This is Part Five of the story of my doctorate—the who, why, when, what, and how of it—based on questions from readers on this blog, Facebook, and Twitter. It is in five parts:
- Opportunity: How I became a PhD candidate even though I had no degree
- Decision: Why I wanted a PhD
- Choice: How I chose my subject/university/supervisor
- Experience: What challenges (personal and academic) I faced and how I solved them
- Future: What impact a PhD may have on my writing, and more
For context you might want to read the PhD thesis first, or at least the abstract. If you have further questions, use the comments.
Will the study undertaken and understanding reached on the way to getting a doctorate change my fiction? Yes. It already has.
Twenty years ago, just before I wrote The Blue Place, I wrote a novella, Season of Change. It wasn’t bad. I sold it to an editor for a tidy sum. I pulled it from publication. I explain why in an essay, “As We Mean to Go On,” that I wrote with Kelley:
True fiction rings pure and clear when you flick it, like a crystal wine glass. If it’s flawed, it doesn’t matter how good it looks, it doesn’t matter whether the prose gleams or the metaphors are as perfect as circles: when you flick it you get nothing but a dull buzz.
[The novella] was a very personal piece—about a woman who is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis—and I thought it was both brave and beautifully written. (I always think that about a newly-finished work: My baby really is a genius!) I handed it to Kelley, beaming. She read it, looked troubled, and said, I don’t think this works. I frowned. I stayed calm. I asked why: was it the imagery? The character? No, no, she said, they were fine. What, then? She frowned and said she needed to think about that. Two days later, she was still thinking: she was sorry, but she couldn’t pinpoint the flaw; I’d papered it over so well she couldn’t find it, but it was there. The story didn’t ring quite true.
At this point we’d been living together seven years. I trusted her. So I took the novella apart looking for the flaw. I held it up to all the bright critical lights I could bring to bear; I hefted it, emotionally, and found it pleasing; I ran through the phrases in my mind, and I couldn’t find anything wrong. Not a thing. I agonised: I believed Kelley, but I couldn’t find the flaw. Maybe she was wrong. So I sent it to a magazine and by return mail got a contract, for what at the time was a princely sum, and a letter of fulsome praise. I signed the contract and cashed the cheque. But I felt uneasy, as I usually do when I rationalise. That unease grew, and grew, and grew, until one day about three months after I’d sold it, I took the novella out of a drawer, and flicked it one more time, and listened, and heard a sickening buzz. I still didn’t know what was wrong with it, but clearly something was, so I returned the money and told the editor I was very sorry, but I was pulling the story. Why? he said. I don’t know, I said, but it’s not right.
Now, of course, I know what the problem is—but it’s taken me years to figure it out. And one day I’ll rewrite the piece, only it won’t be a novella, and everything in it will be different.
It took a few years to get around to the rewrite I’d imagined; the novella would become a short story, “Small Dog Theory;” there would be no genre elements. I had realised the novella wouldn’t work because the ending epiphany was a narrative prosthesis. This is a term originally developed by David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder to describe literary or visual narratives that use disabled people as nothing more than a metaphorical opportunity. (Read a fuller explanation of both the term and how it applied to my novella in Disability: Art, Scholarship, and Activism.) But a year ago, when I sat down to rewrite, even though I thought I had figured it out and was ready to rewrite, I hadn’t and I wasn’t. With each new sentence I grew more and more reluctant, more convinced that I could not, should not, change that final image. That image, narrative prosthesis or not, was the emotional point of the story. I was unwilling to lose it. I let the whole thing drop.
It turns out, that ending was not the problem. Writing my thesis helped me understand what was. In all my previous fiction I norm and centre the Other: my protagonists are queer women but the story is not about being a woman or being queer. Being a woman and being queer are normal to me, uninteresting as story material. As a result, I exclude the bits about being a woman and being queer that other writers might build drama around around. In other words, in terms of being a queer woman, all my novels and stories are focalised heterotopia. The new novella is focalised around a queer woman, Mara and in those terms it, too, is a focalised heterotopia. But the narrator, Mara, is diagnosed with MS and becomes disabled. The story is about becoming disabled, and how Mara changes. In terms of disability, then, it does not norm the Other; it is not a focalised heterotopia. It is a disability Coming Out story.
Lesbian Coming Out stories have never interested me. Once I had read the classics as a teenager (Rubyfruit Jungle, Confessions of Failed Southern Lady, Kinflicks) I found new ones eye-rollingly predictable.1 Why would I write one?
It’s much easier to weigh choices when one understands those choices exactly. Until I had words for what my fiction usually does I could not describe why and how this novella deviated from that. All I knew was that it did, and that deviation made me uneasy. Once I understood that deviation, though, all I had to do was decide whether or not the novella was worth pursuing on its own terms. It had been on my radar for 20 years; clearly something about it was important to me. So, yes; I decided it was worth trying to find out. Once I had submitted the first draft of my thesis to my advisor I had three weeks over the holidays. Instead of turning to Menewood, as I had planned, I had one last shot at the novella.
The headline: It worked. I ended up with So Lucky, a much longer piece—still, officially, a novella but not by much—with the same final image that earlier had been a narrative prosthesis but now was not. It’s still a disability Coming Out story, though. It will be published as a book in late spring 2018. More on that another time.
The PhD, then, has already changed my work: So Lucky would not exist if I had not nailed down, exactly, how my fiction works. Will my new-found clarity lead to change on my work-in-progress, Menewood? No, I don’t think so.
When I first began the critical review process last year, I became self-aware, or perhaps self-conscious is a better term, about my prose, because I was taking it apart to see how it worked. On top of that I was learning how to stick to a rigid argument-evidence-analysis writing schema. I’m no longer doing either; I no longer feel self-conscious. Now I just feel clear. How long will it take me to write Menewood? That I don’t know. It will be a long book, longer than Hild. But I have a feeling it will go more quickly than it might have before the PhD.
Will having a doctorate change other aspects of my life? It might. I still want to do some teaching, and I’m still interested in the research project I discussed in Part Two on the pay bias in publishing. (If there are any MA or PhD students out there who need a project, talk to me.) Possibly the biggest change the PhD might bring, though, is in the steadying of my interest in critical writing.
I’ve always reviewed and written critical essays. I want to do more of that. I also have a couple of blue-sky critical essays I’d like to tackle, on the pleasures and perils of cross-reading (maybe of ventriloquising as a writer—writing from a stance that’s not your personal experience, whether race or gender or sexuality or disability), and how climate change has influenced myth down the ages. Then there are those nothing-to-do-with-narrative pieces I’ve been itching to write for an age (except, of course, everything is narrative: everything is story) about immigration, culture change, and climate change. I’d also like to write more research-based pieces on disability.
Beyond that, I’m getting more and more interested in audio. My first new audio project will probably be reading my own thesis, because many people a) need audio to access the written word, b) just plain want it and find it convenient. And I do love to read aloud. I’m a writer; I want what I create to be as widely accessible as possible. In the 21st century, audio is very much part of that. After my thesis there are other audio projects lining up but I’ll talk about those closer to the time.
In other words, as my mother used to say, my eyes are bigger than my stomach—though even she admitted I have a pretty big stomach. So once Menewood is finished, things may get interesting around here. Stay tuned.
1 I enjoyed Tipping the Velvet but that, too, followed the classic lesbian coming-out structure: First love with a bisexual woman; heartbreak; weird sex-for-pay; meeting an older woman who is too twisted by her privilege to be a good match; and finally mature, womanly, perfect love.