Creative Writing PhD, Creativity

In praise of the PhD in Creative Writing

And Then Vol 1 front cover_0

The Creative Writing doctorate is viewed with suspicion for not fitting into the accepted binaries. It is neither a literature doctorate nor the accepted Romantic idea of a writer expressing their ‘natural’ talent. Even celebrated, experienced writers are dismissive of courses that “teach” you to write.

It is this autodidactic baggage that so many writers carry around with them and drag into their first session with their doctoral supervisor. It weighs down on them as they trudge to the library with a heavy heart. They are warned – the Creative Writing doctoral student must put aside their intuitive writing abilities in order to hone their research skills, think critically and be self-reflective.

The doctoral journey also forces those who undertake the Creative Writing doctorate to examine what impact their research has had on their own writing, on their creative project and it’s usefulness – to themselves as writers, the academy and also the impact of the research they undertake for their exegesis.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the majority of Creative Writing students, at least to begin with, struggle with the research component of the course, and see the exegesis as “the price you pay” to do a PhD in Creative Writing.

The PhD in Creative Writing has at its heart a tension that is inherent in the exegetical-creative writing binary.

Yet I have found my research to benefit my creative writing. Indeed, this can be seen in the enormous flights of fancy and fantasy woven into Stealing Back the Relics, my 15,000 word short story published in And Then…a new adventure anthology. Critics can be assured the years spent in academic research has not crippled my boundless imagination in the least. Mine is, as a fellow writer drily observed, ‘a robust muscle’.

Stealing Back the Relics appears in And Then …the Great Big Book of Awesome Adventure Tales Vol 1, (published by Clan Destine Press) and is my Dan Brown style romp through catacombs, private museums, art galleries and grand houses that takes readers across Germany, France, England and Greece.

The brief from publisher Lindy Cameron was simple – write a page turning adventure romp with two protagonists of equal weight. What to write about? Well, as I work in an art gallery, and spend my free time in art galleries and museums, the murky cauldron of images and off-the-wall ideas that fed into Stealing Back the Relics were all about art theft and archaic reliquaries.

On my three week visit to the other side of the world, I was up cathedrals, down catacombs, and sketching in museums where I was drawn to the grotesque and beguiling reliquaries – ornate vessels that hold sacred pieces of saints.

What, apart from the re-charge of the conference trip, is the relevance to a doctoral blog, you may wonder? Well, dear reader, the one of my story’s protagonists is completing his third PhD and still hasn’t got tenure…inspired by many a real life story on the fringes of academia, and by one very intelligent soul in particular.

In fact, his wife, a very successful and well known author, has just embarked on her own doctorate.

Not surprisingly, given the circles I move in, many of my friends and acquaintances have doctorates, are finishing their doctorates or – gulp – are on their second or third doctorate. Out of all of this cohort, I can count on one hand how many have tenured positions as academics. This desire for a groundbreaking research discovery – that might lead (hopefully!) to tenure is what drives Stealing Back the Relics. Yes, more than a nod to David Lodge, reimagined for the 21st century.

Stealing Back The Relics also neatly reflects what I strongly believe – that the rigour and research and mindset that goes into a Creative Writing PhD is not ‘wasted’ if you don’t teach. Indeed, my obsession with reliquaries, and the oddly grotesque veneration of saints and macabre obsession with death in European museums and churches, is simply an offshoot on the years I have spent exploring such manifestations of Gothic excess in fiction past and present.

 

AND THEN…THE GREAT BIG BOOK OF AWESOME ADVENTURE TALES VOL 1

AND THEN – DETAILS

What:  And Then…the Great Big Book of Awesome Adventure Tales Vol 1.

Edited by:  Ruth Wykes & Kylie Fox, with title page illustrations by Vicky Pratt and cover art by Sarah Pain. Stories:

Stories by: Sulari Gentill,  Jason Nahrung, Alan Baxter, Jason Franks, Lucy Sussex, Amanda Wrangles, Evelyn Tsitas, Peter M Ball, Narrelle M Harris, Dan Rabarts, Kat Clay, Sophie Masson, Tor Roxburgh, Emilie Collyer and Tansy Rayner Roberts.

To buy: Vol 1 is now available as an eBook from this link.

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Beyond the PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, Time management, work-work balance

Life post PhD – embracing the moment at last

xmas yardI have a friend I have been trying to see for a few weeks. It’s nearly Christmas and everyone is catching up as if the world is about to end. Yet each time we set a date she cancels. And I totally I understand why. She is in doctoral lock down.

Indeed, last time she cancelled I told her I didn’t expect to see her until June 2016. In fact, if I did, something must be wrong. Because in the last hurdle of the doctorate nothing else matters but the looming deadline.

I know the feeling all too well.

From where she is sitting, with the panic and fear and dread and utter anxiety of writing up ahead of her, my words can seem like platitudes. Because I have done it – I ran the race, I finished and now I have the PhD.

In truth, part of me misses that doctoral bubble because doing a PhD is pretty much free reign to just think, even if like me you also held down a full time job.

It’s hard to constantly set the same goals you did when you were doing a doctorate – that narrow focus, and every six months another public milestone to achieve – a graduate research progress report, or a conference, a journal article, and then checking in with your supervisor.

Once you have that PhD, you are on your own, baby. When it comes to your research, no one cares what you do and when you do it, or if you never achieve anything ever again. However, you will also find a lot of other people who don’t have a PhD but think they should start being rather unpleasant to you. Over the past two years, I have had many bitchy comments such as “you can’t do THAT? But I thought you were smart – you have a PhD!” and “only academics call themselves Doctor and YOU AREN’T ONE so I wonder why YOU bother?”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognise professional jealousy, but I understand why many people (especially in Australia) hide their academic achievements. Certainly it’s not something you’d put up on a dating site.

xmas wreath

I admit that angst over ‘doctoral embarrassment’ (the state of being apologetic for being more highly qualified than those who resent you) may seem like distant dream to those like my friend who are battling to actually complete their PhD on time. I get that.

Just as I get the ‘life on hold’ pain that comes with the final stage of the doctoral journey. It’s head down, bum on seat, and focus, focus, focus.

And yet….I think that intensity and focus, the necessity of having to defer so much life and gratification, is part of the pleasure of academic study’s intense focus. You get a free pass in not caring about anything other than your work. Strange as it may sound, enjoy. It will not come your way again (well, until you do another doctorate…)

On a recent walk with the dog, I saw a young woman studying in her bedroom window. It was a Sunday night, and rather than watching TV, talking to friends, or anything else, she was at her desk, the light on, head down, and working. Outside, her family had strung up Christmas lights around the garden. Inside, the only light was her desk light, shining brightly on her to guide her way.

xmas yard 2

I felt a pang of nostalgia – I knew well that focus, and in a way, missed it. Now all timetables are self directed. What am I writing now? It’s up to me. I can wander around at dusk with the Corgi checking out the fairy lights. I have the time for life. And the opposite of that, its intimate partner, is that I have to motivate myself to write and research.

Throw yourself into life, my friend, and there isn’t much left over for the mind. Balance? I’ve yet to find it. Maybe that’s why I miss the doctoral zone.

Of course, those years of focusing on my work meant something had to give, and it was my domestic and social life, which I am now enjoying making a priority again.

biscuits hand

Yet it seems very indulgent, still, to meet a friend on a Sunday afternoon and bake Christmas ginger biscuits and decorate them with my youngest son. A whole Sunday afternoon! That is five hours I would never have allowed myself when I was doing the PhD.

As I sprinkled coloured sugar crystals over the xmas biscuits and joked with my son and reminisced with my friend, I felt  myself being utterly in the present in a way that a doctoral student never is truly there when engaged with life.

xmas santa

 

So, Merry Christmas to my friend and all of you who are in the last few months of your PhD – heartfelt good  wishes for your success and while you will no doubt find it hard to relax during the holiday season, remember that a time will come when you, too, can ‘waste’ a Sunday baking gingerbread biscuits. And each bite will be all that sweeter for having deferred the gratification.

 

academic courage, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Publishing academic research, the creative life, writing and criticism, Writing strategies

Simply shocking: when our fiction writing pushes the boundaries

Photo taken at 'The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk', at The National Gallery of Victoria. By Evelyn Tsitas
From ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas

I admit I am hard to shock. As a journalist and a writer and academic, as someone who has spent my entire career working in the creative arts, that’s a given, really. It doesn’t work being a prude when studying art history. Or working in an art gallery. or writing speculative fiction.

Being a practitioner in the creative arts – whatever your medium – means being exposed to ideas and concepts that you may not agree with, but will push your boundaries. That’s why a lot of people fear the arts. That’s why on one hand they are derided as a ‘soft option’ and on the other hand, they are condemned for leading to the breakdown of civilization.

People are confronted by what they see in art galleries, museums, on the stage and on film and certainly between the pages of books, newspapers and magazines. Perhaps even more so than a screen grab on the Internet, where everything goes anyway. The authority held by the printed word still sways, and there is always the sort of person for whom breaking the spine of a ‘salacious’ book and opening the pages of a ‘naughty’ novel is akin to watching someone open their legs. Reading what they consider transgressive material is an act, for them, of promiscuity.

Photo taken at 'The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk', at The National Gallery of Victoria. By Evelyn Tsitas
From ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas

So, if to indulge in transgressive creative arts as a spectator can change you – for the worse – according to those who hold such values, what does it mean to make art that challenges? Do you become tainted by association? What sort of person, in fact, writes certain things in certain ways?

In short, if my fiction includes sexuality – am I what I write? Do people assume that I live the life of my protagonist? While agonising about this with my writing friends, I have had one reaction only. Amazement. Complete amazement that I could be worried about this, that I could consider it an issue.

“Do people assume because I write about killers, that I am a murderer?” asked one woman. By day she is a primary school teacher, married, and a grandmother. After hours she writes very successful True Crime.

We are not what we write. But are we our imagination?

The Mask, Dolls House installation by Evelyn Tsitas
The Mask, Dolls House installation by Evelyn Tsitas

More than one writing friend snorted and added “it’s called fiction for a reason, you are called a creative writer for a reason – no one in their ‘right’ mind would think a ‘writer’ is what they write.”

If you are an actor, do the public assume you are your roles? Many times, yes. Rita Hayworth used to say, They go to bed with Gilda; they wake up with me.”

notting hill

In a quote from the movie Notting Hill, the 1999 romantic comedy by Richard Curtis, the blurred lines some men have between reality and fiction are deftly explored:

Anna Scott: Rita Hayworth used to say, “They go to bed with Gilda; they wake up with me.”
William: Who’s Gilda?
Anna Scott: Her most famous part. Men went to bed with the dream; they didn’t like it when they would wake up with the reality. Do you feel that way?
William: You are lovelier this morning than you have ever been.

As a writer whose creative and academic practice pushes the boundaries, I felt for actress Dakota Johnson when it was revealed that her mother, the actress Melanie Griffith, was uncomfortable with her star role on the controversial movie Fifty Shades of Grey. I have had people close to me also feel uncomfortable about my work, and to question what it means for me to write work that challenges, to write characters in fiction that transgress, that are frankly outside the moral code of the mainstream. And yes, that worries me, even though my writing cohort say it should not.

The fact is, that if we are writing a work such as Fifty Shades of Grey, we must explore the darker parts of our imagination, and be aware of the secretive, transgressive nature of much sexuality.

But does doing this make us a worse person than the average punter? My Secret Garden, Nancy Friday’s groundbreaking book published more than 40 years ago on women’s sexual fantasies revealed taboos such as:

  • Pain and masochism
  • Domination
  • The sexuality of terror
  • The thrill of the forbidden
  • Transformation
  • The Zoo
  • Incest
  • Rape

Is a fiction writer who trawls these fantasies in effect simply taking one for the collective unconscious, for popular culture, or art – or the ‘team’ – if you like? Or are they just a nasty pornographer who should keep the door to the room marked ‘other’ firmly locked and away from the prying eyes of the world?

I don’t write or conduct academic research into the areas of the human and animal, the power struggle of the occult, or the bleakness of different aspects of grief and organ donation to shock. Although I know, outside my literary and academic circles, that it does. I do what I do because I want to explore certain aspects of the human psyche, the darkness of the human condition, and the point at which obsession renders the end result more important than the destructive path leading to that final point. My tropes are the about the use and abuse of power, betrayal, and transgression. Hardly the stuff of chick lit and romantic comedy, but the stuff of life.

From ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas
From ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas

I have published and presented academic papers on bestiality in science fiction, on issues of body ownership that are very upsetting for people; I have angered internet commentators with my articles relating to pro-choice (despite having published a high risk pregnancy book which explored why women – including myself – are so determined to carry a child to term despite the great risks to their own health), and I have drawn in a room full of bioethicists and scientists wanting to hear how the creative arts can and does shape and inform bioethical debates.

But while journalism and academia are good forums for these discussions, fiction writing is better. For instance, just because science can do something, should humanity follow? I can give no better example for the way than the way that fiction – and science fiction in particular – has spearheaded this debate than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Written by an 18 year old Mary Shelley, no stranger at that age to the searing heartache and near death experience of several miscarriages, the book about a scientist who create a human without the intervention of woman, and if you so chose to call it that – God – is a touchstone for any current debate on stem cell research, and reproductive technology that pushes so many boundaries we no longer talk about two parents, but a myriad of biological entities and processes that will result in a child who has multiple ‘parents’ biological and often social as well.

South Metope 11 - Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum; the human Lapith forces his centaur opponent down, gripping him by the throat. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas
South Metope 11 – Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum; the human Lapith forces his centaur opponent down, gripping him by the throat. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas

But just because we can do something – should we? I am not saying any one person has the answer, and am loathe to leave things to the status quo (don’t rock the boat until its ready) but it is important as a society to investigate the social, emotional, and maternal-paternal implications of this, and the creative arts are the place where a narrative can be put on the facts. We all understand things a lot clearer when someone sits down in front of the community at the camp fire and says ‘let me tell you a story…’

It’s embedded in our DNA as humans, this need for stories, and in the Internet age this need for a narrative bleeds across the creative arts. Film is a powerful medium in that it provides the visual along with the story, and that for people is very immediate, engaging – and confronting.

So when Dakota Johnson’s mother says that she can’t see her daughter Dakota’s film Fifty Shades of Grey because of the sexual content, I feel for Dakota, because she is simply part of the story telling process. She is acting out in front of the collective camp fire, putting three dimensional representation to the words from a page. I know what it is like to be judged on your work and the choice of your content. How easy it must be to write inoffensive children’s fiction, or dry political commentary, or paint by numbers commercial fiction which can be read with distraction and no raised eyebrows on public transport. These writers do not have anyone looking over their shoulder, questioning their values, morality or integrity.

Sculpture and ring by Lisa Roet
Sculpture and ring by Lisa Roet, photo by Evelyn Tsitas (who proudly owns and wears the ring, made in the shape of a chimp finger)

Because to push the boundaries as an artist is the be the ultimate outsider – even if society comes around eventually to the place where you are right now – far, far out to sea, waving the flag, saying ‘look, guys, I can see this clearly – it isn’t nice, but I am not scared to look and report back. Meet me at the campfire, and I’ll tell you a story.”

I have been told “you can’t divorce the person from the writing” – meaning – there must be something very dark and ‘wrong’ with me as a person for daring to move my academic research into places that are upsetting, and frightening for some people.  Yes, of course, reading and publishing fiction is subjective. But I do not write by committee. Fiction writing is not a democracy. It is a little totalitarian state; my world, and I while listen to criticism – especially from publishers, and I will consider tweaking, changing and rewriting, I am also the first and last person my writing has to please.

 

Photo taken at 'The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk',  at The National Gallery of Victoria. By Evelyn Tsitas
Photo taken at ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. By Evelyn Tsitas

Love it or hate it, EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey – and the subsequent film, of which James is Executive Producer – gives women agency over their sexual fantasies. And let’s face it, at the heart of the book, the story of young woman selling her looks and sexuality to an older, wealthy man is a powerplay that goes back to the first campfire stories. But what is remarkable about James – and hats off to her for reaping the financial rewards – is that she has had the guts to stray from the pack of the everyday dissenters and go public with her work, and has found a willing audience.

Those of us who take a risk in the creative arts do so knowing that not everyone in the world at large will be happy with our choices. But what is the alternative? Silence? Pouring waster over the campfire and ordering everyone back into the darkness of the cave, where ideas, both glowing and darkly bitter, can flourish and fester without challenge?

 

 

 

creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, doctoral deadlines, editing, writing workshops

Falling in love again: the (re) writing zone

set of pens

There are many sorts of writing, just as there are endless ways to read. Snack, bite sized and on the run – or delightfully languorous, never looking at your watch. As for those on a doctoral deadline, we all know frantic and deadline driven writing and reading. But then, after you have submitted, there is the hardest of them all – revisiting old work that needs an over haul.

Just as it’s hard to get back into a book you’ve stopped reading and put away for a few months (do you ever really finish one of those tomes?) so is the pain of revisiting fiction you have put aside. Because no one gets their work out to publishers while the exhaustion of doctoral completion is fresh. So, how do you come back to the work in six months, or a year? You have have passed your Creative Writing PhD, but your novel probably still needs some work before it hits the publisher’s email.

How do you fall in love again with your work and care enough to tackle it afresh?

That’s been my preoccupation these past few days, as I have a manuscript I am working on that still needs a wrangle. The trouble is, it goes further back than the doctorate – the work I am revisiting is the novel I wrote for my MA. You probably have one of these yourself – the knowledge that you want your manuscript in the best possible shape before you send it to a publisher, but there is an aspect that just doesn’t work. Or work well enough to catch the eye of someone who wants to sink money into it. And that’s why you have left it, because apart from nibbles and some interest, it’s not quite there yet.

The worst thing about putting such a manuscript away and working on something else is that it is damned hard to revisit again – without getting into the zone.

I admit it – I am a deadline junkie as much as the next journalist but this old habit from an old working life doesn’t really cut it when you are doing a doctorate, because there is too much work for a final sprint at one deadline. You have to chunk it up and give yourself mini deadlines.

This is also a way of reentering the orbit of a work that has gone off your radar. If you are anything like me, other priorities take over, and it is only the arrival of a red letter and non negotiable deadline that makes you open the file, delve deep back into the world you created and – start again.

The problem is, unlike making bread where the combination of flour and water and yeast and heat may rise, with a manuscript that has been left, if the plot and characters haven’t got the chemistry to work together, they will still fall flat and prove difficult to fashion into a tasty product no matter how long you let it sit.

rising bread

Or maybe not. Perhaps only tweaks are needed, maybe you need to change the voice, or the tone, or the characters. But perhaps a fresh perspective could also help.

Enter the workshop doctors.

If you can find yourself an intensive professional writing group – the sort that only works with those of your standard, not hobbyists, then this could be the boot camp you need to get a fresh take on your work.

I joined such a group when completing my doctoral novel, and it was invaluable. Now I am revisiting my masters novel, and while I have had two chapters published already in literary journals, the time has come for a serious edit and revise.

The trouble is, getting back into the zone. The zone of ideas that created the work in the first place.

Chances are you are not the same person you were when you started writing your book. In the time that you put the work down to ‘breathe’ and start something else, you may have moved on, found other interests, fallen in and out of love, perhaps had a child, travelled. Well – you might have put the book away for six months or six years – so how do you come back to that place that spawned those ideas?

Life is conflict, there are small and large battles every day, and the trick is to both write, and be a writer, and also have a life, move forward from the fears and ghosts that are holding us from joy but without sacrificing the shadows that helped us with the necessary chiaroscuro for drama in the first place. It’s one thing to write, it’s another to maintain both a life, a writing life and an inner life necessary to conjure up work from nothing, and maintain the head space and practical surrounds to develop this into fiction. It is a skill, and as my writing mentor admits, one that requires a high degree of difficulty. And higher chance of failure. Are you wasting your time? Your reader’s time?

There are several tips about entering the general writing zone that apply to re-writing – write every day, make a writing plan, read widely and every day, immerse yourself in reading about books and writers. Yet as a professional writer, this doesn’t go to the problem of reentering the zone of work you have put aside.

In that instance, as well as re reading the manuscript, you really need to enter the zone of ideas that created it. Hopefully, if the book is about something that you really are compelled to explore, you will have been doing this even as the incomplete work languished – or was left to breathe.

I know I am still obsessed about the themes in my work, which I am now revisiting. And those in my circle who have read the manuscript are still pestering me to get it out into the light of day. because those ideas are still compelling.

I keep reading fiction that explores ideas around the emotional or narrative core of the book. Just as it isn’t necessary to write about an exact experience, or indeed person, but rather the emotional resonance of a real event, it’s not necessary to only read fiction in the genre you are revisiting. In fact, I think it hinders, as we can get swayed by another ‘voice’. Many writers like to read non fiction in areas of their current subject interest for that reason.

Two books have helped me reenter the zone in the past few weeks – Joan Didion’s heartbreaking 2005 novel The Year of Magical Thinking and Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s 2009 novel The Angel’s Game. Quite different books, that have both had an impact on my way of approaching my work again. Of course, a little obsessive behavior is always good when finding the zone – block out the outside world, let the kids fend for themselves as you bark “not now I’m writing!” and try as far as possible to screen out pesky things like current affairs, world news and local elections while you sink deep into the fictional world you are creating.

There is no getting around the fact that writing is a solitary and selfish exercise. Not much fun to be around when the process is going on – about as much fun as sitting watching dough rise in a warm car. No, unless you are going to participate by offering your naked back as services for a writer’s quill, or be there to support, perhaps it’s best that writers should be left to wrestle with their work, thrash and howl alone. There is simply nothing exciting about the process, especially when revisiting the bloody site of work that needs more work. That’s the spot to avoid at all costs. Like a car accident. And there is no way around it – revisiting the zone and rewriting is going to be its own form of torture.

An invaluable exercise in finding 3000 words (and new writing on the piece) for the upcoming writing workshop was being forced to answer three questions about the book that had been bothering me – and also contextualizing the novel, and the piece from that which I submitted to the group.

Ask yourself  – what isn’t working about your novel? What would you like a reader to look at if they were given a chapter? Is it plot, character? Voice? Drill down – be specific.

For me, the hardest thing was projecting myself into the work again. This was a world I had made, these were characters who didn’t exist until I put them on the page. To change the protagonist because of feedback I received from readers who said they didn’t like her is one thing. But to wonder whether she would have been better of as I had her – an obsessive, overly emotional and deeply superstitious woman on an unlikely quest – is another again. If I change her slightly, and make her more stable, wise cracking, more modern, then would be bizarre journey be as believable?

That’s a question I put to the workshop – but to do that, and not just throw in a speculative question, I had to create the other version of my protagonist, and also her love interest, and also the location of the opening scene.

So, not so much a revisit as a rewrite. But then, all writing is rewriting.

As I watched my son make bread under my friend’s guidance on the weekend, we searched for a warm place to leave the dough to rise – Melbourne’s famously erratic weather meant even in mid summer it was a cool day, and I suggested the inside of my car. This one of my grandmother’s tricks – because the inside of cars left in the sun warm up quickly.

bread in tin

My son wondered what would happen if we forgot about the dough, and came back hours later – we imagined the yeast rising and taking over, oozing forth out of the car because it was not tamed into submission by the baking process.

An apt metaphor I think, for the novel that never gets finished, but constantly added to.

Perhaps my anxiety at the keyboard today had a lot to do with the knowledge that this beast of mine must be kneaded into shape, and put in the oven to cook (read sent to publishers) and then the moment of truth, of seeing whether it all falls flat or not.

I am pleased to announce my 13 year old cooked his first successful loaf of bread, which was very quickly eaten. The challenge is now on for me to again get into the zone of my novel, and knead it into shape, whatever its new shape may be.

“So, how did your writing go today?” I asked my friend who is tackling a few major deadlines.

“It was really enjoyable,” came the reply. Ah – to be in the zone, while I struggled to find that space. It made me realise how hard it is to revisit the past. My mother always warned me, don’t look back, you will turn into a pillar of salt. But we must look back as writers, and re-enter the zone.

To do so, immerse yourself in the ideas and the themes and characters you created in the first place, and then pull it apart and see if tackling it differently brings a better outcome. Rewrite from first person to third? Kill your darlings – favourite characters who have become redundant? Or make the voice stronger, harsher, ore younger and more innocent. Ah – choices. Once you re-enter the zone, stay there, move around and play with your work. Write like you have never written this book before, write like you are discovering the ideas all over again.

That’s where the enjoyment comes in. That’s the zone. Bite into it.

sliced bread

 

 

 

 

 

Academic relevance, Academic Study, British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy Universities and Colleges, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral misery, head of counselling at the University of Oxford, the creative life

Creative arts: risky doctoral research in a climate of fear

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For those of us in academia the challenge is to continue to contribute to the world of ideas, knowledge and to produce relevant and challenging content despite the risks. In the wake of the murderous attack on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this week, we now more than ever have a responsibility to do just this – and not have our voices silenced in a climate of fear.

When gunmen stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, killing at least 12 people, they put into sharp focus the risks those in the creative arts take. In her blog, Sharon Waxman, Founder and CEO of The Wrap, said that in the wake of the murderous attack on the editorial staff of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, there is really only one way forward: publish, print, draw, film.

For those who are pursuing a Doctorate in Creative Writing, it often feels we face an uphill battle in our academic study, starting with the fundamental anxiety of whether what we are doing matters and is worth the effort. Will anyone read our work? Will our research have any impact? What’s it all for, anyway?

It can be too easy for people to sneer that academics – and doctoral students – are stuck in an ivory tower. Yet there has never been a time when academic research and creative output was more relevant.  The threats of self gagging and self censorship in political, creative and social commentary that threaten to be a fall out of the appalling massacre in Paris means that the need for those in the academy to continue pushing boundaries has never been more crucial.

As a doctoral candidate, it can be too easy to become dispirited about future employment prospects and your relevance in the world. What is the point, anyway, of a PhD in Creative Writing? A PhD in the Visual Arts?

Society needs creative practitioners to take risks and push boundaries. And we need to believe in the value of our work and research when we, as doctoral candidates in these areas, do the same. It is not a case of STEM work being important and the creative arts the ‘soft option’. As the attacks on freedom of expression in Paris have shown the world, a line drawn in ink can have more power than a gunshot. 

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There needs to be more people – not less – who are skilled at high level research, and can interrogate information and challenge accepted ideas. The world needs those who have the ability to articulate and speculate and imagine futures and scenarios. We should salute those who are not afraid to raise their voices and pens, just as we must join those in France to mourn those who have been killed because of what they have created.

What we are doing with doctoral research is pushing forward knowledge one tiny piece. Maybe your work isn’t going to put you at risk of staring down the barrel of an assault rifle, but never underestimate that the pursuit of knowledge and the challenging of the status quo will inevitably anger many, no matter what form your research takes. It is easier to burn books than write them. Silencing ideas and knowledge through violence and fear is a trope as old as time.

As a writer, when you tackle your creative project this year, are you prepared to put in the endless hours required to bring your ideas to life? Australian author Markus Zusak rewrote best selling novel The Book Thief 200 times because he believed it made the writing stronger. This powerful novel is the result of imagination, hard work and a determination not to let past atrocities be forgotten. It is brave writing about a dark time.

So, as you embark on another year of doctoral study, never give up faith that by producing the words and doing the research, you are achieving, even if you are having a bad day. You have a responsibility to overcome your fears and do the work even if it is less than perfect, rather than keeping the knowledge locked in your head until it emerges as a polished gem. Remember, a PhD isn’t a Nobel Prize. It simply has to be ‘fit for purpose’.

Perfectionism – doctoral misery – fear of failure – panic attacks – all these need to be put into perspective, or they will paralyse us. One of the best pieces of advice I heard during my PhD came from a visiting academic who was praised by a gushing professor for all the publications he had produced – and how did he do it? “Never under estimate the quality of work you can do when you are exhausted”, he replied. “Work more, work harder, write more and publish.” Do not sit on your ideas, don’t hoard knowledge; be bold enough to expose your findings to an audience.

We all have bad days, days we struggle to get out the words, days when what we want to communicate seems to fall flat. Alan Percy, head of counselling at the University of Oxford and spokesperson for BACP UC (British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy Universities and Colleges) says that the fears, confusion, hard graft and sometimes feelings of despair that virtually all PhD students go through from time to time are part of learning to become an independent academic researcher. In his blog post “Studying a PhD: Don’t Suffer in Silence” Percy writes that “building up the resilience and skills to cope with the uncertainty of researching a new area of academic knowledge is a great strength for all future academics, researchers and very useful for life in general”.

Words and images may have been temporarily silenced at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, but the legacy of intellectual freedom and freedom of expression will live on – it must continue. That’s the thing about ideas, they are more powerful than a gun. That’s reason that academics and intellectuals, artists and writers and journalists are historically in the firing line. So pick up your pen, hit the keyboard, produce. And your New Year’s resolution is to celebrate the fact you are alive and able to contribute to an intellectual life. No matter how much you despair about your academic study this year, pushing forward with your work and contributing to knowledge is the most fitting legacy for those who have had their lives so brutally taken from them.

Do not get paralysed by illusions of perfection, or forget that whatever your doctoral research, it is a small step to the advancement of knowledge and, though yours may seem like a tiny voice in an ocean of indifference, all those voices and insights of doctoral candidates around the world count in the wave against ignorance, cowardice, and fear.

Words and the bravery of the voice and pen to carry them, these are the weapons against attacks on freedom of expression and the right to be provocative with our imaginations, ideas and our pursuit of knowledge. Go brave with your work.

 

Academic Study, Brand Identity, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Early Career Reseacher, Marketing, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, publishing the novel, writing workshops

Show Me The Story: Creating Your Doctoral Narrative

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Once you have your doctorate, don’t imagine the progress reports stop. Don’t think you can say goodbye to explaining what your research means, or why it is important and whether anyone should care. In fact, once you graduate, the demands for you to sell your doctoral story have never been greater. Now you have your doctorate, you are expected to deliver your story about your research in razor sharp, fully focused, bite sized pitches. To everyone.

Some great advice I received shortly after graduating was to start practicing my story. Not the story of what I wrote about – but the story of me; my doctoral research, my journey – both what I did and what I planned to do. I had to curate myself.

In short, you have to be able to sell yourself. “Let everyone know who you are, that’s no easy thing,” I was warned. My mentor is a fellow doctoral traveller, fast tracked on those research only spheres, and I took frantic notes over lunch, as if I was back in a research study methods class early on in the PhD.

I was reminded of the need to be able to tell the story of my work again when I listened to a consummate performer and terrific writer Graeme Simsion at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. Simsion is the Melbourne author of the bestselling novel ‘Asperger’s romcom’ The Rosie Project. 

The Rosie Project 9781922079770

I have the good fortune to live in Melbourne, a UNESCO City of Literature, and to work at RMIT University literally one block from the Wheeler Centre for Books and Writing (my second home), where I regularly attend lunchtime and evening writer’s talks and events, and many weekends every year honing my craft at writing workshops and meeting with my regular writing cohort.

Like so many who have enjoyed Graeme Simsion’s romantic Asperger comedy The Rosie Project, including Bill Gates who called it “profound” I had marvelled at Simsion’s clean and sparse style and economical use of language, as well as pace. But I also know many who know Graeme (it’s a small writing world in Melbourne, and indeed Australia) so I also know the dedication that goes into perfecting his craft, and in writing a sequel of his successful first novel. All the more reason to appreciate his work and also enjoy listening to him speak – in particular, on the value of stories.

The Rosie Effect 9781922182104

Take heart, fellow doctoral students in creative writing. When someone challenges you on why you are doing something so ‘nebulous’ and not a doctorate in say communications or public relations, reply, as I do “because I believe in the value of stories”.

In fact, post doctorate, I work in strategic communications where I use my doctoral skills daily – and use the power of the narrative to shape communications. It’s a gift to be able to tell a story, but a craft to spin a yarn across all mediums.

In his talk, Graeme Simsion stood and spoke, engaged with the audience – a full house of adoring fans, and said loud and clear “I have found the value of stories”.

Interestingly, while Graeme said he was inspired to write the character of geneticist Don Tillman in The Rosie Project by a friend’s story (an IT wiz with Aspergers), he didn’t want to write his story.

How do you go about taking a real person and turning it into a character? One way is to create a character and then place them in not the same situation as the real person, but an exaggerated one – raise the stakes, throw everything at the character. And don’t worry about going with the comedy if that seems to be the way the character is dictating the story.

“If you are lucky enough to be gifted a character who makes good comedy, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” said Graeme – who learnt this gem from Australian comedy writer Tim Ferguson, whose motto is “make them laugh, make them cry, make them think.”

 

The crucial thing for Graeme was that he didn’t set out to deliver a message, but to tell a story. As I was listening to this, I reflected on the doctorate in creative writing, where we are compelled to both tell a story (with the novel) AND deliver a message (with the exegesis). This is one of the hardest things for the candidate because the brain is going “exposition, exposition” for half the required work, and “show, don’t tell” for the other half of the doctorate. One has to deal with writing time and focus, and always the need to refrain from adding the message we are learning from our research into the novel, instead of letting the novel tell the story.

Graeme said “if you write a story that has your values, you might succeed”. And I think that’s the key – to go so deep into your research, and know it so well, that it comes out in your writing in an organic way. This is a far cry from “I am going to get a scholarship and take four years from other work and write my novel – oh, and I’ll throw together that pesky exegesis to keep the examiners happy.” I think to be really successful at both sides of the creative doctorate, you have to pursue both research and writing with equal passion. And that’s not easy.

Of course, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. Oh – they are? Point taken, well then, even more writers would be doing the creative writing doctorate than they are already!

The other thing that Graeme said is that he doesn’t want to get too influenced by other people’s portrayals of fictional characters ‘on the spectrum’. So he doesn’t watch Big Bang Theory. No Sheldon Cooper for Graeme, lest he be swayed by that approach. Many writers say the same thing – though in some ways it’s counter intuitive with academic research. We endlessly swot over other academic’s papers, for instance. And the worst thing that could happen if you are writing an academic paper about fictional characters with Aspergers in TV sitcoms is not to have watched The Big Bang Theory – or read other papers on the topic. How often as a doctoral candidate did I hear “We don’t care what you think, you stand on other people’s shoulders – and what does your academic guru think?” In creative writing, however, your voice should be unique.

 

Graeme’s view is that there are a range of people in real life with Aspergers, just like, for instance, knowing one person who is gay doesn’t provide you with an understanding of every gay person on the planet. “We need to be able to see a range of people in fiction, not stereotypes,” he said.

Graeme has a successful background in IT, which proves that you can’t stereotype writers – no working in a bookshop or living off writing grants and a bit of sessional teaching but rather a career that taught him that “there are craft things you learn when you take on a new discipline.”

I admire this methodical approach, and perhaps that’s the sweet spot where STEM and the creative arts meet. I was so intrigued by Graeme’s logical breakdown of turning a screenplay into a novel that I pass these suggestions of Graeme’s onto you. Remember, a novel allows the reader deep into the inner world of the character, especially if it is a novel in first person, as is the Rosie Project. How do you translate this inner world into a screenplay?

“Sometimes you don’t,” admitted Graeme. “A book is a book and some things a book does better. You can always go to that book and get into the inner world.” One of the reasons people have buddies in films said Graeme, is so they can externalise their thoughts and their inner world.

But there are tricks, said Graeme. Such as the voice over. This is either liked or loathed. I was reminded of watching Blade Runner again recently, with a friend who had never seen it, and her son, who studied it at school. Even though we watched the Director’s Cut, I still had the 1982 Theatrical Release in my head, expecting Rick Deckard’s (contentious) voice over as Replicant Roy Batty dies.

The 21 year old, who had never seen this version, looked at me in amazement. “Why would anyone think the audience needed a voice over?” he asked. A film does some things, and as Graeme Simsion said, “A book is a book and some things a book does better.”

Why indeed. The death scene with just the close up on Deckard’s face is far more poetic, filled with longing – for life. Is the voice over needed? The beauty of films that we fill in the internal monologue through music, cinematography, and acting.

However, when we are telling the story of our doctorate, we cannot assume anything as we are selling our research to a varied group of people. We may not have a captive audience, the lighting and sound may be bad and we have not had time to develop our characters. It could be a short ten minute interview for a coveted academic job, and we are one of many vying for the post. In that case, go for the obvious, sum it up, make it snappy. Give them the Deckard voice over in the Blade Runner Theatrical release. “I didn’t know how long we had together – who does?”

Yes, give it to them, curate yourself with a little story. Practice on your friends.  Like any story, the story of your doctorate gets easier with the telling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Early Career Reseacher, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, Publishing academic research, publishing the novel, the creative life, Time management, Writing strategies

Plu ca change: The post doctorate regime

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People are intrigued by my life post PhD – it’s as though I have been studying for so long, no one is sure how to focus on me without the weight of that enormous workload and deadline weighing me down.

“What do you do with your time now?” they ask. And more to the point, as I have been quiet on the blogosphere as of late, they wonder where I have been. Some parallel universe, perhaps? What on earth am I doing anyway?

Well – what can I say? When a productive and creative woman suddenly goes off the radar, there are of course a number of reasons, usually to do with children, and the need to immerse oneself in a new creative project. Time, that’s what writers need, a little time to think, ponder and well – write.

Recently, singer Roísín Murphy, whose work, voice and style I admire,  has resurfaced after seven years with a new album: “I went away and had me babbies,” she says by way of explanation. She created life and now new projects. Even though my kids are teenagers, I get it. Sometimes, you just need a little time out to be with your kids, and indulge in domestic and creative mess. Especially after hauling them through the doctorate with you.

There is no one right way of being. Of creating. In fact, I wonder at those who churn out work endlessly without a pause. When do they ever get that time necessary to reflect and make something truly original? I think time away from the glare of the public gaze on one’s work in important to the creative process. A retreat into the pit of work is necessary before coming up for air. A time to daydream, to wallow in the luxury of not having to deliver work to a deadline, but play around with it.

I admit to still catching my breath in my year of transition, from doctorate student to early career researcher. In addition to my work as a communications strategist, and demands as mother of two, I am immersed in new writing projects. Ones totally different to my doctoral work on human animal hybrids.

However, the new manuscript is at that fragile embryonic stage where it is being hauled out to workshops and prodded and poked while I write and then explain and then listen to feedback. It needs lots of attention. I am fortunate to be involved in a robust writing group filled with highly educated and published authors for whom this process is meaningful and soulful at the same time. For let’s face it, writing is a solitary pastime in many ways. You need to dive down to connect with the imaginary characters inside, wrestle out their personalities and dialogue.

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On the other hand, nothing much good comes from sitting alone with your thoughts and never sharing them – never exposing your writing to the cold light of day and criticism. If you can’t take a writing group’s close scrutiny of your work, then how will you ever pitch to publishers or face the critics?

I’ve also been trying to balance filling the creative well by going out to theatre, meeting friends, reading copious literature (a drug that shows no sign of being shaken off), and pottering around my new house. Cocooning is addictive. One minute it’s throw rugs, the next cushions, and then fairy lights draped over the new bookcases. And some time soon, I am going to have to deal with all those boxes of books in the basement. Seriously.

I have barely had time for my new toy – a smart TV that  ensured I could catch up on every TV series I’d missed while doing my doctorate. And  guess what? I’ve watched an episode here or there, but no marathon has taken place in front of the screen. I’ve been doing catch up reading and catch up socialising and I have a mild addiction (another) to going out to see films. There’s a great art house cinema nearby and I make frequent use of it.

But it’s the unseen work that goes into the demands of the early career researcher’s workload that have eaten into my time – I have two conference papers to write, a conference to publicise, and an ebook to launch. Then there are the pitches to publishers, meetings and networking with those in industry, and the writing and publishing events. How am I ever going to get through all those episodes of 30 Rock that I missed or fell asleep in because I was so tired finishing my doctorate?

 

As French critic, journalist and novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote in the January 1849 issue of his journal “The Wasps”, plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose – ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. The only difference post doctorate is that all the pencils in my tool box are brightly colored and glorious, whereas for the last four years, they have been all black lead and serious. Life is still crowded with demands, but it feels like a rainbow washing over life, rather than the endless trudge to get to the end of that rainbow and earn my PhD.

Actually, I am so busy I can’t imagine how I studied and worked full time for all those years. I guess the answer is everything but the most urgent tasks were pushed aside, hidden in the corner to gather dust. And no, I still haven’t caught up with the ironing. Maybe that comes in retirement.

A post doctorate world is still busy and demanding, but with that all important milestone out of the way, it frees up space in the frontal lobe for dreaming, thinking, plotting. That space is where – for writers – books grow and are nurtured. How lovely to be able to do so without a gun of a deadline pressed to my head. Without a supervisor’s demand for that pound of flesh.

When I say I have no deadline – I lie by omission. In the post doctorate world I make my own way and deadlines. I have filled my diary with deadlines – applications for grants, positions, workshops, conferences and a trip overseas for research. One creates structure where there is none, a platform for the writerly dreams and plans to sit. Structure and deadlines are what carried me through the doctorate, so I guess its not surprising that I have recreated them as soon as I handed back the graduating gown, for even if I do not have an academic position in the university, I am what is called an ‘independent researcher’, and that’s as busy as you want it to be.

So, to answer the question, where have I been? The answer is here, right at my desk. And inside my imagination. Working, as usual, to another deadline.