Academic conferences, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, post submission blues

Fallow time: Waiting for the literary muse to show

IMG_0959

I don’t agree with sitting around and waiting for anything, much less a muse to come and whisper in my ear. As a writer, I am too impatient, too demanding – very demanding, in fact. And yet, it is as if the muse is laughing at me now. Because I have landed in the becalmed sea of fallow time. The post doctoral submission state of limbo.

In short, I feel inert. I suppose this is to be expected when a major project comes to an end, and a period of great focus and intensity such as the doctorate in creative writing comes to its conclusion. There was no period from when I applied to do the course through to submitting my first proposal and then jumping every hurdle placed before me over the four years – culminating with submission – that I allowed myself time for any reflection.

That time is now.

Well, ‘now’ is actually a relative term because, like all good workaholics, I have made sure that on top of my full time job in arts communication, I am again teaching an evening class in entrepreneurship for creative practitioners. As we explore how a writer can sell themselves, without selling out, it makes me reflect about my own work. That old question – who am I? It’s not a bad thing to pause and explore this, take some time out from doing to being.

In my job in a large public art gallery, the cycles of intensity revolve around each exhibition. I have become accustomed to the ebbs and flows of this world over the past four years, but this is the first doctorate I have done, and therefore, the end of studying has been a blessing and a curse. I am probably not alone when I say there is a sense of loss from the structure and the focus – and indeed the need to block out all other distractions in order to complete.

In The Thesis Whisperer, Lauren Gawne, a PhD student in the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, writes of this post submission limbo. She writes “I was lucky I had teaching lined up in my department, and a conference to look forward to. It’s weird enough waking up without thinking about what I need to do on my thesis after 4 years of it, so I’m glad I had some structure to fill that. ”

I have structure – my full time job, my part time job, my children and my writing – but still…..it is as if there is a big hole in my life, possibly because it was overfull to begin with. And now that the super structure of the doctorate has gone, I am forced to look at the world around me.

On the plus side, the distractions have flooded back in – and though they are life itself, friends and family and the odd, wonderful realisation that there is a world out there beyond my desk – it means I am getting less done as I do more, well ‘life’. That to me is an odd feeling.

IMG_0962

And then a glance at the diary indicates it’s only weeks until I head overseas, to present the final chapter of my exegesis at a conference, and also do research for the other two books in the trilogy I started with Almost Human – my doctoral novel. In Europe, I will be catching up with friends that tyranny of distance puts between us, even in the age of electronic communication. Melbourne is a long, long way from the rest of the world.

Yet as much as I long to see them again, I also feel strongly there is someone else I need to reconnect with after this doctoral journey. And that’s myself. As I wander around, unsure of what I have achieved, unable to put my finger on why I am so flat, and in a fog about starting anything new creatively, I realise that it is because I am trying to find who I am in this post doctoral state. Maybe I will reconnect with that ‘me’ in Europe, where I can be truly introspective. Especially in countries where I do not speak the language!

People keep on saying to me – what now? Where are you going? What’s next? And in truth, I don’t know. When you undertake any major project, you only think about getting to the end. Getting through – you really have no idea of how you will emerge after the journey, and where those experiences will take you.

You are in a sense, missing – searching for yourself. The new you. The old you, too, that you perhaps put aside while you studied so hard. Maybe that ‘you’ doesn’t really exist anymore…

The trouble with this period of reflection is that I am too exhausted and flat to enjoy it. I suppose that is to be expected. My most popular blogs at 100 Days To The Doctorate are ones that talk about doctoral misery – and it seems a quick glance on the Internet reveals that this comes in several forms – the misery of doing the doctorate, of having finished the doctorate, and are wondering why the hell you did the doctorate when there aren’t enough academic jobs out there.  Mind you, I am not so sure if I want an academic job. The more I read about life in the academic lane, the less appealing it sounds.

But that’s not why one does a doctorate, surely. I certainly didn’t opt for a vocational course, not with creative writing!

Let’s move on to misery. The misery of actually doing a doctorate is for me a blur of highs and lows and focus. The lows were not so much giving up things so I could work and study – it’s amazing how the body and soul adjusts to social solitary confinement like that – but were in fact the lows of the hard, and it must be said, often tedious grunt work. For instance, it’s harder to make sure you are up on all the administrative details of your doctoral process than it is to make sure you are aware of the latest journal article in your field. The constant academic hurdles – every six months or so, confirmation, progress, and then finally completion. Paper work, more paperwork, and often conflicting advice. Sometimes – no advice. After all, at this point, you should be able to go solo, right?

Now – the joy. The great joy of doctoral study, besides the sheer buzz of research and writing (well, I say this as a writer) was engaging on an intense level with people passionate about the same things.

I spent the four years presenting at seven conferences, and each one drew me to people who expanded my life somehow, people I would not have met if I hadn’t undertaken this journey.

I imagine the worst thing would be to try and undertake doctoral study without engaging with other students and peers in your area. For me, the highs were actually forming concepts and exploring ideas based on my research, and the giddy feeling of exploration and eureka moments of discovery along the way – especially when shared with others. And I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to sit and hear about other people’s research as well, and hear the passion in their voice – yes, the struggle and the pain as well, and the constant fear of ‘am I good enough’? But conferences are where we can shine, and spread our wings, show our true colors – it’s worth the leap of faith in exposing yourself and your ideas to the academy.

IMG_0979

But – that doctoral journey demands its pound of flesh. Yes, if you are determined, organised, selfish, ruthless, clever, attentive, gracious, and bloody minded, you will emerge and hopefully be able to relish the feeling of having achieved a major academic hurdle – submitting your doctorate.

Just don’t expect to come through in one piece! At a writing workshop a few days ago, I quizzed other authors who had done the doctoral slog and asked if they got sick – and depressed – after submission. Yes! It was a resounding reply. One they don’t tell you about at the Gradate Research Office when you submit.

One author had such bad eye strain he got a tear behind his retina. Another was sick for months. I promptly came down with a major sinus infection that hit hard, so hard I was in bed for a week. And then came a strange inability to commit to my writing. Oh no –

Was I having – writer’s block?

“Oh good!” said a friend, gleefully. “It will make the rest of us feel better! At last you are not doing five projects or more at once…”

Postscript:

Of course, fallow time, in the end, didn’t lasted that long, thank goodness. No sooner than I wrote this blog and let it languish a day or two on the computer screen than the call came from my supervisor that heralded the start of the next phase of the doctoral journey.

But you know what? Like all good crime writers, I am going to leave this blog on a cliffhanger, and keep you waiting until next blog tell you the news.

IMG_0972

Advertisements
Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, parenting and study, PhD completion, post submission blues, Time management

PhD Student vs Life: How To Do It All But Not All At Once

imgp8329.jpg

Four weeks post submission: I am still wandering around like a dazed zombie trying to get remotely interested in life. An official letter has arrived from the university. My status has now been changed to “submitted”. It is about this point that people are expecting that you have ‘bounced back’ into the world of the living. Everything still appears as if through a thick pane of glass. Ah – that may be because of the other deadlines.

Accusingly, the dust seems to rise higher everyday in the house. I don’t care. I have become so adept at not looking at what’s going on around me, I wonder if I will ever be able to focus again on the things that once mattered. Will my home ever be again the palace of my dreams?

IMG_3982

Regular readers of my blog will have noticed a little hiatus in my postings. Ah – the post submission illness and general malaise has been hard to shake, as have the children’s understandable demands now that “mummy is back”.

I wonder why I am feeling this way, when I get a frantic call on the mobile. “I’m driving in now – can you text me the name of that printing place?” It’s my friend and long time writing partner, Caroline. She’s about to submit her doctorate and I can hear in her voice the same crazed about to submit panic that I had in my voice less than a month ago. It’s coming back – like childbirth.

I sent Caroline an email a few days before, alerting her to the fabulous commercial printer that I used – the one who doesn’t have to “let the machines have a little rest” and can deal with a tearful, sleep deprived doctoral student with kindness and calm.

After Caroline submits later that day – oh, joy! – I receive an ambitious text from her. “Right, now we are off to the theatre! I’ll book the tickets, we’ll have a drink to celebrate!”

I text straight back. “NO! Organise nothing – I am still a train wreck – you won’t believe how bad you’ll feel. Prepare for the great post submission blues.”

I had a back-to-back task of co-editing an academic book directly after my submission, and that was even harder than submitting the doctorate, as I had no energy left whatsoever and was sick as well.

Post submission, people are asking me how I managed the four-year juggle of young children, full time work, full time doctorate and part time teaching and blogging and still managed to submit on time. The answer is simple. Like Vincent Freeman in the film Gattaca I saved nothing for the swim back. If you want to achieve something – push it to the max.

At the time, I didn’t exactly realize this was my strategy. I worked hard from the outset, meeting all my goals – and the university goals – along the way. I spent just about every lunch break in the library or attending research strategy classes held by the university’s School of Graduate Research. In my final year I snuck into the sessions for emerging supervisors to get the inside track on what examiners were looking for (these sessions even had free food…) I spent my holiday leave presenting papers at conferences. I blogged about my research ideas, and turned these blogs into papers, articles and finally chapters in my exegesis. And I won’t even begin on how I plundered those around me for dialogue and characters in my doctoral novel.

In short, I never took my foot off the pedal. And in the last 100 days, I worked around the clock, hard and focused. It certainly explains how I feel now! And I am not sure that this is a strategy anyone wants to hear (or for that matter, follow), but the only way to ‘do it all’ is realize that something has to give. I did not by any means have a ‘balanced life’. My house looks like a bomb site, I more or less stopped socialising. At different points over the four years, some things had the volume turned up in my life and I had to deal with them with periods of brief intensity, but otherwise, I shut out that which would cause me to go off track. I simply ignored many important aspects of my life.

And now I am far from shore, and I need to swim back. At the moment, I am floating in the water, looking up at the sky and thinking, can I just drift a little longer before I have to start making it to land? Before I have to deal with ‘real life’ again?

I have found great resonance in the work of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, reading The Poetics of Space.  It is perhaps fitting in my current state of mind that I prefer to read about Bachelard’s analysis of housework than actually do any – I understand his idea of making housework a creative activity and that by approaching it with consciousness it rejuvenates everything.

IMG_6306

That said, I still balk at the layers of dog hair and the soul destroying topography of a teenage boy’s room.  I threw out a large garbage bag of suspect food from my fridge (what lurked at the back shelf could probably be classified as a biological weapon) but the long overdue cleanout of the pantry can wait. Oh, Bachelard, the housewife may awaken furniture that was asleep, but shifting forgotten tins of flour just awakens the weevils.

I plan on seeing Caroline next week, and over that joint celebratory glass of wine will ask her how she managed her candidature, full time lecturing and three (adult) children. I will report back – hopefully she will have saner advice than me.

However, like me, I suspect that she will say she cut back on many things to focus on what was important. Come to think of it, it’s been at least 18 months since we had a purely social get together. Most catch ups have been frantically wedged into a spare half hour at a café on campus.

The truth is that as far as time management goes, the only way to ‘have it all’ is to accept you can’t have it all at once. And it complete a doctorate with a Big Life you must let just about everything else fall by the wayside.

Seriously, I have been staggering around with a grand post submission plan of “getting the house in order” when I realize the task is simply beyond me.  Apart from the occasional cursory clean and survival cooking, the fact that the house is standing at all is a testament to the power of dust to hold everything together – and the fact that the kids have learned to help with the housework.

My mother – who graduated from two universities in one day – always told me that ‘dust will be there tomorrow’. However, as Bachelard noted, a human being likes to ‘withdraw to his corner’ and that it gives him physical pleasure to do so. And that’s hard when the corner is a little – squalid.  My mother would say, sit somewhere else, and read a book – then you won’t notice the mess.

So, in that spirit, for those of you still slogging away on the doctoral-kids-work juggle, here is my adopted anthem about endurance and perseverance – Sail On Sailor, by The Beach Boys; lyrics by Brian Wilson, Tandyn Almer, Jack Rieley and Ray Kennedy.

Seldom stumble, never crumble
Try to tumble, life’s a rumble
Feel the stinging I’ve been given
Never ending, unrelenting
Heartbreak searing, always fearing
Never caring, persevering
Sail on, sail on, sailor

Sail on swots– with the wind beneath your sails. Ignore the dust. I guarantee it will still be there when you submit. Keep your eye on the prize instead.

Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, post submission blues

The post submission blues: the doctoral let down

IMG_3733

It may be less than two weeks since I submitted in my doctorate, but that “rush of love” and “the intellectual satisfaction” of submission that dear friends with doctorates advised would appear has not yet descended.

If this were a jazz song, the lyrics would go “Baby, I got the post submission blues…” Admittedly, this is a good space to be in – better than “Baby, I need an extension…” or “Darn it, honey, I couldn’t submit on time…”

But I have to tell you there is no smug satisfaction from submission – not right now.

There is the anxiety of waiting for the examiners’ reports, similar to the anxiety of the results when you send off writing to a competition, the publisher’s response to the first three chapters of your book (what, no bidding war?) or the editor’s report when you send off to a journal. Magnified, of course. To a truly sickening level.

In fact, the last time I felt this anxious was after my youngest son was born and was whisked away to the special care unit for several days. To put it into perspective, not being able to hold your baby because he has to get help – now! – will never be on the same level as needing to respond to requests for changes, minor or even major – in an examiner’s report. At the crossroads of life and death, you realise what is important, and what, in the end, probably just comes down to more work if necessary – and ego.

I realise I am not alone in my anxiety. I searched out post submission blues and discovered that this is a recognised, though not talked about aspect of the doctoral process. It’s good to know I’m not alone. Ailsa, from Auckland, who has just submitted her PhD in education, relates her anxiety and that limbo land feeling. She turned to making patchwork quilts. I simply turn to my true north – writing. Knowing that this post submission anxiety is standard issue makes it less of an issue. Sort of like knowing that it actually takes a few days for your milk to come in after giving birth (called the ‘let down’), despite all the time and effort in pregnancy and childbirth.

IMG_4383

So I’ll coin the phrase “the doctoral let down” – waiting for the reports to come in. My mental lethargy probably makes sense after the intensity of the last few weeks. When it came to getting the submission printed – a trial that is well known and features in The Thesis Whisperer this week, I was quite indignant that one copy centre I approached warned they let their machines have “a little rest” during the day and therefore couldn’t guarantee same day printing for all my copies.

Well, I gave them a serve. If I could sit at my desk writing for a 12-hour stretch, how dare a mere machine need a rest. The voice on the other end of the phone understood but was firm. They had obviously dealt with the crazed caffeine-fuelled doctoral student close to submission before. It was gently suggested that maybe it was this particular doctoral student who needed a “little rest” – and that they would not be flogging their machines to death for me.

While established mums pass on information to new mothers, there seems to be no such informal information swap doing the rounds about different stages of the doctorate. While in that intense 100 days phase, I was given sage advice from older hands who had never uttered a word of such things before (probably because they knew I wasn’t ready to hear it), no one mentioned “post submission blues”.

Once you have had a kid you never bother to tell a pregnant first timer some of the grim realities post birth. Not because you don’t want to scare them, but because you know they have baby brain and can’t hear you. It’s nature’s way of ensuring the human race continues. If people realised what would happen to one’s body and life after a baby, zero population growth would have happened a long time ago. Prince William has admitted to worrying about the lack of sleep that awaits him. Clever man. Fear is good.

Now that I think about it, post submission blues is like the postbaby blues they warn you about and is very real. As much as you wanted a baby, there is a hormone crash after three or four days that makes you weepy. Then there is sleep deprivation. For many unlucky women there is crippling postpartum depression as well – I managed to avoid that, but the reality of parenthood is that you are consumed with a new baby and its demands. Whereas post doctoral submission, there is no instant gratification of a new person to care for and hold. There is just waiting. And waiting leads to anxiety.

As university students, we are expected to celebrate at the final graduation. All that mortarboard flinging in their air, the wild parties, the excitement. And it is exciting – the family gathered, the photos, the ceremony.

But post submission? Nothing. A few “well done” comments and hugs, some cheering from those closest to you and those who have been through the mill. If you are lucky as I am, you have good friends who understand and celebrate with you. But the rest are leaving the “big moment” to the “real thing” – that end of year graduation event where you get to finally wear the floppy hat.

Mind you, my wonderful mother presented me with a beautiful necklace after I submitted, and I did take the opportunity to buy myself an artwork of a Kingfisher with a huge fish in its beak, symbolic I thought of biting off more than you can chew and then chewing like mad.

This state of limbo is a strange and exhausting time. I feel like I am a slow moving cog on the wheel of life, hardly able to concentrate on returning emails in the evening, much less applying the mental clarity to new work that I mustered every night after work for the past four years. Whereas doctoral life was a steady hum of work, kids, study, writing, conferences and writing workshops, it has dwindled into work, kids – bed!

While I have returned all those overdue library books, my study is still a bombsite of stacked journal articles, piles of drafts, and towering piles of books on transhumanism, monsters, mutants, and Human-Animal Studies. Friends have been scrambling to get their hands on my novel and are reading – and enjoying it – but that’s not the same as the examiners’ reports.

IMG_4299

One thing we are never given any preparation for at university is the post submission blues. Or how fragile we will feel after we hand in. If we think about it as similar to the end of a theatre performance for an actor that makes more sense because live performance is emotionally draining.  And the come down is equally confronting. We have used up all our mental strength and physical energy creating a major work. One old hand warned me today not to make any major decisions for two months because post submission was like a version of post traumatic stress disorder. He had found himself in a similar state of shell shock.

Indeed, my sneaky body knows a major project has been handed in, even if my mind refuses to accept it. My body, the little engine that could, has been chugging along on minimal sleep, a lot of caffeine and social outings comprised entirely in the past six months of going to work, dropping the kids at school and taking the dog for a walk and studying for hours every night. Now as I venture out again with friends, my body is finding ways to fight back.

Indeed, malaise, aches, pains and sheer exhaustion mental and physical have been my lot. It is as if my body has said “right, that’s it!” – and the affects of 100 days of massive exertion and adrenalin leaving my body have seen me numbly flicking through magazines at lunch time while staring into space for the most part. Then a sinus infection took up residence in my head, landing me in bed. I have very dark hair in contrast to my skin, and when I get sick I look like an extra from Twilight. A fact commented on by all around me; “you look so pale – what happened?”

I have just handed in my doctorate!

As much as I am loathe to admit it there has been the shock realisation since submitting that that I am not, after all, a machine. Damn. Because one of the kids just asked me to contribute to the school bake sale. You know, make a cake after work tomorrow night as I don’t have a doctorate to do any more. I hate cooking with a passion. That second PhD is starting to look appealing, even now…