Back in September 2016 I wrote a little post on here about how I was starting up a PhD. According to that post, I'd been thinking about it for a while, had put in an application with Manchester Uni, had felt a bit uncertain about it, and then had turned 30, got married, and decided life was too short and sweet to dilly-dally. Well, four and a half years on, its done. As of last Friday (22nd Jan), I can officially call myself Dr Dave, having completed a project that proved good enough to satisfy a pair of examiners. Feels pretty good, I must admit, even if it hasn't quite completely sunk in yet. Dr Dave. Still sounds weird.
In a curious twist of fate, the 22nd January was also the date when my sister got her first COVID vaccination. There was a pleasing symmetry to it all because, as many of you know, Jenny was the inspiration and anchor for the entire project as it looked, in various creative and critical ways, at the connections between autism and fantastical narratives. I wanted to more deeply understand, I think, how Jenny's alternative viewpoint on life had inspired and guided my own creative endeavours in the weird and the strange, while also considering if the fantastical genres had anything positive to offer the autistic, either through representation or poetic expression. My conclusion was: well hell yes! Of course! But, like any form of narrative, sci-fi and fantasy have to be careful and clever, and most of all they have to be sensitive to neurological divergence. But when they are, oh boy, they can smash it out of the park. I suggest, in the end, that the realms of the fantastical make for excellent meeting spaces for people of different neurotypes where, together, they can explore what it means to be othered, estranged, and then hopeful about a better future.
The PhD was a doctorate-by-practice, which means that a major part of it was creative work. This, for me, was a 97,000 experimental weird fiction novel about autism and the afterlife which currently remains unpublished and untouched by agents. That's right - I might now have a PhD in Creative Writing but I still don't have an agent or a contract for publication. That feels particularly strange, and a little galling, but I recognise that this is a pretty bizarre novel which does not suit everyone's tastes, while the market for autism narratives has shifted recently towards #OwnVoices autistic writers, which is long overdue and I wholeheartedly support. Also, I still think the first few chapters of it aren't yet pulling their weight (and these are the ones that literary agents, the gatekeepers to publication, tend to focus on). Never mind. I'll keep working on it. The comments of the external examiner at the viva exam have given me a boost - he considers the thing publishable as is and it was clear he really enjoyed it. That's the thing about being a writer though. You've got to have patience, you've got to persevere, you've got to play the long game. I'll have another run at those opening chapters very soon. There's no rush.
But the PhD was never simply about getting a novel published; it ran further and deeper than that. It was about shaping, consuming and digesting a large-scale argument, which itself was wrapped around a deep-dive into a fuzzy corner of a tropical ocean to uncover new and uncharted treasures. It was about doing something full with my brain and, hopefully, adding new thoughts to world to make it just that tiny bit better. The accompanying 50K critical thesis tries to do a little of that in its elaboration on such fancy-sounding ideas as 'the neuroqueer screen' and 'neurodivergent estrangement'. I'm hoping to stick the whole thing up on my Academia page very soon, so keep a look out if you're interested.
The Process of a Creative Writing PhD
The preparation for the final submission and examination involves going back over everything you've done over the previous three or four years to get a sense of where you started and how it all developed. So, if there's anyone reading this who might be considering taking the doctorate plunge, here's some thoughts.
Top thought: totally do it. Why the hell not? Above everything else, it's just one of those totally amazing life-achievement things that feels proper nice to have accomplished. In essence, you get the time, space, and resource to just learn lots of stuff and read some proper incredible texts - and if you're doing a Creative Writing PhD, you get that most rare and precious of gems: invaluable, unadulterated writing time. And then on top of that, like the sweetest of cherries, the expertise of your supervisors is just right there, always at your fingertips. Hands down, its amazing. I'll always cherish full days in the library reading books like Melanie Yergeau's Authoring Autism or Corinne Duyvis's On the Edge of Gone (or any of the other of my top ten autism books). There's no greater privilege.
But there's roughness with that smooth. That's always going to be the case with projects of this size. Its an expensive endeavour, even when you're lucky enough to get funding. There were times when my brain just did not work, refusing to spool out anything of worth, refusing to take in anything of note. And there were periods, large and small, when life got in the way. And, more importantly, vice versa; there were times when the PhD got in the way of life. That's the real danger of it, I think: that you end up seeing it as something you need to be constantly doing with every spare hour you've got, especially if you've spent the day distracted by whatever horror-show has spread itself across the news, or you've got tied up with mundane stuff like cooking, shopping, or cleaning out the guinea pigs. You do have a life outside of the PhD and you are expected to take breaks. I got to the point where I told myself to stop working at weekends and made sure I wasn't working too late into the evenings. And if there were periods when my brain was like nah mate, then I listened to it and let it rest.
I actually found it helpful that I was doing a Creative Writing PhD as I got into a good rhythm of swinging back and forth between the creative work and the critical research. The two things complimented each other but used different parts of my thinking brain, so turning to the critical after a few months of creative felt refreshing and vice versa. It was a rhythm that helped to ensure I didn't get too burned out with either side. Having said that, there were also a few occasions where the critical research threatened to derail the novel. I would read something excellently clever about, say, a particular stereotype of autistic characters, and then find that I'd already fallen into that exact trap and fixing it would take some mental gymnastics and a whole lot of re-writing. It sometimes felt like one half of me was deliberately building brick walls in front of the other half and then laughing maniacally with devilish glee while my creative soul floundered. While ultimately those walls did help me build a much stronger and more compelling house, it didn't make for the most brilliant novel-writing headspace. I sort of had to trick myself into ignoring myself while I pushed through the tyranny of the blank page, then let my subconscious do its magic while the story tumbled out. Yeah, it was hard work, and there's no magic formula to except: keep going, trust yourself.
You get there. With patience and persistence, it comes, as does the thesis. Some practical advice now: don't leave the critical thesis languishing while you try to rattle out the creative. It doesn't work that way. Oscillate between the two, make steady progress on both. Also: do allow yourself to do other stuff. I went to a lot of conferences and symposiums (because I'm always a show-off at heart) and very much enjoyed the experiences. Absolutely use the funding on offer to travel to such things - halfway through my four years I bagged myself a fully-funded trip to Canada to present for twenty minutes at a conference and it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Network with other PhD students, sure, but don't put too much pressure on yourself to do this. Better to make social connections - go to movies, play sports, go for lunches, shoot the damn breeze.
Most of all, there's this spectre that haunts you all the way through: Imposter Syndrome. That feeling of I'm stupid, there's been a mistake, I don't belong here, I'm not clever enough. That's what comes of being in a learning environment where everyone is swinging their intellectual dicks (so to speak), tossing out a Foucault here, a Deleuze there, a Kantian this, a Derridan that. Screw all that. Learn at your own pace. Don't get distracted by the big names if you don't need to. Plough your furrow, dig up your own heroes, then clear a plot for your own pedestal. Related to this, it's curious how as a PhD student you suddenly feel bottom of the pile again - like you're at the foot of a new ladder that stretches up to dizzying heights. But you're not. You've earned your place. You're already doing extremely well. Take that momentum and climb.
Finally, some thoughts on the last step - the eternally mysterious and terrifying 'viva exam'. It looms large over the whole process, like an end-of-game megaboss that you just know is going to give you a right battering. In short, the viva is when you get grilled by two examiners - one internal to your university, and the other external - who have read the work you've submitted and are experts in your field. You're there to 'defend' what you've argued in your thesis and generally show yourself to be a good little researcher who has learned lots, but perhaps not everything, but you've at least made a significant contribution to the field, you absolute clever clogs. At the end, the examiners decide your fate: a straight pass with no corrections, a pass with minor corrections (rewrite a paragraph here, a paragraph there), a pass with major corrections (rewrite whole chapters), or various levels of fail. Then you get a set amount of time to complete your corrections and, as long as you do those to their satisfaction, you're done. Any level of pass means at that point you can call yourself Dr.
Mine lasted two and half hours. At the beginning, my external said the best thing he could have said: don't worry, you've definitely passed. Weights flew off my shoulders, i settled the roiling nerves and we proceeded to have a lovely chat about both the novel and the thesis. Some of the questions were quite probing, a few were actually quite challenging (particularly the one about queer theory from my internal which, admittedly, I'm not quite so hot on), but most came from a place of curiosity rather than anything I'd done wrong as such. At the end I was delighted and more than a little surprised to get the 'pass with no corrections' mark, aside from a tiny list of typos that weren't deemed serious enough to be called corrections. And that was it.
I had prepared my little socks off, to be fair, but it turned out that barely any of the questions came up that I'd assumed would be asked. I also did that thing where I put a load of colourful tags into the print-out of the project which would have taken me to the key quotes, ideas, and points of discussion. I didn't even open the thesis: I ended up relying totally on what was in my head, which proved enough. Nevertheless, it was only in there because I'd spent time going over it all meticulously. As you can see from these pictures, I just wrote loads of answers out and tried to think through as many angles as possible. I also re-read the thesis carefully and tried to get a condensed overall sense of it by turning it into a one-page roadmap. I drew a map of an island resort called 'Aut-Alterity' with each of my chapters corresponding to a different district (from Introduction Cove to Mount Conclusion). I then drew a road through it, turning my key points into tourist landmarks along the way. I then drew a one-page brochure advertising a holiday on the island. "Stay awhile and learn how the fantastic explores divergence in meaningful ways! Watch a screening of Blade Runner and see it in a new neurodivergent light! Spend time with autistic authors!" That kind of thing.
It was a fun little activity that really helped me see how my argument folds and spreads and diverts through the noise of the thesis, and it helped me to focus in on the core of what I was trying to say. This then became a foundational structure for the rest of the viva preparation. I did spend a little bit of time checking in with some of my key areas to see if anything new had been published that I needed to know about, but I didn't get too bogged down in this. Always it was about coming back to what I had written and I had thought, and keeping that centralised in my head. I also kept telling myself to be anchored firmly to it and not waver. The best advice for the viva, i think, is: have courage in your convictions. You have contributed your knowledge. Now show how.
But in the end, the viva became a space and time to indulge in the world I had explored with two people who were genuinely interested in what I had to say. And that sort of thing doesn't actually happen very often. So I also told myself to enjoy it, as much as I possibly could, and I did.
What Now, Doc?
Well, just because its finished, doesn't mean its finished. The project rolls on, in a sense, because I want to concentrate on getting some of these thoughts and ideas out and about to the wider world. That means turning sections of the thesis into journal articles, continuing to connect with other researchers in the field, and flogging this novel until someone embraces it and makes it a thing for the bookshops. And there's teaching to do, jobs to apply for and, I hope, the next big project, whatever that may be (I have some ideas bubbling).
And I've also got a family to catch up with. I need to gather the Hartley clan and raise a toast to this project, which began life three years before I was born, when Jenny came into this world. It was her quirk of DNA, with all its wonder and silliness, that set the threads of this particular tapestry. This PhD is but one part of that picture; I'm some monkish scholar cradling a glowing manuscript in some distant corner of Jenny's wild and chaotic weaving. She won't ever understand what's written there, and why it means so much to that daft little figure, but maybe she'll point to it occasionally, like she does with photos, and say; that's David when he went to school, isn't it? and that's more than good enough for me.