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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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 conferences, academic publications, creative writing, Early Career Reseacher, Publishing academic research

The doctorate unbound: publications versus the bound volume

2013-09-09 16.03.09

I was excited to see a fellow doctoral traveller’s thesis photographed on Facebook, leather bound, and with gold lettering. She is now a Dr, and her twinkling gold letters on the leather bound cover were a joy to behold. In contrast, my university ran a mile from having to store a hard copy of my doctoral research, uploading it instead onto a server.

I wasn’t that fussed, actually. While the newly minted Dr. I congratulated on Facebook had her doctorate conferred in London, and that might be the way things are done there, I see my university’s logic in the doctorate unbound. Literally and metaphorically.

Sure, I wanted to see my academic articles in print, of course, but not printed in a bound volume that I had achieved by taking it to the printers. I wanted those words critiqued by peer reviewers apart from my examiners, and accepted for publication in academic journals and/or book chapters.

However, I know of others who have long held the fantasy of getting their doctoral thesis bound, despite the fact that their university simply doesn’t want it. They went ahead and had it printed up anyway, fulfilling the long held dream of seeing their names in gold on the cover.

Of course, whether or not it is a requirement to have a bound volume of the doctorate for ready for submission, candidates are aware that what they hand in surely isn’t the last word on their research.

I think that eschewing the concept (and fetish) of the bound submission if possible reminds us that our doctoral research is the beginning of the journey.

It’s also important to remember that ‘research active’ isn’t just what happens after you land (if ever) an academic job. You should be presenting and publishing your research throughout your candidature – enough so that when you finally submit, your work is already in the public sphere.

Okay – maybe this doesn’t apply to STEM candidates (I’ve heard that their research is akin to state secrets) but sharing your work and progress, exposing your ideas and writing to the cold light of day – and an audience – are all part of doing a doctorate in creative writing.

 

Evelyn Tsitas chapter "Boundary Transgressions: the Human-Animal Chimera in Science Fiction"
Evelyn Tsitas chapter “Boundary Transgressions: the Human-Animal Chimera in Science Fiction”

 

I had my taste of the printed thesis back in the analogue years, when I was required to present my fourth year undergraduate fine arts mini thesis (10,000 words) this way. I have a copy of it in my unpacked books somewhere. There is no doubt a (very dusty) copy in the university archives. The research (on semiotics and 1980s art magazines) is bound, sealed, delivered. Who looks at it? No one. And it’s not enough to drag it from the shelves yourself, flicking through the pages of that hard grind of study that produced the tome. Research should be set free. It is the springboard to other research, and doesn’t live in between the printed pages of a book expensively printed by an academic printer.

IMG_1217

Of course, if your university demands you print the thesis as part of your submission requirements, you must print it. But if all that is required is an electronic version? Well then, I say print that disk or upload to USB and move on.

Granted, handing in a disk to the Graduate Research Office with my ‘final’ version as the rite of passage after being passed by examiners lacked a certain romance. But I can see it saves on storage space, and the work is searchable by the world at large.

It’s actually a tough call to publish as you progress through your doctoral studies. While my aims were to always have the thesis published and presented in stages, showing my research to the world in tentative steps, that required being judged for it all along. I remember my first presentations at conferences; sure, there were some tough questions, but I have to say the academy was welcoming. I made many friends and contacts across the globe in my key research areas when I presented at three Inter-disciplinary.Net conferences at Oxford University through my doctorate.  These are wonderful for the emerging academic and demand that everyone fully participate – a big difference to conferences where senior academics adopt an arrogant Fi-Fo (Fly in/Fly out) attitude of presenting their paper, listening to no one, and having a tax-right off holiday.

 

Evelyn Tsitas chapter " Strange Erotic Encounters: Speculative Fiction and the Trope of Bestiality"
Evelyn Tsitas chapter ” Strange Erotic Encounters: Speculative Fiction and the Trope of Bestiality”

 

Coming as I did from the media world and demands of daily journalism, I was amazed by the slow progress of academic publishing. Factor in the endless waiting after a paper is accepted and the endless waiting after submission to see if it might be accepted – the wheels turn at a pace which I’d say was glacial. Except in this era of global warming, glaciers can melt faster than the response time from many academic publications.

When a paper was accepted, it was a major cause for celebration – and rewrites! Each editor or editorial team has a particular style, and some desire more input than others. My exegesis chapters grew up to become real papers, and these have been pushed, pulled, restructured, massaged and cut back. Others have required lengthy additions, a refocus, and some demanded – hardly anything. What I can say is that I responded to all requests for changes, and made them. You can’t afford to be precious with your work, or arrogant.

That’s not to say it was easy! Sometimes the space between submitted paper; accepted paper and editorial request for changes can be lengthy indeed – a year or more. You move on, other work priorities take over, and it’s hard to get back into that headspace again. Not to mention the fact that several of my papers were accepted while I was frantically finishing my doctorate, and others were reworked at the beginning of this year – after I had officially graduated, and also moved house. All my notes – and books – were stacked in boxes in the basement…

Evelyn Tsitas chapter "Monstrous Breeding Grounds: Creation, Isolation and Suffering at Noble’s Island, Hailsham and Rankstadt"
Evelyn Tsitas chapter “Monstrous Breeding Grounds: Creation, Isolation and Suffering at Noble’s Island, Hailsham and Rankstadt”

That meant putting in all my time after work and on weekends going back to the exegesis. Not an easy task – or welcome one! And it meant that many other things I wanted to do with my creative writing were put on the backburner while I did these papers. It often felt like the equivalent of sticking a hot fork into my eye – utterly painful and pointless. But in the end, I can proudly say that four chapters of my exegesis have now been published, as well as presented at conferences in Australia and overseas. I find this more satisfying than getting the ‘final’ version of my exegesis printed in a leather bound book. Because the chapters have evolved since my doctoral submission.

And there is more to come. The well of four years of doctoral study has not dried up – the exegesis is a research gift that keeps on giving.

As part of my creative writing doctorate, I needed to explore the process of how the research impacted on my creative writing, and the methodology used to tackle the hybrid that is the creative writing doctorate. I’ve submitted an abstract based on this chapter for a conference next year in London. Fingers crossed.

Likewise, my final exegesis chapter on further explorations in my research has become the basis for an abstract I have submitted to another conference mid next year. Once must plan ahead!

 

Evelyn Tsitas chapter "Are We Not Men? When the Human-Animal Cyborg Talks Back"
Evelyn Tsitas chapter “Are We Not Men? When the Human-Animal Cyborg Talks Back”

 

I still feel I have several other abstracts lurking and papers arising from my exegesis, because it isn’t ‘finished’ as such, but the foundation of my continual research into issues of hybridity, identity, human-animal relations and monstrosity. My exegesis, like Frankenstein’s creature, is unbound. And that’s why it literally is unbound, as I do not want my research to be boxed in, held between the covers, and regarded as “complete”.

The next step is to develop the research into a book sparked by my ideas, and I am hoping that the fact that the work has been published and approved, as it were, by the academy in one form will give me the authority to present a different version of the work for a wider audience. As my supervisor often reminded me, it’s hard for me to totally remove myself from my past as a tabloid journalist.…always seeking a large audience, always aiming to make complex work accessible and interesting.

And what’s wrong with that? 

Indeed, the journey from thesis to book demands doctoral candidates look beyond their academic research, and consider marketing, product placement, competitors, unique point of view, their own author profile and potential audience.

Evelyn Tsitas two short stories "Xenos" and "Undeceive"

Evelyn Tsitas short story “Xenos”

As this is a blog about the creative writing doctorate, the question you are probably asking as you read this post is the same as my youngest son’s. “When are you publishing the creative component – the novel???!” I am working on it! So far, I have had the middle chapter of my doctoral novel published – in the collected short story book “Scarlet Stiletto: The Second Cut”.  My short story “Xenos” won the the Scarlet Stiletto Award-Dorothy Porter Prize for Innovation in Crime Writing and became the inspiration – and anchoring chapter – for my doctoral creative work.

But just like doing a creative writing PhD, there are two sides to the postdoctoral story as well – the exegesis and the creative. Getting the academic research published requires a different set of skills and part of the brain than writing the novel and getting it published. There will be many blog posts to come on the novel’s journey, don’t worry.

At the moment, while pitching the novel to publishers I am happy with having the exegesis out in the world. Unbound.

Roll Call: My exegesis chapters – and final publications

1. “Boundary Transgressions and the trope of the mad scientist” – became  “Boundary Transgressions: the Human-Animal Chimera in Science Fiction” in Vol 2, No 2 (2014) Relations. Beyond Anthropocentrism

2. Monstrous birth tropes and hybrid breeding grounds – became “Monstrous Breeding Grounds: Creation, Isolation and Suffering at Noble’s Island, Hailsham and Rankstadt” in Monstrous Geographies: Places and Spaces of the Monstrous. 2013

3. When the hybrid talks back – became “Are We Not Men? When the Human-Animal Cyborg Talks Back” (with Dr Lisa Dethridge) in Navigating Cybercultures, 2013.

4. The erotic nature of the hybrid – became ” Strange Erotic Encounters: Speculative Fiction and the Trope of Bestiality”, in “Forces of the Erotic”. 2014.

5. and the creative component – the middle chapter “Xenos” published in Scarlet Stiletto: The Second Cut.  Clan Destine Press. Ed Phyllis. King.

 

 

academic cohort, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, peer support, Writing strategies, writing workshops

The Creative Writing PhD: Why Group Support Really Matters

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Just as doctoral study is a mostly solitary activity, so too is writing. But that doesn’t mean you have to go solo. In fact, relying on the comfort of others is one of the things that stops you chucking the whole thing in, especially if you are doing a creative writing doctorate. Trust me on this.

An analogy I like to use is how doctoral study – and post doctoral life – is like motherhood. Desperately lonely in the early days. For someone used to the relentless pace of corporate life or the engagement and demands of academia, being on your own with a baby is a special kind of hell. The only way to survive is to reach out to others in the same boat. No new mother is an island.

Writing groups are like mother’s groups. Initially, it’s clinging to each other like no one else knows your pain. Then – once some confidence sets in, it’s the same bravado and bragging – whose manuscript is having good growth spurts, whose creative ideas are flowing like mother’s milk, whose manuscript got accepted into a prestigious literary agency, not just the local one around the corner.

And then, as you get to know your fellow writers, after a few workshops of thrashing out the manuscript, the truth starts to leak out like a sodden nappy.

Your characters won’t behave. Your narrative arc refuses to comply with your demands. You spent weeks – months – agreeing to the writing changes everyone suggested and then your new mentor, like a rigid maternal health care nurse, demands you start all over again because if you continue the way you are going, you’ll end up with a fat and bloated child, unfit for public consumption.

Just as it takes time to properly bond with women with whom you probably have nothing more in common with than cracked nipples and sleepless nights, so too does it take time to bond with the people in your writing group.

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I know – I am in two writing groups, simultaneously working on two different novels, and I met both groups of these fabulous writers through a writing masterclass. I started this about nine months before handing in my doctorate, when I realized I really, really needed some extra help with my novel.

I was so focused was on academic research that the creative part of my PhD was languishing. The familiar panic – I can’t do this!!! – flooded in. Writing is a mind game, a confidence trick, a will to commit to the page those ferocious ideas swirling around in your mind. You have to believe you can do it, and then you have to have the methodology to see you through. It’s no good running on instinct alone. Instinct will not get you through the tough times any more than it will get you through the hiccups in parenting.

New mothers – and seasoned mothers up against those developmental milestones – turn to experts, parenting books and blogs for advice on everything from lactation to their teenagers learning to drive (I put my hand up here as mother of a 16 year old); so why should writers be immune to structured advice?

Harder for some to accept is the need for extra help in the doctoral journey. But I am proud to say that my masterclass cohort – and the spin off writing group that meets monthly, and another that meets every six weeks – really saved my sanity and ensured I was able to complete my doctorate on time – and keep writing in the postdoc phase. Maybe your university has great writing groups for doctoral students. Maybe not. And even if they have writing groups, maybe they just don’t work too well.

Let’s face it, we don’t get along with everyone, which is why when we do click with someone – when that magic of shared connection is apparent – it’s worth celebrating. If you meet writers at an event, or masterclass or workshop and that magic happens, do everything in your power to hold onto that cohort.

 

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My tips for a good writing workshop are to choose people on a similar trajectory and level of expertise to you. It’s no good meeting up with people who are starting out on the journey if you are a mid career writer. You may not have published a book yet, but if you have been working professionally in the writing sphere for years and have had a play produced, a book of poems, short stories and the like, then you are not going to be on equal footing with someone who has ‘always wanted to write’ and is now only dipping their tentative toe in the water.

The two writing groups I am with feature professional writers with a work ethic to match my ferocious appetite. And we are all parents. With the upcoming school holidays, I knew I found a soul mate when comparing notes with another writer in my group. Are we going to sit on a beach in Bali? I think not. We are both teaching workshops AND plotting how much uninterrupted writing we can get done in two weeks.

It’s sweet indeed to have a group of people who are familiar with the trials of not just the effort and skill needed to write 80,000 words of a novel, but then rewrite, submit, get knocked back, search for an agent, look for a publisher, pitch, pitch and pitch again. Writing a book takes longer than people think. Years longer. It’s hard for those not in the game to appreciate the demanding nature of the business, the roller coaster ride of finding inspiration, crafting characters and dialogue, finessing plot devices and crafting structure – hell, even coming up with a catchy book title is a major effort that can demand group input.

 

In fact, a glistening jar of homemade blueberry jam slid across the table at my writing group today, as a reward to a writer who had come up with a catchy title for another’s manuscript. As it happens, the writer in need of a title travels two hours from country Victoria, where she lives on a blueberry farm – to come to Melbourne to participate in the writing group.

Yes, writing groups can be time consuming, and in order to earn your place at the table, you have to be prepared to commit to other people’s work, put in the time to read their submissions, and really make constructive comments on what they have done. There is no place for those who don’t pull their weight. We are all very busy professional writers, and we come together to really push our work forward.

But – there is also camaraderie, the exchange of ideas, and like in a mother’s group, there is time for laughter and tears, for celebration and sighs, in the ebb and flow of the highs and lows of the writing life.

We break bread as well, and bond. One group meets over sushi and wine, in the evening, once a month, in a writer’s apartment overlooking the city lights. The other meets every six weeks in The Wheeler Centre in the heart of the city of Melbourne, and we go out for lunch after our intensive two hour session.

Like everything, practice makes perfect, and building on our stories – both imaginary, and from our lives, is a process that takes time. But while we do veer into personal territory on occasions, what we mostly talk about as we take a break from analyzing our writing is – our writing lives. The trials of the writing life. We talk about the inspiration and desires for our novels. Just like a mother’s group, we speculate and fantasize about our literary prodigy’s futures. This is an important part of the process. Creative visualization – imagining a future – is essential to making that future happen. Be it with real children or your creative offspring.

Yes, writing is a solitary business, the writer and the page. But just because you work alone, doesn’t mean you have to travel alone. Having a team with you – and seeing what they are going through as well – gives you confidence. I’ve heard that envy kicks in as well – if one gets a book deal it spurs the others to push themselves out there, and try as well.

And just like a mother’s group, no matter how easy it might be for some to naturally birth a manuscript, life and the publishing industry has a way of levelling the playing field. Just as your low birth weight baby may be the high achieving kid at school, so too might the manuscript you have struggled with over the years turn into the star that wins a literary prize, or a commercial best seller. Or – it might just turn out to be the book that is published, while the writer who won a prize might find their manuscript languishes on a literary agent’s table.

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No matter where you are on the journey of the creative writing doctorate, I urge you to find or form a writing group. Whatever you seek, it won’t be found with your academic supervisor – that’s like relying on your midwife to stay with you from pregnancy until your child finishes high school.

Get peer support. Get a writing group. Then you can keep writing – and carry on.  

Academic rituals, Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, Time management, Writing strategies

The daily word count – overcoming procrastination

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If you had all the time in the world to write, would it make you a better writer – or would you just have more time to procrastinate? Even if you love to write more than anything else, why is it that a deadline is the push you need to get it done?

Perhaps one reason you are falling behind in your book, doctoral writing or dissertation is that you are not putting in enough writing time. Maybe you are skimping on your daily word count. Are you cheating in your assessment of what you actually do each week when it comes to writing? If you added up all the time you actually spent physically putting words down on the page, what would it add up to?

And if you simply can’t get started – why? It’s time for some reassessment of your work habits, and a little look at the cheating and self-delusion that writers, like dieters, are all guilty of doing of indulging in. Go on, admit it – when you told your supervisor that you wrote for five hours last week, was it in fact one hour and the rest of the time googling celebrities without makeup?

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Dieters delude themselves that it’s not cheating if they eat when no one sees them. Writers delude themselves that they are writing when no one sees them. Which is why so many seem to need a deadline to get anything done. It’s like the equivalent of a public weigh-in.

I am no stranger to the motivation of a deadline. What writer hasn’t cleaned the stove, mowed the lawn or rearrange the sock drawer to avoid the blank page? Doctoral students are even worse, with that supposedly long period of time stretching endlessly into the distance – until the final deadline looms.

I’ve been thinking a lot about deadlines these past few days because I’ve been talking a lot about them in a writing master class I am doing. Other people might spend a long weekend down at the beach, I spend it – writing.

What, you might ask, did I expect to get out of a writing master class, now that I have a doctorate in creative writing under my belt?

As one woman said “I am doing this because I am a life long learner”. Indeed. Also, the simple act of being surrounded by writing peers at a similar level of expertise is galvanising. The quality of feedback is invigorating and challenging, the camaraderie as the social ice thaws is comforting, and hearing other experienced writers talking about their struggles is enlightening.

In fact, no matter how accomplished, it transpires that writers are all prone to the same self doubt and procrastination. Here are common comments during the coffee break –  “I am so lazy!”, or “I am a fraud!” or “I can’t do this!” and “what makes me think I can ever write anything good enough?”  This is what US psychologist David Rasch PhD – author of The Blocked Writer’s Book Of The Dead calls “the jerk in my head”.

All of the 12 people in the master class were talented, prolific, experienced, published and devoted to their craft. But one thing really, really resonated with everyone was the communal cry of “we just don’t get enough done!” and “I need to have better work habits!”

One  participant had the enviable lifestyle of all the time to write – no kids to mind, daily paid job to do, or elderly relatives to nurture. He had the money, the support and the space and no distractions. Unlike another writer of 10 published books who is also a full time primary school teacher and writes books in the school holidays, this man appeared to have a dream existence. Except he wasn’t writing. He was procrastinating.

 

I suggested some obstacles, boundaries or roadblocks –  sometimes having everything is actually limiting. A form of creative agoraphobia. Maybe that’s why writers procrastinate – because it focuses time when they have to really, really get something in. And that narrow window of opportunity then casts a beam of clarity over the problem at hand.

Or – maybe not. It just makes us stressed and irritable. I am no stranger to the all-nighter, probably because I take on many projects, work full time and have two children. But what I do know is that there are many ways to approach your writing, and you need to find the one that works best for you. How will you end up with a reasonable body of work? By putting the time in. The same could be said of having a reasonable body of course…you have to put in the work…not just think about it…

 

Here are some ideas canvassed in the master class: – which writer are you?

  • Binge writer: you starve yourself of writing and time, then hit the computer and pour out the words in a block of time, alienating yourself from the rest of the world.
  • Helicopter nibbler – you don’t have the time to write every day because of other commitments, but the weekend seems so far away…so you keep in touch by writing little notes to your work, making sure you maintain the love with your project.
  •  The five: two writing diet – you are a weekend writer only. The rest of the week you think you might write, but don’t. After all, You haven’t finished watching Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones.
  • The early morning writer – you start before the family gets up. By 8 pm, you can only concentrate on TV.
  • The late night writer – for night owls – you write when you have the children to bed. This is because you can’t even write a shopping list in the morning that makes sense.
  • The word count writer – you write 500 to 1000 words a day, whenever, no matter what. This adds up. You have a book finished in six months!
  • Once a week writer – you write only one hour a week on a Sunday – and make sure you write 2000 words in that session. See above!
  • Endless plotting writer – maybe it’s not JUST about the words – but the other complicated, moving parts of a novel – the plot, characters, the twists and turns, the set ups and payoffs…maybe you set aside a specific block of time each day or week – half and hour – to work on this AS WELL as a separate block of time for actual writing. You also have a book finished in six months, but are late paying bills and have no personal relationships. You are obsessed and driven – are you doing a doctorate?
  • Vomit draft writer – you don’t worry about the perfect draft first off – you write the entire “draft zero” or “vomit draft” and then have time for editing, and rewriting. People use the words fast paced, action packed and could do with a close edit for your work.
  • None of the above. You want to write but get nothing done. But your next holiday is planned and you have a table covered in books that could be the inspiration for your novel, if only you’d stop watching Game Of Thrones.

Think of your writing life like other aspects of your life that you need to do to remain a functional person – you need to eat, shop, clean, cook, take care of friendships and family, you need to read, plot, write and engage with the writing community in some way as a writer. Just as you should exercise regularly, you need to write regularly.

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No time for writing? Nonsense – you can fit even 10 minutes a day, can’t you? Save the big burst up for when you can carve out time, but just as there are many forms of eating (snacks, dinner out, leisurely brunch) so too are there many forms of writing. Just do it!

The trick is to find a pattern for yourself, and factor it in, every day, every week, week in and out. Remember the worst thing is starting, so some tricks, like retyping the last paragraph of your story when you start, or making sure you always finish some writing off so that it’s never a neat ending, and come back into that sentence, might work for you.

What ever you do – start. And put in – the time and effort. Nothing happens without it. Books, and doctorates alas, do not write themselves from your imagination and research without your physical input.

 

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.