A Doctorate’s Strange Love: Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the PhD

Christian DeFeo

Whenever the word “writer” is mentioned, a number of images and impressions may spring to mind. The writer is seen by society as a bohemian and a rebel, and someone who has abandoned the regimen of the rat race in favour of creative pursuits. The writer is envisaged as an individual prone to wearing a tan corduroy jackets, sitting in cafes in the summer twilight with a copy of Sartre, and who has the lingering scent of old pages and strong French cigarettes about their person.

Or the writer can be seen as someone who attends parties with actors and actresses; he or she is the one who doesn't have the movie star looks and is standing in the corner by the grand piano, as if he or she intends to play it, and is the only person dressed entirely in black in a room painted in bright white.

Of course, these images are absolute nonsense: a fiction about those who purvey fiction, a narrative perhaps created to add a bit of glamour to something that involves hard work, lonely hours and more often than not, very little glory. However, there is one element of the stereotype with which the writer may feel some accord: the lack of regularity. There is a temptation in human nature, let alone among creative people, to maintain a bohemian conceit that defies watching a clock or calendar. For example, a newly minted fantasy writer, Sarah Rees Brennan was asked, “What would you consider to be the most rewarding part of an author's life?” She began her reply by saying: “That would definitely be the mornings in bed.”

Placing a value on unreliability is partially justified: inspiration, by its very nature, is difficult to schedule. However, the indiscipline of creative endeavour has to find an accommodation with the disciplines of the publishing business and earning a living. How does one maintain that particular balancing act?

Furthermore, the mythology and truth about writers is in accord in another respect: generally, they create alone. Under these circumstances, how does one prepare for the cold, harsh winds of feedback?

And finally, when is it appropriate to let one's more untamed instincts run free and break with the aforementioned constraints?

I suggest that many of these answers can be discovered in academia, and that far from being a place where contradictions between the rigours of university and the passions of writing collide, it is a junction where a synthesis can be achieved.

Academia for creative writers is unique: it is both a place of theory and practice. A chemistry student may discover a new formula; but it is unlikely to achieve industrial application within the university's walls. A BA archaeology student may have a new theory about why the Mayan civilisation disappeared; but until postgraduate research provides funding, or the individual is hired by an institute to investigate, the theory remains in the realms of informed speculation.

In contrast, what is produced for the purposes of a creative writing degree can make its way onto store shelves. The novel, “A Golden Age” by Tahmima Anam, for example, began life as a piece written towards her MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London.

But it's not only what is created that is germane to this discussion; the disciplines learned in the process are just as useful.

Academia has schedules, just as the publishing world has schedules. This constraint of time puts a beneficial limit on the frontiers of bohemianism; it is an opportunity to engender habits with which inspiration can be harnessed to discipline.

Strangely enough, this turns the process of writing into something akin to the processes used by major companies to create websites. Conversely, these techniques can be used to make the accommodation between structure and inspiration fall more neatly into place.

It is assumed that the creation of anything technological involves strict scheduling, firm guidelines and detailed specifications; for those who sit outside the world of technology, it can seem a concrete monument to rigidity. This is very rarely the case, as generally speaking, the creation of any new programme is a creative process, i.e., an application of imagination to a problem.

However, imaginative explorations of this type are ringfenced by process. An outline of the project, as well as the detailed steps (in so far as it is possible for them to be discerned), are defined at the beginning. Different jobs, such as the creative design of the website, and the creation of database structures, are assigned to different individuals. These tasks may occur at the same time, rather than a linear fashion. Finally, there is a phase at the end in which the solutions are tested for errors and fit for purpose.

The trappings of process hide the chaos which lies underneath. The creative designer, under most circumstances, has to find inspiration to come up with a design that will appeal to the audience and be aesthetically pleasing. The coder has to come up with ways of interrogating databases in such a way that is efficient, and provide code which the visitor to the website will find easy to use. No specification, no matter how detailed, can cover all the elements; in short, chaos and inspiration are tamed, but not abolished.

The processes come in a number of names, Rational Unified Process, Prince2, Agile, Waterfall – the sum total of their endeavours is to chain up creativity to a predictable delivery schedule. None of these processes are perfect; indeed, far from it, it is roughly estimated that seventy percent of all IT projects fail to meet their objectives.

The chaos theory of project management stands a greater chance of success in managing the creative process of just one person, in the development of their work towards an academic degree. The school provides a target date that must be met. The student can pursue parallel processes in achieving it, to accommodate both structure and inspiration. The parallel tracks in this instance are replacements for the different jobs, handled by a variety of individuals in the development of a website; in this, the writer is both creating the art, and also creating the underlying structure.

There is no shame, under these circumstances, in having multiple processes going on at once. The writer can structure time to do research reading; for example, I use the two hours I have every day on the train for the purposes of doing background reading. I also ensure that I make time for writing, which adheres to a strict schedule: every weekend is set aside for this purpose.

This does not mean, however, that I am not open to pursuing tangents. I keep a notebook with me in order to capture moments of inspiration. I am not afraid of breaking from a linear narrative, sometimes doing chapters that are well in advance, or sometimes going back and revising old chapters, depending upon where I feel my interests are leading me at a particular time. However, at the same time, word counts, checks with supervisors (who takes on the unintended role of the “steering committee” to use project management speak), help to keep the overall project on track. There is, however, an overhead: one not only has to think about the work being created, but also where one is with it in relation to the target.

The other overhead can be summed up in one word: editing; this is broadly the equivalent of the testing phase, in which the divergent elements are brought together at the end. Yes, editing is part of the process of creation, however, there should be time set aside at the end for an overall editing round, just as websites require testing. It is rare, in my experience, that enough time is set aside for either testing or editing to ensure that what is produced is top rate.

Does this work? My own practical application of the technique in the past twelve months has helped me to write 53,000 words in my Phd novel, 15,000 words of commentary, and in addition, also write a short story for a competition, create fresh lesson plans for the seminars associated with a “Writing the Novel” course and author half a dozen articles about politics and technology. The Phd pieces are in “testing” at the moment, but it is my ambition to ensure they fit into the thirty percent of projects defined as successes.

Academia helps in yet another way; it allows one to abandon the ego.

Perhaps the most frightening experience for any creative writing student is to submit their work for feedback from fellow students or lecturers. This fear is justified; a creative piece has the characteristic of children in that its genesis comes from within. It is not a regurgitation of fact, nor the application or extension of a theory of another. It is the pure product of individual imagination, and the scrutiny of a piece can be taken as exposing the virtues and defects of one's thought processes.

Writers who do not go through this examination within the confines of academia are taking a greater gamble than those who do. The constant drum of feedback in an academic environment, whether that is from teachers or colleagues, serves as a mechanism to help the writer to abandon egotism. This divorcing of self from self is necessary to achieve progress; it is not without the reflections of others that one can tell if the piece is making the impact the writer intends.

These reflections of others are often hard to come by; certainly, one can utilise the aid of family and friends, but they may feel constrained by their relationship to frame their remarks in a way which is less “hurtful”, but also less useful. Academia is beneficial in this regard, as the rigours of academic honesty mean that such feedback, ethically, should be rendered in its most honest format. The objectivity helps the writer to jettison ego over time, and not see feedback as the rantings of a philistine; rather, the writer gets inured to it, which is good preparation for a demanding editor or agent.

Structure, discipline, and feedback all contrast starkly with the image of the bohemian, devil may care writer. But by adopting these dry, somewhat straightened terms, through the delving into academia, we come back to the reality of writing. It is a business: publishers will demand works of high quality, delivered within particular timescales. Agents will help the publishers in pursuing these demands and be relentless in providing feedback. Romance cannot help but wither when faced with the truth: academia is the cold bath before the plunge into reality’s Arctic waters.

At the same time, unlike in any other profession, there is a chance for the rules to be broken. One can always ignore the feedback, if one strongly believes enough in a particular concept. One can always tear up a schedule and start afresh if a new story comes into view; albeit, there may be a constraint of asking for a revision to a deadline. And unlike any other profession, because these are products of the imagination, what is produced is only limited by one's creativity; this diverges from the example of website creation, as they tend to have a specific scope and purpose. A good academic programme will help one in this as well; providing caveats, and stating that writers should develop an instinct, rather than a set procedure for knowing when to break the rules.

No doubt there is trepidation associated with trying to join up academic pursuits with creative ones, creating synergy between schedule and imagination. However, I suggest academic writers should stop worrying and learn to love their degrees: academia will spur a process of mediation that will serve one in good stead long after the cap and gown have been put away and the degree has been framed and is hanging on the wall.

Partial Bibliography

Brennan, Sarah Rees, “Into that World Inverted”,

Lewis, Bob “The 70 Percent Failure”, Infoweek, [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/fashion/main.jhtml?xml=/fashion/2007/02/25/stanam125.xml&page=1]

“The Outsider”, The Sunday Telegraph, February 25, 2007, [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/fashion/main.jhtml?xml=/fashion/2007/02/25/stanam125.xml&page=1]

Copyright - Christian DeFeo 2008



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