Ditch (Photo credit: Ben Bunch)
I’m battered, and bruised, and in the market for a thicker skin.
I sat down this morning to write, and found that I needed to blog instead. Where I’d like to start is this: doing a PhD is not just doing a PhD. When I first started I read lots and lots of PhD advice, especially on The Thesis Whisperer, and I took it to heart. I don’t just want a publication at the end of this; I want teaching experience, and connections with peers working in similar areas, and some conferences under my belt, and a job.
In the last two years I’ve published six papers from my PhD (some of them are still in the pipes). I just finished my first semester of teaching. I’m the Faculty representative for our Faculty Higher Degrees Research Committee. I won the Faculty level Three Minute Thesis Competition last year and this year have been asked to administer and compere the event. I applied for and received funding to present at both a local and international conference, and I’ve written two thirds of a PhD. My scholarship runs out in December next year and I’m well on track to finishing in time. This is not a skite list: it’s a testament to clear strategic thinking, a certain type of stubbornness that insists that if I do the right things in a professional manner I will be employable at the end of all this, and an utter belief in the work I’m doing.
To top it off, I recently founded a peer reviewed, open access, gender, sexuality and diversity studies journal with a group of postgraduates at my university. I’m one of the managing editors, and we recently released our first issue. I did this because it fills a need, and because I’m passionate about creating space in the academy for voices that are still unheard. I also did it because when I started my PhD a trusted friend and former academic told me it was probably best to have a Plan B, C, D and possibly E in the event that I would be unable to get a job at the end. The journal is thrilling, and spectacular, and I truly love doing it, but it’s cost me more hours than I can count, and a huge amount of emotional energy (often at the cost of my partner and children).
But all of this was ok. And then these things happened, all in a row:
- I came back from my overseas trip and couldn’t right myself again. Sliding doors. The realisation that, without children, I would have emailed my supervisor a simple ‘sorry, it’s too spectacular here in Paris, I’ll see you in a year or so’, and to my partner ‘get yourself on a plane’. But I have children. And they’re the reason I am where I am, and the reason I write what I write. So here I am, back, with honey toast handprints on my jeans and requests for water in the night.
- I came back from my overseas trip to 80,000 words of marking that needed to be turned around in three days, and ended up injuring my arm and shoulder, and I’m still injured (brace, ice, warmth, anti-inflammatories, keep going).
- An AWOL postgrad that I’ve never met sent me a horrendous email out of the blue that attacked me and my research. I was shocked and disbelieving. I cried for hours. Academia, it seems, can be rough.
- A top international journal rejected my breastfeeding chapter because it was too claustrophobic, and just depicted the woman and baby, without locating them in space, or in greater discourses around class or race. I wasn’t writing a social political history of breastfeeding, and it was meant to be claustrophobic, and I told myself it just wasn’t the right place for it, but you know, it still stings.
- And then the nail in the coffin: one poem, ‘this mother thing’, that was accepted into an anthology early last year. I followed up once, and was told it was still in the pipeline, and so I left it alone, not wanting to be a nag. Then last week I saw an article from The Age about it on one of our lecturer’s doors, and contacted the Editor to find that my poem had somehow slipped off the list. Goodbye publication in a hardback anthology launched at the State Library of NSW with some of Australia’s top female poets.
I’m exhausted and heart sore. I know why writers put down their pens and go to work digging ditches. We tell writing students to separate themselves from their writing when they send it out. Your writing is not you. It’s not true. It’s me. It’s me sending a part of myself out into the world and when my writing is judged it’s nigh on impossible not to feel judged myself. So I’m doing the only thing I know to do: I’m writing more, and sending out more, and trusting that amongst the nos I will also get yeses. But it’s hard, and it hurts, and I’m tired, and it hurts.
Posted in Academia, Children, PhD, Poetry, Politics, Supervision, Writing
Tagged Desertion, disappointment, Doctor of Philosophy, exhaustion, Faculty, Paris, poetry, rejection, Writer
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The Melbourne Writer’s Festival is running a competition to select five bloggers who will be given free festival passes if they can attend and blog about ten sessions. So confession time: I’ve never been to a writer’s festival. It seems unconscionable, unforgivable even. But here’s the thing: it’s taken me until now (36 years old, two kids, phd student, two very small publications in the works) to call myself a writer and not cringe or expect to be shouted down by random passers by. And if you’re not a writer, how can you possibly go to a festival for writers? I entered the competition. MWF asked us to write 200-500 words on the theme ‘Stories Unbound’. I’m posting my entry below. And hoping that I’m selected. And wondering in a vague sort of way how to manage a seven month old at the MWF, but trusting that it’ll be ok.
Here’s my entry:
I am writing this in a car, on my phone. I have a notebook in the nappy bag, but I know it will be hard to find the time to type up longhand notes later, so I tap the touchscreen and keep an eye on the autocorrect – it keeps trying to corral me. Apostrophes appear where they shouldn’t be (it only understands possessives) and it’s determined to turn my eses into zeds.
My baby is asleep, for now. He is seven months old and thinks sunlight is a solid thing that he can catch, and eat, and hold. The car park we are sitting in is filling up around us and people are moving places. It’s almost a given that the only long day sleeps my baby will have are when I need to be somewhere. Otherwise he catnaps. He bursts from sleep exactly as my eyes droop. I struggle up from the drowse and keep going. And in amongst it (the loving and the shopping and the walking and the cleaning and the ache that is me being pulled in two) I write.
I write in snatches. I steal time. I remember the luxury of not writing, because there was always plenty of time to do it later. When I can’t write I speak into the voice recorder on my phone to catch at stories and snatches of poetry. Later when I transcribe my voice I will hear birds and wind and the grinding pump of the sewerage works underneath my words. We walk, my baby and me. It’s the best way for him to sleep in the day and I crave the outness of it. There are other women on the creek path pushing prams and running to catch up with helmeted children on bikes and we give each other rueful smiles.
Walking, stories rise up from cement to meet me. For five days there is a drowned and headless cat on the path, and I look and don’t look. It is black, and bloated, and sprawled. I try to imagine it being a loved thing but all I can see is the gaping rawness of its neck. I can’t bring myself to do anything about it. Then it’s gone. Then for a week it’s just me and the baby and an uneventful path (except for the three barking Pomeranians that wake him on Monday). On Tuesday I see a man in a tracksuit leading a woman along by her hand and he is holding that hand so tightly that when I look at her fingers I see they are purply white. And then on Wednesday, a pink pashmina hanging over a bare willow branch. Like a flag, like a streamer, like a story unbound.
This is where I find stories, at the edge of a wintery creek. I capture them carefully. I lay them down with respect. I walk. I speak. I write.
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I suspect some people may be questioning my sanity at signing up for a PhD with a baby and a small child (I certainly do in my darker moments). With enrolment day rapidly approaching, I’ve been thinking about why it seems to make sense. It makes sense because I have to fight to write.
I started writing poetry when I was in my teens. Dark stuff it was, mostly inspired by Sylvia Plath and written listening to The Cure and The Smiths. By the time I was twenty one or so I had gotten some work published and won a couple of things. I come from a family of (mad) writers and was headed that way myself. I thought that it had to be hard, this business of writing. Melancholic. Filled with pain. I also thought that I needed the perfect environment to write in, and the perfect writing practice. I wrote The Artist Way’s morning pages for a number of years in my early twenties. I would set myself up at my desk with my view and my music (more melancholic mix tapes), with my favourite pen and notebook, with Champion Ruby, a zippo and an ashtray. I would smoke and ponder and write. But I never really wrote. I wrote about wanting to write, I dreamt about being a writer, I sometimes talked about wanting to be a writer, but what was I writing? Beyond morning pages, not very much.
I’m writing more with a baby and a small child than I’ve written in a very long time. Sparrow still has bronchialitis and has been dripping snot and tears all day. He usually settles in about two minutes and sleeps pretty well. Tonight we put him into his cot at 6.30. It’s 8.10 and we’re still settling. In twenty minute shifts. So in the twenty minutes that my partner’s in with a very sad Sparrow patting and shushing and picking up and putting down, I’m writing this post. When lines of poetry enter my head (and I’m blessed that they often do) at the park, on a pram walk, in the supermarket, pushing a swing, I grab my iPhone and speak them into the voice recorder, then transcribe those lines at night. If Sparrow falls asleep in the car, I write in the driveway. It is never the perfect time, I will never have the perfect practice, but I’m actually writing. And for the first time in my life, I’m happy to call myself a writer. When people ask me what I do, it’s one of the things I say (without a smirk crossing my lips or a twitch of embarrassment running through my torso).
My children have not driven me away from writing, they have turned me towards it. Every day I fight to write. I can’t afford to sit and ponder, to scribble and fiddle. I am forced to write in snatches and snippets, to be efficient, to value every spare minute, and that’s why I think a PhD and kids go together. Ok, so I’ll probably read this in a year and cringe at my naivety and optimism, but I’m willing to give this academia thing a bloody good try.
Posted in Academia, Children, PhD, Poetry, Writing
Tagged Child, Doctor of Philosophy, iphone, music, naivety, optimism, Smiths, smoking, Sylvia Plath, Thought, Writer, Writing