Friday, May 16, 2008

UMPA Interview (or Blogging for the Terminally Lazy)

I was interviewed for UMPA's magazine recently (UMPA stands for University Melbourne Peasized Antelopes, or maybe Postgrad Association...I forget) by Aaron Mannion. Anyway the publication has recently been released and I thought since some of you might not have the privilege of seeing how clever and interesting I am I would reproduce the interview here, because it's a whole big long blog post just languishing in my email archive. Reuse, Reduce (brain power), Recycle.

What are you studying?
A Masters in Creative Writing by coursework, with a minor thesis. I wrote my thesis last year.

What's been the biggest hurdle for you to overcome in your candidature?
It's a freaking logistical nightmare. For example, this semester I only have one subject, but it's on Mondays at 5pm. We recently moved to St Andrews - it takes over an hour to get to uni. My husband has a competing class, so my mother-in-law has to come to our place, we put the kids in her car, and she drives me to the train station so I can catch a train to uni while she drives the kids back to our place. I travel longer than I am in class. My husband has to get home, do the dinner, bath, books and bed routine and then put the kids in the car at 9pm, way past their bedtime, and pick me up from the station. Life will - hopefully - get easier soon, we're looking for a second car. I just got my license two weeks ago.

How has graduate study been rewarding?
Writing a thesis was an incredible experience - daunting, confronting and I had times when I really believed it would never come together. I am as proud of my 15000 word thesis (on melancholy in children's literature) as I was of my first novel. Also it's been fabulous tapping into a community of people who are interested in talking about creative writing with an academic perspective. My oldest daughter was three and my second daughter was about 9 months when I decided to do the Masters. I was at the point where, if I had a normal job, I would have gone back to work. I was sick of my house. The walls had been painted this really awful nicotine colour and it was like living inside a cancerous lung. When you start thinking like that, you know you need to get out more.

How does having a family affect your study?
In a world of competing priorities, my study comes pretty low on the list. Also there are times when I question the relevance, the validity of post graduate study. Sometimes it feels like the kids are my authentic life and study is this airy-fairy, self-indulgent, and vaguely pointless exercise. It's also a bit weird to write for assessment when I make my living out of writing novels, though I try to write things I can use again later. I can't attend much besides the classes - there's so many symposiums and seminars that sound so fascinating, but I just can't go. I know that uni policy means I can bring the kids to this stuff, but jeez, who has those kids? My girls are deliciously naughty and utterly distracting. On the positive side, study connects me-as-I-am-now to me-who-I-was-then - before I was a mother. Every time I go to uni I feel a curious sense of freedom, there's a slowing down of time, everything looks golden and dreamy. Last year when we still lived in the inner north I travelled home at night, walking through Carlton and then catching a tram up Brunswick Street. I always half expected to see my past self on a street corner somewhere, or spilling out of a cafe or pub. I miss her. I love who I am now, I love my life, I adore my daughters, but I am still bereft and mystified at the loss of her.

What are your childcare arrangements?
In a nutshell, chaotic and largely unreliable. My mother-in-law is fantastic and generous but my father-in-law is seriously ill, so we have to be ready to reinvent the wheel at a moment's notice. I write for uni when the kids are around or after they've gone to bed. Wednesday and Thursdays - when my husband is home with the kids - are strictly novel writing days.

Is there a strain supporting a family while studying? If so, how do you deal with this?
Definitely. Anything that takes you out of the enclosure of the family is automatically difficult. Space changes when you have kids. Everything that occurs outside the family walls is a complex negotiation and often fraught with difficulty, not to mention tired, frayed tempers and competing schedules. My husband studies too, he's an undergraduate, studying a Bachelor of Education. We live off my writing and any other income I can get, like doing school talks, teaching or freelance editing work, plus he builds the occasional website. So my study sometimes feels - mostly to me - like an ill-thought out whim, selfish and self-serving, and then I can get a bit defensive about it and the time I have to devote to it, though my husband has never been anything but supportive. It helped when I started doing some teaching, I allowed myself to take it more seriously then. It's been particularly hard because this course is full fee-paying and to be honest, there have been times when I've seriously questioned if it's worth the money. We deal with it by embracing chaos and loving each other. We're both very committed to each of us being fulfilled in terms of our working and intellectual lives. Luckily neither of us cares much about money or material gain and the girls are happy running around outside in the nude most of the time - so they're low maintenance!

Any funny stories about family and study clashes?
Recently in class we were talking about the role dreaming plays in creativity. The homework we were set - in a room where I was the only parent - was to be aware of the transition between sleep and waking. Everyone's sitting there, nodding thoughtfully while I was thinking, 'Um, there's no moment. There is sleep, glorious sleep and there is four year old girl jumping on your chest and being utterly awake.'

Any advice for other graduate students with families?
Remember that studying enriches family life, you're not doing anything wrong taking time away from the family or making study a priority. Actually my mum studied when I was growing up and I have very warm memories of going to the university with her, reading kid's books in the education section of the library and eating soft serve icecream in the refectory. I always felt very comfortable in the university grounds. So it's a gift we're passing on to our kids, that study has immense value and pleasure.

What's your favourite pretentious word? [We're having a little thing on words that make you seem clever.]
I don't think I can go past semiotic really. I was blown away by the sheer power of its pretentiousness in 1996, and I still feel Awfully Clever whenever I use it in a sentence.

Authenticity and research (the question was something about that Impostor Syndrome, where you feel like your faking it and someone's about to spring you)
When I started the course, having been away from universities for a while, I had trouble adapting. The first reading I had to do was a very difficult piece about time and narrative by Paul Ricoeur. I slogged my way through it and went along to the first class, worrying that I was the only one who'd found it so incomprehensible (of course I wasn't). During the class I had this sudden impulsive urge to laugh when someone said, 'So if there's no text, does that mean there's no space?' I guess I'd been dealing with vomit and urine and breastmilk for so long that this seemed unbelievably wanky and ridiculous to me. And then I realised everyone in the room was nodding earnestly and I almost gave up there and then. I just didn't think I could believe in it anymore, in academia. I don't know that I felt entirely like an impostor...perhaps it was too much the other way. I'd had two novels published by then, and had another on the way, and I'd worked as an editor for years. I felt like the real deal - they were the impostors. Though I write novels for kids and young adults, and I've often come across the perception that writing children's books is a lesser artform than adult fiction. The worst thing is, sometimes I feel this way too, I guess I've bought into it. So after I tell people I've written and published five novels, I often feel like I'm diminishing my achievement, or setting the record straight, when I say they're children's and YA literature.


  1. Actually my mum studied when I was growing up and I have very warm memories of going to the university with her, reading kid's books in the education section of the library and eating soft serve icecream in the refectory.

    Me too! I LOVED the education section of Mum's Uni library. I discovered many favourites there - Lloyd Alexander, Diana Wynne-Jones, Cynthia Voigt...

  2. Really interesting Pen. I am nodding at all of this juggling between creative work and family stuff. I particularly agree with what you say about being made to feel that writing for young adults and kids is a lesser art form when it truly isn't. I write a lot of education music and just as much if not more thought and technique has to go into it as if I were writing something abstract for myself or for grown-ups... even though grown-ups do like the education music just as much. Maybe it's because they don't have to think about it too hard while they're listening, lol!

    And then I read your bit about dealing with vomit, urine and breastmilk and suddenly remembered I'd forgotten my breastpads - and so we're back into the real world!!

  3. Anonymous5:34 PM

    Gosh, you live my life, only you live it better. That was a wonderful entry - thanks for sharing,


  4. I really enjoyed that.

    Nicotine coloured walls ... I just loved that description. You're a Class A writer, no doubt about it.

    I 100% get what you mean about former selves. I often wonder where mine was heading before I had a child. (No regretting, mind, just wondering.)

  5. god, i just blogged yesterday about former selves (kinda). and at the same time i am at the moment fully wandering in the wilderness of the here and now of vomit, wee etc, with a fed-up, newly vaccinated baby asleep on my shoulder (hence poor typing).
    anyway, i am trying to say - great post! i'm proud to say i knew you before he beginning of time and look forward to knowing you to the end of it!

  6. I´m currently going through the study, family, work thing (actually currently procrastinating over an assignment). I´m doing it on-line and while I don´t get any contact with classmates, I can´t imagine how tough it would be to actually go to a campus and traffic with children. Congratulations on managing it (even if it doesn´t always feel like it). And congraulations on actually following a dream and living as an author. I know many people who would love to but stay plodding away in their life, feeling unsatified.

    I love your choice of words as well. My dream would be able to write well.