Two years into the PhD experience, and I’ve already ticked many major achievements off the list, namely:
- Being unemployed with few real career prospects
- Having no money yet still figuring out a way to be drunk all the time*
- Experiencing occasional moments of genuine madness
- Being incapable of sustaining a functional romantic relationship
- Alienating people in social situations who make the mistake of asking what I ‘do’
I remember attending a postgraduate information session at UTS back in 2007 when I was finishing my Honours degree. In front of us stood an assortment of traumatised PhD candidates, telling us that if we chose to continue with postgraduate research, we would end up with unemployment, poverty, madness, substance abuse issues, divorce and social alienation – but that it was a worthwhile pursuit and we should really consider it.
Lol nope, I thought. Nuh uh.
So I went out into the world and landed a full time job as a copywriter. Despite hating offices and feeling myself to be in ideological opposition with the moguls whose companies grew ever richer for every “hot” and “sale” that I penned, I persisted with this career trajectory for another six years before finally making the decision to go back to academia.
I was like a rain-soaked King Lear, standing at a crossroads labelled “Madness” and “Madness”.
As you can see from my recap of 2014, the first year of my doctorate provided me with many valid reasons to quit. But all of the crap was offset by the success I was experiencing with my poetry – in 2014 I managed to crack Westerly and Meanjin, for instance (the Australian literary equivalent of appearing on both Conan O’Brien and Letterman). But it wasn’t just that people were publishing my shit – which is significant when you’ve spent over a decade being unpublished (unless you count Harvey Norman catalogues as ‘published’) – it was that I was meeting inspirational brilliant people and gaining confidence in myself as an artist.
So I drank my way through to 2015 and pressed ahead.
The Epic that was 2015
A lot of stuff happened this year, now that I stop to consider it. Such as:
Becoming a Uni Tutor
You know how people say dumb things like “One day I’ll write a memoir!” or “One day I’ll run a cafe!” – well, I’m especially prone to saying things like that. For years and years I’ve been telling people “One day I’ll become a uni tutor!” – thinking that I would be a complete natural at it, like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.
Well, an opportunity came up in February 2015 for me to teach at UWS. “It’s a communications subject,” they explained over the phone, “…for computing students.”
“Sure!” I said. “Sounds great!”
Oh my god, it was tough. I found myself thrust in front of a classroom full of eighteen year-old boys – none of whom wanted to be there, mumbling a bunch of stuff and shakily underlining my own name on a whiteboard. It was a moment so stressful and surreal that it bordered on being out-of-body. On the drive home, it was all I could do to not drive my car into the Parramatta River.
You see, computing students do not want to be taught the difference between the active and passive voice. They want to learn how to write code, so they can go out and get a job with actual applications in the real world. But the subject was compulsory. None of us had a choice.
In a very short space of time, it became a matter not of being the most inspiring teacher they’d ever encountered, but getting through the semester without having a nervous breakdown.
I remember being so exhausted that it was almost too much effort to lie on the floor of my bedroom and drink brandy out of the bottle. Almost.
But I got there. And happily, by the end of it, I had actually managed to engage some of the students, and perhaps even teach them something too. “In my three years of university, I have never received such helpful feedback from a tutor,” said one of my students at the end. It meant a lot.
The upshot of the experience is that I feel like now, I can do any job in the world. I’m a lot better at speaking in front of an audience, and I’ve also arrived at the realisation that I really do like engaging with students – as long as they want to be there.
In 2016 it’s my hope to tutor again, but for a different subject – one that the students have voluntarily elected to study. Creative writing or poetry, obviously, would be great!
I live in hope.
Switching to Part Time Study
It dawned on me that working enough hours to support myself financially and studying a doctorate full time is a great way to burn out.
I embarked on this journey thinking, “Okay I’ll knock it over in three years and then get out while I’m still reproductively fertile,” but now the goalposts have changed somewhat. At the rate I’m currently going, I’ll be lucky to have this thing finished by the time I’m 36. But, whatever. I’m happy, and anyway I’m far too emotionally immature to be thinking about having kids just yet.
Poetry first – the rest will follow.
Surviving the Untimely Death of my Cat
Not much to say on this subject, other than it was devastatingly sad. Rest in peace, Cookie. You were fat and fancy and I loved you.
Appearing as a Panellist at the Verse & Voice Festival
I always used to joke with friends that one day I would appear on a panel for a literary festival, and afterwards I’d hit the free bar and hobnob with Literary Greats.
Well, this actually happened. I even have a photo to prove it:
An unforgettable experience for which I’m extremely grateful.
Travelling to California and Meeting my Hero
I was very fortunate to receive a travel allowance, which enabled me to travel overseas in June for a poetry conference in Berkeley. The time I spent in the US deserves a blog post of its own, but in summary – it was amazing. Not so much the conference, which was pleasant but ultimately not very useful, but for the chance encounter with Luke Davies – the poet I am studying.
He was completely lovely and it was beyond incredible to spend a few hours in LA chatting to him about poetry.
My supervisor encouraged me to record an ‘official interview’ – it took me months to even work up the courage to play any of it back to myself, as I was convinced I would come across as an incoherent idiot. But the idiocy was only minimal, and hopefully in 2016 this interview will appear in print. (It’s almost definite, actually. I’m not just talking out of my arse here).
Impossible to speak in anything but cliché here: a dream come true.
Writing my First Epic Poem
A quick poetry lesson: an epic is a long poem that spans multiple pages, and tells a grand story. A lyric poem, on the other hand, tends to be short (usually less than one page) and does not necessarily need to deal with the heavier themes of life (although many still do).
While I was overseas I started writing a new piece from scratch – an epic that’s comprised of a series of short lyric poems, in the same way that a novel can be composed of a series of short stories.
It’s called Golden Repair, and it deals, at face value at least, with the grief that comes from the end of a relationship.
I finished the first draft of this manuscript in November, and already one of the poems from this sequence has been accepted for publication in Cordite in 2016. Which gives me hope that there’s something to it.
Realising that I’m Over Copywriting
I’ve been a professional writer for many years at it, and I’m good at it.
But when you’re trying to juggle writing for work with writing for study with writing for art – you start to go a bit mental.
In the last few months I’ve started to look for sources of income that don’t drain me in the way that copywriting does, and what I’ve found so far has been really great.
For instance, I’ve recently started work in a second hand bookshop, and it’s really just pure bliss to be there. I love books and I love talking to people about books. As kooky as this sounds, books have healing properties for me – just having them around helps to calm my frantic mind.
More of this, I hope.
Trying to Be a Bit Nicer to Myself
Many of you will be familiar with ‘The Hobo’ – the star of so many of my poems from the last couple of years.
I laughed a lot while I was him, but I realised over the course of this year that I need to find someone to date who is a little bit… not a drunk, angry bigot?
Aside from Hobo, there have been a number of lovely lovers in my life this year. Cheers to you guys. You know who you are.
As for drinking/etc – while I don’t think I’m ever going to be a teetotaller, I do need to find more room inside my life for quiet contemplation. I’ve basically completed the ‘fun’ part of my doctorate, i.e. the poetry. Now comes the tricky part, where I have to familiarise myself with some of the greatest minds of human history, and work their ideas into my exegesis in a way that’s original and meaningful.
I’m capable, and I’m motivated. I’ll get there.
Time to wrap up this little-mind dump, I think. Thanks to everyone still reading this. Big love.
Here’s to 2016, raaah.
* Dating an alcoholic helped.