Tag Archives: writing life

Life post PhD – embracing the moment at last

21 Dec

xmas yardI have a friend I have been trying to see for a few weeks. It’s nearly Christmas and everyone is catching up as if the world is about to end. Yet each time we set a date she cancels. And I totally I understand why. She is in doctoral lock down.

Indeed, last time she cancelled I told her I didn’t expect to see her until June 2016. In fact, if I did, something must be wrong. Because in the last hurdle of the doctorate nothing else matters but the looming deadline.

I know the feeling all too well.

From where she is sitting, with the panic and fear and dread and utter anxiety of writing up ahead of her, my words can seem like platitudes. Because I have done it – I ran the race, I finished and now I have the PhD.

In truth, part of me misses that doctoral bubble because doing a PhD is pretty much free reign to just think, even if like me you also held down a full time job.

It’s hard to constantly set the same goals you did when you were doing a doctorate – that narrow focus, and every six months another public milestone to achieve – a graduate research progress report, or a conference, a journal article, and then checking in with your supervisor.

Once you have that PhD, you are on your own, baby. When it comes to your research, no one cares what you do and when you do it, or if you never achieve anything ever again. However, you will also find a lot of other people who don’t have a PhD but think they should start being rather unpleasant to you. Over the past two years, I have had many bitchy comments such as “you can’t do THAT? But I thought you were smart – you have a PhD!” and “only academics call themselves Doctor and YOU AREN’T ONE so I wonder why YOU bother?”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognise professional jealousy, but I understand why many people (especially in Australia) hide their academic achievements. Certainly it’s not something you’d put up on a dating site.

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I admit that angst over ‘doctoral embarrassment’ (the state of being apologetic for being more highly qualified than those who resent you) may seem like distant dream to those like my friend who are battling to actually complete their PhD on time. I get that.

Just as I get the ‘life on hold’ pain that comes with the final stage of the doctoral journey. It’s head down, bum on seat, and focus, focus, focus.

And yet….I think that intensity and focus, the necessity of having to defer so much life and gratification, is part of the pleasure of academic study’s intense focus. You get a free pass in not caring about anything other than your work. Strange as it may sound, enjoy. It will not come your way again (well, until you do another doctorate…)

On a recent walk with the dog, I saw a young woman studying in her bedroom window. It was a Sunday night, and rather than watching TV, talking to friends, or anything else, she was at her desk, the light on, head down, and working. Outside, her family had strung up Christmas lights around the garden. Inside, the only light was her desk light, shining brightly on her to guide her way.

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I felt a pang of nostalgia – I knew well that focus, and in a way, missed it. Now all timetables are self directed. What am I writing now? It’s up to me. I can wander around at dusk with the Corgi checking out the fairy lights. I have the time for life. And the opposite of that, its intimate partner, is that I have to motivate myself to write and research.

Throw yourself into life, my friend, and there isn’t much left over for the mind. Balance? I’ve yet to find it. Maybe that’s why I miss the doctoral zone.

Of course, those years of focusing on my work meant something had to give, and it was my domestic and social life, which I am now enjoying making a priority again.

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Yet it seems very indulgent, still, to meet a friend on a Sunday afternoon and bake Christmas ginger biscuits and decorate them with my youngest son. A whole Sunday afternoon! That is five hours I would never have allowed myself when I was doing the PhD.

As I sprinkled coloured sugar crystals over the xmas biscuits and joked with my son and reminisced with my friend, I felt  myself being utterly in the present in a way that a doctoral student never is truly there when engaged with life.

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So, Merry Christmas to my friend and all of you who are in the last few months of your PhD – heartfelt good  wishes for your success and while you will no doubt find it hard to relax during the holiday season, remember that a time will come when you, too, can ‘waste’ a Sunday baking gingerbread biscuits. And each bite will be all that sweeter for having deferred the gratification.

 

Falling in love again: the (re) writing zone

19 Jan

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There are many sorts of writing, just as there are endless ways to read. Snack, bite sized and on the run – or delightfully languorous, never looking at your watch. As for those on a doctoral deadline, we all know frantic and deadline driven writing and reading. But then, after you have submitted, there is the hardest of them all – revisiting old work that needs an over haul.

Just as it’s hard to get back into a book you’ve stopped reading and put away for a few months (do you ever really finish one of those tomes?) so is the pain of revisiting fiction you have put aside. Because no one gets their work out to publishers while the exhaustion of doctoral completion is fresh. So, how do you come back to the work in six months, or a year? You have have passed your Creative Writing PhD, but your novel probably still needs some work before it hits the publisher’s email.

How do you fall in love again with your work and care enough to tackle it afresh?

That’s been my preoccupation these past few days, as I have a manuscript I am working on that still needs a wrangle. The trouble is, it goes further back than the doctorate – the work I am revisiting is the novel I wrote for my MA. You probably have one of these yourself – the knowledge that you want your manuscript in the best possible shape before you send it to a publisher, but there is an aspect that just doesn’t work. Or work well enough to catch the eye of someone who wants to sink money into it. And that’s why you have left it, because apart from nibbles and some interest, it’s not quite there yet.

The worst thing about putting such a manuscript away and working on something else is that it is damned hard to revisit again – without getting into the zone.

I admit it – I am a deadline junkie as much as the next journalist but this old habit from an old working life doesn’t really cut it when you are doing a doctorate, because there is too much work for a final sprint at one deadline. You have to chunk it up and give yourself mini deadlines.

This is also a way of reentering the orbit of a work that has gone off your radar. If you are anything like me, other priorities take over, and it is only the arrival of a red letter and non negotiable deadline that makes you open the file, delve deep back into the world you created and – start again.

The problem is, unlike making bread where the combination of flour and water and yeast and heat may rise, with a manuscript that has been left, if the plot and characters haven’t got the chemistry to work together, they will still fall flat and prove difficult to fashion into a tasty product no matter how long you let it sit.

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Or maybe not. Perhaps only tweaks are needed, maybe you need to change the voice, or the tone, or the characters. But perhaps a fresh perspective could also help.

Enter the workshop doctors.

If you can find yourself an intensive professional writing group – the sort that only works with those of your standard, not hobbyists, then this could be the boot camp you need to get a fresh take on your work.

I joined such a group when completing my doctoral novel, and it was invaluable. Now I am revisiting my masters novel, and while I have had two chapters published already in literary journals, the time has come for a serious edit and revise.

The trouble is, getting back into the zone. The zone of ideas that created the work in the first place.

Chances are you are not the same person you were when you started writing your book. In the time that you put the work down to ‘breathe’ and start something else, you may have moved on, found other interests, fallen in and out of love, perhaps had a child, travelled. Well – you might have put the book away for six months or six years – so how do you come back to that place that spawned those ideas?

Life is conflict, there are small and large battles every day, and the trick is to both write, and be a writer, and also have a life, move forward from the fears and ghosts that are holding us from joy but without sacrificing the shadows that helped us with the necessary chiaroscuro for drama in the first place. It’s one thing to write, it’s another to maintain both a life, a writing life and an inner life necessary to conjure up work from nothing, and maintain the head space and practical surrounds to develop this into fiction. It is a skill, and as my writing mentor admits, one that requires a high degree of difficulty. And higher chance of failure. Are you wasting your time? Your reader’s time?

There are several tips about entering the general writing zone that apply to re-writing – write every day, make a writing plan, read widely and every day, immerse yourself in reading about books and writers. Yet as a professional writer, this doesn’t go to the problem of reentering the zone of work you have put aside.

In that instance, as well as re reading the manuscript, you really need to enter the zone of ideas that created it. Hopefully, if the book is about something that you really are compelled to explore, you will have been doing this even as the incomplete work languished – or was left to breathe.

I know I am still obsessed about the themes in my work, which I am now revisiting. And those in my circle who have read the manuscript are still pestering me to get it out into the light of day. because those ideas are still compelling.

I keep reading fiction that explores ideas around the emotional or narrative core of the book. Just as it isn’t necessary to write about an exact experience, or indeed person, but rather the emotional resonance of a real event, it’s not necessary to only read fiction in the genre you are revisiting. In fact, I think it hinders, as we can get swayed by another ‘voice’. Many writers like to read non fiction in areas of their current subject interest for that reason.

Two books have helped me reenter the zone in the past few weeks – Joan Didion’s heartbreaking 2005 novel The Year of Magical Thinking and Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s 2009 novel The Angel’s Game. Quite different books, that have both had an impact on my way of approaching my work again. Of course, a little obsessive behavior is always good when finding the zone – block out the outside world, let the kids fend for themselves as you bark “not now I’m writing!” and try as far as possible to screen out pesky things like current affairs, world news and local elections while you sink deep into the fictional world you are creating.

There is no getting around the fact that writing is a solitary and selfish exercise. Not much fun to be around when the process is going on – about as much fun as sitting watching dough rise in a warm car. No, unless you are going to participate by offering your naked back as services for a writer’s quill, or be there to support, perhaps it’s best that writers should be left to wrestle with their work, thrash and howl alone. There is simply nothing exciting about the process, especially when revisiting the bloody site of work that needs more work. That’s the spot to avoid at all costs. Like a car accident. And there is no way around it – revisiting the zone and rewriting is going to be its own form of torture.

An invaluable exercise in finding 3000 words (and new writing on the piece) for the upcoming writing workshop was being forced to answer three questions about the book that had been bothering me – and also contextualizing the novel, and the piece from that which I submitted to the group.

Ask yourself  – what isn’t working about your novel? What would you like a reader to look at if they were given a chapter? Is it plot, character? Voice? Drill down – be specific.

For me, the hardest thing was projecting myself into the work again. This was a world I had made, these were characters who didn’t exist until I put them on the page. To change the protagonist because of feedback I received from readers who said they didn’t like her is one thing. But to wonder whether she would have been better of as I had her – an obsessive, overly emotional and deeply superstitious woman on an unlikely quest – is another again. If I change her slightly, and make her more stable, wise cracking, more modern, then would be bizarre journey be as believable?

That’s a question I put to the workshop – but to do that, and not just throw in a speculative question, I had to create the other version of my protagonist, and also her love interest, and also the location of the opening scene.

So, not so much a revisit as a rewrite. But then, all writing is rewriting.

As I watched my son make bread under my friend’s guidance on the weekend, we searched for a warm place to leave the dough to rise – Melbourne’s famously erratic weather meant even in mid summer it was a cool day, and I suggested the inside of my car. This one of my grandmother’s tricks – because the inside of cars left in the sun warm up quickly.

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My son wondered what would happen if we forgot about the dough, and came back hours later – we imagined the yeast rising and taking over, oozing forth out of the car because it was not tamed into submission by the baking process.

An apt metaphor I think, for the novel that never gets finished, but constantly added to.

Perhaps my anxiety at the keyboard today had a lot to do with the knowledge that this beast of mine must be kneaded into shape, and put in the oven to cook (read sent to publishers) and then the moment of truth, of seeing whether it all falls flat or not.

I am pleased to announce my 13 year old cooked his first successful loaf of bread, which was very quickly eaten. The challenge is now on for me to again get into the zone of my novel, and knead it into shape, whatever its new shape may be.

“So, how did your writing go today?” I asked my friend who is tackling a few major deadlines.

“It was really enjoyable,” came the reply. Ah – to be in the zone, while I struggled to find that space. It made me realise how hard it is to revisit the past. My mother always warned me, don’t look back, you will turn into a pillar of salt. But we must look back as writers, and re-enter the zone.

To do so, immerse yourself in the ideas and the themes and characters you created in the first place, and then pull it apart and see if tackling it differently brings a better outcome. Rewrite from first person to third? Kill your darlings – favourite characters who have become redundant? Or make the voice stronger, harsher, ore younger and more innocent. Ah – choices. Once you re-enter the zone, stay there, move around and play with your work. Write like you have never written this book before, write like you are discovering the ideas all over again.

That’s where the enjoyment comes in. That’s the zone. Bite into it.

sliced bread

 

 

 

 

 

PhD time management rules: why life balance is a myth

28 Oct

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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? 

 

The Creative Writing PhD: Why Group Support Really Matters

7 Sep

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Just as doctoral study is a mostly solitary activity, so too is writing. But that doesn’t mean you have to go solo. In fact, relying on the comfort of others is one of the things that stops you chucking the whole thing in, especially if you are doing a creative writing doctorate. Trust me on this.

An analogy I like to use is how doctoral study – and post doctoral life – is like motherhood. Desperately lonely in the early days. For someone used to the relentless pace of corporate life or the engagement and demands of academia, being on your own with a baby is a special kind of hell. The only way to survive is to reach out to others in the same boat. No new mother is an island.

Writing groups are like mother’s groups. Initially, it’s clinging to each other like no one else knows your pain. Then – once some confidence sets in, it’s the same bravado and bragging – whose manuscript is having good growth spurts, whose creative ideas are flowing like mother’s milk, whose manuscript got accepted into a prestigious literary agency, not just the local one around the corner.

And then, as you get to know your fellow writers, after a few workshops of thrashing out the manuscript, the truth starts to leak out like a sodden nappy.

Your characters won’t behave. Your narrative arc refuses to comply with your demands. You spent weeks – months – agreeing to the writing changes everyone suggested and then your new mentor, like a rigid maternal health care nurse, demands you start all over again because if you continue the way you are going, you’ll end up with a fat and bloated child, unfit for public consumption.

Just as it takes time to properly bond with women with whom you probably have nothing more in common with than cracked nipples and sleepless nights, so too does it take time to bond with the people in your writing group.

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I know – I am in two writing groups, simultaneously working on two different novels, and I met both groups of these fabulous writers through a writing masterclass. I started this about nine months before handing in my doctorate, when I realized I really, really needed some extra help with my novel.

I was so focused was on academic research that the creative part of my PhD was languishing. The familiar panic – I can’t do this!!! – flooded in. Writing is a mind game, a confidence trick, a will to commit to the page those ferocious ideas swirling around in your mind. You have to believe you can do it, and then you have to have the methodology to see you through. It’s no good running on instinct alone. Instinct will not get you through the tough times any more than it will get you through the hiccups in parenting.

New mothers – and seasoned mothers up against those developmental milestones – turn to experts, parenting books and blogs for advice on everything from lactation to their teenagers learning to drive (I put my hand up here as mother of a 16 year old); so why should writers be immune to structured advice?

Harder for some to accept is the need for extra help in the doctoral journey. But I am proud to say that my masterclass cohort – and the spin off writing group that meets monthly, and another that meets every six weeks – really saved my sanity and ensured I was able to complete my doctorate on time – and keep writing in the postdoc phase. Maybe your university has great writing groups for doctoral students. Maybe not. And even if they have writing groups, maybe they just don’t work too well.

Let’s face it, we don’t get along with everyone, which is why when we do click with someone – when that magic of shared connection is apparent – it’s worth celebrating. If you meet writers at an event, or masterclass or workshop and that magic happens, do everything in your power to hold onto that cohort.

 

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My tips for a good writing workshop are to choose people on a similar trajectory and level of expertise to you. It’s no good meeting up with people who are starting out on the journey if you are a mid career writer. You may not have published a book yet, but if you have been working professionally in the writing sphere for years and have had a play produced, a book of poems, short stories and the like, then you are not going to be on equal footing with someone who has ‘always wanted to write’ and is now only dipping their tentative toe in the water.

The two writing groups I am with feature professional writers with a work ethic to match my ferocious appetite. And we are all parents. With the upcoming school holidays, I knew I found a soul mate when comparing notes with another writer in my group. Are we going to sit on a beach in Bali? I think not. We are both teaching workshops AND plotting how much uninterrupted writing we can get done in two weeks.

It’s sweet indeed to have a group of people who are familiar with the trials of not just the effort and skill needed to write 80,000 words of a novel, but then rewrite, submit, get knocked back, search for an agent, look for a publisher, pitch, pitch and pitch again. Writing a book takes longer than people think. Years longer. It’s hard for those not in the game to appreciate the demanding nature of the business, the roller coaster ride of finding inspiration, crafting characters and dialogue, finessing plot devices and crafting structure – hell, even coming up with a catchy book title is a major effort that can demand group input.

 

In fact, a glistening jar of homemade blueberry jam slid across the table at my writing group today, as a reward to a writer who had come up with a catchy title for another’s manuscript. As it happens, the writer in need of a title travels two hours from country Victoria, where she lives on a blueberry farm – to come to Melbourne to participate in the writing group.

Yes, writing groups can be time consuming, and in order to earn your place at the table, you have to be prepared to commit to other people’s work, put in the time to read their submissions, and really make constructive comments on what they have done. There is no place for those who don’t pull their weight. We are all very busy professional writers, and we come together to really push our work forward.

But – there is also camaraderie, the exchange of ideas, and like in a mother’s group, there is time for laughter and tears, for celebration and sighs, in the ebb and flow of the highs and lows of the writing life.

We break bread as well, and bond. One group meets over sushi and wine, in the evening, once a month, in a writer’s apartment overlooking the city lights. The other meets every six weeks in The Wheeler Centre in the heart of the city of Melbourne, and we go out for lunch after our intensive two hour session.

Like everything, practice makes perfect, and building on our stories – both imaginary, and from our lives, is a process that takes time. But while we do veer into personal territory on occasions, what we mostly talk about as we take a break from analyzing our writing is – our writing lives. The trials of the writing life. We talk about the inspiration and desires for our novels. Just like a mother’s group, we speculate and fantasize about our literary prodigy’s futures. This is an important part of the process. Creative visualization – imagining a future – is essential to making that future happen. Be it with real children or your creative offspring.

Yes, writing is a solitary business, the writer and the page. But just because you work alone, doesn’t mean you have to travel alone. Having a team with you – and seeing what they are going through as well – gives you confidence. I’ve heard that envy kicks in as well – if one gets a book deal it spurs the others to push themselves out there, and try as well.

And just like a mother’s group, no matter how easy it might be for some to naturally birth a manuscript, life and the publishing industry has a way of levelling the playing field. Just as your low birth weight baby may be the high achieving kid at school, so too might the manuscript you have struggled with over the years turn into the star that wins a literary prize, or a commercial best seller. Or – it might just turn out to be the book that is published, while the writer who won a prize might find their manuscript languishes on a literary agent’s table.

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No matter where you are on the journey of the creative writing doctorate, I urge you to find or form a writing group. Whatever you seek, it won’t be found with your academic supervisor – that’s like relying on your midwife to stay with you from pregnancy until your child finishes high school.

Get peer support. Get a writing group. Then you can keep writing – and carry on.  

Impostor syndrome: overcoming the fear of doctoral failure

25 May

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Hands up if you are a perfectionist. Hands up if you wilt and wither at rejection. Okay – we need to talk. You have to accept being less than perfect if you want to pass your doctorate because ultimately, you may be placing the bar too high.

A doctorate has to be ‘fit for purpose’ (ie: good). Not a Nobel Prize winning achievement. In fact, there is a great research paper titled “It’s a PhD Not A Nobel Prize” that I heard referred to throughout my doctorate, by fellow Australians Gerry Mullins and Margaret Kiley.

One of the key points is this – “All PhDs are not equal and yet most get through”. So there is no point in dropping out because you fear not being brilliant. Reality check – few doctorates dazzle. Sure, you want yours to be the one that does, but maybe there is time for that later, once you have that piece of paper and have learned how to speak the language of the academy. Trying to be perfect can so often lead to failure.

It’s no surprise that the pursuit of perfection cripples progress. Often it’s better to get the job done and warts and all, expose it to the glare of public opinion. We compare ourselves to people who are way ahead in the same game; we judge our work against work that they have honed to a shimmering patina.

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We look at art produced at the end of a career, not the beginning, we sigh and flip through an author’s 10th book and know we can never compete.

Practice, of course makes perfect, but as a doctoral student – or shaky legged newly minted post doc – each step we take is new, unsteady, unsure.

All I can say if you are on the start of the journey is that even after graduation, it doesn’t get easier. Now is the time when you really, really have to accept failure – when you start to expose your research to the cold light of day.

Being a writer doesn’t help. You have your doctoral novel, you hope that might open a few doors, but everyone seems to be doing a doctorate in creative writing these days. What’s your unique point of view? Your angle? Your brand? Your pitch? Are you relying on the power of your writing and imagination, or, lucky you, are you able to ride high on a memoir that mines personal tragedy that resonates with global misery or at least a salacious affair with some celebrity? Ah – I can hear the stampede of salivating publishers as I tap away at the keyboard.

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Writers are so often told “you only get one chance with a publisher?” or “if it’s not perfect then they won’t want it” We’ve all heard the tales of the countless knock backs successful writers have had on the way to publication.  That tends to freeze your soul a little. Especially when you spent four years slaving over your novel and accompanying research. You have passed the doctorate – you don’t want to fail with a publisher.

Get a large group of writers together in a room and you’ll feel the perfectionism and smell the fear of failure. And this is not all in the mind – just because you have had one or two books published means nothing these days. It’s perverse – the door opens, they let you in, then slam the door shut as you as you try for a second or third bite at the pie.

When a publisher takes on a writer, they do so because they hope the book will generate profits, so they take a punt – and hence the door closing if after one or two books those hopes are not delivered in the market place. As I say to my students, it’s not the publishing charity, it’s the publishing industry.

Writing a book is like shooting bullets in the dark and hoping it lands on an object somewhere. On the other hand, a doctorate satisfies a much, much smaller audience. For a start, you have to pass a confirmation hurdle, and then progress hurdles and then a completion hurdle, all in front of a panel that assess your ability to progress to the next level. You are being constantly guided to success, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

So, since there is support along the way in the doctorate or at least safety measures to ensure you are pushed towards success, why do so many doctoral students feel crippled by such self doubt, when they are obviously smart enough to get accepted into the degree in the first place?

“Life is but life, and death but death! Bliss is but bliss, and breath but breath! And if, indeed, I fail, At least to know the worst is sweet. Defeat means nothing but defeat, No drearier can prevail!”  Emily Dickinson, Poems by Emily Dickinson, Series One.

It’s the fear of failure and defeat that does it every time. We fear being unmasked as frauds, we fear not being able to speak the language, master the secret codes, come up with the theories or grapple with the methodology that matters in the doctorate.

I have sweated in the fear of failure, and all I can say is that this fear continues even after you have passed the doctorate. In fact, that’s when the fear of failure can be worst! Because now you have to take your research and creative work out of the sheltered workshop of the academy and impress not just a couple of examiners, your supervisor and an academic panel, but people who will put down money (hopefully) into your ideas and research.

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Now is the time you have to write proposals and pitches to publishers or industry. You have to get that research from journal article or lab results into commercial scrutiny. It’s equally as terrifying – if not more – than the four years of defending your research during the doctoral journey.

But be prepared to fail, my friends, because if you don’t try, sure, you’ll be safe, but you may never get anywhere. You have to go forth and be prepared to get your heart broken, again, and again, and again, when you fail to get your research picked up and your book published.

In her biography Bossypants comedian Tina Fey writes: “You can’t be the kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down that chute…you have to let people see what you write. It will never be perfect, but perfect is overrated…” (pg 123)

Because I enjoy research (code for I can waste a lot of time researching) and I’m a big Tina Fey fan (another Greek-German writer!) I thought I’d find out what else she has said on the subject of failure.

“For my first show at SNL, I wrote a Bill Clinton sketch, and during our read-through, it wasn’t getting any laughs. This weight of embarrassment came over me, and I felt like I was sweating from my spine out. But I realized, ‘Okay, that happened, and I did not die.’ You’ve got to experience failure to understand that you can survive it.” Fail big; you’ll live.

Look at it this way – what is the worst thing that can happen with your doctoral journey? That you won’t pass? Or that having passed, no one is interested in what you have researched anyway?

You see, at every stage, the fear of failure haunts us. Despite having passed the doctorate, the fear of my research being rejected is very front and centre in my mind. I know, I research everything, and what I feel has a name – impostor syndrome, discovered by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 – and still going strong, especially among women. Girls discover early on they are judged by the highest physical, behavioural and intellectual standards, and so perfection becomes the goal and every flaw or mistake is internalized, eroding self confidence. Hello, fraud syndrome. Hello fear of failure, my old friend.

Again, let us turn to Tina Fey for advice, who says “Ah, the impostor syndrome!? The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh god, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud. Seriously, I’ve just realised that almost everyone is a fraud, so I try not to feel too bad about it.”

This is beautifully illustrated in a very clever 1996 Whoopi Goldberg film The Associate , in which Whoopi’s character, a successful black woman, has to pretend to be a man to be taken seriously on Wall Street. However, her ruse is so successful she laments “even when I invent a man he ends up stabbing me in the back.”

 

 

According to Dr. Valerie Young’s book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive In Spite of It (Crown Business, Random House) “The thing about “impostors” is they have unsustainably high standards for everything they do. The thinking here is, If I don’t know everything, then I know nothing. If it’s not absolutely perfect, it’s woefully deficient. If I’m not operating at the top of my game 24/7, then I’m incompetent.”

The problem is that doctoral study breeds this type of thinking. Your literature review isn’t good enough! You haven’t published enough! If you published the journal isn’t ranked high enough! This dissertation isn’t going to win a Nobel Prize!

Really, it’s time to take Tina Fey’s advice. Chances are you are your own worst enemy and everyone else believes in you – except you. So get out, and believe in your work and expose it to the possibility of success as well as failure. That’s a scary thought, isn’t it?

As my youngest  son keeps reminding me, “mummy, it’s time to sit down, find a publisher and send your book out into the world. You need to get a book published and make lots of money.

Kids can be tough, can’t they? Mind you, I keep telling him the only failure is in not trying, so I suppose at least I have been successful in passing that message across.

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