Need all the help I can get

I don’t have an office. I have a desk tucked in a corner, with a bookshelf on one side and a wide window sill on the other. This way I’m close to the kitchen, which is essential for making cups of tea, keeping track of what I’m cooking for everyone’s dinner, and also for keeping an eye on homework. It’s cosy, but it works.

Most of the time.

Until, that is, I get a bit carried away with the all the journal papers I’m reading (or not), the various bits of paper that seem to accumulate all by themselves, the sticky notes that mysteriously unstick themselves from wherever they were stuck and float to the nearest surface, and the stacks of books that seem to come from nowhere, piling up to form miniature towers that teeter precariously whenever someone walks past. When this happens, the floor starts to look like my desk and the desk like how I imagine the inside of my head must look.

Which is why I am eternally grateful to have my wonderful research assistant. She keeps me on track, stepping on the keyboard at inopportune times, clicking on the mouse and either deleting something or answering an email when I wasn’t quite finished with it. Or simply sitting right in front of me so I can’t see the screen and purring loudly enough to drown out whatever fledgling thoughts were on their way to becoming something worth writing down.

Whatever would I do without her.

research assistant

 

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Renovations

I’m being forced out of my own home and it could be the best thing that’s ever happened.

No one’s pushing me out the door, however the attached house next door is being renovated and the walls are so thin I could easily chip in with my two-cent’s worth if I felt inclined (and if my Swiss-German was up to scratch). Scaffolding stretches around both houses like a giant hand, blocking the sun and providing an extended balcony for our cat.

When you work at home as I do (heck, I spend all my time here: as mummy/chief house person, music teacher and writer/researcher), the sound of drills and hammering and even the workers’ radio blaring bland pop music feels like an invasion of the worst kind. And I find it impossible to concentrate.

So it is that in order to get anything vaguely Phd related done I have decided to leave home…and go to the library in the centre of Zurich.

And let me tell you, dear reader, it was great. For the first time in ages, noise or no noise, I could really concentrate. I took just two academic papers with me to read, leaving behind the ever-growing pile that teeters on one side of my desk. At the library there were other people doing the same as me, all of us busy reading or writing. There was no washing machine waiting to be filled or emptied, no cat waiting to be fed and no dinner waiting to be cooked. Best of all, there was no internet lurking in the background, willing me to waste my time. There was even one of those machines dispensing hot chocolate in tiny plastic cups. Bliss!

So if you’re finding it difficult to concentrate on whatever it is you are trying to do, I suggest a change of scenery.

Give your work style a renovation, no scaffolding required.

scaffolding

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

Zaphod Beeblebrox, where are you?

My Phd is in two parts: an exegesis and an historical novel. It often feels like I’m trying to write two books at once, books that while completely different are also inextricably linked. And sometimes I think my head is about to explode from juggling them both and that it would really be much easier if I had two heads like Zaphod Beeblebrox from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, because then I could devote one brain to the non-fiction exegesis and one brain to the novel.

(If you are unfamiliar with Zaphod, go check him out. He also has three arms, which also might come in handy (ha!). If I had a third arm I’d use it to hold the cup of tea that I invariably have beside me but forget to drink. Or chocolate. Or the trashy novels that I’ve taken to reading because at the moment the alternative always has me reaching for my pencil to jot down ideas or quotes. I just want to read, for God’s sake, without analysing every single word, and zombies and post apocalyptic novels fit the bill perfectly.)

(Apologies to anyone doing a Phd on zombies. If you need any more ideas please let me know.)

Alas, I only have the one head, which means I have to come up with a way to focus on two such distinct processes at the same time. The answer for me is to take turns, completely focusing on one and then letting that rest while I focus on the other.

This works, up to a point (actually there are both good and bad points but when you rely on cliched language you have to work with what you’ve got).

Immersion in one or the other means I can really sharpen my focus, which is useful because this is often difficult, given my other responsibilities (family, teaching, music, the cat etc). To have already decided my focus means it is easier to get started each day and means I make better use of the time I have allocated.

The downside can be that because the two parts are so linked I am continually jotting down ideas for one while focussing on the other. This can mean my focus becomes diffused and it can make it hard to keep track of everything. A further disadvantage is that after a longish period of working on one it can be difficult to re-engage with the other.

I’m sure if you got ten researchers in a room and asked them how they would handle this there would be ten different answers. It’s a little bit like being a parent, so many different ways of doing the same thing. You can read all the books you like and listen to as much advice as you want but in the end you have to work it out for yourself.

Perhaps the reason I like zombie fiction so much at the moment is because they don’t have a functioning brain, and therefore don’t have to think about any of this stuff.

Or much at all, really. Mmmm, brains….

zombie

 

skimming the surface

Living in Switzerland I’ve become used to not always understanding everything that is being said. Actually, I’ve become very used to it, because with the advent of my Phd candidature any additional studying of German has gone out the window, leaving me with what I’ve managed to accumulate over the last few years. It’s enough to get me by, to have a coffee with someone and not make a complete fool of myself, to make it to the end of a parent-teacher meeting at my daughter’s school, and to even teach a few of my music students in German (although I do have to look up the odd word or wave my arms around just a little bit…). I can even read the notices that come home from school and compose emails and texts. Go me!

I struggle through conversations with complete strangers, but fair much better with people I know, mostly because I usually have a pretty good idea what what it is we will be discussing. Worst case scenario is someone coming up to me on the street and asking me a complicated question; often I think they leave more confused then when they first approached me…

What does this have to do with writing a dissertation, you might well ask?

Despite all the research I’ve done previously, and despite even being employed to teach others how to do it effectively, when it comes to researching and reading for a dissertation of entirely your own making, one that requires the synthesis of so many new ideas (and hopefully the creation of some new ones, too), I can’t help but think that it really is like learning a new language or trying to speak  in a language in which you are not yet fluent.

No, scrap that: I think it’s like learning a whole bunch of new languages.  Each new subject, each new author, each new publication or journal, even, brings new challenges, a new set of rules that you know are there but haven’t quite grasped. Even the vocabulary or the style of language can vary so much that it takes a while just to work out what is being said, let alone understanding what it means.

It’s a challenge, definitely, but having made the connection between the struggles with German that I go through on a daily basis as soon as I step out my front door and the reading and researching I’m doing at my desk, I suddenly feel better about my ability to cope. There’s nothing more satisfying then being able to make yourself understood in another language, and the same goes for realising that you have actually understood something someone has said without having to translate each individual word or just hoping that if you keep listening you’ll hear something you do understand. (As an aside: not too long after my daughter started at the local school here the mother of one of her friends, with whom I had happily bluffed my way through many a conversation, told me I often replied with a ‘yes’ when it should be a ‘no’ or vice versa…)

And so it is with my reading. It might take a while, but with each new author and subject I gradually arrive at a level of understanding that allows me to digest and then hopefully synthesise what I have learnt into what will later become my thesis.

It’s still not easy, and I even find myself thinking at times how easy German is in comparison, until, that is, I hear my daughter chattering away with her friends and I realise I have no idea what they’re actually talking about or I see the look on the face of the man here to fix our boiler when he realises I’ve hardly understood a thing he’s said…

germanbooks

Distance

I’m back. If visiting Australia wasn’t unsettling enough, being back in Switzerland matches it, point for point. Suddenly there are more leaves on the ground than on the trees, and those that do manage to cling on are shades of gold and red, a last burst of colour before winter. The mornings are dark, the nights cold and the shops full of puffy jackets and ski boots. It feels like one minute we were wearing sandals and floppy hats in sunny Brisbane and the next I’m going up to the attic to dig out our warmest clothes, trying vainly to find matching gloves and wondering just how an eight-year old girl can grow out of absolutely everything in the pitifully few months since I packed it all away.

But if there’s one thing designed to make you feel glad to be back it’s engine trouble. Engine number four on our overly large aircraft wasn’t working properly during takeoff, so we languished on the runway for an hour or so while those in charge decided what to do. In the end we took off, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who let out a big sigh of relief when we eventually landed once more on solid ground. Perhaps this is the whole purpose of air travel, to make the transition from one place to another just that bit easier; home, you realise, is anywhere but up in the air.

And my Phd?

My desk is covered with stacks of textbooks, novels, maps of Queensland, and photocopied chapters of books (I gave thanks to the Emirate gods for giving us such a generous luggage allowance).  I gloried in the abundance of new and second-hand bookshops (everything in English!), I spent days in the State Library of Queensland, poring over rare historical texts, vainly trying to turn pages while wearing ill-fitting white gloves that the librarian assured me fit absolutely no-one. I drank copious cups of tea with my mother while she talked about her childhood in Far North Queensland, and I marvelled at the lushness of the subtropical plants and birds in my parents’ garden, a sheer contrast with what I currently see out my window here in Switzerland.

I also met with my supervisor for the first time, which was an extremely gratifying experience because she let me ramble on excitedly about my plans while asking exactly the right questions. What a woman! She also didn’t seem fazed (at least on the outside) at the prospect of supervising someone living on the other side of the world. Perhaps I just caught her at a good moment.

The next step? To decide what to tackle first. Should I lose myself in my novel once more after a few weeks away or pick up the top book in the nearest pile on my desk.  Should I start investigating the intriguing leads I uncovered in my time in the library in Brisbane or…oh, to have more time!

Teaching, motherhood, writing and study, a potent mix.

(here’s the garden in which I sat drinking many a cup of tea while dreaming of novels)

garden big

where do I start?

I’ve got my student number and the names of my supervisors (none of whom I’ve met, although they sound fantastic) and my inbox is flooding with emails from the university about all sorts of things, most of which are not very relevant as I’m living on the other side of the world.

It makes me think fondly of those long ago days when I actually went to classes and university was a lifestyle, one that I think I very much took for granted at the time; youth is wasted on the young, heh??

It is, of course, entirely possible to write without doing it as part of a degree, but for me, writing about somewhere so far away from where I live now and so long ago, it’s a relief to feel as if I’m part of something much bigger. It’s still just me, the cat and my desk (plus my music students, the washing, my family etc etc), but at least now there’ll be someone else setting some deadlines and telling me where I’ve gone wrong and right.

But where to start?

The smart thing seemed to be to find out how other people were doing it. Straight away I found this site: creativewriterphd

Not only does she write about her own experiences doing a Phd and struggling with trying to write both fiction and something theoretical at the same time, but the writer also links to some fantastic resources and sites.

It’s funny how reading about someone else doing the same thing as you can be so encouraging. I’ve also really appreciated the links to other sites and organisations. I might be Australian but almost eleven years out of the country mean that I’m more of a  foreigner than I thought when it comes to what’s happening and especially when it comes to the academic world.

Maybe it’s not so unbelievable that I can do it too, after all…

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