In a week’s time, I will be walking across a stage, doffing my Tudor bonnet as I am introduced as Dr Hilton. I will enter the room as part of the academic procession, and sit on stage amongst dignitaries, staff, and my fellow doctoral graduates. … Continue reading A doff to uncertain times
I’m a little late to the party. Reflections & list pieces usually find their place in the lead up to New Year’s Eve, not the first few days of the calendar change over. I’d had the intention to write a little something before the year … Continue reading 2015 between the pages
In October last year I took my first overseas trip to beautiful Stockholm, Sweden to present my paper ‘Expressing nonsuicidal self-injury: using creative writing and autobiographical fiction as self-care’ at the Autobiography 2014 conference at Södertörn University. The conference ran over three days and featured presentations from … Continue reading ‘Expressing NSSI’ published in ‘Writing the Self’
It’s been a couple of weeks since my last post. In that time I’ve done a little bit of work on my PhD creative piece. I started fresh, at a different point in the story than I’d previously intended too, and while the words at the moment are coming at a snail’s pace I’m feeling better about the foundation that I’m laying.
The chapter that I have been working on involves the protagonist running. As I was writing, or trying to write, I was struggling with some of the descriptive work. Questions of “how do I describe that sound” and “how does that feel in the body” arose. It occurred to me that I’ve been doing much too much thinking and not enough doing.
Recently I’d been very focused on doing work as opposed to actually doing. In thinking about my novel and my writing (or lack of writing), I’ve been neglecting two crucial writing tools, observation and experience.
Have you seen A Place for Me (also titled Stuck in Love)? It’s a film I really like. It’s about love and writing and stars Greg Kinnear… these are all things that greatly interest me (oh Greg, swoon!). I bring it up because there is an excellent line in the film:
The novel I’m writing draws heavily from my own experiences. I had been so preoccupied with how to use some of my past experiences in the work that I’d been forgetting the importance of continued observation and experience. To put it more bluntly, I’d stop paying attention.
Being present is becoming more challenging in our hyper connected word. Mindfulness based techniques and approaches to therapy are rising in popularity as the antidote to our obsession/reliance on new communication technologies which see us ever contactable but rarely available. I don’t wish to cry foul over smart phones and social media, quite the opposite, I’m very interested in embracing new technologies and see them as having great potential to assist us in numerous ways. However, we must learn to use these technologies as opposed to being used or sucked into the connected but unavailable vortex.
With this in mind, I’ve been striving to experience and observe the world around me over the past couple of weeks. When I order coffee rather than look at my phone I’ve been taking a moment to people watch: how many sugars do other people put in their coffee? How are other people dressing? Where do they stand as they wait for their coffee, in front of the lids and spoons, further away, right in front of the bench so others have to squeeze past? This might sound dull or even a bit creepy to some readers but it is these details that all writers need in their tool belts – awareness of how others be, do and exist!
In addition to my increased observations I’ve also been getting out of the office and away from my PhD to have some fun. I have been to dinner with friends, taken a road trip to visit family, gone to dance performances and also gone to see some live music. Each has been a rich and varied experience which has indulged a variety of senses and more importantly, reminded me that I’m more than a PhD student and life is bigger than my thesis alone.
The most recent of my adventures, was going to a gig with a friend. It was his first small gig (having only gone to large music festivals or big stadium style shows) and was at one of my favorite venues. Going to see live music is one of my favorite things to do, so much so that I often go by myself. Any hint of loneliness or awkwardness felt going solo to a gig is usually outweighed by the delight of the music and sheer thrill of a good live show.
There were three acts, each being an Australian hip hop artist and I was very aware when I bought the tickets that the majority of the crowd would be younger than me. My friend had told me he would probably just chill by the bar and let me do my own thing. Off course, as I suspected, like me he was digging the vibe and hung out with me near the stage and speakers. The first act hit the stage with thumping energy and my friend and I responded by dancing, cheering and whooping. Around us, others stood, still.
I’m increasingly noticing, that the older I get, the more I care about enjoying the moment and the less I care about what other people think of me while I’m doing so. For the younger crowed at this gig, the opposite appeared to be true. They slowly warmed up but as the night wore on and the temperature climbed, I noticed more and more that those around me were experiencing the evening in a different way.
The younger faces in the crowd captured the moments via their smart phones. Experience has taught me that photos or footage taken at gigs is 1) rarely viewed at a later date, 2) generally shit-house. I understand the desire to take a snap to show a friend or to add to a social media site for posterity but I don’t share the desire to continually do so again and again at a gig. Perhaps there are simply more young music journalists at gigs than I’m aware of? Rather than sweat and dance and experience the music via the body, the younger set were more inclined to capture the moment in a non tangible representation.
The other sharp difference in experience was presentation. This gig was stinking hot! The humidity was high and both crowd and performers were dripping in sweat. As a live music fan living in Queensland, Australia, I am very used to this. I still put thought into my outfit and dress in a way they I enjoy and hope is pleasing to others… i.e. yes, I like to look nice. Yet ultimately I’m well aware that things will get messy. Comfort and practicality are the key concerns. I feel comfortable when I dress nicely but also practically, in a way that will allow me to make the most out of the evening… dance, drink, get among it etc. I told my friend there would be girls in high heels. He was skeptical. Through-out the evening, I pointed them out to him… “heels, heels, heels”. Fair enough if those individuals were comfortable but if you’ve ever been on a cramped dance floor next to someone wearing heels you will understand that their pain often becomes your pain… “ouch, you’re standing on my foot!”. Bless their little midriff’s and carefully applied faces – yes, it is hot and yes, your makeup is running off your face… who cares. These poor little petals were more concerned with their presentation than their participation. Thus, another vortex to avoid.
Over the last few weeks, as I’ve been trying to be more present, another shift in my awareness has come into play. I’d wanted to visit my therapist but had to wake two weeks to get an appointment. Despite feeling better by the time the appointment rolled around I still went. Before starting the session I fill out a computer survey, a psychology test that gives my therapist an indication of where I’m at mentally before I enter the room. When he started the session he informed me that my score was the lowest it’s ever been and we talked about why now, despite my thinking that I was feeling better, that the numbers were saying something else. The conclusion reached was that presently I am actually experiencing my emotions. In the past I’ve employed numerous techniques to avoid negative emotions. While avoiding these emotions may at times allow me to function short-term, the feelings are still there, accumulating and collecting interest. Therefore my efforts to experience and observe are also coming into play in regards to me emotions. Rather than be numb to my emotions, I’ve been experiencing every rotten, yucky bit of them.
Experiencing emotions is important, even if they are unpleasant. Life isn’t a non-tangible representation, its ripe with texture and variables and consequently the creation of art reflects this. It is through art that we explore life’s’ inconsistencies and seek to create meaning and understanding of both ourselves and others which in turn furthers our ability to participate and evolve.
Can you feel it?
As mentioned in my last post, I’ve set myself a weekly word count goal in order to bang out a first draft of my PhD novel and exegesis. Ah what a sweet idea that was! Monday morning I went off to my office on campus, sat down at my desk and tapped away at the keys. One key in particular was used heavily… the backspace key. I made a little not in my phone as to my feelings regarding writing that day:
blank page, where to start, feedback
Tuesday’s little note was not much better:
don’t want to get out of bed and write, too confused about how to write, self doubt, feel vulnerable in the story
By Friday things hadn’t improved. My frustration made it’s way to Twitter:
Trying to write but the words aren’t coming
At least I’d used a capital letter for that one.
My goal of 3,000 words minimum for the week fell well short when I only produced a mere 1,200, some of which were drawn from previous material. The week wasn’t a total bust, I did send an abstract off to a conference happening later this year in Sweden (fingers crossed I get accepted) and I also caught up on Ice T’s Final Level Podcast (I really like Ice T), so at least I was able to tick two boxes on my to do list.
What I think has thrown me this week is I’ve let other voices into my head. Last week I attended an academic writing retreat put on by my University. It was only a two day retreat (overnight) which means it’s a fairly tiring. During the retreat I work-shopped an exert of my fiction with some of my fellow creative writing PhD peers. We had done this the previous year as well. There was nothing wrong with my friends advice, they raised some great points and they are all talented and skilled writers. The problem with work-shopping the fiction is simply that it’s not ready.
For the last year I’ve been writing fragments. I hadn’t nailed down a plot, I was just trying to develop the character. She’s not ready yet, I don’t know her well enough and I’m not 100% clear on her story… I’m possibly only 60%… if that. Thus far I’ve written approximately 16,000 of the 70,000 words for the novel. This 16,000 is unedited and very, very drafty. I’ve been writing to find the voice, to meet the support characters and to try to get inside my protagonists head! Therefore work-shopping some of this under-cooked work has been the equivalent of a romantic interest meeting your friends too early – I’m now looking at him (the novel) in a different way.
It is not just my friends feedback that’s now swimming around in my head but also one of my supervisors, a collection of other PhD students and academic staff and a non-academic friend who is worried that my writing is getting me down. This is my first attempt at novel writing and at least in my mind, there’s a fair bit riding on it. For my the PhD novel is not only about proving your abilities to an examiner, your peers and your discipline it also about proving those abilities to yourself. One of the roughest parts of the PhD is attempting to keep your own expectations in check. The PhD is three to four years of a lot of self-doubt and self-imposed pressure hopefully resulting in a wondrous glow of self-satisfaction at the end (don’t crush my dreams).
All is not lost. I had a bad writing week. It happens. On Friday I also came across a blog post by MM Fink on Women Writer’s, Women[‘s] Books (which has lot’s of great posts). Dear me on a bad writing day, is a great pep talk. I’ve since printed it out and posted it on the notice board above my desk. Two key points really hit home with me:
You cannot please everyone
Yes! What a valid reminder. Why I have high hopes for my work ultimately the purpose of writing this story (I say story because the novel its self has the purpose of being a PhD novel, the story contained within that novel could have been anything… the story I’ve chosen to tell is deeply personal) is primarily for my own benefit. I’m writing about personal experiences and difficult emotions and they are mine! The story may be fictionalized but I’m the one in control, I’m the once choosing what to conceal, what to reveal and what to feel! Readability can be addressed in the second draft. Right now what I need and what I want to focus on is getting that messy, gross, chunk of work that is the first draft, done.
The story would not have picked you if you couldn’t write it
Not one morsel of feedback has been to abandon my story, it’s been how I approach the story and how I tell the story. None of my peers and neither of my supervisors have urged me away from writing this story. Therefore, why am I letting their voices keep me from writing? While it may feel like it’s external voices jamming up my writing, ultimately it’s my own. I’m hesitant not because I don’t want to tell the story and hey, yeah, I might not know exactly how the story will unfold. What’s getting in the way is that nasty old menace that is self-doubt.
Boo! That self-doubt character is annoying, but it’s probably going to be hanging around in the background, lurking, waiting, loitering. Therefore the plan for next week is to ignore the word count and to not write for anyone else. Sounds simple enough. I’ll let you know how I go.
I’ve been telling myself for a while now that I should update my blog. I’ve never been a consistent blogger. Over the years I’ve had a couple. Back in the early days I had a Geocities page where I shared my Photoshop style digital artwork. That was during my undergraduate years as a contemporary arts student, a time where digital camera’s were expensive and took 3 & 1/2 inch floppy disks and an ability to use Photoshop was unique and impressive. Many years later I had a Blogger page where I posted my poetry. That blog was successful in reuniting me with a long lost friend which was nice. Before switching to WordPress I was using Tumblr for my Belinda Writes blog. I still love Tumblr but more so for personal purposes and not as a go-to homepage. WordPress is at times frustrating to use but ultimately reliable.
As is mentioned in numerous locations on this blog, I am a PhD candidate (student, to put it less formally). I’m two and a half years into my higher research degree, which means next year at some point in time I will be submitting my thesis (novel and exegesis in my case) and will eventually be able to insist on being called doctor (and I will insist). This week I completed my mid-candidature milestone, meaning I’ve passed all the formal requirements, leaving only submission remaining. I’m on the home stretch… and it’s terrifying!
In my mind, starting tomorrow, I have to strap myself to my desk and write. No more talking about writing the thesis, its time to actually do it. I’ve set the goal of having a completed draft of the thesis (all 100,000 words of it) by the end of October. That equates to a weekly writing goal of approximately 3,000 to 4,000 words. It’s very do-able. Goals are wonderful things, and words count goals are noble in intention… but often that’s all they are, nice ideas that we never really follow through with.
Drawing from the study skills seminars I attended in my teenage years, goals are more achievable when written down. Done! I’ve included this word count goal in an official report and I’m posting it now. Yep, I’ve done both of those things before, without grand success. Oh well, it’s worth another shot. I mentioned before my inconsistency in blogging and my limited success achieving word count goals, this is true, however I do write regularly. For the past five years I’ve kept a journal. This journal stretches over several notebooks and I still have some ripped out pages from journals I had prior to this set. They’re all stored in a plastic crate and I today I unpacked that crate, put them in order and read assorted paragraphs. I keep the crate on a high shelf and noticed the weight of this box as I pulled it down, it was quite heavy. I weighted the crate… 6 kgs. Considering the ups and downs recorded in the pages of these notebooks it’s interesting to think of the weight of those emotions, and to put a number on it!
These journals may prove useful to me over the next eight months as I work on my novel. The novel I’m writing is not a memoir but will draw on some of my experiences, including the ones documented in the aforementioned volumes. So while I don’t blog regularly there are recordings of my life, thoughts and feelings in existence. The beauty in these journals is that they have not be written with an audience in mind. Any writing may find and audience, and in keeping a journal I’m always aware that someone may read it, with or without my permission. In reading the small selections that I did today I saw vast changes in the tone and composition of the writing. Some books are written in neat, small print, others are scrawled and messy, the ink colours change and some entries are more hopeful than others. Interestingly the loose pages, torn from an older journal are perhaps the darkest in nature. Reading these was oddly reassuring. I’d questioned my memory of this time and wondered if I’d created a narrative that was more dramatic than the experience had been. It was clearly documented in these excerpts that I was not falsifying my feelings. I also found a letter in the crate. It was a letter that I had written to myself, clearly during a moment of happiness. While the letter was slightly corny, it also highlighted, as many of my entries did, an optimism and perseverance that, at times, I am able to draw upon.
With this optimism and willingness to persevere in mind I’ll wrap up this post with the intention to return here shortly, with an update on my writing progress.
Until then, be kind to yourself.