Independence Day.

My baby’s leaving me for another week. This time it’s a Ranger Tour, a week-long camp in the mountains for a bunch of ten to twelve-year olds from all over Switzerland. They’ll do overnight treks, cook all their own meals, sleep in tents and yurts and shelters they’ve made themselves, use their magnifying glasses to spy on ants and spiders, and generally have, I hope, an awful lot of fun. My brave daughter, still sometimes painfully shy at school, won’t know a soul but seems undeterred, unlike her mother who, at that age, would have flatly refused to go, scared witless at the thought of all those strangers.

(What does worry her is the thought of a whole week without reading, this girl who devours books, just like I used to. And look where it got me…)

I’m in the thick of researching and writing about colonial Australia, a vicious, dangerous and merciless place (particularly if you were being colonised instead of doing the colonising, and no matter how it has been – and continues to be – too often portrayed), and I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think I would have coped very well, had I lived back then. I like to think that my daughter might have fared a little better, much like Nana, her great-great-grandmother, who lived for a while on a goldfield in Far North Queensland in the very, very late 1800s, a resourceful woman by all accounts, sifting through the tailings (the residue of the mining process, which, back then, was very rudimentary indeed) for anything left over, and working in a pub, as well as marrying at sixteen (not what I envisage for my daughter! ).

Still, I like to think that there’s a little bit of Nana running through her blood. It might have skipped over my generation but it’s heartening to think that there’s still someone in the family willing to put up with a little dirt and discomfort, someone who, when she was about five or six insisted that when she grew up she wanted to be an explorer. And now here’s her opportunity. And not a moment too soon for someone who’s on the cusp of teenager-hood, a whole new world in itself, the exploration of which will, I suspect, leave little time for anything else.

Meanwhile, back home I’ll revel in a whole week without parental responsibilities or teaching and just plenty of time to study and write. Which is also a little like exploring, just without the sleeping-in-a-tent bit, and with more gin-and-tonics.

 

A photo of the explorer in her formative years:

Young explorer

 

 

The cat is happy and so am I.

I will now sing the praises of my lovely supervisor.

She is a woman of fine character and discerning tastes. A person who recognises quality and can see potential when it is right in front of her. Furthermore, she likes a nice turn of phrase and appreciates a good metaphor when she sees one…

Yes, she liked my novel! Phew.

This isn’t the end of the story, not by a long shot. My story will undergo many small changes between now and the finish line, but it’s bones are are in place and solid enough that it can stand up by itself.

So that means it’s time for me to get on with my exegesis. This is the nonfiction half of my Phd, just as big as the novel and just as scary although not for the same reasons. As I’ve said before there’s a real tension between trying to write creatively and academically, and the exegesis falls very firmly in the second camp.

Recently, though, I find myself looking at the exegesis as a challenge to see how I can combine the creative and academic, to see if I can construct it in such a way that it is still academically robust but ends up being something I would like to read. For me, the best academic writing holds my attention because it uses clear, straightforward language and has something of the writer on the page, something personal.

So it’s with this in mind that I’m approaching this with a renewed commitment to putting a little bit of me in there, because I don’t know if I can bring myself to do it any other way.

 

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 4.08.01 pm

 

 

chit chat

Switzerland is an exceedingly beautiful country.

Every time I see the Alps in the distance from my window, walk through the forest, run past happy looking cows in the fields on my morning runs or swim in the lake one hundred metres from our house I think how lucky I am.

But there is a downside, and it’s not just those times I simply can’t understand what someone is saying, or when the distance between my small family and loved ones back in Australia seems just too great. (I’m not even thinking of those times when it’s so damn cold I can hardly force myself to get out and run past the aforementioned cows.)

As a research student, what I really miss is the chit chat that’s normally part and parcel of doing a  major piece of research. The casual conversation between researchers that lets you know you’re not the only one (there are other fools out there), the opportunity to run ideas past someone else or to hear some much needed words of wisdom from someone who has been there, too, and has the experience and knowledge to prove it. I also miss strolling into a library and flicking through books instead of relying on my best telepathic skills to see if it’s worth my while (and the expense) to order a book. I’d also like to be able to sit down with my supervisor over a cup of coffee instead of just via Skype.

Hey ho. It’s my choice to do it this way, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Hello? Anybody out there??

cow

Two brains or four stomachs?

What I wouldn’t do for a second brain.

While I don’t want a second head to go with it (see Zaphod Beeblebrox), I can’t deny that a second brain would be mighty handy.

I have no problem patting my head and rubbing my tummy at the same time and I can easily teach a piano lesson while also yelling out the window at my daughter as she does something dangerous on the trampoline next door, but trying to write a novel and an exegesis (the fancy name given to the dissertation you do when you also do a creative work) at the same time is beyond me. Which is why I tend to devote my time to one or the other.

Having said that, though, no matter which one I’m working on the other is never far from my mind. Before I started this long Phd road (it’s also very winding) I wondered how it would be attempting both at the same time, and while I suspected it would be difficult, I hadn’t realised how energising it would be, too. The more research I do for my exegesis the more ideas I generate for my novel, and the more I write my novel the more I….

It’s not a bad problem to have, that’s for sure. It’s just the switching from one to the other that gives me trouble.

If cows can have four stomachs (I know, I know, technically they have up to four compartments, but it doesn’t make for as good a story, does it), why can’t we have two brains?

brain-study

Procrastination

Ah, procrastination!

Such a big word for what amounts, in the end, to not very much at all.

You’d think, given how much thought I give to my novel and exegesis when I’m not doing them, that finally having the time to sit down properly would lead to a fury of work, a veritable outpouring of great thoughts.

But, no.

Instead I sit there unable to get started. I look out the window, get up to put some washing on, make a cup of tea, pat the cat, think about the students I will teach that afternoon, wonder what to cook for dinner, check my emails and so on and so on. I’m sure this is not an unfamiliar story to anyone. And if it is, what are you doing reading this, for goodness sake?

I’m sure anyone who knows me would be surprised at exactly how much time I spend doing not very much at all. I’m always on time, I always do what I say I’m going to do and in a timely fashion. I run a business, have a family, go for runs in the mornings, keep our house and clothes clean, read lots of great books, play with the cat, sing and play piano and all the other stuff that people generally do.

What I’m wondering, then, is if this unable-to-get-started business, particularly after a longish break (here’s looking at you Christmas and trip to Australia!), is normal? Is that what happens to everyone? Do we all stare blankly at walls for a period of time and should I just accept it as part of the creative process?

And here’s a related question.

Why is it that I can sometimes only get started when I have only a small amount of time left to get things done? For me, this is usually the last couple of hours before I start teaching. Once my first music student arrives there’s not a chance I can think about anything else, and after that it’s dinner time and the whole evening routine for my daughter, so really that’s it for the day, unless I can muster the energy to do some work after she’s in bed.

I know it’s all to do with the power of deadlines but it drives me crazy. Sometimes I long to actually be in the same town as my university, to have colleagues going through the same things, seminars to go to and to give, people to meet with and report to.

But things are as they are.

In the meantime, I’ll look out my window again in case anything’s changed (see the photo below for another view of my neighbourhood), and contemplate how things might be different tomorrow morning.

windowview

of cats and promises and colloquiums

Dear blog,

It’s been a while.

It’s also been a lesson in how a promise one makes to oneself can be broken as easily as forgetting to feed the cat. (Not that it’s been six months since I fed the cat, but she happens to provide a totally irrelevant but very fluffy example of something it’s sometimes all too easy to do.)

For example…
I will never forget about my blog completely while I get on with everything else!

I will never let more than six months go between blog posts, in the manner of so many others for whom I now have complete sympathy!

I will never provide lame excuses when, eventually, I remember that I have a blog and it’s been more than six months since I’ve posted!

Despite these failings you might still be pleased to know that in the interim I have successfully completed the colloquium process for my Phd.

For those unfamiliar with this, it is the first major stepping stone in the Phd process for students at my Australian university. Sometimes known as confirmation, it is a rigorous process used to determine a candidate’s suitability to undertake a phd candidature.

A candidate must show that he/she has developed (so far!) a ‘careful, rigorous and sustained piece of work’ and one with a well-thought out and ‘clearly articulated’ research question. The candidate must show a very thorough and critical understanding of what is already out there, sound methodological strategies and techniques, and their proposed work must make an original contribution to the field.

Phew!

In my case, seeing as I’m doing a creative work and an exegesis (you try pronouncing it. Go on, I dare you), the two components must both do all of the above as well as be substantially connected.

This process must take place within the first year of candidature, and puts fear in the hearts of all those unwise enough to start a Phd.

In preparation I prepared a sixty page report including an abstract, in-depth literature review, methodology and excerpts from my proposed novel. I defended all of the above to a panel of six academics (both internal and external to my university) and took note of their many, many comments and answered their many, many questions.

But I did it! I managed to pass the process with no changes required, although with an awful lot of food for thought.

And at the expense of a lot of other things, like this blog.

But it’s done and I feel a clearing of the air around my head, thus enabling me to get back to the things I’ve ignored. I also feel the urge to write about the process again, to explore new ideas and ponder life as a long distance Phd student, which is where, dear blog, you come into play once more.

So thanks for waiting for me. I really appreciate it.

xx

photo 1

bread

I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to focus on writing my novel.

For the moment my dissertation is lying dormant. But in the manner of the best bread dough left to ferment by itself in a warm place my dissertation still has a life of its own, even when my attention is seemingly elsewhere.

Each time I sit down to do some creative writing I end up with new ideas, thoughts, links, words even, for my dissertation.

When I first started this Phd I wondered how I could possibly write creatively and academically at the same time. How could I divide my attention between these two seemingly disparate projects? What if I found it impossible to switch languages, to switch styles? What if my brain couldn’t cope with thinking creatively and theoretically at the same time and gave up in protest?

It’s still early days, but it seems that not only is there quite a bit of overlap (not all that surprising when you consider my dissertation is looking at themes/questions in my novel) but they also actively feed into each other, so that I have trouble keeping up with all the ideas being generated. It’s actually very exciting, and makes me feel very  glad I took the step (leap!) to do this in the first place.

Now all I need is more hours in the day to put all these ideas into practice.

It’s a bit like having the bread dough all ready but no time to bake it…

bread