academic cohort, Academic conferences, academic courage, Academic rituals, blogging, Creative Writing PhD, fear of failure

Conference papers: the pleasure & pain of presenting your academic research

stand up blog

It’s that time of the year again – conference time. Sure, it’s exciting to be presenting new work at two overseas conferences, but that also means facing the lengthy plane flight to the other side of the world. And, oh, that other thing – actually writing the papers. 

Yes – presenting your academic research is a fine line between pleasure and pain. As Chrissy Amphlett from the Divinyls sang; “you got me once, you can do it again”. To my mind, the iconic 1985 song Pleasure and Pain is a soundtrack for how I feel right now. Certainly Amphlett’s signature air thumping rage and frustration in the middle of this video feel all too familiar. Who hasn’t experienced it when trying to prod a paper into shape?

I have realised that this annual experience of writing conference papers and getting up in front of your cohort to present is a sort of Groundhog Day for academics. No matter how many times you have done it, the thrill and the chill are the same. But though it feels like we are in the same place again – I have a appear to write! I have a plane to catch! I have to stand up in front of everyone and appear credible! – we are not reliving the same experience…because we are different each time.

Many universities are moving heavily in the direction of journal papers rather than conference presentations, which is certainly cheaper in so many ways, and ruthlessly time efficient. It also rules out that pesky human factor. You don’t get to make connections with people, you don’t get to hear about other people’s research, and you really don’t get to network.

Conferences, done well, are about being exposed to new ideas and getting valuable feedback for yours. They are about linking into a global academic community that no amount of emailing and skyping and journal submissions can do. But – they are also about pleasure and pain. They are about standing up in front of an audience in a way that quietly submitting to a journal is not.

It’s a thrill to be accepted into the conference. It’s a terrifying to stand in front of everyone and talk about new research. It’s exhausting and agonising and oh, so demanding on top of everything else to actually do the work in the first place.

Because writers are life’s great procrastinators. Journalists are worse. We can’t move except when there is a deadline. So, it should come as no surprise that despite carefully plotting my papers, diligently organsing all aspects of my solo trip to Europe for three weeks (including alternative arrangements for the care and feeding of my children and pets), I still find myself faced with the prospect of all nighters as I grimly write the words. Time for another coffee.

coffee hit blog

But first – before writing – some research (or is that procrastination?) Sometimes Australia seems very far away. Not just in terms of the cost and time to get to Europe for the conferences, but in strange ways such as deciding I needed – absolutely had to get – Francois Ozon’s movie Ricky on DVD, as research for a paper I am presenting next week on monstrous motherhood and human animal hybridity.

The synopsis to Ozon’s film “Is the baby who has wings an angel or a monster?” sent shivers of joy up my spine. Oh – come on – I HAD to watch this movie! A baby born with wings! A mother working with noxious chemicals in a factory….not folklore, but a strange merging of science and speculation.

Film still from Francois Ozon's movie 'Ricky' http://www.rickylefilm.com/
Film still from Francois Ozon’s movie ‘Ricky’
http://www.rickylefilm.com/

Problem – the only copy I could get sent to Melbourne at a reasonable cost (Sorry Ozon, but I am loathe to pay $85 for the DVD from Amazon!) came via an eBay seller – in Thailand. And so I watched Ozon’s wonderful French film dubbed in Thai with English subtitles. It’s like eating French food with microwave plastic melted into the top layer – every mouthful is unpalatable, but underneath it sort of tastes like it could be somewhat authentic.

I wouldn’t call it a peak cinema experience, but it is a terrific movie for my research, and I tried to avoid hearing the dubbed Thai by keeping the sound low and focusing on the narrative and visuals – film really is a silent medium, after all. Still, my desire to use the movie and the unfortunate way I had to go about watching it in Melbourne seemed to me a fit metaphor for the relentless pursuit of knowledge – we do it at whatever cost, no matter how unpleasant some parts may be, because we really believe in the final benefits. So – this is where I will be very shortly:

Motherhood and Culture International and Interdisciplinary Conference

15-17 June 2015 Iontas Building, Maynooth University, Co. Kildare, Ireland

Key Note Speakers: Professor Nancy Chodorow (University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance) Professor Andrea O’Reilly (York University, Toronto and Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI))

After the conference in Dublin, I am off to London to the 2015 Great Writing Conference, 18th Anniversary Conference, where I will present a paper on the issues most doctoral students face with the Creative Writing PhD – the exegesis and the creative project and the tension between the two. My way ‘out’ of the problem was to blog about my research, which is a little like what I am doing now – blogging about writing a paper for the conference, rather than writing it.

Now, some – many – would call that procrastination. But they are not writers. Writers of course count vacuuming instead of writing as part of the ‘process’. In fact, I am sure someone has written a PhD in Creative Writing looking at domestic activities and procrastination as apart of the creative process. And if not, I am sure someone will.

I have written many blogs on the similarities between parenting, pregnancy and childbirth and the creative process and the doctoral journey. It occurs to me that the pain of conference presentation is like childbirth – one forgets the reality of the pain until the first contractions are felt. And so it is with conferences.

Getting in the ‘conference way’ is fun – sending off abstracts in the dead of night on a whim – but there comes a time and it’s usually many, many months away (sometimes even 9 months away) when you have to deliver the goods. The discipline needed to produce the goods when you have so many other deadlines, let alone all the travel to arrange to even get to the conference, is akin to being handcuffed to your computer.

blog pleasure pain

Because unlike a baby, a conference paper doesn’t just gestate itself while you are doing other things. You have to sit down and do the work, the thinking work, and that’s the painful part. Yes, it will be great when you have finished the paper, and you are on the plane and at the conference.

In the meantime, you have to push that baby out. Write the paper. I have been presenting at conferences since I was in my first year of my Master of Arts. And let me tell you – it always hurts at this point. I am always regretting my decision to pitch an abstract. I always say I won’t do it again – I’ll take a holiday and sit by the pool and ready trashy novels like everyone else (instead of well, writing them…) or maybe I tell myself, I’ll just stay in Melbourne, sit in my study and submit to journals. I never learn.

Or, should I say – I always learn that I learn so much connecting with others in my field, and I always forge such great networks and learn from other people’s papers, that I am here again, at my desk, wanting to plunge that fork into my eye as I write the paper. But why? When I am excited by the research. I mean, how many people get to talk to others about flying babies, and be taken seriously? Who wouldn’t love my job? Yes, welcome to the world of writing.

Film still from Francois Ozon movie Ricky. http://www.rickylefilm.com/
Film still from Francois Ozon movie Ricky.
http://www.rickylefilm.com/

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than doing a conference paper is not doing one.

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Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Frankenstein, Time management, Writing strategies

It’s all in your head: the psychological game of fiction writing

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The reason there are so many fabulous moments on screen of writers struggling with their prose – more so than, say, dentists struggling to make crowns or fit orthodontics, is that – drum roll please – writers are the puppet masters pulling the narrative strings. In short we glamorize ourselves and our work as writers because – we can!

Fiction writing struggles have been part of my life this week, as I have been busy editing the novel for my Creative Writing doctorate. That’s involved shuffling scenes, “killing my darlings” and doing the hard, grunt work of streamlining.

A writer’s battle takes place in their head. We start with a blank page or screen, our imaginations, throw in some real life, some observations, a whole truck load of unresolved issues from our past, a few nightmares, maybe some glorious memories. As well as plot, character, narrative, dialogue and structure, writers come to the table with a head full of just about every book they’ve ever read or film they have seen or conversation they have had.

Whether we are writing creative non fiction, or fiction, writers are shameless about plundering life. I joke that if you cross me, you’ll end up a mutant in my novel. But seriously, we can’t but help be inspired by those in our lives, in our orbit, both the good and the bad.

That doesn’t mean we use people without having them undergo a filtering process first. Mary Shelley could have been writing about the way writers write when she described how Dr Frankenstein made his creature, from pieces of body parts both animal and human. Because, if we are honest, writers are utterly shameless about what they steal from life. And who they take from. It’s the horror of our ‘secret toil’.

Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818

Like Dr Frankenstein, I have taken someone’s looks, or height, or hair, or mannerisms, and stitched that to someone else’s nationality or accent or trait, and sewn in some other piece of life story, a little dialogue from somewhere else, and then maybe added sartorial style from a newspaper clipping. But I take from the living, mostly. Beware.

The character takes on its own life

The fascinating alchemy is that at some point – if you are good at your job – the creature takes on their own life, and refuses to be seen as a composite. They demand a name, an origin story, they want to be taken seriously, and loved. I once tried to squash a character back into the person I knew, but the creature rebelled! He pursued me relentlessly until I gave in, and realized I had made something that now had an independent life. Here is a great example of a film about a character coming to life –

Ruby Sparks: What happens when your character comes alive? And you can control everything they do? Okay – what writer hasn’t had this fantasy? Writer’s block, inspiration, and the obsessive compulsive nature of creativity, it’s all here in this brilliant movie directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, with a screenplay by Zoe Kazan, who also stars as Ruby.

The thin line between reality and fiction

Now, I love reading about writers in fiction as much as the next writer. I also adored Douglas Kennedy’s book The Moment because it swept me along a writer’s journey. I kept dog earring the pages and if I had a pencil handy would write in the margins and underline phrases, such as this: ‘writers – as somebody once noted – are always selling somebody out.’ (Douglas Kennedy, (p93) The Moment.) I also enjoyed watching the film of Kennedy’s book The Woman In The Fifth, which asked viewers to ponder the thin line (perhaps) between creativity and madness. If you create characters and stories that seem very real – especially to you – how do you know that they are simply fiction?

The Woman In the Fifth: (from a book by Douglas Kennedy). Tortured writer, crime, obsession, maybe madness – what price would you pay as a writer for inspiration?

Another film about the writer crossing the line between reality and fiction – perhaps an occupational hazard, is The Swimming Pool. François Ozon’s stylish thriller with Charlotte Rampling as a writer struggling with ‘the block’ who takes a rest cure at her publisher’s fabulous house in France…and imagines things happening, which may be real, or not, or a damn good avoidance tactic. Writers know only too well that when everyone else sees ‘real life’ they see it distorted through the prism of what might be. An open door, a bump in the night, a curtain pushed back…

Use your imagination

‘Writing what you know’ doesn’t mean writing about the reality you know – writers have their imaginations, and that’s one giant tool in their workbox. Write what you know is about learning to mine the emotional truths and apply them to your world and your characters. Wherever your characters are, they are still human – even if they may not be entirely human – and therefore they are subject to the timeless tropes (or themes) of storytelling.

I grew up going to see Woody Allen movies with my beloved uncle, so even if it’s not one of his best, I’ll love one of Allen’s movies. And Midnight in Paris is, I think, one of his best. Owen Wilson plays successful screenwriter Gil Pender, who wants to write something substantial. Inspiration strikes when he is transported to the past, Meets the Fitzgeralds, and he gets words of advice from the likes of Earnest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein herself. (Read this ‘cultural cheat sheet’ about the movie) Five stars for fulfilling every writer’s fantasy. And also telling it like it is. As Hemingway warns Gil “You don’t want the opinion of another writer – writers are too competitive.”

Understanding human nature is vital for writing powerful fiction, which is why so many great books are written by authors who are older. They have had years to perfect their craft – and writing is a craft just like learning how to play professional tennis is a craft. Older writers have also been around the block of life a few times, had their hearts broken, trust betrayed, tasted power and defeat, all the things that big or small build up the layers the writer can mine for a story.

Behind great dialogue is not just an ear for how people speak, but their intentions. I love the way people can hide behind seemingly innocent sentences in novels, and then the ways writers can make a character reveal themselves by their actions. Let’s look at the 1977 film Julia, where Jane Fonda portrays playwright Lillian Hellman. Apart from the iconic moment where the writer throws the typewriter out the window in frustration, this movie explores among many other things a writer doubting her talent, and Hellman’s 30 year affair and creative partnership with fellow writer Dashiell Hammett.

Hammett tells Hellman, “if you really can’t do it [writing] you’d better find a job.” But here is the thing – even if you love words, love nothing more than to make them dance – it’s a job. It’s a job as much as any other job. But it is, for a fiction writer, about creating a made-up world. How do you know you have done your job well? When a reader gets inside that world, and believes in it, and believes in those characters, the ones you have sewn together.

Shake it up. Leave to settle. Pour.