30 April 2020
30 April 2020
However deeply you are immersed in your research, always do some reading that is not one of your required texts. A text outside your subject can act like an invigorating shower, its new themes and different forms freshening the mind. When I’m writing a novel, I often turn to poetry – not for its subject matter but for its economy – and find my own writing becomes crisper as a result. For students across all disciplines, reading a novel or a collection of poetry unassociated with your work is both a necessary reminder that there is life beyond your studies, and an opportunity for words or phrases to trigger new thoughts and ideas. Freewriting is well-documented as a writing aid, but if you really want to nurture your mental health and keep your writing in shape, I’d advocate free reading too.
14 November 2019
Smartphones and social media are designed to keep you going back to them by offering little hits of the chemical dopamine — tiny rewards that entice you and then hold your attention. We know this; their inventors have admitted it. Smartphones could just as well have been designed to disrupt writing, because what writing requires is absorption: sustained attention without distraction. So give your brain a chance to think. If you can’t bring yourself to switch off your phone and Wifi connection, then at least mute alerts. That way, you go to your device when you want to, not every time it calls. Why not try working for an hour with your phone on airplane mode, and an hour as normal? Afterwards, compare your productivity over the two hours. You might be shocked by the difference.
3 October 2019
During workshops with undergraduate, graduate or doctoral students, I use images – anything from films to works of art – to help them to develop their sense of story and visualise its shape.
In great art, as in good writing, there is always tension. Take a look at Joseph Wright of Derby’s marvellous allegory of the Age of Enlightenment, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump of 1768.
The ten figures, portrayed in a room lit only by the light of a pale moon through the window and a candle behind a glass of liquid, are in a state of maximum tension; they are wondering if the scientist will let the bird die, each trying to process their own reactions. It is a moment of great drama. One figure is the protagonist — the character who will make the most profound emotional journey in the unfolding drama. But who is it? By exploring the web of tensions within and between the actors on stage, we are working out what is important to the story. How did this scene come about; what drives the action and characters; how is the narrative structured; what happens next?
The viewer must be emotionally or intellectually engaged in order to care. Will the bird survive? Will the tearful girl be traumatised for life? Above all – and this is the point of view of the protagonist – where will it all end, this toying with nature?
The drama is carefully structured, so that we know there is a past, present and future. For the academic writer, that past might be a literature review or introduction — and it’s vital that writers load these elements with sufficient tension that readers care about what happens next. Each character might represent a structural element (a theory or point of view) in a thesis or journal article. The experimental core of this painting’s story maps particularly well on to academic writing.
Good writers find a source of tension and raise the stakes (like the painter using techniques such as dramatic lighting) by suggesting a conflict or problem that must, somehow, find resolution. The props (for the painter, the costumes, furniture and landscape) are your data, which you need to manipulate to sustain the tension until you resolve them and satisfy the reader. In occasional instances, the tension is unresolved; this is a prompt for thinking or taking action.
All good academic writing needs these elements, and using art or film to visualise them can be extremely helpful in finding and structuring a narrative.
Have you spotted the protagonist in the painting yet?
I write gritty crime novels and also have a PhD in nuclear physics — people frequently have trouble getting their head around this combination of facts. They ask how I made the giant leap from science to the arts, but that’s a misguided question; I feel deeply that the adversarial idea of science versus art is a false dichotomy.
Creative writing involves a modicum of inspiration, but it’s mostly hard graft, trying to fit the pieces of a puzzle together. And on the other side, science can be utterly creative and drawn from inspiration. I don’t know of a more creative piece of thinking than Einstein’s theory of relativity, in which he realised that time could be relative.
Inspiration and logical thinking combine in both science and the arts, and that’s true when writing about them too. Last summer, my RLF Consultant Fellow colleague Cherise Saywell and I ran an immersive writing ‘bootcamp’ for PhD students at Heriot Watt University. All were science or technology students, and the objective of the workshops was to help them with their theses, using narrative techniques from creative writing.
It quickly became clear that hardly any of them thought of themselves as creative people, yet when we got them to talk about their work, they each described moments of inspiration combined with huge amounts of legwork, just as when I write my novels. They all had the raw material for a fascinating story – fracking problems, 3D printing or revolutionary textile production – but they struggled to see the bigger picture, the compelling narrative in their work.
One of the most effective exercises was also one of the simplest: an icebreaker at the beginning of the day. When the students arrived, we had a table laid out with an assortment of random items – toys, trinkets, a compass, binoculars – and told them to pick one that spoke to them. Then we asked them to write without stopping about how the item related to their PhD. It’s a version of free writing or writing to a prompt that Cherise and I often use; it always results in wonderfully creative writing and frequently contains a compelling narrative. On this occasion, one chemical engineering student eloquently used the shell of a small organism living millions of years ago as the starting point to discuss how shale oil is created, moving on to talk about the current problems associated with its extraction.
By the end of three days, we had encouraged the researchers to view their work and writing differently, as a blend of science and art, storytelling and logistics, inspiration plus perspiration.
As PhD students and researchers, communicating with people outside our discipline can open our minds, expand our horizons and help to develop our thinking. It can also lead to fruitful collaboration.
In a session for PhD researchers about communicating research, I put the participants into pairs with someone from another discipline and asked them to describe their work to each other. They had to avoid jargon and were encouraged to listen carefully to the questions they were asked. Somebody from a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subject might ask an artist, ‘Why are you doing this?’ — just as an arts student might ask a scientist, ‘Please explain it simply’. The researchers found it instructive to communicate the vision of their project to a non-specialist.
Communicating with others outside my own specialism led to a collaborative project for my practice-based PhD. I am making short films with film-makers for an online poetry film project. Previously, I hadn’t thought about how my ideas would translate to the moving image, but I’ve learnt a lot by collaborating with people from the visual arts. Interpreting a poem in a film is not how I thought it would be. For example, for my poem ‘Daisy Chain’, where I link daisies in the grass with the nature of transience, my film-maker used images of a snowy landscape. The words of the poem, about summer meadows and blossom, are in stark contrast to the snow and frost, but capture beautifully the essence of the poem, where daisies and youth will eventually fade.
Why not see if you can communicate your research to people outside your field and find a collaborator from another discipline? Funding opportunities exist for collaborative bids from PhD students and researchers for inter-disciplinary work, particularly between the arts and sciences or social sciences. PhD forums within universities are a good place to start looking. Working with someone with a different perspective can be a humbling experience as you accept your ignorance about their field and adopt an open mind, prepared to learn. Removing the blinkers of your discipline can spark off ideas and take your research in a fresh direction.
On a writing retreat recently with students from the Arts and Humanities, we were talking about how research is about finding answers. You start – typically after much deliberation – with a research question, and everything that follows is about discovering answers. It seems simple enough, although of course it’s rarely that straightforward. The research takes you on a journey down rabbit holes, around blind bends, up steep cliff faces, and every now and then you can feel like you’ve hit a wall: obstacles, unexpected deviations, surprises. Suddenly, what you’ve got in front of you seems a long way from answering your research question. Unsettling as this might be, it’s all part of the research story.
When your research journey hits a wall, it can be useful to take a step back and forget for a moment that you are searching for answers. Instead, dig for more questions. This not only helps you to recalibrate your research question, but it can also open new doors and push your thinking into new, previously unexplored territory.
The technique works well for essays. Having received your essay question, you might set off immediately to answer it. But by taking some time to think of additional related questions, you can work out what you know about the subject already and where you might focus your thinking and reading. Take this essay question as an example:
Critically evaluate the suggestion that problems of overcrowding, bullying and poor conditions have always been, and will continue to be, of concern to penal reformers.
Once you have a list of additional questions, you can begin reading and note down some possible answers. Your notes might even prompt you to ask further questions. Best of all, you’ll have focused your reading time and begun to get some words on the page that can later be used to shape a first draft.
When I’m writing fiction, I only recognise what a story is really about when it’s very near completion. Only then does it become clear that it’s about ‘control versus letting go’, for example, or ‘security versus freedom’. I realise I need to go back and find the places in the text where these tensions arise, and explore them more deeply.
This can apply in academic writing in the arts, humanities and social sciences, too. Try the following exercise with your essay, dissertation or thesis. Identifying opposing elements in your work can expose underlying conflicts and reveal potential themes.
I used this exercise on my own doctoral thesis, which explores parallels between the mythic archetype – or classic story arc – and the creative process. I quickly noted down the following ‘opposites’ in these paradigms:
Studying the list, I noticed that these opposites might be further aligned by the typical qualities of masculine and feminine, or yin and yang:
I realised that the protagonist’s journey through a story and an individual’s creative process both swung between these two poles. This informed the conclusion of my thesis.
At a writing workshop for artists and writers, I asked them to consider opposites within their own work in progress. Participants identified contrasts they hadn’t previously been aware of: movement and stasis; smooth and rough; child and adult. These tensions triggered ideas that enabled them to develop the central theme of their work.
If you try this exercise, it might help you identify hidden tensions that reveal a theme. You may then want to ensure that you have highlighted these tensions within the work itself.