14577539167_026c8903ec_z
Type
Polemic
Category
Higher education
Writing

What I learnt from my PhD (in creative writing)

One

Last year I was fortunate enough to have the creative component of my PhD published as a novel. Would I say my PhD has taught me how to write novels? I think, rather, it helped me write that one. As Helen Garner has famously said, ‘we have to learn to write again for each new book’. For context, I’d already had one novel published; for further context, that too had been developed through a higher education program – a masters. Clearly I’m in favour of formal learning, but coming to the end of our highest arts degree I’ve been reflecting on what, exactly, it’s taught me.

Perhaps research is what I’ve learnt: what it is, why to do it, how to do it well – in the context of both my creative work and its critical exegesis. But although I’ve been successful at presenting chapters from my dissertation as standalone papers and articles, my full thesis had an intimate audience of just three examiners (besides my supervisor). And while these academic skills will likely have future application, and further development (and possibly a broader audience than my creative work), that’s largely because I’m already employed as a university lecturer.

(Both the creative and critical endeavours – and their interrelationship – have honed my professional research, writing and editing skills, but as Justin Stover argues in ‘There is no case for the humanities’ this is ‘a valuable by-product’ rather than the core learning outcome of a humanities degree. Regardless of whether you agree at an undergraduate level, most would concur in the case of a student studying to be a doctor of philosophy. Though perhaps arts courses are not inevitably so productive: David Foster Wallace’s well-known commencement speech neatly articulates how teaching individuals to think also teaches them to recognise and resist certain kinds of ‘Think-Speak’.  It’s ‘the kind of thinking that probably does make certain of the young less ideal recruits in their armies of the employed’, Marilynne Robinson argues.)

Should I then say, as Stover does, that the greatest insight my capstone qualification has given me has been into the particular and idiosyncratic bureaucracy of the university system? Even more specifically, that of the university where I was studying?

Rather, I see the value of my PhD in, above all else, the supervisory relationship. This unique experience, in all its complexity and intensity, is an introduction to – an induction into – how our writing and publishing industry works. I have been awarded professional and personal insight into how I can now further my development alone.

Or, rather, not alone.

 

Two

In ‘Why teaching (writing) matters: a full confession’, Jayne Anne Phillips argues that, more important than teaching writing, an MFA is a way ‘those engaged in the practice of an art can mentor apprentice artists, and apprentice artists, in community, can mentor one another.’ Our industry has long been aware of the value of mentoring: not only have established authors throughout history advised and edited emerging ones, but the trade itself is founded upon that all-important author–editor relationship (or author–publisher, depending on who takes on this developmental role). As our profession and creative practice differs from fine arts’, so the nature of creative writing mentorships also vary – from other sectors, and within our own community.

In the case of my PhD I received: close editing of my work (as one creative to another, but, importantly, from an author who’d had extensive experience working with a seasoned editor); guidance on my writing career; advice on becoming an academic; and even reflections upon becoming a mother – and balancing (or, more actually, juggling) all these things. It may be relevant to confess here that my degree took me a long time to complete – a very long time. The absolute longest time permitted. This was clearly a factor in the life events that occurred over the course of my candidature, and probably also played a role in the relationship with my supervisor that evolved.

I might also add that, anticipating the importance of this student–supervisor relationship (having experienced similar, less successful, iterations during my time as first an honours and then a masters student), I followed my chosen professor from another university and across state lines.

Findings from a 2002 survey of creative writing mentorships concluded that ‘in no part of Australia does there appear a lack of interest in mentoring activity’. This is still, if not more than ever, the case. In every state there are mentorships, which are either paid for, or awarded as a prize; editorships, which may be government subsidised but are generally delivered in association with a particular press (either as manuscript development, or a contract to publish); and myriad internship opportunities. While the monetisation of mentoring provides a certain transparency, the user-pays model arguably influences the advice customer–clients receive. It also poses a financial barrier to some. But if the individual working on a prizewinning manuscript is from the commercial sector then their feedback is also unlikely to be neutral, and more likely to be market-driven – which may, of course, be exactly what the applicant–author wants and/or needs.

University supervisors, too, have their own interests and agendas, as Tara Brabazon sets out in ‘10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you’. While she has ‘never received any satisfactory, effective or useful supervision’, I’ve been particularly fortunate in that two of my previous less-positive supervisory experiences have led to invaluable publishing and teaching opportunities. One individual in particular has proven to be as generous a guide, both personally and professionally, as any student could ask for.

 

Three

Which begs the question: what do we students (have the right to) ask for?

Everything costs someone something – whether it’s cash, in kind, personal time or academic workload allocation. To connect Stover and Brabazon’s perspectives, supervisors don’t only help students navigate the university system, they must chart a path themselves that protects both their time and that of their student meetings.

In many institutions the preparatory experience for this one-on-one supervision, honours, is under threat. There are a number of reasons for this: one is the increasing popularity of a ‘3+2’ university pathway (a generalist undergraduate arts degree, followed by a postgraduate masters specialisation), as in the Melbourne Model; another is cost. Direct, individual – and generally face-to-face – attention is expensive. In this age of the ‘massification’ and corporatisation of universities, such an extravagant arrangement can be hard to defend.

The cornerstone of most creative-writing courses is workshopping, where participants receive feedback from their peers, under the guidance of experienced tutors, who offer their own opinions and manifest best practice on how to present that. Regardless of the role the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the USA’s creative writing MFA programs have played in the ascendance of this model, all of the institutions I’ve studied or taught at in Australia have favoured group workshopping as their preferred pedagogy.

As we are taught, so we teach. ‘[G]raduates of MFA programs often go on to teach in other MFA programs,’ KC Trommer points out, prompting me to consider anew my own experience in this context, both in the trade and academy. I may be somewhat of an anomaly among creative writing teachers (though not among publishing lecturers) in not having undertaken such courses at an undergraduate level – I do remember enrolling in some subjects, but was always put off not by the quality of the work but by the positive response that it invariably received. I learnt my craft as a jobbing journalist, speechwriter, editor and publisher. And in every one of these paid positions I was apprenticed to a master (the word mistress will not do) – whether that was my manager, someone higher up, or an outside expert … such as an author whose manuscript I was project managing and collating changes on.

 

Four

At the same time that universities are increasingly under pressure to work as a business themselves (enrolling more students – who wouldn’t have made the grade thirty or forty years ago, as Tegan Bennet Daylight details in ‘The difficulty is the point’ – in ever-increasing class sizes, taught by sessional and frequently still-studying staff), core but not-cost-effective relationships have also been squeezed in the writing and publishing industries. While publishers continue to manage the author relationship at the commissioning and contracting stage, sometimes still undertaking the initial developmental edit, structural editing – along with copyediting and proofreading – has largely been outsourced.

Publishing’s shift to a freelance workforce marries with the media industry’s transition to a ‘gig’ economy, resulting in an increase reliance on sole-trader writers and editors who have no clear career trajectory, union-protected pay scale, or recourse to in-house professional development. They neither receive the kind of mentoring that might be expected from a line manager or established editor in a traditional press (though this, of course, may not have actually happened), nor are they in a position to offer much mentoring themselves – to emerging authors, or editors. Specialist postgraduate programs have stepped into this gap (many offering internship subjects that explicitly identify industry mentors), as well as editing opportunities such as Seizure’s Viva la Novella initiative, Varuna’s Residential Editors’ Program and the Beatrice Davis Fellowship.

Much has been made of the negative impact this shift has had, not only on editors’ and authors’ development, but also on that of their collaborative output – the books. The survey conducted by Nigel Krauth (et al) identified that ‘text mentorships, like the use of assessment services, have gained in significance because of the identifiable withdrawal of editors from publishing in recent years’. Has any good come from this change prompted by commercial necessity? Certainly many of the frequently female, part-time, working-from-home freelancers appreciate the flexibility. Could it also encourage objectivity – loyalty to a book, perhaps, over an employer; scrutiny, with experience across publishing houses; an increase in critical as well as practical skills; and familiarity with new technologies and different processes, as taught by universities like mine?

In defence of the individuals that make up our industry, everyone I know personally and professionally is still putting in the same amount of outside and overtime hours. If not more. And this effort ­– as well as the pressure that prompts it – is also, as ever, the case inside academia too.

 

Five

It is upon stepping into a supervisory role myself that I have been prompted to reflect on the nature and importance of this not-always-easy relationship. Certainly, this was not what I had thought my PhD would be about when I started out. In ‘Where great writers are made: assessing America’s top graduate writing programs,’ Edward Delaney establishes that time (which he equates with money) and ‘something to react to’ are the most important aspects of great writing programs. I received both of these through my PhD, each channelled directly through one particular port-of-call: my supervisor.

To conclude – as that decade-long relationship finally has – Lynn Davidson makes a persuasive case for creative writing PhDs as having a value above and beyond university-recognised research outputs. It is not just students’ engagement in contemporary cultural production that is so essential, so worthwhile, she argues, but the opportunity the higher research degree provides to be part of ‘the big conversation’ that reaches back through time as well as forward into the future.

A conversation which starts between two people.

A conversation which, for me, must start as one between two people.

 

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Born in England, based in Melbourne, Rose Michael is a writer, editor and academic who has been published in Griffith REVIEW, Best Australian Stories, Island, Muse, Cultural Studies Review. Her first novel, The Asking Game (Transit Lounge, 2007), was a runner-up for the Allen & Unwin/Vogel award and received an Aurealis Award honourable mention. An early extract of The Art of Navigation was published in Review of Australian Fiction.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this, Rose Michael. I am near the end of a PhD in creative writing and concur that I have learned how to research in the true sense of the word, as well as gained a lot from the supervisory relationship. It has also enabled me to meet several other writers and researchers and artists and learn from them; to engage with others at conferences and share our work; to position myself more confidently as a writer now that I have a full length manuscript of reasonable quality. I won’t be working in academia (unless something unexpected happens) but rather taking my work out into the world, and developing other projects out there.

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