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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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creative writing, Creativity

Life Lessons from Keith Richards: Writers Take Note

Keith Richards

Ever since I spent a joyous summer reading Keith Richards’ autobiography Life (2010), I have wanted to write about the way he views creativity.

Anything penned by a man (teamed with writer James Fox) who spends his money on a fabulous library, and actually reads books and expressed a secret desire to be a librarian has to be worth reading. Life doesn’t disappoint.

Okay, so there is a certain glee in trawling through the salacious bits, but I am not here to wax lyrical about the Rolling Stone’s musing on Jagger’s todger, Altamont, Marianne Faithfull or his long intimacy with hard drugs. Read his book for that.

What I, as a writer, found fascinating was the way Keith describes the creative process, and how he makes music and writes songs. Alas, like Stephen Fry, who reveals his great frustration about his inability to sing in his autobiographies, I also have no musical ability whatsoever.

Not everyone can be a rock star. But Keith’s sheer delight in making music, and his obsessive quest to do so – making sure he never did so many drugs that it would harm his talent or output (that’s discipline and respect for one’s talent) – is something that can be applied to creative writing.

So often I hear in academia the following moan – writing is so hard, it is so laborious, and anyway I don’t have time to write, where do you find the time to write? Let alone read – who has time to read anymore? I have administration to do, marking to do, and so much teaching, then there are the papers for academic journals…and so on.

In response, here are some inspirational highlights from Keith Richard’s weighty tome Life, applied to the writing life (hence, the sub headings are my own):

Keith on: creative passion

“I was basically a musical sponge. And I was just fascinated by watching people play music. If they were in the street I’d gravitate towards it, a piano player in the pub, whatever it was. My ears were picking it up note for note. Didn’t matter if it was out of tune, there were notes happening, there were rhythms and harmonies, and they would start zooming in my ears. It was very like a drug. In fact a bigger drug than smack. I could kick smack; I couldn’t kick music.” (p. 57)

I know many writers who feel the same. For us, writing is a drug and we can’t kick it. Reading is the same. I have so many books on the go – I keep them in different places all over the house, and my bag has to be big enough for a book. There is always the fear of being caught short without anything to read. Writing is the same, my friends see me take out a small notebook and jot down ideas. It’s something of a joke. “Oh – here comes the notebook!” I am a writer and no one is safe. “That’s very interesting, I’ll just write that down,” and  I grab a quote, a funny story, a word. Writers are magpies, swooping in on the brightly colored bits of life that float around.

Keith on: putting in the hours

“Every waking hour of every day was just sitting in front of the speakers, trying to figure out how those blues were made. You collapsed on the floor with a guitar in your hands. That was it. You never stop learning an instrument, but at that time it was still very much searching about.” (p.103)

I immediately recall Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. He reveals that in order to master anything, you need to put in the time, and you must keep putting in the time.  A friend of mine is a violinist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and was telling me about playing a new work; “well you know how it is when you put the violin under your chin and raise your arms and the fingers just start, the muscle memory kicks in, because you have done this for so many hours, over years and years”. Ah – no. But I do know about training your eye to observe and draw, and about training the ear to listen to the way people speak and then spending years using those rhythms and dialogue in fiction. Learning academic language is similar – it’s endless observation, building that vocabulary. As Keith says “searching about, finding out how it is made.”

Keith on: “write what you know”

“There’s nothing bad about monotony; everyone’s got to live with it.” (105)

Well, I chose this phrase because I like it. But Keith wasn’t referring to suburban life, actually. He was talking about a Jimmy Reed song title – Take Out Some Insurance. Finding titles anywhere, inspiration everywhere, even in the mundane. A writer can make anything interesting – it’s just what you do with the material. You’ve heard it before, write what you know. But I am writing from the perspective of a human-animal in my novel Almost Human….so, I take something I know, and spin it into the unknown.

As an Australian of Greek and German parentage, I know what it is like to be surrounded by people – family – and not know how to speak the same language. I never had a meaningful conversation with my grandmother as we couldn’t communicate. I take that experience of being a hybrid and an outsider with me into my writing. Write what you know doesn’t mean only writing what you know. Stretch it, play around with it. Find the emotion in the experience. As Keith says, who’d think of Take Out Some Insurance as a song title?

Keith on: overcoming writer’s block

“Once you’ve got that idea, the rest of it will come. It’s like you’ve planted a seed, then you go and water it a bit and suddenly it sticks up out of the ground and goes, hey, look at me. The mood is made somewhere in the song. Regret, lost love. Maybe one of us had busted up with a girlfriend. If you can find the trigger that kicks off the idea, the rest of it is easy. It’s just hitting the first spark. Where that comes from, God knows.” (143)

As Pablo Picasso observed, “when inspiration comes, I want it to find me working.” You don’t hang around waiting for the muse, you just start, and it flows from there. Even if you hate what you start with, you can at least have something to play with. The worst thing is the critical brain and the blank screen. The critical brain edits – let the unconscious brain create. Just do it.

Keith on: making the time

“Songwriting had to be fitted in. After a show was sometimes the only time.” (143) 

Even rockers have to find time. It’s not all sex, drugs and rock and roll. You have to have some discipline. Take note. “After a show” is the rocker’s “after work.” So find the time. Do the writing after work.

Keith on: inspiration

“The thing about being a songwriter is, even if you’ve been fucked over, you can find consolation in writing about it, and pour it out. Everything has something to do with something: nothing is divorced.” (187)

As Nora Ephron says, everything is copy. You have to feel if you are going to write from the heart. Every emotion can be used, every experience. Embrace life, open yourself up to people, to pain and to love. You can do this from the corner of your world, but not in the isolation of your garret.

Keith on: fluency

“And because you’ve been playing every day, sometimes two or three shows a day, ideas are flowing. One thing feeds the other. You might be having a swim or screwing the old lady, but somewhere in the back of the mind, you’re thinking about this cord sequence or something related to a song. No matter what the hell’s going on.” (183)

Musicians play, writers write. Just get in the habit of doing it every day. It’s like any exercise, if you skip a day, everything hurts when you start again.

Keith on: experimentation

“When you’re making records, you’re looking to distort things, basically. That’s the freedom recording gives you, to fuck around with the sound. And it’s not a matter of sheer force; it’s always a matter of experiment and playing around.” (236)

Where is the joy in doing the same thing over and over when it comes to your writing? Experiment with voice, with style. Have fun. The great liberation about a lot of writing is that it makes very little money. Support yourself doing something else and take risks in your art.

Keith on: Writing from the heart

“What is it that makes you want to write songs? In a way you want to stretch yourself into other people’s hearts. You want to plant yourself there, or at least get a resonance, where other people become a bigger instrument than the one you’re playing. It becomes almost an obsession to touch other people. To write a song that is remembered and taken to heart is a connection, a touching of the bases. A thread that runs through all of us. A stab in the heart. Sometimes I think that song writing is about tightening the heartstrings as much as possible without bringing on a heart attack.”(277-279)

This is beautiful. I think that for anyone doing a PhD in creative writing, as I am, it is easy to get caught up in dry, academic writing.  Where is the passion, the lilt, the zing, the spark, the thread that runs through all of us? The best bit of advice I was given when writing my MA exegesis was by one of my teachers, the writer Antoni Jach. He said “you are a writer, make the exegesis sing, make it beautiful.” I know I have to keep this in mind with the PhD exegesis. And in my novel, I must remember the heart.

It goes back to everything that Keith has said, really – you have to have a love of the work you are doing, a passion, and go back to the well so often you dream about the music or the words, and you are in the flow, the moment, and everything makes a connection.

Keith on: why bother? (from the Keith Richards Life website)

“People say who don’t you give it up? I don’t think they quite understand. I’m not doing it just for the money, or for you. I’m doing it for me.”

That’s it really, isn’t it? Don’t ask for permission, don’t ask for money, don’t plead lack of time. Whatever your creative passion, do it for yourself.