Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, writing retreat, Writing strategies

The writing retreat: how will you finish your doctorate?

Time out but busy as a bee: photo by Justine Phillip, 2015
Time out but busy as a bee: photo by Justine Philip, 2015

I have a starling piece of news. I have actually never gone on a writing retreat. The reasons are entirely practical – for the past 17 years my presence has been required at home with my children.

The other reason is also practical. After a career in daily journalism, I find it easy enough to focus and write among people, noise and distractions. Sure, some people and distractions may be more annoying than others, but for me writing has always been a job and always been like breathing – second nature and essential.

So, I never felt the need to get away from it all. I have always had a room of my own, no matter where I lived. Yes, it is a luxury, but no matter how small, I have always claimed a space as my own study, a place where no one else is permitted. While some may see this an indulgent, I regard it as essential. Even once I had children, they were only allowed into my writing space with permission, and never on my computer.

I know women who easily give away their personal space and these women are by and large resentful and frustrated. I don’t give a damn about being thought selfish for carving out my own writing life and zone, and it means I am also a pretty content soul.

So, I never felt I had to pack everything up and get away to focus on my writing. That said, I totally understand women who do. What if you have no separate space to call your study? What if the boisterous interruptions of domestic life intrude as you are trying to write up your doctorate?

When I was in that final, crucial writing up stage of the PhD, I took my annual leave from my job and bunkered down in my study; over summer, the kids were preoccupied with their own interests and wonderful friends took them for outings with their own kids – I am ever grateful for this.

To have actually gone away to a retreat would have added a whole other level of complexity to my juggling that would only cause more stress than it was worth. Even now, with the kids with their father on the weekend, if I was to go away on retreat it would mean finding somewhere for the dog to go, and why leave an house I have all to myself to pack up my notes and go somewhere else?

That said, I can see the benefits of a retreat and fantasise about its glories. And I admit to feeling a pang of longing when a friend and doctoral student Justine Philip sent me a link to the blog post she had written about her recent eco retreat, when she took time off to focus on a critical chapter of her dissertation due for completion in 2016.

Remote: BREW eco-writers retreat. Photo by Justine Phillip, 2015
Remote: BREW eco-writers retreat. Photo by Justine Philip, 2015

Justine drove seven hours north of Melbourne to reach the retreat – something I would never do for a start. I loathe driving long distances, and into the country. I also fail miserably at lighting potbelly stoves and trekking to an outhouse…though 10 days solitude sits comfortably with me. I have always made a habit of travelling alone, and regard my overseas research and conference trips as a retreat of sorts, away from the demands of teenagers and pets.

What I have found is that I am not necessarily productive as a writer when I am away, but that I gather the experiences and images and emotions garnered and bring them into my work.

Justine’s thesis explores a shared human-dingo history. No prizes for guessing how we came to meet – a mutual interest in human-animal relations has seen us present at several conferences together and we shared a panel (with artist Debbie Symons) at the 2014 ASLEC-ANZ Affective Habitus conference in Canberra.

While Justine went to the BREW residency in NSW to sort through three years of data and write a chapter due, I recall a similar timeline of weekends holed up at home, bunkered down in my study and ignoring almost everything as I slogged it out to get my dissertation complete. I took my annual leave to finish, and spent the summer inside, blinds down, and wrote. When the kids felt in need of food or a cuddle, they’d charge in and our beloved dog was then a little teething puppy, and slept at my feet, surreptitiously gnawing at journals articles spread around me until they were a wet, pulpy mass.

Remington Holiday. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas, 2014
Remington Holiday. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas, 2014

Justine’s retreat is on trend with what is offered by universities around the globe. The University of Miami Graduate School offers a Dissertation Writing where for three intensive days, doctorate students from all disciplines meet in a quiet space for extended blocks of time dedicated to writing, sharing daily writing goals and getting feedback. Write Out, a week long retreat for doctoral students from all disciplines at the University of Illinois at Chicago who study race and ethnicity.

Kylie Budge researched the retreat fantasy in The Thesis Whisperer in 2013, and discovered that spatial distance plays a role in creative cognition.

While part of me wants to use this as a good excuse to bunker down in my family’s house in a very small village in northern Greece, where I can barely speak the language but everyone knows me and my relatives generations back, I fear I will not be as productive as in my own study, where I have all my books and notes on hand. For a start, travelling from Australia is time consuming and expensive, so while language and geographical isolation may focus the mind, mine wants to be out absorbing new images and ideas, rather than writing the task at hand.

Northern Greece - village life. Photo 2013 by Evelyn Tsitas
Northern Greece – village life. Photo 2013 by Evelyn Tsitas

Yet there is something to be said for having the respite of a retreat to focus constructively during the doctorate. I spoke to another mother and doctoral student who told me the benefit of retreats during her writing up stage, as she lived in a small house with her three children and had no place to spread out her work or have quiet time alone with her thoughts. “I think that the writers retreat is different from writing at home – it is an excuse to put the rest of life on hold and spend days not just hours at the keyboard for a short length of time. Now I am back writing at the visiting scholars room at the university I am finding it easier to balance home/writing life than before I went away.”

However, I find that my writing time when my children are at their father’s house is actually no more productive than when they are with me. There is no more efficient worker than a mother with limited time to write. Have all the time in the world, and you will squander it.

This probably ties in with ‘mother guilt’ – another factor for doctoral students who are mothers. One woman told me she desperately needed to get to a retreat so she could write up huge chunks of data, and spread the research papers out everywhere and concentrate – and not have to pack it away when the kids needed to use the room or wanted dinner. She was happy if she found a shack somewhere with a wood fire stove and outside dunny (Australian slang for toilet) but that when she was offered a friend’s retreat – and discovered it had a coffee machine, inside plumbing and a fabulous, lake-side view, she was overcome with mother guilt. Suffering for your study is fine – but solitude in salubrious circumstances? Cue mother guilt!

Outside dunny: we we feel less 'mother guilt' if we rough it at a retreat?Photo by Evelyn Tsitas, 2014
Outside dunny: we feel less ‘mother guilt’ if we rough it at a retreat?Photo by Evelyn Tsitas, 2014

I wondered if there was something wrong with me for not yearning for a writing retreat, until I interviewed successful author Graeme Simsion recently. His internationally best selling book The Rosie Project – currently being made into a Hollywood movie starring Jennifer Lawrence – was written without time at a retreat. His advice – if you need to go away on a retreat to write, that’s not sustainable. You have to be able to write anywhere, anytime.

That’s good advice but what if you are not writing for a living? Then maybe some quality time away with your research is what you need. Then again, if your domestic arrangements won’t stretch to accommodating your absence – as mine did not at the time – then all is not lost.

I particularly liked the advice from Nancy Whichard PhD, PCC, a dissertation and academic career coach. She wrote that when she needed to make a space for writing—a cottage, if you will—inside her house, she put a sign on her home office door that read “Mom’s in Maine.” Nancy, who has successfully coached to completion doctoral candidates from all over the world, acknowledges that it is really difficult for mothers to find quiet time to write. Where do you find quiet time and space? Yes, you need a room of your own, and firm rules about being distracted, but that’s not always possible with space issues, and parenting demands.

I grew up with a mother who was always engaged in academic study, so learned to respect her tiny work space and her time. Unlike many women I know, I refuse to let my children onto my computer or into my space, and they haven’t suffered. It is important for children, and sons in particular, to understand a woman’s thinking time is important, and to respect her work.

I think women, generally, are far less willing to be selfish with their writing time than men. In fact, one of the most common things I hear from women like myself who are divorced is the sweet luxury of having your own space and quiet time to write or think without anyone complaining you are not giving them attention.

My ultimate fantasy retreat? Having an architecturally designed writing studio in some glorious location separate from the house and domestic chores, but in the same compound, so one can wander in on life after wrangling with the muse. And here, I swooned at writer Elizabeth Bishop’s glorious writing snug built by her Brazilian lover, the architect Lota de Macedo Soares, in the wonderful movie ‘Reaching for the Moon’ (Flores Raras) which I just viewed as part of the Latin American Film Festival at RMIT. A bold, creative life and love might be as much a fantasy as a writing retreat perched up in the trees, with a glorious view and hand made desk. But we can all dream.

** Bush Retreats for Eco-Writers (BREW) is an emerging network of eco-writing centres initiated by leading Australian environmental philosopher Professor Freya Mathews. The centres are located on ecologically significant private properties in various parts of Australia. Eco-writers can apply for the BREW network retreats in NSW. Click here for more information. 

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creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Marketing your research, Writing strategies

No laughing matter – 10 lessons in taking comedy off the page

Simon Mallory in The Heckler
Simon Mallory in The Heckler

One thing that universities rarely do well is getting students to think beyond the doctoral completion and how to sell their product. This is a problem if that ‘product’ is the result of four years of a Creative Writing PhD. I can vouch for the fact that while I had to sweat through classes in research methods, advice on pitching to an agent, writing a killer synopsis and finding a publisher were not taught. Or – even mentioned.

Perhaps there needs to be a post doc course in ‘making the research count in the real world’. Who wouldn’t sign up for that? More to the point – why isn’t it taught? Instead of lamenting the fact, I went to some experts for advice. And by experts, I mean people who have made the successful leap from theory and research to industry success.

Writers Steve Mitchell and Graeme Simsion, who both met as screenwriting students at RMIT, wrote and produced The Heckler , which recently won the “Best Ensemble Award’ at the LA Comedy Festival.

The Heckler is an out-of-body feature in the tradition of the great Ellen Barkin comedy from the early 1990s, Switch. Like that movie, The Heckler’s protagonist Steve isn’t entirely likeable or laudable. So when the self obsessed stand-up comic’s body is hijacked by a jealous heckler following an accidental death after a gig, it provides the opportunity for Steve to start literally waking up to himself and rebuilding his relationship with those around him. The movie features some wonderful twists and sight gags, and a truly sexy and romantic kiss that in the way of body swap happens between two women.

Steve Mitchell’s background is in IT. As an emerging comedy writer who has many TV credits under his belt, he jokes that he sometimes performs stand-up comedy to “prevent his self-esteem from reaching acceptable levels” (stand up obviously has much in common with sending articles to academic journals). Steve studied filmmaking at VCA and Professional Screenwriting at RMIT (where he met Graeme Simsion), and has the stand up gift of making everyone in the audience feel that he is speaking directly to them – a skill that is invaluable when promoting his movie.

Graeme Simsion is the author of the 2013 best-seller, The Rosie Project; translation rights to his book have been sold to over 35 countries, and a film of his novel is in the pipeline with Sony Pictures. When Graeme came to the screenwriting course, he already had a PhD (in Data Modelling) under his belt and says that helped him overcome any fear of writing a large project. I rather like the fact that the producer of a movie about hecklers on the comedy circuit has not one but two PhDs – Graeme received a Doctor of Communication Honoris Causa from RMIT in 2014.  Lesson # 1– doctoral skills transfer, and as a mature age student you bring skills and life experience that will help you leverage your research into industry.

I got together with Graeme and Steve at a café near RMIT to discuss creative careers, collaboration, and advice for students hoping to see their stories on the screen.

Steve Mitchell promoting The Heckler
Steve Mitchell promoting The Heckler

Graeme wanted to dispel one myth first – that creative writing students have it tough because there is no defined pathway into a career after they graduate. “There is actually no defined pathway after a commerce degree either, and I built a career as I went in IT. I had to adapt to what’s changing; the arts are not madly different.”

Steve agrees that ‘you make the path’. Lesson # 2 – don’t be too defined in your career path because it might be a long and winding road to where you want to go But that’s fine – don’t be so precious about what you want to do. As a writer, every encounter and experience is copy. Take notes.

Now this is all well and good, except if you are grinding through your doctorate and wondering what comes next, if that creative project that has to pass through the examiners will ever see the light of day in the commercial world. Here is their advice – stop looking at the end goal and the ‘Hollywood movie’ (or best selling novel) as the big dream. That, says Graeme, is a million miles away. Lesson # 3 – major success may be so far down the track, break up your goal into smaller chunks – keep revising your goal with what you learn on the way.

Ironically, The Rosie Project started out life as a screenplay, and ended up as a book when Graeme changed his goal to something he felt was more attainable. Don’t lock yourself in. “The journey is important,” said Graeme. “You have to enjoy all the little goals along the way.”

GraemeSimsion. Photo credit James Penlidis
Graeme Simsion. Photo credit James Penlidis

This attitude is necessary in surviving – and thriving – in the creative industry. Just last week it was announced that Jennifer Lawrence, who was to play Rosie in The Rosie Project, had to pull out of the movie. The director Richard Linklater then followed. Graeme’s response to media was that he was disappointed “that the deal with Ms Lawrence didn’t happen” but he was getting on with writing his next book. Lesson #4 – don’t lose sight of the work, and don’t measure yourself against massive goals. Anything could happen.

The Heckler is a movie that came to the screen via networking. The sort of networking within an academic cohort that we so often overlook because as doctoral students we are focused on word counts, deadlines and completion. But your academic cohort are your network, and you need to put the effort in to meet them and work with them.

Not surprisingly, Graeme and Steve gravitated to each other during their course as they both put in the time and effort above and beyond what was expected. They instantly recognized each other as kindred spirits – ex IT, ambitious, mature age – and immediately partnered up to help each other with writing and editing. Steve was Graeme’s writing buddy from the inception of The Rosie Project, back when it was The Klara Project, and Graeme is credited as an editor and producer on The Heckler.

Lesson #5 – working within your cohort and finding the people among them who have similar ambitions and experience is important. Find writing partners, writing groups, academic reading groups – but make sure these are with people of a similar level of experience and energy. You don’t want to carry a dead weight.

But what about external networking? You know – making contacts in industry, pressing the flesh, finding out who can help you get a job inside or outside academia? How does that work?

Steve laughs. “You shouldn’t work the room when you are starting out. What do you have to offer? It’s not about what someone in power can offer you – it’s what you can offer them.”

Steve Mitchell (right) at the opening night of The Heckler.
A dream realised – Steve Mitchell (right) at the opening night of The Heckler.

Well, what can you offer? Look at it this way – you are smart, ambitious, and want to get ahead. Offer your time, and your hard work. Contribute to joint projects, volunteer. I volunteered my communications and journalism expertise to promote and support an academic conference as soon as I completed my doctorate – a way of getting to know those in the industry and also supporting the academics who supported me in one way or another during those four years of study. Lesson # 6– when it comes to networking, put in, help out, be humble and learn. No one will help you unless you offer to help first. Your efforts will be recognised as will your attitude.

While having a movie such as The Heckler, or a book published, is a major achievement, those in the creative arts need smaller calling cards to alert people to their ability to manage a project to completion. Do you have one? Lesson #7 – get a calling card. Make something and put it in the public eye so people can see what you can do. Send your stories to smaller literary journals. Publish a poem. Start your own blog – get your writing out there.

Graeme put in money as The Heckler’s producer, but he only did so because he knew Steve had the runs on the board as a writer and director. Steve received development funding from Film Victoria for his AWGIE-nominated feature ‘The Non-Believers’ and he wrote and directed ‘The Unusual Suspects’, which was a finalist at the 2012’s Tropfest Film Festival. Lesson #8 – submit your writing, put it out there for grants and festivals and awards. As someone reminded me when I was wavering about whether to put in the time and effort pitching for a project I didn’t think I’d get – opportunity involves being there to begin with.

By now, it should be clear that as funny and uplifting as The Heckler is for someone sitting in the audience, the path to the screening has been a long, arduous and unpaid one for the writer. That didn’t change once Graeme was on board as producer. “The last thing I want to do is give someone money for a salary,” Graeme said. “Writers are going into the ultimate capitalist world and people expect them to work for nothing. This is where courses get it wrong by telling students to go and get grants. It’s not about grants – you can’t write a book or film in three weeks or three months, you can’t write it while on a retreat, if you can’t do it without a grant, chances are you can’t do it.”

The length of time that Steve worked – unpaid – on The Heckler before Graeme came on board as producer was three years. Lesson #9 – be prepared to put in many long years of unpaid labor before you get your break. Even The Heckler’s final sound mix and mastering was achieved via crowdfunding with a Pozible campaign to raise the required $20,000.

Finally, both Graeme and Steve have a piece of advice for writers who feel pressured to build a social media presence in order to sell their work. Lesson #10 – work on your writing rather than your social media profile, and get the product as good as it can be. It’s ready to go once you are proud of it.

Steve agrees, “even with all the years I spent on The Heckler, once we committed to the shoot we did two more tighter drafts and made it as good as it could be, because once it is made, it is forever, and while the act of movie making has never been easier, making people care has never been harder.”

Graeme agrees. “In the end, your best promotion is word of mouth. Don’t worry about the critics.”

The Heckler is screening at selected venues around Australiawhere to see the movie

The Heckler is also available to download on iTunes.

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

Show Me The Story: Creating Your Doctoral Narrative

2013-09-12 14.18.06

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

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

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

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

The Rosie Project 9781922079770

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

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

The Rosie Effect 9781922182104

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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