Three things I learnt doing a PhD in Creative Writing

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess who had been hidden away at the top of a glass mountain. She lived in a sparkling palace filled with precious things, with gardens full of roses and the sweet scent of the golden apple tree just beyond its walls. Day and night, the princess was guarded by the magic of a witch. This witch had conspired with the King to keep his daughter safe until a man of valour and skill found his way to her. A huge fire breathing dragon guarded the gates, his low rumbling heard across the valleys below.

Despite the dangers, many brave knights attempted to scale the mountain, only to fall to their deaths until, one day, a young scholar decided that it was time for him to give it a try. He made his way to the mountain through the bodies of the fallen, their golden armour glistening even where they fell. He had none of their provisions, only his wits to sustain him.

This is, of course, the story of a scholar who won a reward meant only for a knight. He had very little when he began, but used everything he had wisely. He looked, listened, and focused upon the problem at hand, and he came up with creative solutions to difficult, high-stakes problems. And in the end, not only did he win the reward, but a new way of being.

To me, the essence of artistic transformation is the way we are changed through the creative solutions we enact. The artistic journey is the scholar’s journey. We have set out with creative curiosity, taking ourselves and not much more.

So, when I thought about what I have learnt, I was met with a powerful dilemma. This is a short post. What can I share that will help you with your artistic journey? What are the most important things I discovered, and can I make them knapsack sized so that you can carry them with you as you scale the Glass Mountains in your life.

I immediately discounted the content of my creative work. Yes, it is a bit interesting that in 2009 I went to Europe on a conference trip and found more than I bargained for. I mean, I knew something was there, but when I discovered it, my world shattered for so many reasons. My mother had been born in a death camp for Slavic babies. What did that mean? Who were we now? Yet, while these questions formed the content of my practice, the topic and stuff I had to work with, they weren’t the keys to my art. In the end, the most important thing I learnt during my candidature has been how to live a life that involves a sustained artistic practice, and what that practice does to the way I generally think and act.

This post isn’t about what I wrote, but about how I wrote it. It is about the things I have learnt and the practices that sustained me throughout a very long artistic project. These practices have changed me as a person.

We are all the same, but different.

This probably sounds far too obvious for words, but it is one of the key things I discovered completing this project. While studying the intergenerational effects of trauma on survivors of Nazi racial policy, I was astounded to read in Ruth Leys’ Trauma: A Geneology (2000) that “quasi-psychotic anxieties, peculiarly concrete or demetaphorized modes of thinking, traumatic fixations, dissociative doublings or splittings, actings-out and memory disturbances” were observed “especially in the children of Holocaust victims” (Leys: 26). I have four children, and they were all seriously debilitated with Autistic Spectrum Conditions (ASCs) when I read this quote. This description of the intergenerational effects of complex trauma read like a textbook symptomology for autism. It changed the way I thought of autism, trauma and creativity in one sentence, and I continue to explore its consequences.

The primary view I formed was that we are simultaneously the same and different. This is what the American Bill of Rights is attempting to codify, but it means nothing until becomes a part of an ingrained sense of self. Growing up the odd one out in a family of hyphenated-ethnicity, I knew what it was to be different. What I wasn’t so familiar with was being the same.

In the story “The Glass Mountain”, the scholar’s understanding that we are simultaneously substantially the same as each other, but different because of our experience and opportunity, is what gives him both the courage to pursue the quest and the ability to complete it. As artists, I encourage us to see ourselves as capable of using the bridge of similarity to span the gap between our points of difference.

In order for art to span the space between self and other, it needs to intersect with a community of minds. That community does not need to agree with what we do or how we do it, but there is something of social communication in all artistic work. In general, communication requires a point of similarity in order to function. But also, in general, art requires a fine tuned understanding of how the artist operates uniquely in the generation of observation, ideas and objects.

For me, mature artistic practice involves the cultivation of our personal points of difference, particularly the sensory and intellectual differences that feed our sensibility, so that our contribution to our communities are fresh and enlivening. At the same time, I encourage artists to appreciate our similarities so that we can empathise deeply with the concerns of our communities and the diversity of individuals within those communities, whether our view of community is local or global, familial or the greater family of humanity.

Artistic sensibility is created through artistic practice

There is a long held debate about whether artistic sensibility is essential to one’s personality, or whether it can be engendered. I think that while some people are lucky to have a proclivity to certain ways of being, the artistic sensibility can be nurtured in anybody. This is what Antonio Damasio is suggesting in his book Self Comes to Mind (2012). One of the leaders of neuroscience, and particularly interested in the formation of the self, Damasio writes that “conscious minds begin when self comes to the mind mix, modestly at first, but quite robustly later” (SCTM: 22). Furthermore, he adds, “building a mind capable of encompassing one’s lived past and anticipated future, along with the lives of others added to the fabric and capacity for reflection to boot, resembles the execution of a symphony of Mahlerian proportions. But the marvel … is that the score and the conductor become reality only as life unfolds” (SCTM: 24)

For Damasio, the self is a play of cells and systems, relations and readings, that develop through the unique interconnection of the biological organism and the environment that its senses continually interpret. Some of these modes of interpretation are instinctual, hardcoded into our biochemistry, and some are as pliable as dough.

This means that the way we intersect with the world, the way we refine our sensual acuity, the way we develop our appreciation and interpretation of our sensory material continually renegotiates who we are. Artistic practice not only improves our skill, it also changes our bodies, our brains and our selves.

Experts in any field live by their guts. Some call it intuition, others refined judgement, and I have often called it serendipity. It is that magic that is needed at the right time to move the project forward. It is that splash of insight, that good luck find, that experience of opportunity at just the right time. In the glass mountain, it is seen in the scholar’s ability to come up with original solutions to high stakes problems. While the scattered remains of unsuccessful knights testified to the fruitlessness of mainstream thinking, the scholar lived by his intuition and thrived. But those intuitions were educated and earned. He thought as he was practised in thinking.

In the introduction to the revised version of Descartes’ Error, Antonio Damasio explains judgment and intuition as one and the same thing, where our cognition and emotions work with such alacrity that we are able to work with a form of enhanced rationality:

The quality of one’s intuition depends on how well we have reasoned in the past; how well we have classified the events of our past experience in relation to the emotions that preceded and followed them; and also how well we have reflected on the successes and failures of our past intuitions. Intuition is simply rapid cognition with the required knowledge partially swept under the carpet, all courtesy of emotion and much past practice.

Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error, xix

Life creates art and art creates life.

My first writing mentor was Australian poet, Paul Kavanagh. He was the founder of the creative writing program at The University of Newcastle, NSW, and I was a Mathematics and Philosophy of Science student with an infant. He offered a lunch time creative writing seminar down the hall from the Philosophy office. I had the awkward hope that one day I might write a very bad, B-grade science fiction story. He took me so far from there, both as a person and a writer, likely because of one thing he said.

Fine art is created when mature skills meet a mature personality.

I knew then that art could not be separated from life. Rather, art is the reified representation of life through the medium of the skilled practitioner. The practitioner, the artist, can no more stop the continuing cross-current of sensibility and lived experience than a doctor can stop herself from applying her understanding of medicine to her everyday practices in the home. The artist thinks of things as form and structure, light and shade, word and image. The doctor thinks of hygiene, health practices and notes reactions that may be signs of infection or infirmity. The skills we have are intrinsically adaptable to other environments, and we cannot stop ourselves from adapting the skills and knowledge acquired in one sphere to another. This adaptability is the primary survival skill of humanity, both as a species and as individual organisms. Thus, the life of the artist becomes the substance of her art, and the act of artistic production must inform the artist’s life.

In “The Glass Mountain”, the skill and personality of the scholar is what brings about his success. He wasn’t just canny, he was wise, and his wisdom was deeply ingrained in the way he looked at things. What was obvious to him wasn’t obvious to anyone else. Furthermore, he had the skills necessary to carry out his vision. It is that balance of skill and maturity that made him valorous. Likewise, it is the skill of the artist that creates a life of vision, and a life of vision that drives the artist to refine her skills.

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