Academic Study, creative writing, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, the creative life, Time management, work-work balance, Writing strategies, writing workshops

PhD time management rules: why life balance is a myth

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Want to finish your PhD on time? Wondering how you can juggle a creative life with work demands? Do you think you’ll never write that book unless you are given a grant or a fairy godmother taps you on the shoulder and turns that pumpkin into a quiet retreat where you can spend months thinking and perfecting your craft?

I can tell you how to achieve your goals, but you aren’t going to like it. Because you have to be focused, have tunnel vision and be obsessed. You have to concentrate on ‘A’s – higher order priorities – only.

You cannot waste your time trying to have balance in your life. I speak from experience. Anyone who completes their doctorate on time while doing what I did – juggling another full time job and children – does so at the expense of a balanced life. What you need is focus to the point of obsession. If you come out the other end and have managed to maintain friendships, if your body hasn’t been completely wrecked in the process – well, congratulations.

Where did you find the time? Because obsession is what it takes, my friends. Ruthless obsession. No half measures, no pausing for breath, no chilling out. You can do that later. Once you graduate. That’s when you get a life. or should I say – pick up the pieces.

 

I can tell you that it is possible to hold down a paid job and finish your doctorate. It is possible to have a paid job and write a book. It is possible to juggle all of these things and the demands of children. You just have to be prepared to give up a lot of other things in order to achieve your goals.

The work-life balance and completing your doctorate are a myth. You do not get to work full time and study full time and have a clean house. See friends. Exercise. Cook. You get to work on life-survival mode only.

I know this because I am laughingly now trying to embark on a ‘well balanced life’ and failing miserably at all the bits that veer off my comfort zone – namely work and writing. I spend hours cooking new meals to stock pile the freezer for my kids, do some gardening, walk the dog everyday and throw myself at my dance classes on the weekend. Only to find that I had hardly any time for writing after I have come home from a day at my university job.

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I keep saying to friends “I can’t understand how I managed to complete my doctorate full time and also work in a another paid job full time.”

Well, now I know. It’s because I did nothing else, really. Friends, the garden, the pet, my health – it all languished. Of course, I am now paying the price – there is always a price to pay, you understand. I am ‘wasting’ time with dance and pilates on the weekend because my body has seized up like the Tin Man in Wizard of Oz. The minute I take my eye off the garden, it reverts to type – and that is weed infested, scrappy, algae ridden mess of overgrown lawn, or the hedge threatening to poke out the eye of any innocent passerby, and a disused spa that is the alarming color of green.

All year I have been meaning to ‘do something’ about the empty spa, which the previous owners used as a sand pit. My kids are long past the stage of wanting to play in wet sand, and even the dog got bored in there, especially when it filled with water. I did wonder what to do, but I had a few papers to write. They took priority this year. And as I have mentioned previously, I am in two writing groups, tackling two novels. That takes time. And I have a full time job. And two children. So – the old spa filled with rainwater, and then mutated into the green sludge.

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I did empty it the past weekend, putting aside the nagging writing deadline. Perhaps procrastination is why I spent time bucketing out the toxic mess. And then, that night, it rained more than it had all year. The heavens opening up to spite me. As if to say ‘you wasted writing time on this? Pathetic’.

Evelyn versus life. Life wins. Again! The only thing to do, it seems, is focus. Be obsessed. When you see the achievements of people who do so much – be assured – they are getting very little done in other areas.

The question you must ask yourself is are you prepared to do what it takes to get what you want? Just what are you willing to sacrifice to get your PhD? “Fitzcarraldo” (1982) is one of those bold and sweeping films that reflects the passion of one person’s creative vision and a determination not to give up. Director Werner Herzog was obsessed about completing his film, featuring a 365 ton ship hauled up a 40-degree incline in the Peruvian jungle. As the German film maker says in “Burden of Dreams”, the documentary about making the movie, “I don’t want to be a man without dreams”.

 

As I have said before, the life of a writer is very much like being a doctoral student. Think deferred gratification, the constant pressure to write up and justify your ideas. Sweating over your unique point of view and losing yourself in research.

I am about to do an intensive weekend of pitching to publishers, and at this highly competitive workshop, where participants are hand chosen by our mentor, there is an enormous amount of anxiety and effort in getting one’s taster just right for the marketplace.

That takes time.

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Where does that time come from?

One thing that writers are obsessed about is time to write. Because give or take J.K. Rowling and a few others, most writers need a day job to keep the wolf from the door. They may juggle work in a bookshop, doing sessional teaching, or that classic standby – work in the hospitality industry, but they do work in jobs that pay a wage.

That means writing has to be squeezed into other time. One writer I know has a small child, a paid job four days a week and is also studying. “I am sick of getting up at 5.30 am every day to write, because my study time is in the evening after I have come home from work and done all the parenting things,” she said.

How admirable that she gets up at 5.30 am every day to write. That’s commitment. Of course, pick up any book on doctoral research and you will find, in the index “time management.” There are many sensible suggestions, such as Eviatar Zerubavel‘s in “The Clockwork Muse” which extols you to allocate writing to a specific daily or weekly time slot that ensures you get it done on a regular basis.

“If you cannot ‘find the time’ to write, you will most likely discover that, by establishing a regular weekly schedule that includes just forty-five minutes of writing every Tuesday and Friday morning, for example, you will inevitably manage to get some writing done!”  Zerubavel writes (“The Clockwork Muse”, page 5).

Yes, indeed. I totally agree you need to write regularly and never fall into the trap of needing great, uninterrupted blocks of time to do your writing. But the fact is,  as a creative writer, not just someone ‘writing up’ research – you need to get into the zone. You need to go deep, think deep, immerse yourself in writing. A doctorate in creative writing is all that and more. You have to give yourself over to the writing and research, and any doctoral student will tell you that calm and steady may be a fine and valid way to get things done, but the intensity of doctoral study means that you can’t do it all. You cannot raise a family, work full time, and embark on full time doctoral study without giving something up.

That something, of course, is ‘life’ – and so-called ‘balance’ – forget it. You can claw your way back to reality after you complete. You don’t have time for a well balanced life.

 

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Although I now have my doctorate, I still practice deferred gratification in order to complete writing tasks. It’s a matter of priorities. I regularly turn down social invitations, or cut short evenings out in order to get back to the keyboard. I am enjoying Stephen Fry’s new book ‘More Fool Me’ (unlike many reviewers) and he writes about how he never let a rip-snorting cocaine habit get in the way of his exemplary work habits. Even he would turn down extended sessions of substance abuse in salubrious establishments in order to hit the keyboard, or hit the screen the next day without having his work suffer.

Alas, I can’t report anything so fascinating. But I regularly spend my lunch hour in the library doing research, rather than walk around the city for relaxation and exercise. The truth is that if you want to achieve anything, you have to make choices. What are you doing with your time?

When it comes to time management, you have to accept that time is not on your side. It can slip through your fingers if you are not careful, frittered away on ‘life’. Forget the work-life balance. Forget “free time”. Say goodbye to endless socializing, and when push comes to shove, focus only on the necessary tasks at hand. Get up hours earlier and write. Or write long into the night. Use all your lunch breaks to read or research.

We all have the same 24 hours a day allocated to us. It’s up to you to decide if you want to squeeze the very last second out of those 24 hours to achieve your dreams.

From the time I was 18, I juggled creative writing, journalism and academic study at once. It is second nature to me to spend so called ‘free time’ on anything but relaxing. Like Stephen Fry I find work (writing) more fun than fun, and I am the first to admit I don’t even know how to relax. But each different creative strand I engage in feeds into the other.

And if I am boring, well, so what? Obsessed athletes are no doubt boring as well, and at least I am only obsessed with what I read and write, not eat, drink and exercise. In fact, before anyone admonishes me for my truthful admission that you have to work bloody hard to get a doctorate, think for a minute about athletes. Does anyone criticize Olympic contenders for being so utterly driven?

 

 

The fact of the creative life is that it takes a long time to see monetary rewards for your work, and if you aren’t prepared to live hand to mouth forever, you need to get a paid job to support the creative work. I have yet to see writers wearing T Shirts with sponsor logos from stationary suppliers in the way athletes wear T shirts with nutritional supplement sponsors emblazoned on their chest. maybe we are just useless at creative sponsorship. Or – just maybe – seeing a writer spend endless hours hunched over a desk is simply not that interesting. But it is endurance, none the less.

There is a reason no one wants to sit and watch writers cross out one word after another, to make painful progress across the keyboard. That’s because writing takes longer, and is harder, than many people can imagine. If you are not getting where you want in your work, ask yourself – are you putting in enough time? Really? 

 

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Academic Study, creative writing, Creativity, Doctoral misery, work-work balance

Elvis Costello and Stephen Fry: the creative work-work balance

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I have a fading newspaper clipping taped to the wall near my computer. It might seem a strange motivational message because the title is “Elvis Costello quits recording Albums”. The article contains a quote that is alarming for those heavily engaged in creative work.

Costello tells music writer Iain Shedden“You can’t spend your entire life enjoying yourself in everything you do. You have to choose.”

Really? But I don’t want to choose! I want to know that when one door opens, there are endless possibilities.

The industrious English singer songwriter was referring to his decision to stop making albums. Shedden says it’s a declaration that reflects the shift in the way that people now consume music. The industry has gone through changes now hitting media and publishing, professions I have called home. Writers are wondering, like Costello and other musicians, how to make a living from what they do.

But while Costello might be chewing over how to go about recording or releasing new material, he hasn’t stopped actually making music, writing songs or collaborating with the likes of Burt Bacharach or the Brodsky Quartet.

The market place may shift under you, buckling from the seismic changes wrought by the Internet, but as a creative person you need to keep on producing material.

Be it writing fiction, music, academic articles, whatever, you need to be engaged in creating content. Because no matter what unforeseen changes there will be in the distribution of that content, one thing is for sure. Creative output will always be required.

I am a firm believer in the power of the narrative. Everyone needs a story – businesses, major corporations, politicians and children. They all need to read other people’s stories and have their own story told. And who writes, researches or sets these to music, these stories of our hearts and minds, the threads of our lives and the tentacles that connect us together globally? Writers do this.

The trouble is, creating, and at the same time trying to earn a living, comes at a price. As Costello knows all to well, the work-work balance is a bitch. Can you do everything? It’s a juggle that doesn’t get as much media coverage as the work-life balance. Possibly because there are less people trying to do work-work rather than work-life.

My motto is you can sleep when you’re dead – there’s nothing decent on television anyway. Besides, I believe for creative people, there is no downtime. Everything is an inspiration and everything engages our rapacious curiosity. I am reminded of Stephen Fry, whose latest autobiography The Fry Chronicles  details this restlessness and engagement.

Fry works, works, works. For him, work is more fun than fun. If there is a work-work balance, like me he hasn’t found it. He works like someone is chasing him or he is chasing something. He has a writer’s desire to find out why – why people do what they do, why they feel what they feel, and why they create what they create. And that’s because, as he reveals, he finds other people more interesting than himself.

I also find work more fun than fun and prefer spending time around people who push their comfort zones and stretch themselves beyond what they think they can do. I am fortunate in that my work puts me in touch with people who are more interesting than me. Apart from my blogging, fiction writing and the impending deadline to hand in my doctorate, I have a full time job in arts communication working with Australian and international visual artists who never fail to inspire and a weekly evening stint of sessional teaching that sees me nurture focused and driven post graduate creative writing students. I believe we learn from everyone if only we stop to listen.

So then, how do we find time to do all the things we want to do creatively? Well, here is the thing. Alas, Costello is right. You can’t! Sometimes you just have to say no. Just as Costello has decided to say no to making more albums, I have reluctantly said no to several additional projects until the looming doctoral deadline is over in May. The idea that women can “have it all – but not all at once” equally applies to the creative life. I don’t like saying no, but there are priorities.

My mother gave me good advice early on about time management. She graduated from two different universities on the same day so knows a thing or two about the work-work balance. She taught me there are As, Bs and Cs and that they must be shuffled around. If she calls and I’m stressed about a project, she’ll ask “is it an A?” That is – is it a main priority right now? No? Then drop it, and concentrate on the A.

Only you know your personal A, B, and Cs. But I would suggest that in the doctoral journey, while there are periods of intensity that mean your research is the A in your life, there is much to be said for the engagement with other doctoral students over the four or so years. The Bs and Cs are part of the process, too.

Joining reading or writing groups, attending workshops, going to conferences, actually meeting other people and talking about your work – and more importantly, finding out about their work – are all part of your doctorate.

In The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry says when he was at Cambridge, it was the people at university and those connections he made that were his education. It doesn’t hurt that the roll call included Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie.

If you are lucky enough to find your creative other half –a collaborator and muse to spur you on, a Hugh Laurie to your Stephen Fry – then never let them go.

And if you haven’t found them yet, keep searching, but look in the right places. Get up from your computer, go to a conference, and talk to people. Listen to them. They have the same frustrations about their research, the same anxiety about their ability and the same dreams about their future.

Of course, it isn’t always easy to do, especially if you are an introvert. But there are tips you can use. A recent post in The Thesis Whisperer by  Julio Peironcely, a PhD student in Metabolomics and Metabolite Identification at Leiden University, The Netherlands, provides good advice about advance preparation for conference attendance and dinners, so you won’t sit there resolutely chewing a bread roll and wishing the ground would consume you before you have to try and make small talk. I highly recommend this post, it may be about science conferences but it applies to everyone, and as a creative writing student I am going to make sure I try all of Julio’s tips before my next conference dinner. A career in journalism means that I always heed to advice to talk less about myself and ask questions and listen to the other person, however, I am pleased Julio deems questions about your new friend’s journey through the infamous valley of shit (the ultimate in doctoral dispair) acceptable for dinner table conversation.

Knowing how to make the most of meeting like-minded people in structure environments like conferences is essential, as the people you want to share your creative world with are unlikely to be found in the pub on the weekend slumped in front of a large screen TV, or dozing like an inert kipper on a tanning bed. For a start, it’s really hard to read – or write – in either of those environments.

creative writing, Creativity

Life Lessons from Keith Richards: Writers Take Note

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Ever since I spent a joyous summer reading Keith Richards’ autobiography Life (2010), I have wanted to write about the way he views creativity.

Anything penned by a man (teamed with writer James Fox) who spends his money on a fabulous library, and actually reads books and expressed a secret desire to be a librarian has to be worth reading. Life doesn’t disappoint.

Okay, so there is a certain glee in trawling through the salacious bits, but I am not here to wax lyrical about the Rolling Stone’s musing on Jagger’s todger, Altamont, Marianne Faithfull or his long intimacy with hard drugs. Read his book for that.

What I, as a writer, found fascinating was the way Keith describes the creative process, and how he makes music and writes songs. Alas, like Stephen Fry, who reveals his great frustration about his inability to sing in his autobiographies, I also have no musical ability whatsoever.

Not everyone can be a rock star. But Keith’s sheer delight in making music, and his obsessive quest to do so – making sure he never did so many drugs that it would harm his talent or output (that’s discipline and respect for one’s talent) – is something that can be applied to creative writing.

So often I hear in academia the following moan – writing is so hard, it is so laborious, and anyway I don’t have time to write, where do you find the time to write? Let alone read – who has time to read anymore? I have administration to do, marking to do, and so much teaching, then there are the papers for academic journals…and so on.

In response, here are some inspirational highlights from Keith Richard’s weighty tome Life, applied to the writing life (hence, the sub headings are my own):

Keith on: creative passion

“I was basically a musical sponge. And I was just fascinated by watching people play music. If they were in the street I’d gravitate towards it, a piano player in the pub, whatever it was. My ears were picking it up note for note. Didn’t matter if it was out of tune, there were notes happening, there were rhythms and harmonies, and they would start zooming in my ears. It was very like a drug. In fact a bigger drug than smack. I could kick smack; I couldn’t kick music.” (p. 57)

I know many writers who feel the same. For us, writing is a drug and we can’t kick it. Reading is the same. I have so many books on the go – I keep them in different places all over the house, and my bag has to be big enough for a book. There is always the fear of being caught short without anything to read. Writing is the same, my friends see me take out a small notebook and jot down ideas. It’s something of a joke. “Oh – here comes the notebook!” I am a writer and no one is safe. “That’s very interesting, I’ll just write that down,” and  I grab a quote, a funny story, a word. Writers are magpies, swooping in on the brightly colored bits of life that float around.

Keith on: putting in the hours

“Every waking hour of every day was just sitting in front of the speakers, trying to figure out how those blues were made. You collapsed on the floor with a guitar in your hands. That was it. You never stop learning an instrument, but at that time it was still very much searching about.” (p.103)

I immediately recall Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. He reveals that in order to master anything, you need to put in the time, and you must keep putting in the time.  A friend of mine is a violinist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and was telling me about playing a new work; “well you know how it is when you put the violin under your chin and raise your arms and the fingers just start, the muscle memory kicks in, because you have done this for so many hours, over years and years”. Ah – no. But I do know about training your eye to observe and draw, and about training the ear to listen to the way people speak and then spending years using those rhythms and dialogue in fiction. Learning academic language is similar – it’s endless observation, building that vocabulary. As Keith says “searching about, finding out how it is made.”

Keith on: “write what you know”

“There’s nothing bad about monotony; everyone’s got to live with it.” (105)

Well, I chose this phrase because I like it. But Keith wasn’t referring to suburban life, actually. He was talking about a Jimmy Reed song title – Take Out Some Insurance. Finding titles anywhere, inspiration everywhere, even in the mundane. A writer can make anything interesting – it’s just what you do with the material. You’ve heard it before, write what you know. But I am writing from the perspective of a human-animal in my novel Almost Human….so, I take something I know, and spin it into the unknown.

As an Australian of Greek and German parentage, I know what it is like to be surrounded by people – family – and not know how to speak the same language. I never had a meaningful conversation with my grandmother as we couldn’t communicate. I take that experience of being a hybrid and an outsider with me into my writing. Write what you know doesn’t mean only writing what you know. Stretch it, play around with it. Find the emotion in the experience. As Keith says, who’d think of Take Out Some Insurance as a song title?

Keith on: overcoming writer’s block

“Once you’ve got that idea, the rest of it will come. It’s like you’ve planted a seed, then you go and water it a bit and suddenly it sticks up out of the ground and goes, hey, look at me. The mood is made somewhere in the song. Regret, lost love. Maybe one of us had busted up with a girlfriend. If you can find the trigger that kicks off the idea, the rest of it is easy. It’s just hitting the first spark. Where that comes from, God knows.” (143)

As Pablo Picasso observed, “when inspiration comes, I want it to find me working.” You don’t hang around waiting for the muse, you just start, and it flows from there. Even if you hate what you start with, you can at least have something to play with. The worst thing is the critical brain and the blank screen. The critical brain edits – let the unconscious brain create. Just do it.

Keith on: making the time

“Songwriting had to be fitted in. After a show was sometimes the only time.” (143) 

Even rockers have to find time. It’s not all sex, drugs and rock and roll. You have to have some discipline. Take note. “After a show” is the rocker’s “after work.” So find the time. Do the writing after work.

Keith on: inspiration

“The thing about being a songwriter is, even if you’ve been fucked over, you can find consolation in writing about it, and pour it out. Everything has something to do with something: nothing is divorced.” (187)

As Nora Ephron says, everything is copy. You have to feel if you are going to write from the heart. Every emotion can be used, every experience. Embrace life, open yourself up to people, to pain and to love. You can do this from the corner of your world, but not in the isolation of your garret.

Keith on: fluency

“And because you’ve been playing every day, sometimes two or three shows a day, ideas are flowing. One thing feeds the other. You might be having a swim or screwing the old lady, but somewhere in the back of the mind, you’re thinking about this cord sequence or something related to a song. No matter what the hell’s going on.” (183)

Musicians play, writers write. Just get in the habit of doing it every day. It’s like any exercise, if you skip a day, everything hurts when you start again.

Keith on: experimentation

“When you’re making records, you’re looking to distort things, basically. That’s the freedom recording gives you, to fuck around with the sound. And it’s not a matter of sheer force; it’s always a matter of experiment and playing around.” (236)

Where is the joy in doing the same thing over and over when it comes to your writing? Experiment with voice, with style. Have fun. The great liberation about a lot of writing is that it makes very little money. Support yourself doing something else and take risks in your art.

Keith on: Writing from the heart

“What is it that makes you want to write songs? In a way you want to stretch yourself into other people’s hearts. You want to plant yourself there, or at least get a resonance, where other people become a bigger instrument than the one you’re playing. It becomes almost an obsession to touch other people. To write a song that is remembered and taken to heart is a connection, a touching of the bases. A thread that runs through all of us. A stab in the heart. Sometimes I think that song writing is about tightening the heartstrings as much as possible without bringing on a heart attack.”(277-279)

This is beautiful. I think that for anyone doing a PhD in creative writing, as I am, it is easy to get caught up in dry, academic writing.  Where is the passion, the lilt, the zing, the spark, the thread that runs through all of us? The best bit of advice I was given when writing my MA exegesis was by one of my teachers, the writer Antoni Jach. He said “you are a writer, make the exegesis sing, make it beautiful.” I know I have to keep this in mind with the PhD exegesis. And in my novel, I must remember the heart.

It goes back to everything that Keith has said, really – you have to have a love of the work you are doing, a passion, and go back to the well so often you dream about the music or the words, and you are in the flow, the moment, and everything makes a connection.

Keith on: why bother? (from the Keith Richards Life website)

“People say who don’t you give it up? I don’t think they quite understand. I’m not doing it just for the money, or for you. I’m doing it for me.”

That’s it really, isn’t it? Don’t ask for permission, don’t ask for money, don’t plead lack of time. Whatever your creative passion, do it for yourself.