academic courage, Academic Study, blogging, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, writing and criticism, Writing strategies

Carpe Diem: Living and writing in the moment

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If there is a horror movie no academic wants to watch it’s Still Alice, with a stand out performance by Julianne Moore, who deservedly won the Oscar gong for best actress for her portrayal of a 50 year old academic whose field is linguistics but suddenly discovers she can’t find the right word.

Alice is haunted in her own mind by loss. The loss of words, concepts, the lightening speed associations she has always taken for granted. Her vacant stare at the audience as she loses the thread while presenting a lecture is horrifying for those in academia whose minds are on sharp display in the public arena.

Chronicling the swift descent into complete memory loss (and loss of her identity as an academic and writer)  that is early onset dementia, the chilling words from the protagonist’s neurologist that “it hits the brightest” pack a harder for punch than any looming shadow behind Ripley in the Alien movies.

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I told a colleague I planned on a watching the film and she shook her head. “Why? Why would you put yourself through that?”

Why indeed. Moore portrays the beautiful, fit Alice who jogs her usual route only to look up and have no idea where she is. A fast tracked career academic who literally has it all by the age of 50 – the three adult children, the published books and intelligent and caring husband – and a picture perfect home as well. Then loses her ability to make sense of any of it as her mind unravels. She begins to face the lecture theatre with dread.

A bright mind with the pathways fading. It’s like a haunted house, empty but of ghostly memories that pop up in the inappropriate places. 

As someone who relies on their mind and the layers of memory and lightening speed connections needed for writing, the thought of being lost for words is a nightmare.

 

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As the neurologist explains to Alice, highly functioning people mask the symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s disease for years, delaying treatment. They are smart enough to find clever coping mechanisms. Which, when you think about it, is what doctoral students do with stress, obligations, work and study demands. We find clever ways to cope.

The final scene (spoiler alert) of Still Alice is every writer’s fear. Alice loses the ability to speak, to even respond to her daughter. And – fade out. Yet there is a strong message of living in the moment, and at a lot to be said for living life full throttle and grabbing every last piece of it – children, career, writing and love – so that whatever end comes, at least you can face it in the knowledge that you have grasped your share of life as hard as possible.

 

But as for the question of how to live in the moment – especially as we are planning and living our careers – I am no expert. Certainly, writing a blog, putting the words and ideas out there, indeed, writing for a large audience is a way of writing in the moment. That’s always been the appeal of journalism, and by contrast, the long delays of academic publishing make a mockery of doing anything in the moment.

I love the immediacy of blogging for a large and diverse audience. Indeed, of arguing my point to people who also want to listen. Not that they necessarily agree. I look at the list of 71 comments for my latest blog on the media using topless girls to sell papers, published at Online Opinion, a monthly journal of political and social opinion. I don’t wish to read any of the comments.

Not because I fear what they will say, but because I do not want to write with anyone looking over my shoulder. While we seek feedback and support as writers, there comes a time when you have to say, ‘enough’. No one gets ring side seats to judge your work. As a writer, you can shut down your own creativity better than anyone. You don’t need a chorus of dissent to help the darkest side of your low self esteem flourish. Sure, an audience is entitled to say what they like, and when your work is in the public domain, it will attract all sorts of opinion. The trick is to not letting it change what you want to write and affect what you need to say.

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Indeed, that’s the thing about doctoral study. Over the four years, you have to learn to feel out the territory alone, and accept that what you discover with your research, and what you write about it, will not always be to everyone’s satisfaction. But you have to have the guts to take the research out there anyone, and publish and be dammed.

If there is one lasting legacy of a doctorate, it is finding the courage of your convictions. After four years of slogging away on your research, you are not going to take lightly anyone telling you what to write.

And of course, as writers, those of us who live and die by our words know all too well the impact of our stories and ideas on others. We do not take this lightly, but neither are we going to be cowered. I was reminded of this when a dear writing friend was attacked for his work. How did he feel?

Simply – as if he had touched the nerve he was hoping to touch. He responded, “as someone who appreciates how deeply words can cut or send jitters of thrill or dismay through a person” this impact was to be expected.

I reflected then about the reaction my own writing has had on people, as I place it out there in academic journals and literary publications, such as my book chapter “My Lover’s Eyes” published in this special issue of Writing From Below, (Vol 2, No 1, 2014) remixes Death and the Maiden, examining the motif and other associated themes and subjects through a range of critical and creative works.

There is a point, as in Still Alice, where we as writers and academics need to reflect on the choices we have made and the sacrifices we have made for our work.

While I write Gothic Horror, the breakdown of the body and the cold winds of the pull towards the end are around me and those close to the people I care about right now. So I am naturally reflective about this question.

On one hand, it could be said the co-called ‘pointless’ nature of doctoral study in an area of creative writing isn’t worth the time it takes from our lives. If early onset dementia lurks around the corner, like in a Hollywood movie, why bother to study?

And if the end can snake out of the darkness while you are juggling your life and writing, is it worth the struggle to keep all the balls in the air, or is it better to take it easy, smell the roses, and relax?

One of the uplifting messages in Still Alice is that the demands we put on ourselves in fact shape us and at least let us burn brightly while we can. And to do so, with the blessing of family, friends and perhaps a partner with us, means we simply need to juggle harder, cram in everything and make more demands on ourselves. There is everything to be said for living for the moment, and living that moment as fully as possible.

Grab life, opportunities and throw yourself into fulfilling your dreams despite the knockbacks. Finish the doctorate, despite the many sacrifices. Publish your writing – and be damned if you must. 

The alternative is to come home, sit down in front of the television, and give up. So don’t. No matter what the precarious future may hold, the choice we make with academic study and the choice we make as writers, is to extend ourselves and be amazing. And no matter what the outcome of your research, that’s a gift right there.

 Carpe Diem. Seize the moment.

 

 

 

 

 

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Academic conferences, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, post submission blues

Fallow time: Waiting for the literary muse to show

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I don’t agree with sitting around and waiting for anything, much less a muse to come and whisper in my ear. As a writer, I am too impatient, too demanding – very demanding, in fact. And yet, it is as if the muse is laughing at me now. Because I have landed in the becalmed sea of fallow time. The post doctoral submission state of limbo.

In short, I feel inert. I suppose this is to be expected when a major project comes to an end, and a period of great focus and intensity such as the doctorate in creative writing comes to its conclusion. There was no period from when I applied to do the course through to submitting my first proposal and then jumping every hurdle placed before me over the four years – culminating with submission – that I allowed myself time for any reflection.

That time is now.

Well, ‘now’ is actually a relative term because, like all good workaholics, I have made sure that on top of my full time job in arts communication, I am again teaching an evening class in entrepreneurship for creative practitioners. As we explore how a writer can sell themselves, without selling out, it makes me reflect about my own work. That old question – who am I? It’s not a bad thing to pause and explore this, take some time out from doing to being.

In my job in a large public art gallery, the cycles of intensity revolve around each exhibition. I have become accustomed to the ebbs and flows of this world over the past four years, but this is the first doctorate I have done, and therefore, the end of studying has been a blessing and a curse. I am probably not alone when I say there is a sense of loss from the structure and the focus – and indeed the need to block out all other distractions in order to complete.

In The Thesis Whisperer, Lauren Gawne, a PhD student in the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, writes of this post submission limbo. She writes “I was lucky I had teaching lined up in my department, and a conference to look forward to. It’s weird enough waking up without thinking about what I need to do on my thesis after 4 years of it, so I’m glad I had some structure to fill that. ”

I have structure – my full time job, my part time job, my children and my writing – but still…..it is as if there is a big hole in my life, possibly because it was overfull to begin with. And now that the super structure of the doctorate has gone, I am forced to look at the world around me.

On the plus side, the distractions have flooded back in – and though they are life itself, friends and family and the odd, wonderful realisation that there is a world out there beyond my desk – it means I am getting less done as I do more, well ‘life’. That to me is an odd feeling.

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And then a glance at the diary indicates it’s only weeks until I head overseas, to present the final chapter of my exegesis at a conference, and also do research for the other two books in the trilogy I started with Almost Human – my doctoral novel. In Europe, I will be catching up with friends that tyranny of distance puts between us, even in the age of electronic communication. Melbourne is a long, long way from the rest of the world.

Yet as much as I long to see them again, I also feel strongly there is someone else I need to reconnect with after this doctoral journey. And that’s myself. As I wander around, unsure of what I have achieved, unable to put my finger on why I am so flat, and in a fog about starting anything new creatively, I realise that it is because I am trying to find who I am in this post doctoral state. Maybe I will reconnect with that ‘me’ in Europe, where I can be truly introspective. Especially in countries where I do not speak the language!

People keep on saying to me – what now? Where are you going? What’s next? And in truth, I don’t know. When you undertake any major project, you only think about getting to the end. Getting through – you really have no idea of how you will emerge after the journey, and where those experiences will take you.

You are in a sense, missing – searching for yourself. The new you. The old you, too, that you perhaps put aside while you studied so hard. Maybe that ‘you’ doesn’t really exist anymore…

The trouble with this period of reflection is that I am too exhausted and flat to enjoy it. I suppose that is to be expected. My most popular blogs at 100 Days To The Doctorate are ones that talk about doctoral misery – and it seems a quick glance on the Internet reveals that this comes in several forms – the misery of doing the doctorate, of having finished the doctorate, and are wondering why the hell you did the doctorate when there aren’t enough academic jobs out there.  Mind you, I am not so sure if I want an academic job. The more I read about life in the academic lane, the less appealing it sounds.

But that’s not why one does a doctorate, surely. I certainly didn’t opt for a vocational course, not with creative writing!

Let’s move on to misery. The misery of actually doing a doctorate is for me a blur of highs and lows and focus. The lows were not so much giving up things so I could work and study – it’s amazing how the body and soul adjusts to social solitary confinement like that – but were in fact the lows of the hard, and it must be said, often tedious grunt work. For instance, it’s harder to make sure you are up on all the administrative details of your doctoral process than it is to make sure you are aware of the latest journal article in your field. The constant academic hurdles – every six months or so, confirmation, progress, and then finally completion. Paper work, more paperwork, and often conflicting advice. Sometimes – no advice. After all, at this point, you should be able to go solo, right?

Now – the joy. The great joy of doctoral study, besides the sheer buzz of research and writing (well, I say this as a writer) was engaging on an intense level with people passionate about the same things.

I spent the four years presenting at seven conferences, and each one drew me to people who expanded my life somehow, people I would not have met if I hadn’t undertaken this journey.

I imagine the worst thing would be to try and undertake doctoral study without engaging with other students and peers in your area. For me, the highs were actually forming concepts and exploring ideas based on my research, and the giddy feeling of exploration and eureka moments of discovery along the way – especially when shared with others. And I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to sit and hear about other people’s research as well, and hear the passion in their voice – yes, the struggle and the pain as well, and the constant fear of ‘am I good enough’? But conferences are where we can shine, and spread our wings, show our true colors – it’s worth the leap of faith in exposing yourself and your ideas to the academy.

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But – that doctoral journey demands its pound of flesh. Yes, if you are determined, organised, selfish, ruthless, clever, attentive, gracious, and bloody minded, you will emerge and hopefully be able to relish the feeling of having achieved a major academic hurdle – submitting your doctorate.

Just don’t expect to come through in one piece! At a writing workshop a few days ago, I quizzed other authors who had done the doctoral slog and asked if they got sick – and depressed – after submission. Yes! It was a resounding reply. One they don’t tell you about at the Gradate Research Office when you submit.

One author had such bad eye strain he got a tear behind his retina. Another was sick for months. I promptly came down with a major sinus infection that hit hard, so hard I was in bed for a week. And then came a strange inability to commit to my writing. Oh no –

Was I having – writer’s block?

“Oh good!” said a friend, gleefully. “It will make the rest of us feel better! At last you are not doing five projects or more at once…”

Postscript:

Of course, fallow time, in the end, didn’t lasted that long, thank goodness. No sooner than I wrote this blog and let it languish a day or two on the computer screen than the call came from my supervisor that heralded the start of the next phase of the doctoral journey.

But you know what? Like all good crime writers, I am going to leave this blog on a cliffhanger, and keep you waiting until next blog tell you the news.

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Academic Study, creative writing, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, thesis writing, Time management

PhD on Board: the agony of the final trimester

IMG_3490I can’t sleep. I dream about the chapter I have just written.

People have started asking for advice – on starting their doctorate. To them I seem like a –sort of – old hand now. They want to do one, but where?

Wait – where have I had these experiences before? Oh yes, when I was pregnant. As a mother of two teenage boys, it has been awhile, but it is coming back to me. The anxiety of the final few weeks before birth. Getting advice from everyone, women desperately wanting to be pregnant asking me for advice on when to have a baby and what’s it really like?

The end of a doctorate is just like the end of a pregnancy – the sleeplessness, the anxiety, the all-consuming nature of it. Then there is the sinking realization that you alone are going to have to birth this baby. And it keeps getting bigger and bigger the less time you have.

My supervisor sends me an email. “You’ve put on too much weight!” (Actually, what she said was – “it’s too long!” But you get the picture)

When you are pregnant, it’s a sad fact that people rarely give up their seat on the train for you, but everyone has advice on what you should or should not eat or drink, and especially what to call the baby.

So it is with the doctorate. “What are you doing reading the paper – why aren’t you studying?” or “you can’t have a glass of wine! What are you thinking – you have to hand in soon.” Or “You are calling your exegesis – what?!”

I am taking two week’s leave from my day job at the gallery before my due date. I know the drill. At the last stage, there is no sleep, just swollen ankles, exhaustion and pure fear. Luckily, just as mother nature takes over in pregnancy and washes your brain with hormones that render you somewhat numb to the impending total eradication of your former life, it’s the same with the doctorate.

But this time, what floods your body is adrenalin. It washes through your blood with copious amounts of coffee – like a runner’s high. It’s the result of those endless sessions at the desk, those late nights, those editing sprints and rewrites that give you study high. Or at least that inspired, slightly crazed state that searches for the 4 am miracle. Usually, at 4 am.

A writer I know with a doctorate that’s at least 10 year’s old, almost finished primary school, really, nodded sagely as I related this state of anxiety to her the other day.

“Yes, I remember,” she said, gently. In the same way I’d tell a heavily pregnant woman I remember what it was like. You never forget.

Then she added, “you know once you hand in, it just goes away – all the pain, it just goes…”

Yes – that’s just what they say about labor.

Ah – the actual birth. For women who have been there, a collective shudder. And for those about to hand in their doctorate – nothing is birthed without pain, be it a doctorate or a child or a work of art. At the end, it’s all intense focus and draining, hard yakka.

But just as there is a support team for birth, there is one for the birth of a doctorate. I am so grateful for how people have pitched in to help and offer emotional and practical support. It’s like a collective group around me urging me to – push!

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Here are five reasons why birthing a doctorate is like birthing a baby:

1. Women about to give birth say and do some really, really stupid things. This is a true story.

Just before the birth of my first child, I rang the labor ward and asked a nurse what sort of reading material did she think I should pack? Did she think that I should start off with say Margaret Atwood, then progress to genre crime and onto chick lit and finally, a range of magazines from Vanity Fair to the trashy women’s mags? Her reply:

Nurse: Ooh…so you think you’re going to be reading? (gales of laughter)

And it’s the same with the doctorate. You are too distracted to do anything else. Forget multi tasking. The cat and dog brought in a rat the other day. It has taken up residence under the couch. It comes out to saunter around when I am proof reading. We look at each other. It goes back under the couch. My kids scream and ask me what I am going to do about it. I said “think of a name for it”. What’s the worst that can happen? Plague?

2 There are many forms to fill in. There are forms that were filled in at the beginning of the PhD but have to be filled in again, or are they different forms? Wait, some forms were missed at the beginning, or did they change at the middle? Forms must be sent to the right place at the right time. The website says “It is your responsibility to ensure all forms are completed and correct and done at the right time.” Hospitals are like this. You can’t even get an epidural without filling in a form and by the time you need one you’d sign your firstborn away to aliens. No wonder people freebirth. What’s my course code again?

3. Women are very competitive about birth. Pregnancy is a whole competition in itself. It’s worse after the birth. Men might compare cock size, women compare length of labor, scars, stitches, pain. Don’t even get me started on competitive breastfeeding. PhD students are the same. Who worked longest, latest, hardest, had the least sleep, the biggest bibliography, quoted the most journal articles, had the longest footnotes. 

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4. Conflicting advice Being overwhelmed by conflicting advice is what happened when I was pregnant with my first child. By my second pregnancy, no one bothered to give me advice. Why? I knew all the secrets.

I suspect those doing a second doctorate never get unsolicited advice, either. People just walk away and shake their head, muttering “don’t they know the world has too many doctoral submissions as it is? What about global warming and the environment and overcrowding in the academic job market?”

5. Nothing fits – you’ve grown too big. Everyone, even supermodels, look like they have swallowed a fridge in the weeks leading up to the birth. This is what it is like with the doctorate. Sure, in the early stages, it’s all small bump and looking cute in that outfit, right? Yeah, and your exegesis was small and manageable at the start as well, wasn’t it? The first year of the doctorate is like a babymoon. Then, once the reality sinks in, you wonder why you ever got up the duff with a doctorate in the first place.

In the last trimester, nothing fits – into the word length. You have too much information, too many footnotes, references, ideas and – stuff.

You know what women worry about before they give birth? How are they going to push out something that big. You know what PhD students worry about before they hand in? The same thing. 

Academic Study

100 Days to the Doctorate – and Beyond

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Dr Evelyn Tsitas started 100 Days to the Doctorate in 2013 with literally 100 days to go before she handed in her doctorate in Creative Writing at RMIT University, investigating the human animal hybrid in science fiction.

As a journalist exploring literary journalism and creative non fiction through blogs, Evelyn decided to go public with the trials and hopefully, triumphs ahead in her doctoral journey, and the intense pressure-cooker of life with two kids, two pets, and a full time job and part-time teaching load on top of full time doctoral study. It was a wild ride!

In the second year of this blog, Evelyn offers hard-won advice for completing a doctorate, and explores writing, life and career opportunities after post graduate study. Reflection about this is useful – why do a doctorate when academic employment opportunities are rapidly shrinking around the globe? Doesn’t a Creative Writing doctorate by its very nature suck the life and creativity out of a creative writer? How do you fit in full time doctoral study around parenting and a full time – and unrelated – job? To also teach or not to teach as part of the doctoral journey?

This blog is now called 100 Days to the Doctorate – & Beyond to encompass the reflective nature of the post graduate life. What was it all about, anyway? Was it worth the long years of delayed gratification? Evelyn knows all too well the questions that plague successful doctoral graduates at this point: What do I do with my career now I have a PhD? How do I get my novel published? Can I turn my Creative Writing exegesis into a book as well? How does not just what I have studied – but how I studied and learned to research – impact on my thought process?

Evelyn also blogs about doctoral and other matters at Online Opinion and The Thesis Whisperer, and on her main website  evelyntsitas.com and also motherland Evelyn Tsitas Motherland. She writes about the academic journey, the writing life, parenting, feminism, social change and social commentary.

A literary journalist, Evelyn puts herself in the story. As the late Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Heartburn) observed, “everything is copy”.

Please join Evelyn in this (mostly) weekly blog about the doctorate – and beyond!