creative writing, Creativity, living with books, reading, Uncategorized

The life-changing magic of a personal library

IMG_1450When my eldest son was little, he had some wonderful phrases. For instance, “I want the more”.  For those who have or are pursing a PhD ‘the more’ is exactly what they are after. More education. More chance to pursue research and engage with ideas. And yet, with a higher degree comes a higher level of stuff – experience, qualifications and also notes, books, and clutter.

 Did I mention books?

There is a declutter revolution going on, and I am not part of it. Put simply, I have a lot of stuff. I have a lot of stuff related to the great passions of my life, and that includes reading and research, and guess what? No amount of Japanese declutter guru Marie Kondo‘s advice about letting go is going to make me fold my stuff away, and wish it well, and bin it.

No.

I am keeping my stuff. And my vast, personal library. And my PhD notes. The photocopies, downloads, the stack of questionable DVDs in the horror genre (research), the endless notebooks from research strategy classes over the year.

I take copious notes. I am an obsessive note taker and I can rarely THINK without a pen in my hand. The long, long rows of notebooks in my bookcases reveal past talks, lectures, encounters. I take great notes, too. I consider them recipes for future ideas. Why should I throw these away?

They are all staying.

To paraphrase actresses like Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson, et al, a few frown lines bestow character on the face, I feel the same way about my books…and stuff. They give my home character.

A house without books is one devoid of character. Get rid of your books, and it’s like excessive Botox to the face. All character wiped out. In fact, one of the great joys of going to British stately homes is checking out the library, which has been added to over the centuries. Sure, there are glorious tomes bound in leather, and then there are more personal additions, supplemented over the years by those upper class descendants with perhaps less highbrow tastes than the discerning Lord of the Manor who purchased editions on the Grand Tour.

 

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Under the Kondo method, and her cult book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, these grand homes and their grander libraries would be forced to purge. Too much stuff! And – the constant question people ask bibliophiles – “but will you ever read it again”. Who cares!

Under Kondo Rules, I would be forced to make the choice of what to keep in a brutal assessment of the ‘worth’ of my stuff. If only joy-giving belongings remain, then how do I feel about several copies of Frankenstein, each purchased at a different time in my life, some with notes in the margins, others gloriously bound and illustrated. Do I have to choose?

What about the poetry that gave me joy as a 17 year old, but that I consider a bit juvenile now? I still remember defending my choice to enjoy a particular author’s works when a friend’s mother, older, wiser and doing her PhD, challenged me about its merits. I probably now agree with her, but I recall my feisty retort, and I am proud of standing my ground. Those books remind me of that passionate teenager.

I am not letting that stuff go. For a start, it comes in handy. I hate referencing everything on computer and am in the belief (tested, alas) we are but one flat battery and power failure away from losing everything. My advice (anti-Kondo though it is) is to Back up, analogue. That is, keep your stuff, your books and your notes. In physical, hard form.

Yet there seems to be something of a moral judgement about people who have much stuff. And by this I mean all the big stuff of life – lots of kids, lots of degrees, lots of accumulated things – be they houses, clothes, books, cars, furniture.

Not so with experiences. Isn’t it interesting that people can spend vast amounts of money (and track a large carbon footprint) on travel and accumulating experiences to quench their wunderlust, and not incur the wrath of the declutter experts. But stuffing your life with experiences (that, let’s face it, cost money in terms of travel expenses and time) is surely  as wanton and buying books, having children, and buying them stuff.

 

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I do sense a bit of ‘moral panic’ about the love of books, and the deep pleasure of a damn good personal library. Books are much hated – we are told we can have our entire library on an ebook reader, but so what – I don’t want to read like that. I work on a computer all day and enjoy having print under my fingers at home, and love picking up my books.

I have given over my house to books, and in each room I have bookcases devoted to different genres. Yes – even my bedroom has one wall of books. In my sitting room I decided to provide space to crime and horror. My study, logically, holds books on writing, writing technique, linguistics, and of course, research and pedagogy. In the music room – this is a little eclectic – I have biographies, lovely old books, strange travel books, books on houses and gardens, and books that were gifts, like glorious coffee table books.

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The dining room features, naturally, epicure, cooking, and literary fiction. In my art studio, there are (of course) art books, and in my bedroom can be found women’s writing, erotica, poetry and research books for the latest book I am writing. It’s probably excessive, probably a lot of ‘stuff’, but other people have lots of shoes.

And in answer to the questions – have you read all your books? No. But many I have read over and over, and I dip into others constantly, and others remind me of my life journey so far. There are comfort books to delve into when I am down, books that transport me, move me, engage my mind. Books for one day and not the next. Books to look at, treasure and hold. Books waiting for me, a new conversation to be had. Books I loved as a child and books I loved reading to my children. Books, just because. And finally, books, I tell the critics, are my tools of trade as a writer.

I have a PhD in Creative Writing – of course I have a lot of books!

On a recent weekend away with friends, I checked out their bookcases, and as they are both writers, my eyes lingered as much on the books I had in my own library as those I did not. Our slightly varied choices spoke of our different interests, yes, and also different preoccupations as writers – and our different PhD topics.

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But there was one book I spotted, like a magpie after shiny tinsel on the road, and dived at it, holding the gem in my trembling hands.

I begged to take it home. Please, may I borrow this book?

It was a small hardback, rectangular, and beautiful book. This exquisite book spoke to me despite all the books I own and others I am surrounded by. It begged to be picked up and opened.

Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books edited by Leah Price, is a delight. For a start, it explores the book as an object, and writers talking about their own personal libraries. Author Junot Díaz writes that when he was floundering with his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao “in the darkness of those years books were lanterns, they were lighthouses”. No surprise that it was given as a birthday gift from one of my writing friends to the other, purchased as a perfect souvenir from San Fransisco’s legendary City Lights Bookstore.

Price writes in her introduction to her book that allows authors to talk about their book collecting, “We read over the shoulders of giants; books place us in dialogue not just with an author but with other readers. Six months from now, this book may be supplemented by a Facebook site. What seems unlikely to change is our curiosity about what our friends and strangers read – or about what others will make of our own reading.”

Sure, I could consign my PhD research notes to the shredder now I have the doctorate under my belt. Or – I could keep them as a road map to four long, engaging and arduous years of thinking. And – refer to them again and the copious notes I made in the corners, on the backs, in highlighter, the frantic and sometimes insightful journey through the maze of my research.

If time, circumstance and lifestyle dictate, I may move on from here, once my children are grown, from this house that enables my large library to surround me.

But until then, I will refuse the siren call of the declutter experts.

 

 

 

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21st Century Scholar: When You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Evelyn Tsitas' chapter in the 2015 book New Human Fictions came from a conference paper and chapter of her PhD
Evelyn Tsitas’ chapter in the 2015 book New Human Fictions came from a conference paper and chapter of her PhD

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of a PhD must be in want of an academic job. It is also a truth, universally understood, that academic jobs apart from sessional work are alas thin on the ground.

What do you do if you want a career in academia but you also need a steady and reliable income? If you aren’t willing to be sessional fodder and find your income dries up the moment face to face teaching contact ends?

What indeed.

My suggestion is to think outside the box. Or, in the words of the philosopher Mick Jagger, if you can’t always get what you want, you can find sometime that you get what you need.

I was wondering what to blog about after returning from overseas when I read Aleisha Ward’s timely post in The Thesis Whisperer “How to construct a DIY scholarly career”.

My own blog has been a little quiet as I have recently spent five weeks presenting at three conferences, travelling to four countries for my research, and on coming home, launching back into my full time university job and life as a single mother to two demanding teenage sons. Plus, I have been furiously busy writing a rollicking adventure story for an independent publisher and putting a book proposal together for an academic publisher. Both ventures which came about as requests for me to pitch, rather than the other way around.

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My recent time spent trawling museums and art galleries around the world was with purpose – research for my creative and academic projects. I am interested in hybridity and the human animal relationship throughout history. Now, if you are reading this and thinking “research and conference trip and university job – being courted by publishers – what is this woman talking about – she obviously has an academic career, already, lucky her” I can tell you that I do not have an academic job.

My research trip and conferences were self funded. I used my annual leave and instead of lying on a Bali beach, chose to back my career. I see it as being an entrepreneurial 21st century scholar. Hot desking academia, as it were, without a university ‘home’ as an academic, but still at home within the university in a professional role.

I have made my DIY scholarly career work ‘outside the box’ – but only because I have treated an academic career the same way that writers and actors have always seen their careers. As precarious, patchwork affairs made up of many different strings to one’s bow. Some teaching, self-directed research, writing paid and unpaid, spending time promoting one’s work, networking, getting published or pitching to publishers – the writer’s equivalent of going on endless casting calls.

Not every job in a university is for academics, and not every PhD graduate working in a university has an academic job. But those who do have a PhD and work in professional roles in a university bring their highly developed research skills and scholarly way of seeing the world to their positions.

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Freshly minted PhD graduates want an academic job because of the research time. Yet these days in academia, if you are lucky you get one research day a week. I am always surprised by how little full time academics manage to achieve of this time allocation.

As a 21st century scholar, I have managed to published widely and present my research at many conferences in many different subject areas. Papers I wrote for conferences several years ago are being requested for use in teaching programs on the other side of the world. My ‘research day’ is on the weekend. Or time gathered together over a week’s worth of lunchtimes – just the way I did my PhD while working full time.

It takes focus and discipline, but we can all ‘save time’ like we can save money and get serious about our health. Just as financial planners implore us to stop buying take away coffee every day, saving up the money instead, I suggest those who want research days to save up half an hour every lunchtime and two hours a night and a day on the weekend for research.

The beauty of this saved time is that no one can take it away from you.

Like Ward, I take a long term view of my career, and am building towards standing out in a crowd while supporting my family. I work in a university art gallery, running the traditional and social media campaigns, as well as the education and public programs. Like Ward, I find the non academic work in the university very rewarding.

In fact, I was reminded of this while listening to radio interviews with the very articulate Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, as part of the promotion of his Australian tour.

I was inspired to track down a quote that aligned with an answer he gave in response to a query about how to become an astronaut. His reply really resonated with me, making me think about its application to my own career.

“Start moving your life in that direction. Look at who you want to be, and start sculpting yourself into that person. You may not get exactly where you thought you’d be, but you will be doing things that suit you in a profession you believe in.”

What great advice.

Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, Creativity, Doctoral completion, Doctoral misery, post submission blues, staying healthy, Time management, Uncategorized, work-work balance

Fit to write: staying healthy enough to be creative

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a true story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Academic conferences, Brand Identity, CliFi, conferences, Early Career Reseacher, networking, Tweeting research, Uncategorized, University life

Tweet that: reporting at academic conferences

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I have recently returned from an academic conference in Canberra with a new appreciation of how Tweeting at conferences can expand your participation in the event – both with other participants (both those who Tweet and those who don’t) and in your own understanding and appreciation of other papers. Tweeting focuses and distills your understanding – and yes, it can also distract and fragment your energy and concentration.

So – why do it, and if you do, how to get the best out of your conference Tweeting?

My involvement in The Affective Habitus Conference in Canberra from 19-21 June, 2014, included pre conference media and in conference live Tweeting. This was my first conference where I was both presenting and Tweeting, both as myself and also as postgraduate committee member for Aslec-Anz (the Association for the Study of Literature, Environment & Culture, Australia and New Zealand.

The Affective Habitus (New Environmental Histories of Botany, Zoology and Emotions) conference tackled issues of climate change from a humanities and science perspective. The papers were thought provoking, challenging, and asked us to consider among other things; plant subjectivity, depression as a shared creative endeavour, our connection with the ocean and the concept that the ice core remembers us from a time long before we humans even had a concept Antarctica existed.

Not surprisingly, the beautifully constructed papers and provocative topics lent themselves to Tweeting – broadcasting information live in neat soundbites of information.

Tweeting at conferences is a great way to get these ideas out. I was Tweeting under my own Twitter handle and also that of the conference organiser Aslec-ANZ – as was a colleague and several other conference participants. We all managed to Tweet slightly different versions of the same information, so that a talk became a multi facted version of itself, as if you are standing at a mutli panelled mirror and each version of the reflected imaged slightly changed.

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While there are some obvious measures to take when Tweeting at a conference – everyone sticking to the same conference hashtag for a start (such as The Affective Habitus hastag #ecohab14), I was interested to see that Brian Croxall at the Chronicle of Higher Education suggesting that conference participants also provide their Twitter handle up front when they begin their presentation, so others can Tweet their talk effectively. That’s a great idea, as it makes attribution easier. Not everyone can be easy to find on Twitter!

Two conference participants in particular at Affective Habitus – the dynamic Eileen Joy – (@EileenAJoy) and equally media savvy Siobhan O’Sullivan – have a large social media following and well known, easily found Twitter handles. For the others I tried searching them out and when I couldn’t find them, I simply added their full names for attribution.

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Croxall suggests that two rules to keep in mind both as the Tweeter and the Tweeted; for those presenting, expect to be tweeted and assume (or hope) you will be, and for the person Tweeting – do so professionally, respecting people wishes not to be photographed or their words broadcast if they make that clear. However, most people are delighted to have their ideas disseminated via social media. I personally always ask permission before I take someone’s photograph for Twitter  – except in  the case of a remote keynote when it is a case of dissemination of knowledge via electronic media (skype/video) anyway.

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Then there is the vexed problem of tweeting at a conference social gathering, such as the conference dinner or drinks. Does one Tweet images and conversation? My feeling is that when it comes to photos, perhaps approach the keynotes with key people (especially if they are a little glam and dressed up) but do it early before you and they have had a drink to unwind, and respect the edict “no – not at this social event’. And as for Tweeting social talk – just don’t. My motto is be interesting, but not invasive. And besides, at the social gatherings, you are there to relax and network and get to know those in your field better, not to broadcast the gossip! It goes without saying, never Tweet and drink.

That gets us to an interesting point – if there are so many restrictions, and Tweeting can be so invasive for everyone, why tweet at all? There is a school of thought that says “Don’t Tweet. Pay attention to the conference presentations, or you are wasting your time.” A valid point, except when you are in charge of promoting the conference – and helping promote the message of the conference, as I was.

But I also discovered that Tweeting at conferences boosts the visibility of your own paper, and your own profile in your chosen subject area.

My paper was on Cli-Fi – or climate change inspired science fiction. Using the pace and narrative technique of science fiction – an ideas based genre – my goal is to entertain and inform taking the readers into deep ecological ideas and animal rights issues through a fast paced story line. I Tweeted something about this and discovered a rich vein of like minded followers under the #clifi tag.

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Don’t lose sight of the fact that conferences are about communicating ideas, and in these days of the Internet, we need to think beyond the walls of the conference venue and communicate globally – a hasthtag (such as #ecohab14) can take your message and research across countries, continents, hemispheres. I may have been sitting in the Humanities Research Centre at ANU, stealthily acquiring a cold of epic proportions along with plenty of ideas for my next paper and next book, but my Tweets broadcast the conference well beyond the graceful streets, brilliant but cold blue skies of a Canberra morning out to the world. From somewhere so remote, in effect, as the pinprick on a continent in the southern hemisphere, we connect. One Tweet is a ripple in the pond of information, forever spreading. 

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But – that said – there is a downside to Tweeting at the conference – for the Tweeter – as you do not get to give the papers your undivided attention, because you are constantly on the look out for ‘sound bites’. Now, some presenters are adept in the art of the sound bite, encapsulating their key message in a pithy quote early on. Others speak in realms of poetic sound bites, their pens deftly carrying verbal hooks that have lulled audiences for years into sailing with them on their thoughts. Then – there are those for whom the every act of public speaking is a painful event, and the act of writing for the public is lost in the assumed worth of their words. This is perhaps when it is time to abandon the notion of Tweeting that paper at all, unless it is of vital importance and you can curate their research in 140 characters for them.

Like writing notes, Tweeting allows you synthesise important points of someone’s paper, and also become a short hand for your own notes looking back at conference proceedings. I use my Tweeting and Retweeting as a way of curating information for myself – my rule is if I want to read it again and find it valuable, then I’ll Tweet it. It is an archive of curated media in a seam of information that I constantly refer back to.

Dr Katie Mack – @AstroKatie – is a researcher at the University of Melbourne’s School of Physics who spreads her science message via social media (she has a huge following! Check her out). In an article in the June 2014 university magazine “Unlocking the secret of tweet success” AstroKatie says “The number one question people ask me about using Twitter as a scientist is, “How much time does it take?” – her response – Twitter is an ongoing conversation you dip in and out of when you have a spare moment.

I agree. By live Tweeting, I am capturing my note taking and refining it to succinct points, and also pushing that into the Twittersphere with other interpretations of that event – I imagine this as a Hydra, with entangled threads of information weaving their way into cyberspace, but all connected to a single entity – the conference, the speaker. It’s an ongoing conversation where some points may be taken up by others, and some may not. It’s my interpretation, my voice in the conversation, about what is going on.

I certainly didn’t spend all my time Tweeting at the conference – but I did spend a lot of time listening for soundbites. Fond memories of my days as a journalist. However, those days have been taken over my my life in academia, and that’s a world where one goes deeper into the topic. One thing I do know is that Tweeting, like any communication, is done for an audience. Those I had in mind at the Affective Habitus conference were those who were interested in the conversation about the environment, ecocriticism, and science and the humanities.

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I also found it fascinating to connect with others while live tweeting – who out there was also interested in what the conference topic was? In short, conference Tweeting is about networking on a global scale and being part of a bigger conversation.

Academic conferences, Academic Study, Academic success, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, parenting and study, Uncategorized

Post Doctoral Celebrations: Time to Play

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For once, I am not going to write about work, or deadlines, or time management. I am going to focus on play. Time off, refilling the creative well. Daydreaming, slacking off, time out and having fun. I think I have earned it. I even have an official letter from the university to prove it.

“You are now deemed to have completed all requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. You may now adopt the title “Doctor”.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a diligent student now in possession of a doctorate must be seeking fun.

So I am heading off tomorrow for three weeks overseas.

And here is the thing, being a mother I am going to have to get selfish again, because this time, instead of putting the  doctorate first, I am putting me first. I am travelling solo.

So much gets put on the back burner when you are completing a doctorate. You focus on the A’s. Everything else but your study and absolute essentials become B’s or C’s.

My mother rang me up and said “All my C’s have turned to A’s. You can blog it.” Like me, my mum prioritises in terms of A’s, B’s and C’s, with the dull, domestic drudgery of cooking, housework and so on at the bottom. Like mother, like daughter. And yes, all my C’s have come home to roost now that I have completed the big A at the top of the pyramid – the doctorate – and have successfully passed.

What’s been lurking at the bottom of my Maslovian pyramid are all the ‘life things’. While I have been working on the apex – problem solving and creativity, my hierarchy of needs has steadfastly avoided things like enough sleep, health, food (unless reheated in a microwave or rehydrated with boiling water) and property (dog now disappears when it dives into the lawn that billows like a green savannah, while inside, dog hair blows like bundles of Spinifex across my neglected floors…)

My immediate family gets a lot done and achieves goal kicking at the apex of the Maslovian pyramid by focusing on the A’s. The trouble comes once you realise that you can no longer ignore the C’s.

You see, for years family members who received their doctorates in their twenties shrugged and told me “you just have to concentrate on the apex” and “focus on what’s really important.

At the end they looked up and went “life? What life?” Much as I am doing now.

I have it seems, forgotten how to play. I keep getting asked how I feel now that I am Dr. Evelyn Tsitas – at last. Four years seems like a long time, right? Longer when you add the Masters degree before it.

My reply to everyone is “I just feel exhausted”.

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Then I heard it on the radio – an interview with Dr Stuart Brown (USA), Founder of the National Institute for Play. Seems like I have not been getting enough play. He is in Australia for the National Play Up Conference in Sydney on September 5 and 6. The conference explores the importance of creativity and playfulness.

It seems like play is essential not just for children, but adults as well. But how do we play more? Especially when we are time poor – as doctoral students are.

Well, Dr. Brown listed off playing with pets and walking or maybe dancing – but also having fun when work and play are indistinguishable. In other words, when you are fortunate to love what you do.

After coming through the doctoral tunnel vision, it is now time to explore the world again, and refill the creative well – by playing. As much as I love writing, I need to get out more.

In fact, that’s exactly what I am going to do. My bags are packed, I have a new novel to take on board the plane and I’m excited. Excited by the thought of watching back to back in flight movies, writing nothing and enjoying a glass or two of red wine. Chilling out. Not being responsible for anything or anyone. Much less a doctorate.

Let’s put this in context. I am not the woman people associate with ‘fun’ in the sense of kick up your heels, stay out all night, hit the bar scene and travel to exotic locations and leave the real world behind. I’ve been leaning in – hard – since I was an undergraduate. My motto has always been “one job is for wimps”. I read Stephen Fry’s biography and found a soul mate. Someone who was addicted to work, and to the pursuit of words and ideas, as me.

In fact, as I read my students’ assignments (on how to market and create their own brands as creative writers) I was struck by how exciting their lives have been – and mine, not so much.

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I never surfed the coast along Mexico, climbed Everest or backpacked through Siberia. I haven’t worked as a roof tiler or boat builder or in remote locations.

So, what have I done? I have studied, worked and written – a lot. I have spent 12 years at university – as a student. Breaks in between, but one qualification after the next, like some people collect stamps on the passports.

I have always had parallel careers which is why I was able to work as a journalist and a playwright and a librettist while also working my way up through higher education. In short, I am a swot. A swot with a serious day job. I never worked as a waitress while writing – I worked in the competitive world of daily journalism, writing at the paper, and then writing when I came home. That has been my comfort zone – being a workaholic.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like my comfort zone. I spent my undergraduate degree working for the student newspaper and co-editing a literary magazine, when everyone else was vomiting outside pubs. When I graduated, I walked straight in to a career in newspapers. I loved journalism – chasing stories, interviewing people, getting to go behind the door marked ‘closed’. I am naturally curious with a vivid imagination, and my work was like play.

There was no time for backpacking, long sojourns in the wilderness or the third world. I was on a bullet train called career and I wasn’t getting off. I didn’t pause for breath until I had my first child.

Play? What’s play? Can’t work be play, really?

I know a cinematographer who has been to amazing places – but only for work. He says he prefers it that way. He gets to go behind that door marked closed, and with a camera as well. So when I travelled to Edinburgh for the festival it wasn’t to see acts at the fringe, but my own show  – a children’s opera called Software, for which I wrote the libretto and designed the set and costumes. Okay – so I was working, not sitting on a beach. But it was pretty special – work and play combined, seeing kids in other countries responding to my words. And I didn’t get sunburnt…

And when I go to Paris in a few days, I’ll go head to the catacombs, the museums, the galleries, even though I work in an art gallery. A friend who is there at the same time said “we’ll catch up in the evenings” as she doesn’t want to be stuck going from one museum to the next with me, while I draw. I have a reputation.

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But I do see work and play together, because I love what I do – my academic research and my writing. So when I am in Oxford, I’ll combine a conference with play – though I have been told by friends I simply must go to  The Trout or The Head of the River …And when I am in Greece, for the final week of the trip, it will be to research my next novel. And see family.

Perhaps as a working mother, I should feel guilty about this time by myself to play – shouldn’t I go to a child-friendly resort in Queensland and sit by the pool while the kids have fun? They think so.

But I have to say – I don’t feel the least bit guilty about it. When I was my eldest son’s age, my father spent a summer trekking in Nepal, having an incredibly interesting and creative time; as an artist, photographer and architect, he needed time to replenish the creative well. This was his time to play. But too few women do this, and the creative women who don’t simply resent their lives, and the unfulfilled promises to themselves.

I didn’t go to Nepal with my father, and I learnt a valuable lesson. Adults need time out for themselves and play – it enhances one’s creativity to do so. Learn from men – be selfish as a mother. Think of yourself or you will never get anything done that fulfils you. Learn to play – and play solo.

So, bags packed, I am on that plane tomorrow as a woman alone, a writer replenishing the creative well, and a mother on a solo trip – not a guilt trip.

Well, I say that now, with a little pang. Yet I am determined that my sons will learn that just as a woman’s work is important, so is a woman’s play.

This Dr. Evelyn. And I am ready to play. Finally.

Academic Study, creative writing, Doctoral misery, Uncategorized

The doctoral student’s guide to distracted parenting

IMG_3307It’s the fodder of the Sunday papers. It goes by the name “helicopter parenting”, “hyper mothering” or “over vigilance”. Call it what you like, I’ll call it too much time on your hands. And there is a cure. Do a doctorate.

Yes, if you decide to take a minimum of four years out of your life for higher study whilst raising children, I can guarantee that you’ll have the kind of “let them fend for themselves” attitude that is supposed to build a child’s resilience and self-esteem.

I speak from experience. Simply be too busy to go the extra mile, and you’ll have praise showered upon you as your children develop reserves of inner strength, imagination and (best of all) cooking and other “life” skills. They will never utter those words “I am bored” because they know that you, too-busy doctoral mother, will retort “I don’t care – I have a deadline!”

Years ago I met a young woman at a conference who told me that when her mother was doing her doctorate, everything was reasonably okay until the final stretch. That’s when her mother started buying appliances that turned themselves off.

How I laughed. Oh, back then I was a stay-at-home mother, freelancing, consulting and doing my Masters. Sure. I had two kids, but what did I know? The pressure of a PhD is vastly different to an MA. Then add working full time as well as studying – and it’s easy to see how those elaborate birthday cakes and over-the-top children’s parties have become a thing of the past, cosigned to the sort of hazy nostalgic memories that Kazuo Ishiguro’s clones had about Hailsham boarding school in Never Le Me Go.

So, from one mother who did it all (and over did it), to the mother who takes every short cut in the book and then some, here is my Cheat Sheet for any other doctoral student and mum out there.

10 Tips for Mothering and Studying

1. It’s all about timing

My number one tip is don’t try to do “brain work” when you just get home from work and the kids demand your attention. Now is the time for multi-tasking, and by that I mean doing “brain dead” busy work like the essential housework. Again, never waste your time doing housework when the kids are preoccupied or out of the house. Use your time wisely. And be ruthless with your time. Tell the kids “now is not the time”, or “I have no time for that” or “my time is running out – I am on a deadline”. Set firm bedtimes for the kids and relish a quiet house and thinking time. Military style discipline is the only way.

2. They will send reminder notices

Schools are used to slack parents. You are not slack but distracted. Don’t worry, the notice will come out again, and other mums will call to ask if you got the invitation to their kid’s party. Everyone wants to get the numbers, it’s like politics.

3. Be selfish

  • Men are very good at this, women – especially mothers – not so much. Some people think I am a monster because I refuse to let my kids into my study without permission. They are never allowed to touch my computer (unless I need IT support) and when they were toddlers, I locked myself in and ignored their pounding little fists on the door as my parents babysat. Stop being so available to your children, carve out time for yourself, and demand they find something to do while you are working. Remember you need to parent for independence and resilience. And finish your PhD.

4. Never (EVER) volunteer.

There are always trophy wives and earnest mums with nothing better to do than suck up to the school, teacher, or your friends. Let them go for it. You cannot afford to compete, much less be actually seen at school unless it is crucial. For instance, has your child been hit? Hit someone? Won a prize? Or about to be thrown out for incompetence? If none of these apply to your darling, then you do not need to set foot in the school. And please, if they ask for a cake for a bake sale, send money instead. My mother did this when I was growing up. I learned from the best. Remember, hyper-parenting leads to volunteering. And frankly, no kid really wants to see mum at school. You are fooling yourself if you think they do. Also, it should go without saying that you never volunteer to have children for a sleepover. Especially if they are what is called “challenging”. Avoid at all costs. Sudden boats of gastro will keep any suggestions at bay.

  • 5. You can have it all but not all at once

Only do what is absolutely necessary when it comes to housework and cooking. Now is not the time to be a domestic goddess. Now is the time to survive. Ditto yoga classes, the downward dog can wait. Do enough exercise so you remain healthy, but let’s face it, when the final lap comes around and you have months before handing in, everything goes to seed while you study. Every marathon runner limps to the end. On the mother-front, remember, for that reason, there is nothing wrong with rotating the same two or three meals throughout the week. If the kids get bored, let them cook.

  • 6. Be realistic

You are not attempting to get a Nobel Prize. You are doing a PhD. Put it in perspective.  You are pushing knowledge a little way, standing on the shoulders of others. You don’t have to start your research from scratch. Likewise, you do not have to start dinner from scratch – buy vegetables pre chopped. If you socialize, don’t offer to bring food – bring wine and expensive chocolate instead.

  • 7. Embrace caffeine

In all its forms, caffeine is the boost you need to zoom through the day and the night. You are not an Olympic athlete whose urine is going to be tested for banned substances, so have a coffee, and the another. But know your limits. I tried one of those energy drinks once and felt so sick I’d never do it again. It’s a bit like fake tan, really. You have to know when to stop. For the same reason you drink coffee, never let your children near it, even if they are teenagers. Children need to be in bed at night – early – so you can study. The words “children” and “stimulants” should never be used in the same sentence, not if you value your sanity.

  • 8. Never Give Up

A friend gave me this advice when I was starting out on the doctoral journey and seriously contemplating giving up as domestic life got complicated. “Keep at it with a terrier-like disposition. Of course, whether it is a doctorate, a thesis, a piece of work, see it for what it is: an investigation, an effort at pushing the envelope. For that very reason, you should not give it up.” I have had this taped to my study door for the past four years. It has become my mantra.

  • 9. Everything Can Be Bought At the Supermarket

Now is not the time for Farmers’ Markets. Don’t be creative, adventurous or interesting. Forget those home made cakes, and thoughtfully chosen gifts for the endless birthday parties your primary school child gets invited to.

Shop your supermarket. Look at the gift cards. What child doesn’t want plastic voucher for something? While you are at it, you can pick up the milk you forgot and the bread for the lunches. When it comes to birthday cards, go to a discount shop once a year and buy in bulk generic cards (ones with puppies are gender neutral). They have cheap gift wrap, too. If you buy silver, it will also do for Christmas.

10. Like Kazuo Ishiguro’s clones, there is only one goal – to complete

Yes, procrastination can be good. This is brain dead fallow time, or sheer bloody exhaustion time, when you have done an all-nighter (a lot harder after age 40 than when you were a fresh faced undergraduate, especially if kid is sick or needs to be at the sports complex by 6 am). But don’t confuse sorting the sock drawer and sorting the deep freeze with anything other than an avoidance of doctoral work. The endless domestic tasks that make up motherhood will all be there when you complete. The dust will just be thicker.

 A final thought

Remember – you lead by example. The frustrations, hard work, false starts and dead ends and the sheer determination to see the doctorate through to completion will teach your kids more about what it takes to succeed than all the outings to the museum and bushwalks that you missed taking them to. Also, remember that 95 % of any social outings that you engage in should be child centered. It’s really a lot of fun boring everyone at school functions and scout events by speaking about your doctoral research.

The other 5 % of social functions should be university centered, and there you can bore your fellow students with stories about your children. After all, what else do you have to talk about?

 * No children were harmed in the writing of this blog.