Australia and internationally as well as submitting to academic journals, were all extra curricular.

But would I end up a better academic if I just simply focused on just doing the exegesis? No, I think I would have ended up insular and timid.

Especially in this competitive time when the academic environment has changed so rapidly, it is now crucial to get your research out to a wide audience, and to start making your name with your research as soon as possible, and prove you have a strong network in your field. I went to Oxford last year to present at two conferences, and am back again in September, to present the last chapter of my exegesis. I would rather have those experiences and the connections I made rather than a perfect doctorate without one little error.

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And so it comes down to this – the CV or the minor amendments on the exegesis as requested by the examiners?

I chose the later. And now I have done those pesky changes, I have the stamp on the official form that says I am Dr Evelyn Tsitas, as well as an impressive academic resume and two and a half years of tertiary teaching experience under my belt.

In the meantime, I have lost a lot of sleep, any social life and what little cooking skills I had. Even my microwave reheating techniques are a little dodgy. My kids have become a lot more resilient, though if I want to scare them into behaving I just say the magic words ‘mummy will do another PhD’. That subdues them.

It may contain a grain of truth, in fact. After a break of about nine weeks from the intensity of the doctoral deadline once I had submitted, I didn’t cope with the post-submission limbo very well. I was like a runner, swimmer or any endurance athlete after the finish line – exhausted but flat after the high of competition.

But plodding away at the minor amendments, I started to get the doctoral high again. I enjoy the peace of writing and studying long into the evening after the children are in bed, the dog is quiet and the words start flowing. It’s hypnotic, really. For me, writing is like my favourite scene from Jane Campion’s wonderful 1993 film The Piano.  Just substitute being at the piano keys for the computer keyboard. This scene so beautifully captures the rapture of creativity, when you can totally immerse yourself  in your art, so that nothing else matters; the children amuse themselves, others wait patiently, the light fades, but you are not forced to move on until you are done.

The doctoral pain dissolves, and I can feel that urge again…maybe I’m not quite finished yet? I wouldn’t be the first person in my immediate family to go back and get a second Masters after a doctorate. I wonder…is this Higher Degree Stockholm Syndrome?

Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, parenting and study, PhD completion, thesis writing, Time management, Writing strategies

Before Midnight: Women, Motherhood and Creativity

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Do creativity, academic study and having children mix, or is this an oil and water combination best avoided by female writers seeking fame, glory, a doctorate – and publication?

In the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight trilogy, the love affair between American writer Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and French singer and student Celine (Julie Delpy) begins because of an impulsive decision by Jessie to ask Celine to hop off a train with him and see what happens – all because they felt a spark after talking to each other.

In Before Midnight  we see the couple after nearly 20 years, with their unfulfilled dreams rising like bile. As I watched the middle aged versions of  Celine and Jessie argue in the final, cringe making “he said, she said” scene in the Greek hotel at the end of the movie, the dialogue succinctly captured the dilemma women face with their creativity. To paraphrase:

Celine said: you never stopped writing or being creative even after we had children, and that’s because I do all the work – I earn a stable living, and I am home every night on time to deal with the kids. What about me, when do I think and have time to be creative?

Jessie says: I wish you’d just take the time and do it, be a bit more selfish about what you need and stop looking after everyone.

I think that says it all, really. Not enough women are selfish about the work that matters to them, and in order to be creative, you need to  spend time alone with yourself, thinking, working, doing the daily grind of writing and making your work. You have to keep up fluency, you have to keep up an inner dialogue with yourself.

The number one advice I’d give anyone wanting to do a doctorate who has family responsibilities is that you have to be selfish with your time.

I attended a very good session early on in my PhD research by Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner.  This had nothing to do with my research but plenty on how to approach the doctoral journey. I kept their booklet “The Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Research Students” and read and re-read it religiously. Every time I got that cold, sweaty panic of “I can’t do this!” I would pull out the booklet and read it again.

Here are the seven secrets according to Kearns and Gardiner:

  1. It’s your thesis – you need to be the driver
  2. Write and show as you go
  3. Be realistic
  4. Say no to distractions
  5. It’s a job
  6. Get help
  7. You can do it!

Apart from points 1 and 2, which are related to work and study skills (more on this in future blogs), the rest of the seven tips are about time management and approach to study.

Here are Kearns and Gardiner’s versions through the motherhood prism:

Be realistic:

Don’t sweat the domestic stuff. Let other people help out and look after your children, and don’t think you have to be the only one to do everything. I have one iron clad rule – who ever is looking after the children is in charge. We have a saying in my house and that’s “if grandma has you, it’s grandma rules”. The kids know this, and obey. Don’t try to rule remotely – let the designated minder take the authority.

In Before Midnight, Julie Delpy makes salad in the kitchen and then complains about this in the hotel room – “look at you, you are the big writer, talking about the next book with your genius friends while I make the salad you stuff down your face!”

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If you don’t want to end up resentful about cooking – don’t cook. Simple. The only people I will cook for are my children, and even then I have taught them how to fend for themselves. Women are prone to being domestic martyrs, and my attitude is – Nigella Lawson has a lot to answer for. It is frankly unhealthy for women to glamorize being in the kitchen, making food for men. Unless you are writing your doctorate about cooking, get out of the kitchen.

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Now, if I was the Julie Delpy’s character Celine, I’d pour a glass of wine, stroll down to the terrace overlooking the ocean, and take my guitar with me and write a song and chat to the men. I wish I could play music, so in my case, I’d take a sketch book instead and draw – and chat to the men. And leave the salad making to the other women for whom this is a creative outlet. Bless the people who like to cook and do it well, for they shall feed you. The bottom line is – seriously, no one wants to eat my cooking, not even me, or my dog. I did not make the Greek dish featured above, although I have tried. It is never as good as my cousin’s, possibly because she spends as much time cooking as I do writing. You need to put in the work for anything to be good.

Say no to distractions:

Children do not in fact impede a creative life, not if you are judicious about what you do and when you do it. I am not the only female writer to find I am more efficient – and selfish – with her time once she had children.

How do we do it? Say no to distractions. This is what Jessie (Ethan Hawke) tells Celine (Julie Delpy) in Before Midnight – put yourself first.

Women make many obstacles for themselves, that men do not. Perhaps this is a form of excuse to back away from the demands and intensity of the creative life.

It’s a job:

Sure, we all know a doctorate is a job – but what if you have a full time job and family responsibilities? Then you need to get serious about your time and what you can set aside and what you do with it.

Kearns and Gardiner recommend writing for two hours a day on your thesis – every day. This is good advice. If  you are doing a creative writing doctorate, like me, then you have to juggle that writing time with time on your doctoral novel and time on the exegesis.

I found it impossible to switch from one to the other every day. The best thing was for me to spend a week on the novel, and then swap to the exegesis. And to take small bites at the writing, rather than feel I have to write a huge amount every day. Kearns and Gardiner call this “snack writing”

When research would spark ideas for the novel, I would have the two files open on the computer – exegesis and novel – and write little chunks of each.

A career in journalism has made me a deadline junkie. Give me a word limit and a deadline and I’ll give you a story – it’s almost a reflex action. Therefore, I found it really useful to present my novel writing at workshops and writing groups, or to look around for short story competitions and enter chapters in those.

This same approach served me well for the exegesis – I blogged about my ideas, turned those blogs into conference abstracts, and those conference papers into chapters. By treating the doctorate as a job – professional writing – and chunking that writing and research up into real-world outcomes – conference papers and competition entries – I had my 100,000 word limit and arguments ready within four years.

Get help

My university has a great graduate research centre and I spent my lunch hour going to every class on offer. I also made friends with my liaison librarian and you know that enthusiastic, talkative doctoral student who speaks to everyone – and I mean everyone – at a conference? That was me. Even when I had no idea what I was doing or saying, I waded in, and listened, contributed and learned. Throwing myself in the deep end from the beginning rather than sitting quietly in my room researching made all the difference.

In the last 100 days, I was lucky enough to get even more help – my wonderful second supervisor, who held my hand, did a close reading of my exegesis and really pushed me forward. Then friends from the academy and publishing who offered to do beta reads and provided much needed advice, support and proof reading. Sometimes just knowing at this final lap – the last month or so – someone had your back was enough to get you through the last desperate days. I can’t thank them all enough.

This is what Jessie tells Celine in Before Midnight – don’t try to do everything yourself. Get help.

You can do it!

Yes, you can. You are smart enough, if you made it into a doctoral program. Though I bet like me you have tried to Google “I am not smart enough for my PhD”. It’s not intelligence that gets you through (that’s a given) – it’s persistence. What my grandfather called “stick-ability”. Just don’t give up. The four year journey is one of constant hurdles, ups and downs, dead ends, false starts, brilliant insights, corrupted computer files, library fines, exhaustion, depression and then there is everything your regular life can throw at you as well.

So, what’s the secret? Be persistent – and selfish. Don’t go offering to make anyone’s salad, unless you gave birth to them, and then, start nurturing some self reliance in your children. They can actually cope without you being their servant. If you do everything for them, and other people, you and your doctorate will suffer and your creative life will wither. Learn to say yes to yourself first.

Julie Delpy – I love your movie but I wish Celine was more selfish and less bitter. I am pleased that in this interview, Julie Delpy says she is not the same sort of mother as Celine, but that motherhood helped her contribute to writing the movie. And as Ethan Hawke observes, there are consequences to following your dreams. Indeed – that’s what makes the future, and the unknown, so tantalising. A bit like starting out on the doctorate. Who knows where you’ll end up after a couple of years? It’s a leap of faith.

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

Time’s up: crossing the doctoral finish line

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well – what are you going to do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Academic conferences, Academic Study, Chimeras, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, horror, science fiction, Splice the Movie, thesis writing, Time management, Writing strategies

Doctoral companion species? The Creative Writing project and exegesis

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Just as I have spent the past four years exploring the hybrid in science fiction – a character that exists outside binaries – so I realized that the actualized Creative Writing doctorate also existed outside the binaries. 

Throughout the exegesis I have come to realize the hybrid stands slightly outside the human, never properly human or animal, never allowed to fully participate in the human community – or the animal pack. Never human enough, never animal enough. Actually, that’s how I felt growing up – never Greek enough, never Australian enough. A hybrid.

Although they spend the days fighting, at least my cat and dog can play together as well. And the cat can always run away. Take one good swipe at the dog. Or both can retreat and bury their differences. Not so the human-animal hybrid in science fiction. There is nowhere to go.

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It’s the same with the Creative Writing doctorate. The novel and the exegesis have to get along, play nice, and find some common ground. I can hear myself getting increasingly frustrated, saying – “for goodness sake, the damn exegesis has to let me spend some time with the novel – enough already!” And still it demands! Doesn’t it realize it is a hybrid – unable to exist without its other half?

Yes, I am at that “I am so sick of it, I can’t read another word” stage of my research. I have even begun footnoting in my dreams – and worrying about whether I am getting the damn referencing system correct.

In my exegesis, I argue that the hybrid exists in both human and animal categories simultaneously, challenging but never destroying either category. The great fear for the human characters is that the animal within the hybrid will harm them. The good news is, this happens in my novel as well. Or it would. If I ever get time to do the final edit. And, as I have discovered this is the fear writers have when they start the Creative Writing doctorate.

A relatively new higher degree, this doctorate isn’t taken seriously by those who have decided that a/ writers should never undertake a higher degree, and b/  it isn’t like it’s a “real” doctorate anyway as it is “just writing”. Add the fact that I am doing mine on beings that don’t actually exist…well. You get the picture!

That actually fits with my research. By the 21st Century, in science fiction the hybrid’s danger is acknowledged to be its human side. As illustrated in this scene from the 2009 movie Splice, where the scientists examine scans of the newborn hybrid Dren and ponder her potential threat:

Elsa: Not all animals have predatory elements.

Clive: There’s the human element.

That brings me to Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto. Here, Haraway argues that dogs are not about oneself. They are dogs – not a projection, nor the realization of an intention, not the telos of anything.  (The Companion Species Manifesto: Dog, People, and Significant Otherness. 2003. Prickly Paradigm Press – p 11).

This makes more sense to me now I actually have a dog. I small, joyful, mess creating, life enhancing puppy. Finally asleep in his basket at my desk. He likes to keep an eye on me long into the night.

A friend told me when I got the puppy that things I never expected to get destroyed would. I could batten down the hatches as much as I liked, but things would happen I couldn’t control.

A metaphor for academic research if ever I heard one.

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So, what’s that got to do with the Creative Writing doctorate?

Maybe sometimes we need to look at it for what it just is. Just a dog. Just a thing in its own right and not an end to anything. I think those of us in the thick of it know this, and are too caught up in it and too darn tired working on it to fight the popular opinion that challenges us as to why we are doing it. After all, no one asks why anyone does a doctorate in a science related subject, do they? But somehow, many people do not think it is valid to study – and write – fiction in higher education. But I didn’t start this doctorate to learn how to write – I can do that, thanks. I did it because I wasn’t about to do one in architecture, philosophy or bioethics. Writing is what I do, and that was the dog I was going to study, so to speak. I wanted to push that writing boundary as far as I could, challenge myself and stretch myself in my area. And I don’t feel I have to justify this.

I do argue, however, that many creative writers embarking on a doctorate in Creative Writing fear the “other half” of the work required. They imagine they are “either” a creative writer “or” a researcher, and often feel they do not have the academic language or research skills required to merge the two together. Even those in the media have queried whether this doctorate should be allowed to exist – much the same way that creation of scientific hybrids are debated. 

Will they be good for the community? Or destroy humanity as we know it? Yes – by that I mean both the Creative Writing doctorate, and scientific chimeras. And, while we are at it – fictional hybrids.

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The fear many writers have is that their academic research will harm them, make them less creative, and take away their spontaneity. This is one side of the hybrid dominating the other. Yet it is interesting that unlike, for instance, the skills needed to be a professional tennis player that are seen to need coaching and training, writing is viewed as a gift from God – (quite mythological) a skill that can’t be taught. If you don’t have it, you can’t learn it. But those in higher degrees in creative writing would argue otherwise.

The research, while pulling you away from the creative, deepens your involvement with it. The images in this blog were taken from a tapestry at the Ashmolean Museum last year when I was in Oxford to take part in two conferences related to my doctorate. I think they perfectly illustrate the doctoral battle for creative writers – one part trying to dominate the other, the exegesis trumping the novel, and vice versa. Yet while I went to Oxford to present my academic research, it caused me to explore new areas in my creative project. The impact of that trip is still resonating in my work, in the exegesis and the novel and other interesting ways. I am going back in September 2013, to present the final chapter of my exegesis, on the erotic nature of the hybrid at the Exploring The Erotic conference.   I see this as an invaluable experience. Getting feedback on your ideas and research from your peers – indeed defending your ideas and research to them – pushes forward your work and gets you used to taking your work into the public sphere. 

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My creative project came into being as a hybrid. It was based on a short story I started writing several years ago at a bioethics conference in Queensland, where I was presenting a paper for my MA in Creative Writing. I was listening to a paper about the perils of xeno transplantation – the use of animal parts in humans – when the voice of my protagonist Ariadne came to me. It was one of those creative moments when you realize that something has clicked. As a science fiction/crime writer – itself a hybrid genre, I felt a deep resonance with the idea of xeno transplantation and hybridity.

The short story that resulted was Xenos, a “hard boiled” speculative crime thriller (this is itself a hybrid of cross disciplinary genre) that won the Dorothy Porter Innovation Prize in the 2007 Sisters In Crime Scarlet Stiletto Awards and has become a middle chapter of my doctoral creative project. The short story has been published in Scarlet Stiletto – The Second Cut, available in ebook.

So there you have it – my doctoral creative project sprung to life like a mythological character, plucked from the centre of my Masters research, a hybrid from the start. A direct result of my academic research. Which part of the hybrid dominated?

A metaphor for academic research if ever I heard one.

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

Somewhat distracted: when your doctorate is more real than life

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It looks as if someone has had a wedding in my house. By that I do not mean it is festooned with flowers, or in a state of elegant expectation. By that I mean there is a thin layer of rice on the floorboards, and I have no idea where it came from.

One day, I arrived home from work to find this mystery greeting. The children denied all knowledge. Of all the things they could consume from the pantry, uncooked rice, they assured me, was not one of them. Still, I insisted the rice be cleaned up, and this request – not surprisingly – has fallen on deaf ears. Some rudimentary attempts were made, I believe, and since them – perhaps a few weeks ago now (I have lost count) I have been kicking the rice under the couch as I walk past. Well, I figure, it will keep.

The quantity seems to be dissipating, and I am now wondering whether it is Marty’s handiwork (I have named my resident rat after Heidegger – read on).

Today, as it is furiously windy, and the weekend, the doors are open. The kids and me are at our respective computers, and doors are slamming shut – left, right and centre. I tell the kids to down put the door stop, the really pretty one I got at the expensive interior decorating shop. The one that cost as much as a nice meal somewhere. The one filled with…rice.

Oh, dear.

We have a new puppy, and I recalled the puppy enjoyed playing with this door stop. And now that I think about it, the door stop was last seen at the same time the layer of rice appeared on the floor.

Have we found the culprit?

My 14 year old shrugs. “He’s probably buried it.” Indeed. So the doors continue to slam. The rice remains on the floor. The rat that the cat brought in to teach the puppy how to kill is now eating the rice from the door stop the puppy killed.

But that is not the worst of it. Oh no.

With three and a bit weeks to go until handing in, strange things have happened. Well – to me. The clearer my research becomes, the less real life appears. In fact, just as Heidegger makes sense, I forget people’s names. I forget their faces.  And my mind hears everything in a far off scramble.

For instance: one of my youngest son’s friends had a birthday party, and his mum texted me the details. Which I read as “Tazer tag party.”

Well, it took a moment to sink in. Tazer tag – a bit adventurous for 12 year old? Hm. Maybe a little – dangerous? Or am I out of touch? So I texted my concern back. She quickly responded with “LOL! tazer tag! It’s lazer tag!!!!” This has now become somewhat legendary in the playground.

Standing at the supermarket with four items in the fast checkout, I present the basket then numbly wonder if in fact $90 is a little excessive for some bananas, milk and bread. Or has milk gone up recently? Should I query – or not? The woman behind the checkout seems to be in a hazy fog as I say “Uh – $90???”

She bursts out laughing “Wow! That’s excessive – it’s actually $9…” And then, when I apologise, she is very sweet. She says, “it’s still early in the morning – it’s before 9 am – maybe you need a coffee?”

The kids joke about finding me caffeine patches and other alternative methods of caffeine release in the body. Maybe not.  I already consume vast amounts of coffee and Diet Coke. Anyway, it’s not that I am tired – it’s that I am so absorbed in my research that I really can’t focus on the world. I spend lunchtimes either in the library or reading philosophy or editing my exegesis, or writing a journal article. Luckily, as I work in a university, this sort of behavior is not only normal, it’s expected and supported. Oh yes, when it comes to being focused on your research to the point of being a little detached from reality, a university – and the other academics in it – are enablers.

Very late one night, I am desperate to discuss philosophers Heidegger and Agamben with someone, to talk about an idea I have had about the hybrid and Dasein. You know how these things just can’t wait? So I send an email to an academic I know, who has been engaging in these discussions with me for several years. Ping! Early the following morning they send back a thoughtful reply, and no explanation is needed – there is the unspoken acceptance of this crazed time.

I bump into a doctoral FB friend on the steps of the university gallery where I work and we engage in a burst of conversation about terminology in our respective doctorates, which is a topic more compelling to us than her recent wedding. Yes, she’s just married and in love, but she is also in love with her research (when she doesn’t want to kill it).

“Hybrid or chimera”? I ask. She counters – “I know – resistance or rebellion?! It’s doing my head in!” We are in our own worlds, oblivious to the bemused expressions on those around us. In our little universe, the choice of word is crucial as it aligns one with a school of thought, a theorist, and gurus; it’s all a code to other readers (and examiners). Every word means something. And something else. In the art world, for instance, one does not select or edit, one curates. This says something about the critical eye and the curatorial rationale behind the choice of works in an exhibition.

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Author Imelda Evans, who came to speak to the postgrads in my entrepreneurship for writers class, turned to me during her talk and said “by the way, I really think you should go back to hybrid – chimera has mythological connotations I just don’t think are right.” Her 14 year old looked up from her book at the back room, and agreed. A discussion ensures. What can I say? At some point, in these crazy last 100 days to the doctorate, your work (if you blog about it as I do) becomes open for public discussion – as it should. Just as we need to be open about our research as academics, we should also be open about the process of discovery, the curves, false starts, and the changes in direction. Indeed, the process of becoming an academic, of owning our research.

As I mull over the hybrid concept, I have been walking head down in thought when away from the keyboard. From the distance, it seems, I eventually hear my name being said, over and over again.

“Evelyn! Evelyn..? Evelyn…???”

And I slowly look up. I am sorry to say that it takes me a little while to place who that person is – and sometimes their name (even if I know them well!) escapes me.

The response from those around the university is the same: “Don’t worry about it! I’ve been there! I know what’s like!” and then they quickly turn away; “I’ll call you – in a few months, okay?”

Indeed, this is what happened when I literally ran into a professor and knocked her spinning as I was deep in thought.

“Evelyn! Watch out!”

“Huh? – Oh, sorry…”

“You look absorbed.”

“I’ve have been thinking about this scene I’m writing, where my protagonist wakes up to discover she has someone’s undigested hand in her mouth…”

“Oh my God – that’s utterly revolting!” said the professor. Then she smiled. “Keep up the good work!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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