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

Carpe Diem: Living and writing in the moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Carpe Diem. Seize the moment.

 

 

 

 

 

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Academic conferences, Academic Study, Academic success, Chimeras, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, PhD completion

Through the labyrinth: passing my doctorate

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At last – the long wait is over. The doctoral results have come through.  And it ended in rather dramatic circumstances. I discovered I had passed my doctorate via a text message from my supervisor: “call me NOW!!!” and an urgent email saying “OMG Evelyn – you are through and you have done it and done so well! Congrats!!!”

Where you are when the big news arrives is always important – and who you are with. I was in the university art gallery where I work as a publicist, emerging after a long meeting regarding an upcoming exhibition. The group of people from the music industry waited patiently for me to show them out, while I rushed to check my phone messages. It was after 6 pm and being a working mother, it’s always wise to see if there has been a hitch in the complex after-school child-minding procedures.

Suddenly I was jumping up and down and yelling out “I have passed! I have passed!”

They are used to dealing with major rock stars so I guess a little flamboyant gesture on my part meant nothing. “What have you passed?” one inquired, politely.

“My doctorate – I have passed my doctorate!”

There was hugging, pats on the back – and then the questions:

“So – do we have to call you Dr Evelyn?”

“What did you do your doctorate in?”

“How long did it take?”

My brain was in that adrenalin buzz when thoughts tangled like cotton wool on carpet. I mumbled, “No – not yet – paperwork- ceremony – humans animal hybrids in science fiction – took four years – felt longer…”

“Human animal WHAT???” came the bemused reply.

“Go on – tell them what your conference paper is about,” said the Gallery director, smiling.

You see, I had just outlined the dates of my upcoming holidays to the group at the meeting – telling them I’d be in Oxford in a few weeks, presenting a paper at the 8th Global Conference of  The Erotic: Exploring Critical Issues. They were about to find out what a strange topic it was that I had selected….

“The erotic and the non human – specifically, bestiality and science fiction…well, with hybrids…”

There was a moment’s silence. “Fantastic!” “Very interesting!” Well, these guys are used to dealing with big name rock stars and their foibles, so I guess the exhibition publicist travelling across the world to talk about mutants and erotica isn’t so alarming.

The advantages of working in the arts are that, frankly, no one is shocked by anything. The advantages of working in a university are that everyone understands and appreciates all the anxiety of the years wandering through the doctoral maze.

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When I told the esteemed musicologist who is curating the music exhibition with the director, he became quite emotional. “Oh – that is just so fantastic – I know how good it feels to have passed.”  It was a heartfelt comment – both as an academic who once jumped through that hoop himself, and as a supervisor mentoring his own students through the labyrinth. While everyone is happy for me, those who have been through the doctoral process, or are going through it now, know how it feels to have finally passed.

It feels fantastic!

As luck would have it, I was due to meet a fellow crime writer, the author Angela Savage , for drinks after work. She is also interested in doing a doctorate and I was to give her some tips, and celebrate the release of her latest novel, The Dying Beach. Now at least I felt qualified to give advice on the doctoral maze!

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I told her the good news straight away. Angela, an early adopter of social media, had her smart phone out in a flash and posted a picture of me looking happy and a little dazed on Facebook before I knew it. I am pictured sitting in The Moat, the bar and café located in the basement of the Wheeler Centre for Books and Writing in Melbourne’s grand State Library, smiling like a Cheshire Cat, sipping a red wine cheekily (and aptly) called Ladies Who Shoot Their Own Lunch  for like me, Angela is a winner of a coveted Scarlet Stiletto trophy for Crime Writing. I was proud to take a glorious photo of her beaming and triumphant when she won her Red Shoe trophy, so it felt like the tables were turned. Indeed, at that moment, it started to feel as if those four hard years were actually behind me.

But – not quite. I do have to some make minor changes to the exegesis, which are the dreaded ‘literals’ – misplaced words, errors found in errant upper and lower case, and so on – the sort of thing that a thorough going over by a copy editor would sort out. I can live with that. Juggling two children, a  full time job and a full time doctorate meant something had to give. So, if my final presentation was a little ‘wabi sabi’  at least I can be pleased with the fact that I didn’t have to change any of my arguments, ideas, or content in my novel – for both the exegesis (about 38,000 words) and the novel (about 70,000 words) were both part of my doctorate in creative writing.

I have a full three months to resubmit a pristine version of the exegesis, and I have two gratifyingly glowing reports from the examiners who loved both the academic work and the novel. In fact, I have quotes I’d be keen to use on the back of the novel as a selling point once it is published. I had the added bonus of examiners who had taken the time and effort to suggest ideas for further refining the manuscript before submitting to publishers. They put considerable effort into their reports, for which I am very appreciative. I know how hard it is to get such strategic and insightful feedback about your creative writing.

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As I am heading off overseas on my much deserved holiday – and conference trip – in early September, I will get this revision into the Graduate Research Office well before the three month period is up. I want this doctoral monkey off my back, and I want the paperwork finalised, ready for the next countdown – 100 days to graduation at the end of the year.

There have been endless hurdles along the way during the past four years – from confirmation of candidature to six monthly progress seminars and the final completion seminar, then submission – and the limbo wait for the examiners reports – and finally, minor revisions.

But I have also discovered there have been endless celebrations as well at the end – excited family and friends taking me out for indulgent events to mark submission and then the results. And I am not finished yet. As a lecturer told me once when I was an undergraduate – celebrate all your successes [for they may be few and far between]. How I feel now is best summed up by this exuberant song by Queen. “We Are the Champions”:

it’s been no bed of roses

No pleasure cruise

I consider it a challenge before

The whole human race

And I ain’t gonna lose

There is of course that big, final celebration of graduation, which I fully intend to participate in, floppy hat and all. It’s a rite of passage after the long journey through the maze of higher education – the Bachelor of Education (when I wanted to be an art teacher), the Graduate Diploma in Media Law (when I was a journalist), then the Master of Arts in Creative Writing (resetting the clock post children to a new post-newspaper career) and finally completing the Doctor of Philosophy. That’s more than a decade as a university student – though not undertaken all at once.

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I guess the other question that has come up in the past two weeks since I discovered I passed is whether I would do any more study. I know plenty of people who have a PhD and two Masters degrees. Others who have two doctorates. Am I done yet? I met someone at a party on the weekend who was about to embark on her second doctorate. I felt a little envious. Oh, a new start – a new topic – a new university – a new challenge…

It’s a bit like looking at your cute baby lying momentarily asleep and peaceful in the cot and thinking – I’ll have another one – without fully comprehending in the fantasy the complete upheaval in your life that frankly, never ends. So, maybe I should quit while I am ahead. Then again, unlike having children, there’s no biological clock when it comes to studying. Never say never – right?