academic cohort, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, peer support, Writing strategies, writing workshops

The Creative Writing PhD: Why Group Support Really Matters

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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.  

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Academic rituals, Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral completion, doctoral deadlines, PhD completion, Post Doctoral Study, Time management, Writing strategies

The daily word count – overcoming procrastination

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If you had all the time in the world to write, would it make you a better writer – or would you just have more time to procrastinate? Even if you love to write more than anything else, why is it that a deadline is the push you need to get it done?

Perhaps one reason you are falling behind in your book, doctoral writing or dissertation is that you are not putting in enough writing time. Maybe you are skimping on your daily word count. Are you cheating in your assessment of what you actually do each week when it comes to writing? If you added up all the time you actually spent physically putting words down on the page, what would it add up to?

And if you simply can’t get started – why? It’s time for some reassessment of your work habits, and a little look at the cheating and self-delusion that writers, like dieters, are all guilty of doing of indulging in. Go on, admit it – when you told your supervisor that you wrote for five hours last week, was it in fact one hour and the rest of the time googling celebrities without makeup?

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Dieters delude themselves that it’s not cheating if they eat when no one sees them. Writers delude themselves that they are writing when no one sees them. Which is why so many seem to need a deadline to get anything done. It’s like the equivalent of a public weigh-in.

I am no stranger to the motivation of a deadline. What writer hasn’t cleaned the stove, mowed the lawn or rearrange the sock drawer to avoid the blank page? Doctoral students are even worse, with that supposedly long period of time stretching endlessly into the distance – until the final deadline looms.

I’ve been thinking a lot about deadlines these past few days because I’ve been talking a lot about them in a writing master class I am doing. Other people might spend a long weekend down at the beach, I spend it – writing.

What, you might ask, did I expect to get out of a writing master class, now that I have a doctorate in creative writing under my belt?

As one woman said “I am doing this because I am a life long learner”. Indeed. Also, the simple act of being surrounded by writing peers at a similar level of expertise is galvanising. The quality of feedback is invigorating and challenging, the camaraderie as the social ice thaws is comforting, and hearing other experienced writers talking about their struggles is enlightening.

In fact, no matter how accomplished, it transpires that writers are all prone to the same self doubt and procrastination. Here are common comments during the coffee break –  “I am so lazy!”, or “I am a fraud!” or “I can’t do this!” and “what makes me think I can ever write anything good enough?”  This is what US psychologist David Rasch PhD – author of The Blocked Writer’s Book Of The Dead calls “the jerk in my head”.

All of the 12 people in the master class were talented, prolific, experienced, published and devoted to their craft. But one thing really, really resonated with everyone was the communal cry of “we just don’t get enough done!” and “I need to have better work habits!”

One  participant had the enviable lifestyle of all the time to write – no kids to mind, daily paid job to do, or elderly relatives to nurture. He had the money, the support and the space and no distractions. Unlike another writer of 10 published books who is also a full time primary school teacher and writes books in the school holidays, this man appeared to have a dream existence. Except he wasn’t writing. He was procrastinating.

 

I suggested some obstacles, boundaries or roadblocks –  sometimes having everything is actually limiting. A form of creative agoraphobia. Maybe that’s why writers procrastinate – because it focuses time when they have to really, really get something in. And that narrow window of opportunity then casts a beam of clarity over the problem at hand.

Or – maybe not. It just makes us stressed and irritable. I am no stranger to the all-nighter, probably because I take on many projects, work full time and have two children. But what I do know is that there are many ways to approach your writing, and you need to find the one that works best for you. How will you end up with a reasonable body of work? By putting the time in. The same could be said of having a reasonable body of course…you have to put in the work…not just think about it…

 

Here are some ideas canvassed in the master class: – which writer are you?

  • Binge writer: you starve yourself of writing and time, then hit the computer and pour out the words in a block of time, alienating yourself from the rest of the world.
  • Helicopter nibbler – you don’t have the time to write every day because of other commitments, but the weekend seems so far away…so you keep in touch by writing little notes to your work, making sure you maintain the love with your project.
  •  The five: two writing diet – you are a weekend writer only. The rest of the week you think you might write, but don’t. After all, You haven’t finished watching Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones.
  • The early morning writer – you start before the family gets up. By 8 pm, you can only concentrate on TV.
  • The late night writer – for night owls – you write when you have the children to bed. This is because you can’t even write a shopping list in the morning that makes sense.
  • The word count writer – you write 500 to 1000 words a day, whenever, no matter what. This adds up. You have a book finished in six months!
  • Once a week writer – you write only one hour a week on a Sunday – and make sure you write 2000 words in that session. See above!
  • Endless plotting writer – maybe it’s not JUST about the words – but the other complicated, moving parts of a novel – the plot, characters, the twists and turns, the set ups and payoffs…maybe you set aside a specific block of time each day or week – half and hour – to work on this AS WELL as a separate block of time for actual writing. You also have a book finished in six months, but are late paying bills and have no personal relationships. You are obsessed and driven – are you doing a doctorate?
  • Vomit draft writer – you don’t worry about the perfect draft first off – you write the entire “draft zero” or “vomit draft” and then have time for editing, and rewriting. People use the words fast paced, action packed and could do with a close edit for your work.
  • None of the above. You want to write but get nothing done. But your next holiday is planned and you have a table covered in books that could be the inspiration for your novel, if only you’d stop watching Game Of Thrones.

Think of your writing life like other aspects of your life that you need to do to remain a functional person – you need to eat, shop, clean, cook, take care of friendships and family, you need to read, plot, write and engage with the writing community in some way as a writer. Just as you should exercise regularly, you need to write regularly.

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No time for writing? Nonsense – you can fit even 10 minutes a day, can’t you? Save the big burst up for when you can carve out time, but just as there are many forms of eating (snacks, dinner out, leisurely brunch) so too are there many forms of writing. Just do it!

The trick is to find a pattern for yourself, and factor it in, every day, every week, week in and out. Remember the worst thing is starting, so some tricks, like retyping the last paragraph of your story when you start, or making sure you always finish some writing off so that it’s never a neat ending, and come back into that sentence, might work for you.

What ever you do – start. And put in – the time and effort. Nothing happens without it. Books, and doctorates alas, do not write themselves from your imagination and research without your physical input.

 

Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, publishing the novel, Writing strategies

It’s not me, it’s you: falling out of love with your fictional character

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My dearest fictional character – we’ve been together for many years, and you’ve sat with me long into the night as we have tried to work it out. You’ve gone deep into the heart of academia with me, you’ve faced the Master of Creative Writing examiners – and passed, with flying colors – and I have good friends who will go into bat for you.

And I have loved and cared for you, it’s true. I made you from nothing but the figment of my imagination. I gave you flesh and blood and backstory. I fashioned your hair and clothes and gave you your name. You feel like you are part of me.

But recently, or actually, not so recently, things haven’t been the same between us. I’ve noticed your flaws. Those charming idiosyncrasies that at first were just slightly annoying, but have now started grating on me. Even though, it is true, I was responsible for everything about you, even the awful bits.

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But some of the things you’ve done, and let’s be honest, the people you’ve killed in my Gothic horror novel, have indicated that you are unbalanced. And people don’t necessarily like that.

There is no harder word to defend in fiction than ‘antagonist’. Except perhaps the words ‘female antihero’.

No one likes a woman who kills in fiction. They like her even less if she kills her lover’s wife. It’s true that even in the horror genre, people get very moralistic like that. Though I agree with you, the wife had it coming to her. She after all turned your lover’s life support off, didn’t she? And if that’s not motivation enough to propel you on your bloody journey of revenge, I don’t know what is.

And I thought refusing to say ‘till death do us part’ was romantic. Apparently not.  People just think you are unhinged.

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You see, Xanthe, I have a new set of people reading about you. And they don’t like you, not one little bit. One author was ready to throw you against a wall – a pretty strong reaction to a fictional character, I know. She said it out loud, to my face. “I just don’t like her.”

Others in my new writing workshop have started saying it as well. It began with a read through and a glass of wine. They called you objectionable. That hurt. To be told that the person you cared about – even if only fictional – was not quite up to scratch. Not worthy of me. Not only that, they didn’t even like the man you loved. I was trying to make him sympathetic, but I was told he was too perfect. They said he needed to be flawed, cheating man that he is – he needed to be real. Everyone likes the bad boy in books.

What’s that I hear you say? You think I am being unfaithful with my writer’s affections? Okay. So, I admit it. There’s someone else. That’s the truth. They are as intense as you, but less neurotic. And for some reason, even though he (yes, it’s a man this time) inhabits a world where he has sold his soul to the devil, and you still have yours, people prefer him.

How did that happen?

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I am the writer who created you both, and people prefer JD Howard to you, Xanthe. It’s just the way it is. They want me to leave you, toss you aside, and move in with him, so to speak.

In fact, when I presented the latest piece of writing at my workshop featuring you, Xanthe, this is what they said.

“Oh, we were hoping for more of Howard, after what we read last time. We loved Howard, he was ambiguous, morally objectionable, but interesting – well dressed, dark, mysterious, and we loved the way he tried to seduce that nurse in the first chapter…”

And you, my poor dear Xanthe, love of my heart, a woman I so painstakingly created throughout my Masters degree – they just thought you were crazy. They didn’t get you at all.

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So now, after all this time, I have decided to consign you to third person. Howard is going to take the prized first person protag place in my novel.

What can I say, Xanthe? It’s not me, it’s you. I think you are the reason my novel hasn’t found a publisher. Now, maybe I am being too harsh, that’s not totally the case, but in all relationship breakups, someone has to take the blame, so it might as well be you.

If I wanted to be really honest, I could tell you this – obviously in the course of the four years that I have pursued my doctorate in creative writing, I have grown stronger, leaner, meaner, better as a writer, and you, my dearest, just don’t cut it any more.

Yes, I know we go back a long way, and you are the first love of my MA. But now it is time to face the facts. We have grown apart. I have outgrown you, and it’s over. It really is.

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I could let you down gently, I suppose, tell you that I just need some space to think about things. But actually, I have told you those lies already. How many years now have I said to you that I am too busy to spend time with you? That I can’t pursue our endless redrafts any more because I have to work on other projects, or I have a conference to attend? I keep saying I’ll get back to you in due course, but it never happens, does it? You should have realized then there was another book taking my time and affections.

You should have realized my neglect was actually an indication of a deeper betrayal – that of lack of interest. But it hurts me to do this. To create another you. A better you. A you without the flaws. A you perfectly drawn, who will do what I want, when I want. The thing is, Xanthe. I am selfish. I want to get my novel published. And you are holding me back.

You see, Xanthe, now I have submitted that other novel as part of my doctorate, I am ready to come back to the MA novel, and I don’t like what I see anymore. I don’t like you, Xanthe.

So here we are now, with me about to commit the ultimate in writer’s divorce. I am going to move all our work together into an old draft folder, and start again.

That’s it. I have had enough. I have tried and tried, but it’s just not working. I have to be mature about this, and do the right thing by you – and by me – and call it quits. I can’t waste any more time with you. I can’t keep providing you with better dialogue, more complex motivations that still render you believable. I need to have time to write the book my book could be without you.

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Even though I spent years creating you, and rewriting you, it’s not working. You are not working. It’s over. I want to start afresh with someone else. Another character. A clean slate. Someone I can project my darkest fantasies upon. Someone who will do what I want and have the readers cheering.

Goodbye Xanthe. If this were a Stephen King novel, you’d stab me in my sleep for ending it this way. I know you – you are like that, aren’t you?

Just as well you are not real. Only a figment of my imagination.