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Return with the Elixir: The Hero’s Doctoral Journey Concludes

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As the large official stamp went down with a thump on my form, the woman wielding the object at the School of Graduate Research looked up at me and said “So, feel any different – now you are a doctor?”

“No different from a second ago,” I said. How can that be? This is something I worked long and hard to achieve for the past four years. Now I had the literal seal of approval in my hands. I just felt exhausted.

Dr. Evelyn Tsitas.

Yes – it’s official. I have now jumped every hurdle.  I have completed, submitted, been examined, made the minor amendments, and handed in the ADR – in Australia, that is the Appropriate Durable Record. At my university, an impressive bound copy of your thesis is no longer desired – rather a few files on a disk that can be uploaded into an Electronic Thesis Repository.

Maybe not as pretty, but certainly global.

I was handed the stamped form. “You may now call yourself Dr Evelyn Tsitas, how does it feel?”

My senior supervisor who was there as I submitted all the signed forms – from the Head of School, the Dean and everyone else on the academic food chain – insisted “You must feel different – it does feel different, doesn’t it?”

Did I miss something? Did I suddenly get sprinkled with gold dust? Did the earth suddenly open up and a chasm of light rise from the centre, did a mass choir burst into song and the seas part? Well, of course not. But I’ll be damned if some sort of secret handshake didn’t almost get enacted amongst those in that office, and there was some sort of respect that hadn’t been there a mere thirty seconds before the official stamp sealed me as Dr. Evelyn Tsitas.

This doctorate has been the mythic hero’s journey – Joseph Campbell’s metaphor for the deep inner journey of transformation. In his book Myth and the Movies, writer Stuart Voytilla says this path leads the hero on predictable movements of separation, descent, ordeal and return. The final stage on this quest is Return With the Elixir, where the hero comes home and shares what has been gained on the quest, which benefits friends, family, community and the world.

Don’t we hope our doctoral research does just that?

Using the example of Woody Allen’s film classic 1977 romance Annie Hall, Voytilla says that the end of the movie finally shows the ability to look back on the good times in a relationship and acknowledge the elixir. He writes “relationships are irrational, crazy, and painful, but we keep going through them because we need the good times.”  That sounds a lot like a doctorate – it’s not all bad. People keep doing them because there are rewards, and some good times. And there is something within us that drives us to complete the enormous task – that quest for knowledge.

As I diligently went through all the corrections required by my doctoral examiners – such as formatting and editing (para 2, page 86 It’s (Its), Page 83: para 3, unclosed quotation marks, etc….I wondered if the final remark from one examiner – that I should have done nothing but the exegesis (and the novel) in the four years – no conferences, papers, certainly no ‘extra curricular’ writing as I am want to do – much less a full time job – was correct.

But what’s more important – handing in a pristine exegesis, devoid of a single typing error OR – making some sort of impact with your research, reaching out to the international community, having the guts to publish your research and make your name in the field? And actually trying to squeeze in a bit of life in those four years as well? Have just a little fun along the way?

This is the dilemma every doctoral student must face.

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Let’s talk about perfection – especially perfection in print.

I have spent most of my career as a journalist, on everything from suburban weekly newspapers, to magazines and daily newspapers as well as freelancing and blogging and here is the thing – there are teams of sub editors to read through and check for grammatical errors that sneak through even the cleanest copy. As writers, we read what we expect to read, and the only way I can see around having to do any minor corrections of formatting and grammatical or typing errors is to pay for several stages of professional editing before handing in the thesis.

Yet this is the real world, where you work until the last nano second on your doctorate, you don’t have a lot of cash to burn, and you do your best, but just like with daily newspapers and published books there are errors.

As long as they are not errors of fact, we accept them. Just as I accept that the doctorate is not a perfect finished and polished gem, as one examiner said it should be, at the expense of everything else.

Another academic suggested a doctorate should be ‘fit for purpose’. It is, after all, the springboard for a research career. No one publishes an exegesis as is. The day of the monograph is over. You use your work to create a series of journal articles, you also turn your thesis into a book, but not without going through a major edit with a publisher.

And as for the Doctorate in Creative Writing, the novel you submit will go through many changes after it has found a commercial publisher. These are the realities.

In hindsight, should I have done less as the examiner suggested, and handed in a ‘perfect’ exegesis? I wasn’t asked to change any of my arguments and my research wasn’t questioned, so I can live with correcting typing errors and formatting problems.

Looking back over the past four years, what would I have changed to ensure a ‘perfect’ rather than ‘fit for purpose’ result?

Some things I had to do, such as be a full time worker, mother and doctoral student. Others, such as teaching post graduates, blogging, writing, and editing outside the doctoral structure and presenting my research at conferences around Australia and internationally as well as submitting to academic journals, were all extra curricular.

But would I end up a better academic if I just simply focused on just doing the exegesis? No, I think I would have ended up insular and timid.

Especially in this competitive time when the academic environment has changed so rapidly, it is now crucial to get your research out to a wide audience, and to start making your name with your research as soon as possible, and prove you have a strong network in your field. I went to Oxford last year to present at two conferences, and am back again in September, to present the last chapter of my exegesis. I would rather have those experiences and the connections I made rather than a perfect doctorate without one little error.

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And so it comes down to this – the CV or the minor amendments on the exegesis as requested by the examiners?

I chose the later. And now I have done those pesky changes, I have the stamp on the official form that says I am Dr Evelyn Tsitas, as well as an impressive academic resume and two and a half years of tertiary teaching experience under my belt.

In the meantime, I have lost a lot of sleep, any social life and what little cooking skills I had. Even my microwave reheating techniques are a little dodgy. My kids have become a lot more resilient, though if I want to scare them into behaving I just say the magic words ‘mummy will do another PhD’. That subdues them.

It may contain a grain of truth, in fact. After a break of about nine weeks from the intensity of the doctoral deadline once I had submitted, I didn’t cope with the post-submission limbo very well. I was like a runner, swimmer or any endurance athlete after the finish line – exhausted but flat after the high of competition.

But plodding away at the minor amendments, I started to get the doctoral high again. I enjoy the peace of writing and studying long into the evening after the children are in bed, the dog is quiet and the words start flowing. It’s hypnotic, really. For me, writing is like my favourite scene from Jane Campion’s wonderful 1993 film The Piano.  Just substitute being at the piano keys for the computer keyboard. This scene so beautifully captures the rapture of creativity, when you can totally immerse yourself  in your art, so that nothing else matters; the children amuse themselves, others wait patiently, the light fades, but you are not forced to move on until you are done.

The doctoral pain dissolves, and I can feel that urge again…maybe I’m not quite finished yet? I wouldn’t be the first person in my immediate family to go back and get a second Masters after a doctorate. I wonder…is this Higher Degree Stockholm Syndrome?

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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.