I think it’s finally time for me to mention the fact that I’m a doctoral candidate at the University of Western Sydney, and part of the Writing & Society Research Centre.
It was around about this time last year that I received an email telling me that I’d been offered a place to study at UWS under the supervision of the remarkable Dr Kate Fagan. At that point in my life I was basically unemployed (after getting booted from a copywriting job which, to be fair, I was trying really hard to get booted from) and was thinking “If I don’t get into this program, I’m going to have to get a job in a chicken factory.”
Having been out of academia for seven years (I completed my Honours year at UTS in 2007) I had a really hard time writing my research application. In the beginning I wanted to map the entire spectrum of human emotion, using poetry. Kate very gently told me that this was a wildly unrealistic aim for a doctoral project, and that instead of pledging to study “all poetry ever” I needed to narrow my focus.
I wanted to give up right there and then, to be honest. My life at the time was a busy mess of deadlines and distractions, and I thought that maybe it would be better to put the doctorate on hold and try again in 12 months’ time.
But then I got mad at myself. I grabbed a bottle of wine from the kitchen, locked myself in my room, and said “Lou Lou, we’re not coming out of here until you’ve written a new application. Now start writing, you lazy dickhead!”
In doing so, I was forced to ask myself what I really wanted to study. It would take at least three years of my life, it would set back my professional career, it would make me poor, it would make me stressed and it would probably impact upon my social life – so it needed to be something I was genuinely passionate about. “Fuck it,” I thought. “I’m going to write a doctorate on Luke Davies.”
For those of you who are unfamiliar with his work, Luke Davies is an Australian writer who is most famous for his novel Candy (which was made into a film starring Heath Ledger). I had read Candy when I was a teenager, but it wasn’t until around 2012 – when I got myself a copy of Interferon Psalms – that I truly discovered his poetry. This experience was literally life changing; suddenly poetry made perfect sense. Reading Davies’ poetry was like, to borrow one of his own analogies, walking into a palace. It’s a beautiful place that you can walk around in forever.
So I rewrote my application, and this time Kate gave it the thumbs up. “Let’s see how it flies,” she said. Three nail-biting months later, I received the news that it had, indeed, flown.
I couldn’t fucking believe it. Was I smart enough to be doing a doctorate? Like, really?
Thus began a journey that I’m determined to finish. What I’m studying is called a Doctor of Creative Arts, and it’s different to a traditional PhD in the sense that I have to submit an exegesis together with a collection of poetry. (The DCA also accommodates other creative forms such as novels and screenplays). I have 3-4 years to get it done, which might sound like a long time but trust me, it’s not long enough.
2014 was a difficult year. I moved house twice, I was chronically broke, I felt intellectually inadequate and I was constantly hungover. Superstitiously, I felt ‘tested’ – it would have been a whole lot easier if I’d packed in the doctorate and got myself a decently paying job in copywriting. (I was offered a full time position at Groupon in February but turned it down to study – a decision that haunted me during the many subsequent months of unemployment). Being unemployed is a real kick in the pants, and it affected my confidence at a time when I was already feeling way out of my depth in the academic world.
But I hung on because despite all the signs to the contrary, I knew I was on the right path. The Writing and Society Research Centre at UWS is the perfect place for me to be right now – I am totally surrounded by talented, brilliant, passionate creative people, many of them from Sydney’s Western Suburbs (which is where I’m from). There is a real sense of being part of a literary movement. My voice is one of many coming out of places like Parramatta and Bankstown; suburbs that have been virtually ignored by the Australian literary canon. I’ve never been so inspired.
In November 2014 I stood in front of a panel of four (count them) senior academics for my Confirmation of Candidature. In layman’s terms, this is the thing you have to pass in your first year, or else they kick you out. It’s basically an opportunity for you to say “This is what my project is about, this is why my project is original, this is why it’s scholarly, and this is how I’m going to get it done in the time frame”. Given that I wasn’t entirely sure what my project was about (you can’t just go in there and say “I’m going to write some stuff about Luke Davies’ poetry because YOLO”) this was a supremely stressful exercise. However the panel gave me some really useful feedback and now I feel a bit clearer about what the research side of my project will actually encompass. (At the moment I’m exploring the concept of the ‘postmodern sublime’ in contemporary poetry, which sounds pleasingly cool whenever I say it to people at parties).
All four of the academics unanimously gave me a ‘Class A’ pass. It took all the self control in the world not to yell “FUCK YEAH!”, kiss them all on the lips and start sculling directly from a bottle of Veuve Clicquot.
(Actually I pretty much did go straight to the pub after that. Haha).
So I passed, which means I now really, truly have to do this thing. How hard could it be, right??
The problem is, the actual PhD part is kind of the easiest aspect. It’s all the other ‘life stuff’ you have to juggle that makes the experience so daunting. I’m having an especially hard time making it work financially – I’m technically a full time student, and yet I need to work at least 20 hours per week just to stay afloat. In 2014 I gave up a lot of luxuries I used to enjoy, mainly going to gigs (I missed out on Nick Cave, Reggie Watts, Alt-j, La Roux, Banks and Röyksopp, to name a few). One of my all time favourite bands (Underworld) performed one of my all time favourite albums (Dubnobasswithmyheadman) in the UK, and if I’d had the money I would have flown over there to see them. It’s heart breaking but then again it is very much a first world problem, so.
Other things I’ve given up:
- New clothes
- New shoes
- Yoga studio membership
- Eating properly
- Buying music legally
- The possibility of ever owning my own home
So while I’m not precisely starving in a garret, I’m hyper conscious of the way that money keeps people imprisoned in jobs they don’t particularly like, simply because it’s easier to keep going to the crap job than it is to break out of societal norms in pursuit of a pipe dream. It’s a romantic fallacy that great art is produced from poverty; if you’re constantly worried about cash, you’re not really free to devote yourself to your art. See also: Orwell’s classic novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. The Wikipedia entry for this book states: “(The protagonist) would prefer to prostitute his wife rather than prostitute his artistic integrity by writing advertising copy.”
I wish I were above prostitution, but I live in Sydney.
Anyway, money issues aside, I’m still totally thrilled to be doing my doctorate. I’m now using parts of my brain that were starting to atrophy from years of brainless corporate employment. I feel like all the hardships I went through in my early adulthood – the failed relationships and the jobs that made me want to lie down on the road – were not meaningless because they brought me here.
Here, in Marrickville, with my cat, listening to Grooveshark, writing in my poetry blog on a warm Sunday afternoon, is exactly where I want to be.
And that’s priceless.