Tag: creative writing

Flow as a Doorway to Magic

Flow as a Doorway to Magic

Harlequin’s Riddle is not your typical fantasy. There’s actually not a droplet of magic in it. Mina, the central character, doesn’t learn magic. There is no speaking of spells, hand waving or use of wands anywhere in any of the books.  There are some fantastic books out there that use this sort of overt magic. But I went in a different direction. What interests me is thinking about what magic already exists in the world. We forget how incredible life is, taking for granted all the wondrous things that happen every day. This is especially true for people. Their minds are complex, their lives are fascinating and their achievements can be staggering.

I’m particularly interested in creativity, and how that shapes people. Or, as becomes evident in my book, how people use their creative abilities to shape the world. Art, in whatever form, can change the way we think about things. It can take us out of the moment, transporting us so completely that we forget who we are. It can help us to empathise and connect with others, or heal long-held hurts.

About Flow

In my explorations in creativity over the years I’ve noticed a recurring theme, which is that when people do their creative practice, whatever that might be, they go into a different state, or mindset. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor, calls this state ‘flow’. In this state creators become completely absorbed in whatever they are doing. The requirements of the real world (food, ego etc.) fall away in place of a sense of fulfilment. This state can be very productive. Csiszentmihalyi also says the “whole being is involved”.

Flow and Writing

Many writers have had the experience of working on a piece, and having some sort of inexplicable or unusual experience, such as a character ‘coming to life’ and taking control of the story. Or writing about a place they’ve never been to, only to discover when they get there or see photos of it that they’ve described things with an uncanny accuracy. This is what fascinates me about flow – what if it is an opportunity to tap into a different mental state that links you in some way to something bigger than yourself? This was an idea I wanted to play with in my book.

Flow in Tarya

In Harlequin’s Riddle I take this idea of flow as a starting point to the fantastical elements of the story. Rather than a doorway to a different mental state, creativity becomes a literal doorway – to a place called Tarya. It is a place that sits beside the real world. There are spiritual aspects to Tarya, but it is not just a separate realm, like heaven. Events that happen in Tarya can have an effect on the real world. Mina, the central character of the book, discovers she is able to reach Tarya when she tells stories. But more importantly, she is able to bring aspects of her stories into being for her audience.

Writers are endlessly fascinated by the writing process. Sometimes it can definitely feel like it is magic. Having a heroine who can do interesting things with her stories is so much fun as a writer. I’d like to think there’s a little bit of me in Mina – or a little bit of Mina in me. But she may have other ideas…

If you’d like to learn more about Mina’s abilities, sign up to my email list (see the bottom of the page) and I’ll send you a free short story that tells you Mina’s back story.

 

 

Stories can be the key to recovery from writer’s block

Stories can be the key to recovery from writer’s block

I wrote a while back about having writer’s block and not realising I did. It’s often hard to see what’s going on when you’re in the middle of it. Things are definitely better now. My first book is coming out in four weeks. A children’s story is going to be in an anthology by Christmas Press. I have appearances lined up at Continuum, the Historical Novel Society of Australasia Conference and the Bendigo Writers Festival. Best of all, I have many ideas for stories.

A year ago I wasn’t feeling so optimistic. I used the word ‘burnout’ a lot. Someone else looking at it might have called it writer’s block. I didn’t feel like writing. The ideas weren’t there. Partly this was probably an inevitable result of completing a PhD – 4 years of stress and pressure leave you feeling pretty drained.  Most of my fellow students had some kind of emotional, physical or mental crash at the end of the process.

The other issue, though, was that I felt my stories didn’t matter. In my thesis I had argued for the importance of stories in changing how we see and respond to the world, and particularly climate change. One of my examiners completely ridiculed my ideas. I had also written a young adult novel as part of the PhD. This examiner’s entire response to the novel was ‘this novel is of PhD standard’. That was it. Seventy thousand words, years of my life, went into that manuscript, and all he wrote was one sentence, whilst simultaneously spending page after page ripping apart the arguments in the academic component. I was shattered.

It took me a long time to hit upon the solution. I nearly gave up writing altogether. But in the Princess Bride, when things look darkest, the Spaniard, Inigo Montoya, goes back to the beginning. So I did too. I asked myself why I started writing in the first place. The answer lay in the wonderful books that I’d read in primary school, and the incredible authors who had transported me to other worlds. No matter what some jaded academic said, I knew stories matter. They made a difference to me as a child. So I used the healing power of stories to restore my wonder and to reawaken my creative imagination. I visited old friends, like Susan Cooper‘s Dark is Rising series and everything by Diana Wynne Jones. I made new friends, like Derek Landy’s brilliant Skulduggery Pleasant series.

When you spend a lot of time studying writing and talking with writers, stories can lose their magic. And they shouldn’t. Stories can transform. By approaching stories with the openness and wonder of a new reader, I found a way to heal and restore myself. And stories re-entered my life.

 

Doing a Creative PhD – Things to Think About

Doing a Creative PhD – Things to Think About

In 2013 I completed my PhD by artefact and exegesis, submitting a young adult novel and a thesis. During and after that time I have had extensive contact with other students of creative PhDs. I’m on a facebook group where people sometimes ask about signing up to do one of these. The response is always overwhelmingly positive – people encourage others to go ahead and apply.  From my perspective, I am really pleased I obtained my PhD, but I believe anyone starting the ‘journey’ should have their eyes wide open. So this post discusses some things to be aware of.

The University Context

Probably the biggest factor at the moment for creative PhDs is that the university sector is being squeezed financially. And of course, like the broader social arena, the arts is always one of the first areas to lose funding. Potentially this might mean less funds available for going to conferences, less time allocation for supervisors to provide support during candidacy (so less face to face meetings) and less availability of other support (scholarships, research skills training etc.).

I had a conversation with a Visual Arts student recently on the day she discovered her supervisor had been made redundant. She was told there was no other potential supervisor on the horizon in the immediate future and was rightly devastated. Doing a PhD requires a lot of support. It’s hard to see how far these cuts are going to go, but one of the safeguards that can be put in place is to establish really good support networks with other students. Then if cuts do impact, you’ll at least have others to turn to who understand.

Your Goals

Be really clear about why you want to do the PhD. If it is to find a job in academia, see point 1! The traditional pathway of PhD to tutoring to lecturing to academic security is not a given any more. If this is your aim, it would be wise during your candidature to publish as much as possible, to develop excellent links to established academics who might be willing to mentor you, and to volunteer to help out with journals, conferences etc.  Show that you have a lot to offer. If you are doing the PhD because a scholarship is more income than a writer normally receives in a year and you don’t intend to become an academic, that’s fine – but see point 3! The point is, be clear about your expectations before you go in.

The Supervision Process versus Your Writing Process

Creative writing (and other creative arts) for a PhD is different to writing outside the university sector because you are subject to ‘The Gaze’. Whatever you write will be scrutinised closely to ensure it reaches PhD standard*. The ethics process can also impact. This means your project may be more collaborative than you are used to. For me aspects of the ethics process meant I had to entirely re-shape my novel.

For others, a supervisors’ input meant they took their writing in directions they were not initially keen on. Whilst this is akin to working with an editor, it can happen much earlier in the process than usual. Prior to my PhD I never showed my writing to others until I’d reached at least draft 3. However, during the PhD a supervisor wants to see that you are producing work, and may well want to see a first draft. Finding a supervisor you can communicate with is really important to find your way through all of this.

Creative Writing Versus Academic Writing

Your preferred emphasis and the university’s might not be the same. On paper a creative PhD is (depending on the uni) 70% creative project and 30% academic text. In practice, this is often reversed. Creative artists coming in are highly skilled and experienced at their arts practice, but usually less so on academic writing. It can be a shock to realise there is a huge expectation that you will spend the majority of your time on the academic work. Supervisors need to be sure you will tick all the boxes in terms of getting research and thesis chapters written. Friends of mine have (to their horror!) been told to put their novel aside for months whilst they focus on the academic text.

Do Your Research….

The best way to go into the PhD with your eyes wide open is to have some really good conversations with others who have gone through it, and with your potential supervisor to really sort out expectations. Good luck!

*PhD standard may be very different to publication standard!