academic cohort, Academic conferences, CliFi, conferences, Early Career Reseacher, networking

How to survive academic conference season

 

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I am not the only one to emerge from the intensive academic conference ‘silly season’ wishing I’d never submit another abstract again, yet with my head brimming full of ideas and the warm glow of nascent global friendships an email away.

Back six or eight months ago, when I first saw the call for papers, the reality of the workload and time juggle (not to mention travel) that is conference participation seemed a distant problem.

Conferences are jammed into the European summer (June-July) and teaching breaks, but I reside on the other end of the world, and so many people I met at both conferences in Australia said the same thing: jetlag, exhaustion and time poor. It takes time and money to get across the globe and add onto that presenting…not easy.

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Mind you, if you live in Melbourne, June-July is bitter cold and the thought of a conference in somewhere warm is very appealing. However, I have deluded myself more than once into imagining Oxford is warm in July…and turned up for a conference only to be confronted with worse weather than back home (in winter). So I spend the first day or so scurrying around looking for warm clothes as locals assured me they ‘had their summer already’ and it was a very nice – week, which I alas missed. I realised that when you are Australian, you do not go to Europe for the nice summer weather.

After several trips overseas in the past few years for conferences, I was happy to stay closer to home; a conference in Canberra and then one in Melbourne – at RMIT no less – so I really was within my geographical comfort zone!

In fact, at the Motherhood, Feminisms and the Future conference held at RMIT University, when asked, “where are you from” I would reply, “here – right here”. There is something about being on home ground that is very convenient, but then again, the camaraderie that results from everyone being together in a foreign location has its own benefits.

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With conferences there are lots of different hurdles and expectations. First, you have to find out what is available and in what area you might like to present. When I was a doctoral student, this seemed very hard to decode. Was it laziness or pure obstruction or the assumption that you ‘just knew’ where to find out about conferences that resulted in those in academia never (and I mean NEVER) passing on useful information such as where to find CFP or what the heck CFP meant in the first place?

I always tell my students that the Call For Papers is where to look, which websites to go to, and how to find out about conference alerts. I am very grateful for the one confident and well published professor who did the same for me. Then it’s a matter of working out strategically where you’ll get the most bang for your buck (literally, if travelling). Again, most academics seem useless at mentoring students in this regard.  And so we stumble on, learning by trial and error.

Ditto the much overlooked topic of how to submit an abstract that will get you noticed. I actually had an academic say to me “no wonder your abstracts are accepted, they have sexy titles, snappy writing and play into the key areas the conference organisers want to promote.” This said with a snide sneer and derision. And I am thinking – “getting noticed and getting your abstract accepted – isn’t that a good thing?”

I have presented at many different types of conferences – interdisciplinary, literary, ecocritical, feminism, bioethical, animal studies – what I have discovered is that, in the humanities at least, there are many ways of spinning your topic so that you can present a different version of your broad research area to a different audience.

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This I think is not a bad thing, because if we are to use our research in a wide context, to a wide audience and speak to our research as public intellectuals post PhD, then testing out across different disciplines while forming those ideas is certainly a help.

My doctoral research has taken me to conferences where I have presented papers on topics such as animal experimentation, bestiality, geography and monstrosity and post apocalyptic dystopia…and I can feel the pull of cannibalism calling to me (in a speculative fictional context of course!) I am so very excited by cannibalism right now and how it is being explored in Cli-Fi.

Ecocriticism (and Cli-Fi) is one of my academic passions – and the opportunity to put together a panel for the recent Affective Habitus conference (the subject of my last blog post) was too good to pass up. However, a few weeks later, the Motherhood and Feminisms conference at RMIT was also a perfect fit, providing me with an opportunity to present a paper on a book I co-wrote with Dr Caroline van de Pol on high risk pregnancy. I published Handle With Care as a Masters student, and am soon to relaunch it as an ebook, aimed at midwifery students. So the timing was perfect.

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What I hadn’t anticipated was my level of exhaustion. I thought that with the PhD now completed, I would have so much more time, so back to back conferences would be a breeze. In fact, I did three back to back international conferences as a doctoral student, which makes me wonder how on earth I found the energy. Much like a woman who looks back on surviving raising triplets, I shake my head in amazement. I also wonder what’s wrong with me now that I am drained by my recent conference adventures.

I am not the only one – so many people at the Motherhood conference were on their third conference in a row, having crammed as much in as possible. First, if you are from Australia (or New Zealand) it’s a long way to go to head to Europe or America to present a paper so you might as well do two – or three conferences. It’s more time and cost effective. Also, if you are a full time academic or sessional, then you’ll need to cram everything into the break in the teaching semesters.

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I have often written that doing a doctorate is like having a baby. I now think that the conference circus is like maternity as well. How else can I explain that as soon as I finished writing this blog, and vowed never to subject myself to another conference again and instead just ‘concentrate on my writing’ (as if the two are somehow unconnected…) than I discover two conferences in Sydney that have grabbed my attention. One is the Independent Publishers Conference (again, right up my areas of interest) and the other the Gothic Spaces: Boundaries, Mergence, Liminalities conference…both in Sydney, both on at good times for me in the exhibition cycle of the university gallery where I work.

It’s like wanting another baby again…except without the lifelong commitment and childcare issues that go with it.  Dammit! How can I pass up weaving an abstract around ‘Hybridity and trangression’? I mean – this is the stuff of my doctorate. This is what I spent years studying. This is what I dream about.

I have come to realise that once you step through the door marked ‘doctorate’ there is no turning back. Some people get excited by cheap airfares to Bali, others by a shoe sale; for me, it’s those dead/alive dichotomies that do it every time.

As for my exhaustion? My energy levels and enthusiasm? It appears that I didn’t need to give up on conferences – I just needed a good night’s sleep.

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Conference tips from a conference junkie

Remember – if you have beginner nerves, the more conferences you do, the easier it is to present your work in front of everyone:

  • Sign up for conference alerts in as many of the areas as you have an interest. Sometimes you won’t feel like trawling for a conference, and that’s when a CFP that pops in your inbox that ignite that spark of interest all over again
  • Audiences are forgiving when you are starting out
  • It is worth the time, money and effort because you will gradually make a name for yourself among the people who will be your academic peers
  • Conferences are about dipping your research toes in the big pool of water that is the latest global thinking on a discipline
  • A good keynote speaker can give your research ideas a jet propelled push into a new direction or confirm you are on the right path
  • You’ll meet interesting people who literally speak your research language
  • Conversations over conference dinners can open up new ideas and directions for you
  • Be generous with your knowledge and helpful and understanding to others. Academic karma is real
  • Don’t eat from the vegetarian/vegan/gluten free platter unless you have specified such food options or someone who won’t or can’t eat certain foods will go without.
  • A conference paper is about 20 minutes so your word limit should be under 3000 words…time yourself!
  • Don’t send your audience to sleep. A conference presentation is a performance. An animation, a taster. It’s not a book chapter.
  • Take along business cards. Get on twitter and have your twitter handle up on your powerpoint.
  • Attend everything, participate, ask questions, say thanks, be appreciative of the organisers, be generous with your comments and praise to others, be nice. Enjoy yourself. Embrace whatever the conference location has to offer.
  • Be open to every conversation, even if it is ‘off topic’. I received an intensive session on a future book that was on the back burner – all because I sat opposite a fascinating lecturer whose area is contemporary German literature. When she said ‘take down these names, read these people – take notes!’ I realised the reason you go to a conference dinner is exactly this. Sometimes, virtual reality just doesn’t cut it. And serendipity is all. I felt the stars align that night, and as a writer and researcher felt incredibly grateful for such an encounter.
  • Last tip – a conference is not just about you presenting your research. It is about sharing, networking, establishing collaborations and global friendships. Be generous with everything you have to offer – and be kind. Otherwise, why bother getting together at all?

 

 

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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, conferences, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Early Career Reseacher, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, University life

Your doctoral cohort: network with your peers

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I’ve been reading Linked In posts about ‘what I’d tell my 22 year old self’ and one caught my eye in particular – and that was ‘network with your peers’ Specifically, writes Nicholas Thompson of the newyorker.com; “many of the good things that have come in my career have come because of the people I got to know in my early twenties.”

I think of my own career and realise how true this is. It’s the people I worked with on newspapers and magazines in my twenties that I still turn to over the years as our careers have morphed in the evolving media landscape.

I wrote and published a book with Dr Caroline van de Pol, who I met on a suburban newspaper, and then worked with on a daily newspaper, and now have shared interests in academia as we have both received our doctorates in creative writing.

But Thompson’s advice doesn’t just hold true for twentysomethings just starting out. As we move through careers, which develop and change in this age of reinvention, academia plays a key role in retraining for the future. Swap “people I met in my twenties’ for “people I met doing my doctorate” and you can see where I am heading – it is your cohort at university that is vital, no matter how old you are when you take on post graduate study.

Thompson says with the hindsight of age that it “wasn’t meeting people who were influential; it was becoming friends, and developing working relationships, with people who would become influential” that was important.

Take this advice to heart, doctoral candidates, and embrace your cohort. What I have learned is the older you get, the more retired and senile your mentors become. Sad, but true. It’s your cohort that will grow and ultimately, help you as you will help them.

Not everyone who does a doctorate does so as a fresh faced 25 year old on the roller coaster from one degree to the next. Certainly, with the creative writing doctorate, I find that most of my cohort are in fact mid career writers who have realised that they need to “Dr Up” if they are to even get a casual teaching gig anymore. And why would they want that? Because it’s always been hard to make a reliable living from just writing creatively. You need to hustle your skills where the money is – be it copywriting, communications and in the old days before the Internet, journalism. Now to make a living doing sessional teaching as well requires you have the edge by having a doctorate. Call it educational inflation, if you like, but it’s reality.

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It’s easy with the pressure to complete your doctorate in a ‘timely fashion” to concentrate on that and nothing else. But that’s only one part of the story. Your doctorate is a journey and the people you met on the way will become characters in the story of your life and career.  I am going to give you advice I never got doing my doctorate and this it – it is not what you know, it is who you know when it comes to getting an academic job at the end of your doctorate. Meritocracy is for fairy tales, alas. The cold hard truth is that the jobs advertised are so often done for show – candidates are already chosen long before the key selection criteria is sketched out by some HR consultant. Those who want a certain candidate make sure the key selection criteria fits the person they have chosen so they can get away with this sort of thing.

So, how do you get around this? Networking. And that means – making your self known, useful, by joining up, taking part, putting yourself out there and helping others up, too. Getting to know people. All very well, isn’t it, when you are struggling to finish. But there is an organic way of doing this, and that’s to be part of an academic community that meshes with your interests.

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I went to many conferences before I found ‘my people’. And I am sure these are not the only people who are playing in the same sandpit as me, either. I could find more, and should. But so far I have met a wide circle of engaged emerging academics across disciplines who have helped me as I have helped them, in some small way, to get some recognition.

“Thank you for thinking of me” I have been told many times when I have put someone’s name forth for a panel, presentation, reading, whatever – as they have put forth mine.

Thompson writes: “I’m continually working with the same people I worked with in my early twenties. I assign them stories, or I ask them for advice. They call me. We’ve built up trust.”

Don’t underestimate this ‘trust’. I was reminded of this when researching Bruce Springsteen fandom, of all things, for a paper I am toying with that looks at the power of sharing personal stories to connect with readers. I have good friends who are ‘bronze’ Springsteen fans, travelling the world to see him play. As we watched numerous Springsteen concert videos together and I took notes, one of the words that came up frequently was ‘trust’; the trust Springsteen’s fans placed in him for his authenticity, the powerful personal connection with his lyrics, and the admiration fans have in Springsteen’s trust in his own E Street Band, his primary backing band that he has surrounded himself with since 1972, and grown up with – and grown successful with – over the decades. As we say in Australia, he’s a bloke who doesn’t ditch his mates.

What is true in life and for Bruce Springsteen is also true in academia –  we need to reach out to others, and hold on to those we connect with. Yet no one tells you this when you start your doctoral journey. It’s all about impressing the professors, getting articles into high ranking journals. Completing on time.

I can hear what you are saying: “my doctoral study is so isolated I don’t meet anyone”, and “any event I go to on campus hardly anyone turns up anyway”. So true. So true. So, this is where part two of my advice comes in – network with your cohort AND find that cohort at conferences. That’s where you’ll meet your real cohort – the ones engaged in your research areas, or like-minded interdisciplinary ones.

Alas, while universities like to pride themselves on supporting doctoral students and travel to conferences, that’s not always the case, as Pat Thompson explains. In fact, the talk is cheap and the funding cheaper. Let alone support from supervisors anxious you’ll quickly overtake them.

I presented at three Inter-Disciplinary.Net  conferences in Oxford during my doctorate and through those, I made many global connections that have been important in my life and work.

 

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Maybe you are reading this in some country that seems very remote from the action – certainly in Melbourne, I feel very remote from Europe. But the Internet connects us all. I co-edited an academic book Monstrous Geographies: Places and Spaces of the Monstrous with a French doctoral student from the Sorbonne Sarah Montin, whom I met at one of those conferences in Oxford.

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We finally caught up again for a stroll around Paris and the Sorbonne when I visited last year – it was wonderful to meet and chat after spending so many hours corresponding via email about the project as we edited it over many months. And Sarah gave me behind the scenes tour of that glorious Parisian university.

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Closer to home, I am a postgraduate committee member for ASLEC-ANZ – The Association for the Study of Literature, Environment and Culture — Australia and New Zealand , along with my counterpart, Emma Nicoletti. ASLEC-ANZ membership comprises writers, artists, cinematographers, and musicians as well as academics working in and across several areas of the Ecological Humanities, including ecocritical literary and cultural studies, environmental history and the history of science, anthropology and ecophilosophy. The 2014 biennial conference “Affective Habitus” takes places in June in Canberra and together with Emma and others, we are currently planning an informal post grad event of arts practitioner readings – and who are we turning to? Our cohort. From one toss of the pebble, the circles of influence and connection grow. But first you have to pick up that pebble…

It’s vital to go to conferences because you network and by socialising with your cohort you start making connections and organic links with people who share common research interests. And go to an academic’s book launch and support them! (That’s me in the crowd when Dr Peter Singer launched Dr Siobhan O’Sullivan’s book ‘Animals, Equality and Democracy’ . I got to know Siobhan at a conference in Brisbane at the start of my doctorate, and was invited to her animal studies reading group; the connections I made there carried me to an animal studies conference in Utrecht and into ASLEC-ANZ, and onto the Affective Habitus conference where Siobhan is presenting a keynote address. Connections.

Despite being told over the four years of my doctorate that the only thing that matters is writing the exegesis and submitting and everything else is a distraction, this is the stuff of fear and nonsense. It was the conferences I went to and presented at over those four years that were vital because of the people I met – people who became important in my life in so many ways.

It’s not the people at the top you go to conferences to impress and meet – remember, they may well be dead, retired or wandering in a fog of dementia in 15 years time. No, it’s the newbies like you and me who are the ones to network with – because we are at the beginning of our academic journey and whatever our age, we are enthusiastic, tackling the latest ideas, open to possibilities and (however slowly) climbing the academic ladder. You will do well to keep liaising with them over the years, and like me will find that it is this cohort who hold the key to the exciting opportunities.

So – get out there, chat to that other overwhelmed student you meet and really listen to what they have to say and follow them on Twitter, friend them on Facebook, get their email address, search them out on Linked In – follow their blog. When they get a book published – go to the launch and buy two copies and get them signed, keep one, and gift one and spread the love. Whatever you do, don’t lose touch but keep the momentum building.

 

 

Academic Study, creative writing, Creativity, Doctoral misery, work-work balance

Elvis Costello and Stephen Fry: the creative work-work balance

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I have a fading newspaper clipping taped to the wall near my computer. It might seem a strange motivational message because the title is “Elvis Costello quits recording Albums”. The article contains a quote that is alarming for those heavily engaged in creative work.

Costello tells music writer Iain Shedden“You can’t spend your entire life enjoying yourself in everything you do. You have to choose.”

Really? But I don’t want to choose! I want to know that when one door opens, there are endless possibilities.

The industrious English singer songwriter was referring to his decision to stop making albums. Shedden says it’s a declaration that reflects the shift in the way that people now consume music. The industry has gone through changes now hitting media and publishing, professions I have called home. Writers are wondering, like Costello and other musicians, how to make a living from what they do.

But while Costello might be chewing over how to go about recording or releasing new material, he hasn’t stopped actually making music, writing songs or collaborating with the likes of Burt Bacharach or the Brodsky Quartet.

The market place may shift under you, buckling from the seismic changes wrought by the Internet, but as a creative person you need to keep on producing material.

Be it writing fiction, music, academic articles, whatever, you need to be engaged in creating content. Because no matter what unforeseen changes there will be in the distribution of that content, one thing is for sure. Creative output will always be required.

I am a firm believer in the power of the narrative. Everyone needs a story – businesses, major corporations, politicians and children. They all need to read other people’s stories and have their own story told. And who writes, researches or sets these to music, these stories of our hearts and minds, the threads of our lives and the tentacles that connect us together globally? Writers do this.

The trouble is, creating, and at the same time trying to earn a living, comes at a price. As Costello knows all to well, the work-work balance is a bitch. Can you do everything? It’s a juggle that doesn’t get as much media coverage as the work-life balance. Possibly because there are less people trying to do work-work rather than work-life.

My motto is you can sleep when you’re dead – there’s nothing decent on television anyway. Besides, I believe for creative people, there is no downtime. Everything is an inspiration and everything engages our rapacious curiosity. I am reminded of Stephen Fry, whose latest autobiography The Fry Chronicles  details this restlessness and engagement.

Fry works, works, works. For him, work is more fun than fun. If there is a work-work balance, like me he hasn’t found it. He works like someone is chasing him or he is chasing something. He has a writer’s desire to find out why – why people do what they do, why they feel what they feel, and why they create what they create. And that’s because, as he reveals, he finds other people more interesting than himself.

I also find work more fun than fun and prefer spending time around people who push their comfort zones and stretch themselves beyond what they think they can do. I am fortunate in that my work puts me in touch with people who are more interesting than me. Apart from my blogging, fiction writing and the impending deadline to hand in my doctorate, I have a full time job in arts communication working with Australian and international visual artists who never fail to inspire and a weekly evening stint of sessional teaching that sees me nurture focused and driven post graduate creative writing students. I believe we learn from everyone if only we stop to listen.

So then, how do we find time to do all the things we want to do creatively? Well, here is the thing. Alas, Costello is right. You can’t! Sometimes you just have to say no. Just as Costello has decided to say no to making more albums, I have reluctantly said no to several additional projects until the looming doctoral deadline is over in May. The idea that women can “have it all – but not all at once” equally applies to the creative life. I don’t like saying no, but there are priorities.

My mother gave me good advice early on about time management. She graduated from two different universities on the same day so knows a thing or two about the work-work balance. She taught me there are As, Bs and Cs and that they must be shuffled around. If she calls and I’m stressed about a project, she’ll ask “is it an A?” That is – is it a main priority right now? No? Then drop it, and concentrate on the A.

Only you know your personal A, B, and Cs. But I would suggest that in the doctoral journey, while there are periods of intensity that mean your research is the A in your life, there is much to be said for the engagement with other doctoral students over the four or so years. The Bs and Cs are part of the process, too.

Joining reading or writing groups, attending workshops, going to conferences, actually meeting other people and talking about your work – and more importantly, finding out about their work – are all part of your doctorate.

In The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry says when he was at Cambridge, it was the people at university and those connections he made that were his education. It doesn’t hurt that the roll call included Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie.

If you are lucky enough to find your creative other half –a collaborator and muse to spur you on, a Hugh Laurie to your Stephen Fry – then never let them go.

And if you haven’t found them yet, keep searching, but look in the right places. Get up from your computer, go to a conference, and talk to people. Listen to them. They have the same frustrations about their research, the same anxiety about their ability and the same dreams about their future.

Of course, it isn’t always easy to do, especially if you are an introvert. But there are tips you can use. A recent post in The Thesis Whisperer by  Julio Peironcely, a PhD student in Metabolomics and Metabolite Identification at Leiden University, The Netherlands, provides good advice about advance preparation for conference attendance and dinners, so you won’t sit there resolutely chewing a bread roll and wishing the ground would consume you before you have to try and make small talk. I highly recommend this post, it may be about science conferences but it applies to everyone, and as a creative writing student I am going to make sure I try all of Julio’s tips before my next conference dinner. A career in journalism means that I always heed to advice to talk less about myself and ask questions and listen to the other person, however, I am pleased Julio deems questions about your new friend’s journey through the infamous valley of shit (the ultimate in doctoral dispair) acceptable for dinner table conversation.

Knowing how to make the most of meeting like-minded people in structure environments like conferences is essential, as the people you want to share your creative world with are unlikely to be found in the pub on the weekend slumped in front of a large screen TV, or dozing like an inert kipper on a tanning bed. For a start, it’s really hard to read – or write – in either of those environments.