study, art, research, life

I’ve been thinking a lot about study again. The other day I accepted I’m not really well enough to study right now, and probably won’t be for a while, and I thought that I should probably get in touch with the American Australian Association and let them know and maybe give up my scholarship. In some weird way I think giving up made me feel more hopeful about things, and sort of allowed me to reassess what I want from the work I produce, and what I want it to be, and how to get there.

I had a big chat with a friend about how I think research about culture and society and people is so inaccessible a lot of the time, and I don’t understand why it needs to be that way. I think that research about people should be available and accessible to the people it’s about. Otherwise what’s the point in doing it?

I told her about my interest in the intersections of technology, society, self, culture, and art, and how I want to disrupt traditional research by looking at these different spheres through different lenses and integrating them somehow. Like interviewing people who work in tech and producing a non-fiction piece from those interviews, then writing a story from that, and making a collage, a video, a painting. How many ways can I approach this knowledge? What can I learn from these different ways of making meaning?

We talked about how anthropology (specifically ethnography) seems like a good fit for me in terms of equipping me with the skills and theoretical background I need to do the kind of work I want to do.

I sat with that for a bit. And then I started looking up courses. ANU has pretty much the only one of interest to me in Australia. And then I came full-circle back to Experimental Humanities at NYU. I love the program. I already have a scholarship that will fund one year of living in the US. Why don’t I seriously consider this program as an option?

I started an application before—a couple of months ago, maybe. I stopped half-way through because I got stumped on the writing sample. I felt (feel) like I don’t have anything suitable and I don’t know what I would want them to read anyway. A paper? My Honours story?

And just now I thought, well why don’t I write about the things I want to study, the issues I have with academia, all these thoughts that have been swirling around my head, and post it on my blog? They’re keen on non-traditional research. I could even bring my illness into it if I wanted to, include some video clips of me reading in bed if I wanted to. Paint a picture of the chronically ill person as researcher. Hello! I am still here! I have value! Please don’t leave me behind.

I think of it as a kind of meta-research, I guess. Take my Honours thesis. I wrote a story, and I wrote an essay situating that story in a context. Why art and exegesis? Why not art as exegesis? Why is that any less valid as a form of knowledge-making? It’s certainly much more accessible.

I keep a notebook for research, even though I’m no longer associated with a university. At the end I build a glossary. One day, after adding something like eight new words to the glossary, none of which I could really understand or make stick in my brain, I relabelled the glossary ‘esoteric wank’. Maybe I’m just dumb or under-educated, I don’t know. Maybe a masters will help and I can go back to ‘glossary’.

I’ve started making youtube videos. Or, a youtube video. I’ve only done one. It’s low quality, not very good. In it, I partially bleach my hair. The memory card fills up before I can finish the job. There’s a picture of my cat at the end. I don’t mention my illness. How does this fit into my process? Does it have to?

I should blog more. But I’m tired.

A picture of my cat at the end

Writing, Depression, Chronic Illness

I recently read The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig (great book, do recommend), and one bit really stuck with me. Wendig writes:

It’s worth noting that sometimes the thing you think is writer’s block is actually depression. Depression is neither helped nor fixed by attending to it as if it’s writing block—no amount of “writing through it” will solve depression. Depression requires its own solutions that you should discuss with family, friends, and any medical personnel you trust with such a decision. (p. 77).

This seems obvious, but for the longest time I was oblivious. I was blaming my inability to write on everything but my mental illness. I just thought I was lazy, or untalented, or too scared of failure to even try. But then two things happened—1) I found an antidepressant that worked for me, and 2) I got the Big Bad symptoms of my chronic illness (pain and fatigue) under control.

And then?

Surprise surprise, I could actually write again.

But it wasn’t until I read Wendig’s words that it really struck home how badly I’d been treating myself over this. The truth is I really did think I was a failure. I really did think that somehow it was my fault that I couldn’t write. I even started toying with the idea of giving up on writing altogether and switching to something like business admin or landscaping.

Which is dumb, because I’ve written stories for my own entertainment since I was a kid, and have pursued writing in a professional sense since I was 19.

But in the midst of the depression and the pain and the fatigue, I couldn’t enjoy writing. Never mind even enjoying it, I just couldn’t bloody do it. Writing my Honours thesis was hell. It felt like pulling teeth. Each word, every letter, was hard-won. In August I was sure the thesis would never be finished. But by November I had submitted. I had done it.

I started finding my way back to writing, little bit by little bit. It began with this blog—I set myself the challenge of blogging everyday while I was on my study tour. And (for the most part) I did. And I loved it. Or at least, I didn’t hate it.

When I came home from the trip I finally got a diagnosis—fibromyalgia—and I was finally able to start treating my condition. But things went downhill from there. I started a new job which I absolutely loved, and worked myself into the ground. When my contract was up my body just gave up too. I moved in with my dad and spent three months in bed, unable to look after myself. Writing was so far out of reach.

Eventually, I hit on a combination of medications that worked. It’s only been two weeks, but I’ve written more in those two weeks than I had in the entire year preceding. And then I read Wendig’s book, and finally it started to sink in that of course I couldn’t write, of course it felt like pulling teeth—I was really fucking sick.

I’m enjoying writing. I’m working on a cyberpunk/noir/thriller thing and I’m really fucking into it. I’m part of a mentoring program and I’m getting feedback on my work from an established local writer (who happened to be the one to loan me this book, thanks Matt!). I’m reading again, and having ideas, and dreaming really fucking weird dreams, and I’m loving it.

Who knows, sometime soon I might even be able to start walking my dog again.

Long story short: depression sucks, writing is great, and if writing hurts there’s probably something else going on. Remember this for next time, please, Josephine.

A photo of an old BMW at a car wash
The E30 never fails to bring a smile to my face, even when things are tough

Wendig, C. (2013). The Kick-Ass Writer. Blue Ash, OH: Writer’s Digest Books.

If you’re struggling and need someone to talk to, check out Beyond Blue, headspace, or Lifeline.

Cambridge and surrounds

Today was another big day. I had breakfast at Fitzbillies again with my roomie, then we parted ways—she headed off to a meeting and I wandered about doing some shopping.

At noon I met with Dr Anna Alexandrova from the Cambridge History and Philosophy of Science program. She invited me to attend a seminar on ethical use and disclosure regarding algorithms that may be discriminatory (a very similar vibe to the Algorithms of Oppression talk at Harvard but much more philosophically technical). It was great to sit in and listen but I think I’d be exaggerating if I said I understood even half of it!

Then it was back to my room for a little rest before our big London reception this evening. And while I was resting… I received my thesis results! Not too shabby for someone who didn’t do creative writing undergrad, I’ve gotta say. And the feedback I got on the fiction component was absolutely lovely. It was a very surreal feeling, sitting in a room in St Catharine’s College Cambridge, reading my Honours results. A very “what even is my life” moment.

So of course now I’m completely reconsidering everything about this tour and my future study direction. Now that The Academy has confirmed that I can indeed write fiction, there are some mighty fine MFA courses that are calling to me…

Late this afternoon we took the train to London. We stopped in at a sushi train on our way to our event, and spent ten minutes stuffing our faces before continuing on. We had a fancy pants reception at Australia House (Gringots Bank from the first Harry Potter film for those Harry Potter nerds following along at home). It was a stunning building, but unfortunately for security reasons we weren’t allowed to take any photos.

After the reception we had dinner at a nice burger joint and then hopped on the train back home. Overall, a full and satisfying day.

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St Catharine’s is gorgeous.

Cambridge, Massachusetts / Cambridge, England

We have arrived in the UK! In the space of about 12 hours we left one Cambridge and arrived in another. It is just as beautiful here as it was in Massachusetts, and I’ve already found a good local coffee shop.

I’m staying in St Catharine’s College with one of the other Scholars, as it’s closer to the campus and easier to manage with my fatigue. The others are not too far away, though, so even though we’re split across accommodation again it should still be fairly easy to meet up and do things together.

I don’t have anything particularly exciting to report about my travels across the ocean, but I do have an exciting discovery to share!

Anglia Ruskin University, which is also located in Cambridge, offers an MA in Science Fiction and Fantasy! And on the list of academics is none other than John Clute, co-founder of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and one of the big names in sf studies. AND they offer creative practice PhDs in Creative Writing! AND AND they have an open day on the 14th, my last day in Cambridge before heading across to Oxford, which also happens to be completely free of appointments! To say I am ridiculously excited is an understatement.

I’ll leave it there for tonight. I’m going to finish my cup of tea and make a few more notes on these amazing programs and then hit the hay. Hoping to go exploring tomorrow.

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The view from the coffee shop this afternoon. Note the pretty sundial on the wall.

Fatigue strikes again

I had a lazy day today. I had hoped to go across to Brooklyn and look around, but my fatigue was bad so I mostly just rested.

I had breakfast with one of the other Scholars at a restaurant down the road. They had little pumpkins as table centrepieces for Halloween, which I still find kind of odd. So many pumpkins, so little eating of pumpkins.

After breakfast I picked up my washing from the laundromat and came back to the accommodation to rest. I went out again briefly for lunch and to investigate the Columbia book shop (it was disappointing), then came back and napped again.

I spent most of the afternoon working on a short story for the Neilma Sidney short story prize on the theme of travel. I’m nearly done with the first draft and will hopefully have it ready well before the November 19th deadline!

Tomorrow I have my last NYU and Columbia meetings, and hopefully my fatigue will be a bit more manageable so I can stop by Central Park before we have to move on to the next city. It’s a shame that I haven’t been able to do many touristy things or see much of the city, but I guess that just means I’ll have to come back! Next time I think I will spend longer here to allow for fatigue days and tourist days.

Also, I ate half a tub of Haagen Dazs ice cream. It was great.

Perhaps it’s not so bad?

New York is growing on me, surprisingly. I’m still not a huge fan, and I still don’t think I could live here, but I will begrudgingly admit that it’s not awful.

My favourite part of this city is the subway. I love the feeling of being down beneath the surface surrounded by warm-white tiles and still air. The place we’re staying is right next to an elevated line, so I can hear the trains going by at all hours, which I find very comforting. I love the noises of the city, the windows rattling as buses idle in the street outside.

There still aren’t enough trees, though.

Today I met with a current (Australian!) student in the writing program at Columbia, and had a good chat about the program and what it’s like living and studying in New York. The course sounds amazing, honestly. So I’m going to go have a mosey around Brooklyn tomorrow to see if there’s anywhere in this vast place that could feel remotely like a home for a little while. I’m not holding my breath.

The one thing I absolutely have to do before we move on to Boston is to go to Central Park. All the other touristy things can wait until my next visit (…yes, there will probably be a next visit) but I have to see Central Park. I’m hoping Thursday will be as sunny and nice as it was today, because I have the whole day free to wander around and soak in the vibes of the urban oasis.

I also need to get to the post office some time this week and send some stuff home (I may have accidentally bought a few too many books).

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Look! some trees!

Berkeley Day 2

Today was supposed to be another busy one, but the fatigue hit hard. We had a tour of the campus this morning followed by a lunch hosted by the American Indian Graduate Program. Two presenters discussed their research into Native American culture and history—there were many parallels between their struggles and those of Indigenous Australians.

In the early afternoon I met with a graduate advisor from Berkeley’s English department, and had a nice chat about the program and campus life. Unfortunately I don’t think this one is a good fit for me, which is a shame as I absolutely love the campus. The focus of the course is a bit too narrow for my liking; I’d really love to explore the intersection of science and writing in my PhD, and I don’t want to be limited to only literature.

But there are plenty more universities to visit on this trip! And plenty more opportunities to learn about amazing courses.

I had a nap in the afternoon and woke up in time to go to a lecture by Professor Stuart Russell, who is a computer scientist who specialises in AI, and whose work I cited in my thesis. His talk was fantastic and I’m so glad I got to go. Like most AI researchers I’ve heard of, though, his view of the development of AI leans a little on the utopian side of things. I left the lecture with so many new sf and sci-comms ideas.

We had a group dinner at a restaurant 15 minutes’ walk from The Faculty Club, then grabbed an ice cream from down the road before hopping in an uber back to the Club for an early night.

Oh, and I just sent an email to MIT asking for a meeting while we’re in Boston… eep!

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Professor Stuart Russell’s AI jokes were solid

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This little guy delivers food around the campus!

Stanford Day 2

It was another long day today. I caught the bus to campus at 8.05 for a 9am group breakfast and info session. We learnt all about applying for graduate programs at Stanford and what we would need to include in our applications.

Following breakfast I met with a student services officer for the PhD program in Modern Thought and Literature. She had a dog in her office who was the sweetest little dude! We talked about my research interests and she suggested some other academics who might be a good fit for supervision, and she told me that MTL is where all the weirdos end up—sounds like my kind of place!

Then it was off to lunch at the Native American Cultural Centre, which was such a warm and welcoming space. We met more current students and learnt that Stanford offers courses in four Native American languages! MTL has a language requirement that you learn two other languages during your course, so if I were to come here I’d definitely consider one of the Native languages.

I got terribly lost on my way to my next meeting and arrived fifteen minutes late, but thankfully the academic I was meeting didn’t seem to mind all that much. She spoke with me about the Stegner Fellowship, which is Stanford’s non-degree writing program. It sounds absolutely amazing but I’m not sure if I’m in the right place with my writing yet to tackle something like that. I will definitely keep it in mind though.

I wrapped up the day with a meeting with another current MTL student, and we got along like a house on fire. I think I’ve made a friend! Maybe one day she’ll visit Perth and I can show her all my favourite cheap eats.

Tomorrow we’re bussing it across to Berkeley, but it’s pretty much a free day. I’m planning to do boring things like wash my clothes and track my expenses (woopsie! I haven’t done it yet…), and maybe find a nice spot outside to do some reading in the afternoon. I also have a bunch of emails to reply to and an article to write…

It’s just go, go, go over here at the moment!

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The view from my lunch spot on Sunday. There are so many cool cars here!

Stanford Day 1

So today we went to Stanford!

First impressions: the campus is beautiful, the book shop is well stocked, there is A LOT of merch, and the PhD in Modern Thought and Literature sounds amazing.

We started the day with a bus ride in to campus and killed time in the book shop for an hour until the start of our tour. Our guide showed us landmarks such as the library and the church and the edible blackberries. We also learnt about fountain hopping, a favourite pastime in the warmer months.

We had lunch with some current Aussie students, then split up for academic meetings. I spoke with a student studying in that amazing PhD program I mentioned and left feeling energized and excited. PhDs are between five and seven years here though, so I’m not super keen on the length.

We had another get-together in the afternoon at the Bechtel International Center and chatted with more students, and ate more food. Then it was back on the bus and home briefly before heading off to an NBA game. I was surprised by the atmosphere—it’s exactly like it is in the movies, larger than life and somewhat surreal. It was a good experience but I think once is enough for me!

Tomorrow is another early one, with a day full of information sessions and meetings. I’m learning about the Stegner Fellowship (a creative writing program) in the afternoon which should be super cool!

Also, I picked up a (signed) copy of Markus Zusak’s new book today, and had a nice chat with the guy in the bookshop about Australian authors. And maybe ranted about sf to a few people, as per usual…

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Golden State Warriors vs Phoenix Suns

Last Day in Aus

Tomorrow we’re leaving Australia at 10.45am and arriving in San Francisco at 9am. Real world time travel, guys!

It is a thirteen-hour flight though, which I am not looking forward to. But I have my trusty sf books to keep me company and my own imagination if reading gets too exhausting.

The reception last night was amazing. I was expecting to go back to the hotel early (thanks fatigue) but I ended up staying for the whole thing because everybody was just so fascinating to speak with. I particularly enjoyed speaking with past scholars, two of whom are inspirational Indigenous writers, and one WHO STUDIES AI AND ROBOTS!!

Today we did the last of our workshops and Aunty Doris came to share her story with us. What a phenomenal woman. (Give her a google, she’s worth reading about).

We also learned more about the outreach program and how to give back to our communities at the end of this trip. Teacher friends, hit me up if you’re interested in supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at your schools and I’ll connect you with Aurora.

This time tomorrow I’ll still be on a plane. Wish me luck!

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Group shot from the Sydney reception. These are all the 2018 Scholars!