More Hild-inspired art

Two new entries on the page of Hild-inspired art and cat pictures:

From Scott at Big Rock Forge, a wonderful seax inspired by Hild’s favourite edged weapon, and based on the Hurbuck style. Instead of a black (cow horn) grip, this one has a bird’s eye maple grip and ancient fossil mammoth bone/brass bolster. For more see Big Rock forge’s Facebook page
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This is Rocket, guardian of the Prelinger Library. Sent by Megan.

There are now two dozen Hild-inspired pictures. Go take a look. Happy Sunday.

The story of my PhD, Part 5: Future

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:

  1. Opportunity: How I became a PhD candidate even though I had no degree
  2. Decision: Why I wanted a PhD
  3. Choice: How I chose my subject/university/supervisor
  4. Experience: What challenges (personal and academic) I faced and how I solved them
  5. 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.

Future

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.

The story of my PhD, Part 4: Experience

This is Part Four 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:

  1. Opportunity: How I became a PhD candidate even though I had no degree
  2. Decision: Why I wanted a PhD
  3. Choice: How I chose my subject/university/supervisor
  4. Experience: What challenges (personal and academic) I faced and how I solved them
  5. 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 more questions, use the comments.

Experience

While I was waiting to hear about my application to Anglia Ruskin as a PhD candidate, I came out as a cripple. I did my first deliberate public appearances in a wheelchair. I joined disability studies conversations on Twitter and Facebook. I founded, and co-host with Alice Wong, #CripLit, a regular Twitter chat for disabled writers. Before and during the process I was still working on Menewood, the enormous sequel to Hild. In addition I began a twice-weekly regimen of outpatient physical therapy, with daily home exercise, that rendered me useless for most the day twice a week. There was no give in my schedule. Then I was accepted as a PhD candidate.1

My first academic adviser/supervisor was Farah Mendlesohn, which was a huge relief: someone I knew! We began by sorting out library access. I was thousands of miles away and while you can do almost anything remotely, you can’t quite hit everything. So in addition to Seattle Public Library’s Interlibrary Loan (which was beginning to get very expensive) I got access to the University of Washington’s splendid library. I also arranged for Kelley to be able to pick up books on my behalf, because MS meant there would be times I couldn’t get there, and Joanne Woiak whom I’d met at a disability symposium, very kindly made an office available to me. In addition to those libraries, a friend on a faculty at another institution gave me unofficial access to their library system, so I began working four systems to ferret out what I needed.

Even with four library systems at my fingertips I could not always access a particular article in a timely manner and so had to put out a call on social media. I’m lucky in that I have a fairly wide international network. But it was tricky calling publicly on that network because one of the first decisions I made about my studies was to keep them private. There were professional reasons for this but also personal: I hate learning in public. Specifically, I hate failing in public. As someone with no degree, a disability, other professional commitments, and a chronic illness, failure was always a possibility. In addition, the decision to keep my candidacy a secret fit into my overall social media policy, which is to not discuss in public any part of my life that’s in process. I’m happy to dissect the big struggles and scary moments after the fact, but not while it’s actually happening.

Not being able to talk about this huge thing in my life publicly (my friends knew, mostly) led to a real throttling down of my public conversation. Spending the whole day researching, for example, the topoi of queer literature didn’t leave me time to do much else beyond spending time with Kelley and occasionally (far, far less than I would like) close friends—neither of which I generally discuss in public, either. So there were weeks without blog posts, days without tweets, and many months without Instagram (I forgot it existed). When I did blog or tweet it was usually signal boosts on disability-related topics.

◻︎

In Choices I talked about how I prefer to leave big decisions as late as possible. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to leap enthusiastically into a project if you’re not worrying about how hard it might be; for another, I’ve never seen the point of doing the work necessary to choose the right path until you have to. I had been hoping I would not have to. I had been telling myself a story about how getting a PhD, having a life, writing a novel, creating a new online community, all while keeping myself healthy in the face of MS, was totally doable. All I would have to do is set my will to stun.

After my first two tutorials/Skype meetings with Farah I began to get a sense of the enormity of the work ahead—a single year to get up to speed on literary theory, learn how to think like an academic, and write a thesis—and realised the story I had told myself was a fairytale. It wasn’t possible to do everything. Something would have to go.

I actually considered dropping physical therapy. But while healthy people can afford to get a bit out of shape; people with MS can’t. If I got too far behind on the physical curve I would lose function forever. With MS, Use it or lose it is not just an aphorism. #CripLit wasn’t taking that much time, especially early on. (Later, when we began specialised chats with multiple hosts, it became more labour intensive.) Public appearances, accepting commissions for this and that—yes, I could put those on hold. The essay series I was thinking about, ditto. I made apologies and got back to work.

As the days began to shorten a little and, drinking tea on the back deck I could smell the abandoned apple orchard a few lots north, I got deeper and deeper into critical language. On the days when I sat down to work on Menewood I found myself more and more self-aware with my prose, more and more tethered to the here-and-now instead of being able to slip into the seventh century. And when I did finally manage to fall into the past, I’d come back to find critical language unreadable and I could not afford the time it took to readjust. I started to dread switching back and forth because it was so hard; it felt more and more like hitting a bruise. Then one day I just couldn’t. I sat outside watching a squirrel with a windfall apple in its mouth run frantically back and forth along the back fence, not sure whether to run from me on one side or the cat on the other, and I thought, You have to choose.

Menewood had reached a natural pause: Hild’s life had just changed violently. While I knew what happened next in general terms I did not yet have the specifics; I couldn’t see it or smell it. For that I’d need a few days to do nothing but stare into the distance. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that while all these new concepts, both in terms of disability and literary theory, were unfurling in my head. And the clock was ticking: I had to submit before 27 May, 2017. If I focused, perhaps I could get the thesis done much earlier. I weighed it in my head. Yes, I could get the first draft done before the holidays, send it out for feedback (which would take weeks over the winter break and New Year), and pick up Menewood again.

That turned out to be a fairy story, too.

◻︎

I suspect most PhD researchers go through a feeling of isolation. This was especially acute for me. I was thousands of miles from campus, working remotely. I could not talk about my work with other academics in the same field. I could not hang out with fellow researchers over coffee or beer. My only contact with the world of academia was through Farah, my supervisor, on Skype.

Academic supervision was new to me. I’m a reasonably successful professional. I’ve been learning and writing a long time; I know how I learn and produce, I know my process. I am confident of my writing. But I knew far less than most PhD candidates about academia. Most candidates have already come through years of undergraduate then graduate experience. I had none; I did not know what was expected of me, how the system worked, or how to think about the problem. Farah, on the other hand, has vast experience of academia, and has supervised many students to the successful conclusion of their PhD. But she was used to working with younger people familiar with the process but who had never managed a major writing project before.

I don’t know how long it usually takes for a supervisor and a candidate to settle in to a harmonious working relationship, for each to truly understand what the other wants, expects, and needs. Farah and I like and trust each other, we both have a lot of experience of managing dissimilar communication architecture, and we were both invested in making this work. Eventually we figured it out. I had a clear picture now of where I wanted to go and how I might do that. Between us we decided I would just go away and write the first draft; if I needed help or suggestions for reading, I’d email. Everything was on track.

And then Farah left Anglia Ruskin to take a post at another university.

Thankfully, Farah had already arranged with the university for her to stay on as an external academic advisor, and sorted out who would be my supervisor at Anglia Ruskin, Tiffani Angus. Like me, Tiffani is a Clarion alum; we had talked before on Twitter and by email so she was not a total stranger. I wasn’t worried. I went back to my draft.

◻︎

Setting Menewood aside had freed up the roaming, creative part of my mind. When summer was just past its prime I had my flash of revelation and come up with a new portmanteau term, focalised heterotopia. I was excited. I also saw that all those promises I had made in the prima facie case about sticking to work from the last ten years was not going to work. The corpus I wanted, I needed, to talk about, that I would trace my development through, was all six novels; the short fiction was neither here nor there. Critically reviewing work from the last 25 years was very clearly in contravention of Anglia Ruskin’s regulations; there again my whole candidacy was a miracle to start with. So, ah, fuck it: I would do this my way.

Once all that fell into place the draft took shape fast. It was far too long (50%) but it said most of the things I wanted it to say. It would need work, of course, but it was a good beginning. I sent it to Farah just as she moved city, house, and job and settled down to focus on Hild and Menewood confident in the knowledge I would not have to think about the PhD for a few weeks.

◻︎

It’s really quite extraordinary what stories I tell myself. The one about getting back to Hild over the holidays was a complete lie. But I’ll talk about that in Part Five.

◻︎

After the holidays, far more quickly than I expected, Farah got back to me with her comments: all the building blocks were there but not in the right order, there was too much of it, and the language was all wrong.

It was not the same as getting an editorial letter about one of my novels. Those letters can be very long and detailed but the editor never touches the actual text. The draft Farah sent back had big chunks deleted and others moved around. It took me a while, maybe a week, to get my head around it—to even understand what she was trying to point me towards.

I’m not sure Farah would agree with this, exactly, but in the end I worked out that the solution was to turn the whole thesis into a fractal: the deeper you go, the more the pattern repeats. Every chapter would be a thesis in miniature: argument, evidence, analysis. Every section would be a mini chapter: argument, evidence, analysis. Every paragraph would be a mini-section: argument, evidence, analysis. I fell asleep to Argument, evidence, analysis. I woke up thinking, Argument, evidence, analysis.

Farah had told me from the start that what academic writing is supposed to do is: State your argument, present your evidence, occasionally provide context for that evidence, then analyse the fuck out of it all. It just took me a while to integrate that advice.

But I can see through a brick wall in time. When I did, I refocused, rewrote, and cut, cut, cut.

◻︎

At the same time I was rewriting, I was getting sucked into an Anglia Ruskin admin loop. As I’ve explained in an earlier section, one of the perils of being first—first Creative Writing by Published Work candidate ever at Anglia Ruskin University; their first remote candidate; their first no-degree candidate, etc.—is that the regulations are not tried and tested. It was spring, and time, apparently, to renew my registration. But I couldn’t renew my registration until I could show I’d taken Stage 3 training. I couldn’t take Stage 3 training (learning how the viva voce works and how to prepare) until I renewed my registration. This was not the only loop but it proved to be the most intractable. For example, I had to submit my thesis to TurnItIn to check for plagiarism before my supervisor would okay it for final examination, but I couldn’t do that until I’d completed Stage 3 training.

In addition, I was seeking a disability waiver, a Reasonable Accommodation (I always saw that phrase in capital letters) to allow me to do my Stage 3 training remotely, via Skype, rather than having to fly thousands of miles to Cambridge. The viva itself, of course, had to be done in person but I desperately did not want to have to cross the Atlantic twice in three months. (My record is five transatlantic trips in 10 months, more than 15 years ago when I was much fitter, but it nearly killed me.)

With a letter from my neurologist the waiver process went remarkably smoothly, thanks to Jane Bousfield and Gabriella Guiffrida, and in fairly short order I had my SRA, or Summary of Reasonable Adjustment. Then Dr Charlotte Nevison (aka Charlie), the Director of Research Students, gave me my training by Skype. It was extremely helpful. I asked and she answered many questions that I’m not sure she’s used to getting—questions related very much to physical access issues. I could see her getting thoughtful.

A few days later, she emailed me to say she had just completed some awareness training regarding disability. She would be the chair of my examination committee and she thought she could make a case to Anglia Ruskin for me to do the viva itself remotely. Would I like her to try?

I hesitated. My candidacy was unusual enough without yet another first attached: the first PhD viva without the candidate being in the room. How far could I stretch this firstness before I started getting imposter syndrome (or, worse, before others started giving me the side-eye)? Also, I really wanted to be there for my own PhD—and to be in the UK to see my family, and old friends, and to be at the opening of the Visible Girls: Revisited exhibit in Hull. I had been ready and braced for the travel: I’d booked the plane tickets, the hotel, the transport from the airport, everything.

But I have MS. One, if I did this I would be ill two to four weeks after I got back. It always happens. Most of the time I’m unwell for a month or less then recover, but every now and again and really sick, and I lose a bit more function, function that’s gone forever. When there had been no choice, I thought it was worth the risk—but that was measuring travel risk against a PhD. Now I was measuring that risk not against the PhD but against pride, against wanting to be there, in person, for my triumph. (At this stage I knew I was doing good work.) Two, if I did this I would break trail for others, other candidates with disabilities who might not have the choices I did.

I answered Charlie: Yes, please try.

The request started working its way up the bureaucratic ladder. Charlie did all the work; all I had to do was wait. And focus on the rewrite of my thesis.

◻︎

Eventually I had something submittable. I gave it to my new supervisor, Tiffani who shared it with Laura Dietz (who apparently was my Second Supervisor; I had no idea I even had a second supervisor), who between them pointed out a couple of typos and one possibly controversial statement. It was still a few hundred words over the limit but Tiffani told me about an obscure rule that if a block quote [ETA: a block quote of my own words] is over 50 words, those words don’t count. So I consolidated quotes shamelessly into block quotes, fixed the typos, and added a footnote to address the potential controversy.

This was the beginning of April. I was ready, but the registration issue had not yet been sorted. I began to fret, just a bit, about timing. I kept remembering the emphasis in the acceptance letter:

…submit your thesis ONE YEAR FROM DATE OF LETTER

Time was marching on.

I got email from Charlie: the Vice Chancellor had signed off on my request to take my viva remotely. An official letter followed: We would begin at 2:30 pm UK time—which was 6:30 a.m. in Seattle. Appended were just-formulated regulations written to cover not-in-the-room exams. I would have to have a technical rehearsal with a member of the Anglia Ruskin IT staff, John Manning.

I thought a remote viva would entail using an offsite video conference facility and being officially proctored by a faculty member from another university. To my delight I found out that Skype would be fine. John and I connected, chatted about nothing in particular for three minutes while he checked light and sound levels, and then he had enough to make his report. The next day I got the official thumbs-up. I cancelled our travel reservations and made a couple of difficult phone calls, including one to my soon to be 92-yr-old father telling him no, I would not see him this summer after all.

Then I sat back and thought, Holy shit.

◻︎

Thanks to the hard work and determination of Emily Downing and Brigita Mileryte, and their wizardly ability to reconcile a conflict in the CW PhD PW regulations, my registration issue was sorted. I was able to submit my draft thesis for a plagiarism check. It came back fine. (I knew it was all my own work but I was still relieved; I know how easy it is to slip and think someone else’s words are your own.) So now it was time for my mock viva. However, due to scheduling problems, it would have to be after I submitted the final thesis. So if the mock viva highlighted any terrible flaws, tough, it would be too late.

I submitted my thesis. I did nothing but loaf about and smile to myself for a day, then asked Tiffani and Farah a couple of questions to clarify a few points about the viva. Don’t worry! they both said. You’ll be fine! I was mystified. I wasn’t worried. I’ve talked about my books for years: to live audiences on two continents, on TV, on the radio, in my living room, on social media. I could do it in my sleep. I actually enjoy it. The viva would be an opportunity to talk to smart, engaged people. I was not worried, I just wanted clarity.

Then I had a horrible realisation: a viva is designed to test not whether you know your subject (which obviously I did, because I’d written the books under discussion) but whether you can discourse academically on the subject. In other words, the viva is where you proved whether you belong to the club. I might have spent years talking to readers but I had never, not once, had academic discourse about the theory behind my thesis about those books. I had no idea how to do that, and no clue how to get ready. Now I began to worry.

My friend Kate Macdonald came to the rescue again. We arranged a not-quite-mock viva by Skype. Ahead of time she sent me four questions of the kind she thought I ought to be able to talk about. I read them and my mind went utterly blank. I had no fucking idea what any of it meant. I printed them out and read them. I still had no idea. My breathing- and blink-rate accelerated.

That night when Kelley and I sat down for a beer, I waved the questions in the air and freaked the fuck out. I think it’s the only time in the whole PhD experience that I seriously contemplated failure. It didn’t last long. Kelley’s sensible conversation (and lots more beer, and about two pounds of hummus) calmed me down. The Skype conversation with Kate a day or two later made me feel even better. By the time I sat down for my mock viva with Tiffani and Eugene Giddens I was relaxed.

The mock viva went well. Eugene did most of the talking because he has done a zillion vivas. He was extremely knowledgeable and helpful. The real thing could last anywhere from one hour to three hours, he said, with 90 minutes being usual. He pointed to a few statements; he pushed here and there. I pushed back. Tiffani challenged me on a couple of things that I handled without difficulty. In the post-mortem they agreed that I had resisted appropriately, then helped me figure out a better way to position my camera. By the time we were done I was clear on what I needed to do and how to prepare. Per Farah’s suggestion I marked my thesis up with highlights and sticky notes so I could find any section I needed at any time; I made some high-level notes about my research questions; I rehearsed a summary of my conclusions. Then I relaxed. What would be, would be.

◻︎

I’d like to say, Friday the 23rd of June dawned fresh and clear, my mind razor sharp. But I was up before dawn—4:00 a.m.—and it was still dark. Besides, I was so focused on what lay ahead I forgot to look at the sky. I ate a big breakfast of bacon and eggs and drank tea. I’m sure Kelley and I chatted about something or other but I don’t remember any of it.

At 6:20 a.m. I took my tea into my office and opened Skype—and there was a message from Anglia Ruskin: Missed call from John Manning. Fuck. Had I got the time wrong?? I called back—and surprised two women sitting at a table with a plate full of pastries. They introduced themselves: Maggie and Helen. Maggie explained that Charlie, the chair, wasn’t there yet. Tiffani (who as an observer would sit out of my line of sight) stuck a hand in front of the camera and waved. After another couple of minutes of chat I ended the call to wait until they summoned me. At least now there would be time to finish my tea.

Then they called back and we began. For real.

Tiffani wrote down all the questions for me so I know how it went, otherwise I would not remember much (except eyeing that plate of pastries, and absolutely longing for one).2 I do know Maggie began by saying my books were wonderful and the thesis exemplary, and that I thought, Well, this might go okay... Then Maggie was saying, …need to chat amongst ourselves now, so why don’t you go away and we’ll call you back in ten minutes? And I obediently ended the call and wandered out of my office.

Kelley came rushing through from the kitchen. “What’s wrong?!” I blinked. Wrong? “Did the connection break?” No, I said. “But it’s only been 34 minutes!” I’m sure I said something but I’ve no idea what. I don’t remember what I did for the next few minutes except that I held Kelley very hard.

When we got back on Skype the first thing Maggie said was, “Congratulations, Dr Griffith!” And I smiled wide enough to split the world. “We so wish you were here so we could give you a hug!” All I could think was, It’s over? and I want a pastry! I thanked everyone and then we were done. I was Doctor Griffith.

I felt utterly blank. I connected with Farah on Skype, and she was thrilled. I thanked her. She said, yet again, You’re the one who did the work! I said, again, But none of it would have happened without you.

It’s true. None of it would have happened without Hild, either. Or the conversations I’ve had with academics and friends over the years. And certainly none of it would have happened without Kelley. But it did happen. I am Dr Nicola Griffith.

Next: Future: What impact a PhD may have on my writing


1 Right on top of my acceptance, politics happened. I’m not going to rehash Brexit except to say it hurt then and it hurts now to watch fools throw away something great and good based on greed and fear. And it was not long after this that I got a sick feeling that I knew what was coming with Trump. I felt oddly homeless. It got much worse after the election.
2 If anyone’s interested, in a future post I can share those questions, and some excerpts from the examiners’ reports.

The story of my PhD, Part 3: Choice

This is Part Three 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:

  1. Opportunity: How I became a PhD candidate even though I had no degree
  2. Decision: Why I wanted a PhD by Published Work
  3. Choices: Who, how, and when of choosing supervisor/subject/corpus/university
  4. Experience: What challenges (life and academic) I faced and how I solved them
  5. 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 more questions, use the comments.

Choices

I’m a novelist. For me a doctorate was never a long-term goal. I did not spend years strategising about which programme to aim for. I did not ponder where and with whom I would study or how they might help my career. The decision to begin a PhD was taken on the volley: I saw an opening, and took it.

I did not have to wonder what the spine of my research would be, either; I already knew, at least in general terms. Still, there were many choices I did have to face. Without any kind of academic track record, no degree of any kind, how would I go about persuading Anglia Ruskin University that I would be a good PhD candidate? Who would be my supervisor? How would we work together given that I haven’t been supervised or taught in any way for thirty years? How would I define my research question, refine it from the general to the specific? Which of my novels should I critically examine? Who might be the best external examiner?

I began by building my prima facie case for my candidacy. It wasn’t too different from writing a grant application: list your achievements and say what you hope to achieve with the acceptance/grant all while implying you would be a credit to the awarding institution. I wrote a 1,000-word essay, “Women and Other Aliens,” about why I and my books were worthy, what I was going to research, and why.

As my candidacy flew in the face of the university’s clear regulations for PhD by Published Work (PhD PW)—that a candidate must have at least an excellent Bachelor’s degree—I was determined to follow as many of the other rules as closely as I could. I made sure my essay was under the 1,000-word limit. I stated that I would critically examine only work written in the last 10 years. And I thought very hard about who I would ask to recommend me. In the end I asked Clare Lees, Gary Wolfe, and Kate Macdonald, a group I thought would provide a nice mix of perspectives; each would address a different aspect of my career and suitability for the programme. They all came through like heroes. They were all also willing to answer beginner questions. I owe them a great deal.

Looking back, that essay, although reasonably well-written, was academically confused. (Read the PDF of “Women and Other Aliens” if you want to make up your own mind.) The prima facie committee did end up letting me squeak by but only after making some emphatic recommendations about what I might need to consider moving forward. I doubt it was the essay that got me in. What did the trick, probably, was my record of publications and awards, the glowing recommendations, and expert help steering past the bureaucracy from Farah Mendlesohn.

I’ve told Farah, several times, that none of this could have happened without her. She always says, You’re the one who did the work! While that’s true it’s also true that I would never have been able to do that work without her initial guidance. Apart from the fact that I’d never even heard of a PhD PW before she mentioned it, her help during the application process was vital. At the beginning of 2016, when I stared at the application form in horror, suddenly aware of the ridiculousness and unlikelihood of my candidacy, Farah knew the best way to fill in the form; she gave me vocabulary: Non-traditional educational path, Mature student, First generation. When I started wondering if there was really any point to even trying she waved her hand and told me not to worry. So on 27 February, 2106, I took a breath and submitted. What would be, would be.

◻︎

At this stage I had not sat down and had a long, hard think about whether it was a good idea to do this. I approached the PhD decision the way I do many big choices in my life: don’t think, just begin, and stay alert for the moment it became too much hassle for it to no longer be a no-brainer—because it’s at that point that I must decide whether to walk away or set my will to stun.

Like most writers, I’m lazy; I’ve never seen the point of making a decision until forced to and so far there had been no money on the line, no huge investment of time, only favours from friends.1 Also, my attention was elsewhere. At the beginning of 2016 I was managing Life Stuff; beginning to sort the notion of #CripLit; and working on Menewood. I was also coming out as a cripple, and doing my first public appearances in a wheelchair. None of that was seriously threatened by the application process, as long as I didn’t think too hard about it, so I didn’t; I had not yet reached a point where I had to prioritise and make hard choices.

◻︎

On 27th May, 2016 I got a letter from Anglia Ruskin:

I am pleased to inform you that, at a meeting of Sub-Panel of the Arts Law and Social Sciences Faculty Research Degrees Sub-Committee on Wednesday 18th May 2016, your application for a Prima Facie case for a PhD by Published Work was approved. […] submit your thesis ONE YEAR FROM DATE OF LETTER. (their emphasis)

They gave me a list of suggestions from the Sub-Panel (four bullet points which I can paraphrase: Eh, you seem confused. Are you doing history, gender theory, or literary theory? Get clear!) and told me that my Academic Advisor, that is, First Supervisor, was Prof Farah Mendlesohn. They also wanted money: I couldn’t officially enroll until I’d paid my fees. Just transfer some ££ here. Easy!

Except of course it wasn’t. One of the downsides of being a trailblazer is that the regulations, fee structures, and admin systems are untested. Add the fact that I’m both an International Student and a UK student (dual nationality living abroad), and that ARU had never actually done a PhD PW in the Humanities before, and it took a while to sort. Meanwhile, time was ticking by without access to academic libraries so I just cranked up my use of the Seattle Public Library’s Interlibrary Loan (ILL) request system. The ILL pipeline takes a while to get up to speed, so while I had nothing to read I had my first official meeting with my supervisor. (I’ll talk about this more in Part Four.)

Eventually I got my enrollment sorted out. I got my student ID and ARU library access. But because that library was thousands of miles away, I also had to get access to a library closer to home. Farah squeezed her departmental budget a bit and bought me access to the University of Washington’s library system. I started work in earnest, or tried to.

One of my favourite ways to learn is by example. My vague plan had been to read a few examples of other theses written for Creative Writing PhD PWs and figure out what they had in common. But I couldn’t find any. Farah couldn’t find any. I scratched my head. I would have to figure out some other way in.

Meanwhile Farah was giving me reading suggestions for How To books on academic writing, and examples of what she thought were fine books of critical prose readings. I read them. I found the How To books useful and the critical-reading books much less so—it turns out I already knew most of those principles. What became clear, though, is how sparse my critical theory context was. I had read and enjoyed all kinds of lit theory over the years but I had no overall critical framework, no way to place those theories in their proper context. I’d read Donna Haraway and Judith Butler, for example, but I could not have said where they fit in the overall picture.

So I talked to an academic friend, Ann Balay, and asked if she could recommend some kind of primer, a Litcrit for Dummies. She made two suggestions; I read them both and took copious notes.

And that’s where I ran into another problem. It was already becoming clear I would read hundreds, maybe thousands of texts for this PhD. How was I going to keep track of them? While keeping my research blog, Gemaecce, I had learnt the rudiments of citing sources, but suddenly I was in the big leagues. My evidence had to be bullet-proof. And there was going to be a lot of it, and it had to be in Harvard-style. How would I manage it? I asked around among other friends; I asked Google; I tried half a dozen different apps. In the end I settled on Angelique Corthals’ suggestion, Mendeley. It took a bit of getting used to, and it turns out the cite-straight-into-Word function is a lie as far as a Mac platform goes, but it was fantastically useful and now I would not part with it for a mint of money.

I used the litcrit primers to work out what strands of literary theory interested me (hint: structuralism does not). I poked into cognitive theory, linguistic theory, cultural, evolutionary, post-colonial, queer, gender, modernist, postmodernist, feminist, and eco-feminist theory. I was learning at warp speed; my brain was on fire. From there I pursued various literary traditions, reading up on Gay and Lesbian, Historical, Feminist, SF, and Noir topoi. I started noting where my novels departed from tradition and so reader expectation; where they harnessed them; and where they subverted them. I was assembling the foundations of my thesis. But I couldn’t begin to build until I had seen different finished structures. To me it felt like asking an architect to design a house without ever seeing a building. I needed to see a temple, a hut, a public building, a small private house, a city hall, otherwise how could I get an idea of the possibilities? I really, really needed examples of theses written for Creative Writing PhDs by Published Work (CW PhD PW).2

So I talked to Kate Macdonald again, and she put the word out on her network that I was looking for an example. While we waited for that, Farah and I started talking about examiners. The internal examiner was easy: Helen Marshall, medievalist and author who has won a handful of speculative fiction awards. We would be on the same wavelength. The external was more complicated. “You don’t want So-and-so because he’s too kind. He passes everyone,” Farah said. “And you don’t want it to be too easy.” Yes, I do! I said. “You really don’t,” she said, and explained why.

If you want a career in academia, it’s always best to select an external examiner who is an eminence with a good reputation in the field. That person’s name will open doors. Oh, So-and-so examined you and said those lovely things! Come in and chat… They will advise you about publication. They will write references. But I didn’t need advice about publication—I have a lot of experience. I didn’t need references because I didn’t want a career in academia. Probably. But what if I changed my mind? Best to keep options open. So, okay, an eminence. Apparently, too, senior and highly-experienced examiners come into the viva with less of an agenda to push. They’ve seen it all before; they know what meets the standard, what does not, and what exceeds it. And they are very clear about whether you deserve to be admitted to the academy.

During this conversation it dawned on me that while I thought I had been absorbing the academic ethos I had merely been absorbing theory and mechanics. I realised my attitude to education had not changed much since I was a teenager: I had entered into this process thinking, on some level, that the point was to pass the test with the least amount of effort. It was that conversation with Farah about examiners that helped me understand that, no, getting a PhD was not like getting an ‘O’ level. Getting a PhD was more like petitioning to join an exclusive club; it was about being the kind of person with the kind of mindset the institution and the examiners would be proud to associate with. My attitude needed revising; I needed to bring my goals for the PhD in line with who I am now, not who I was when I last had any contact with higher education. I decided I would approach this year of study as I would writing a novel: aim to produce something far beyond good enough and create a piece of work that could change the world, something I could stand beside proudly for the rest of my life.

In the end, for external examiner we settled on the eminence of the UK Creative Writing academy, Maggie Butt, Chair of the National Association of Writers in Education from 2007 to 2012 and  founding Principal Editor of its peer reviewed journal Writing in Practice. While began talking to Maggie about that (it was a lot to ask: she would have to read not only the thesis but six novels) I went out and read everything I could find on what she thought a CW PhD PW thesis should look like. This article was particularly useful. It outlined clearly what the exegesis (Maggie’s preferred term)/critical review (Anglia Ruskin’s preferred term) needed to achieve. The article did sound one alarming note: “based on 23 years experience of assessing creative writing at every level, I would suggest that a doctoral level exegesis cannot be completed rigorously in fewer than 20,000 words.” The word count I had, per Anglia Ruskin’s Regulations was 10,000. Hmmm.

Meanwhile, Kate’s network came through with two abstracts of theses/exegeses/critical commentaries (every institution seems to use a different term) for CW PhD PWs. Good, but not nearly enough. I tracked down the authors and asked if they would share the rest. They both generously agreed. Their interpretations of a critical review were very different, and neither bore any resemblance to the possibilities I could sense beginning to accrete at the back of my mind.

So. I had three data points from which to extrapolate: two examples and an examiner’s wish list. I had a new, improved attitude. The rest was just work, right?

Next: Experience: What challenges (life and academic) I faced and how I solved them


1 That of course is a real cost. We live in the generosity economy: a favour given is a favour owed in return.
2 It was at this point I decided that if I ever was awarded a PhD, I would put my thesis on my website for anyone to read. If it helps even one future candidate, I’ll be delighted.

The story of my PhD, Part 2: Decision

This is Part Two 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:

  1. Opportunity: How I became a PhD candidate even though I had no degree
  2. Decision: Why I wanted a PhD by Published Work
  3. Choice: Who, how, and when of choosing supervisor/subject/university
  4. Experience: What challenges (personal and academic) I faced and how I solved them
  5. 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 more questions, use the comments.

Decision

I write to find out. This applies equally to fiction and non-fiction. The PhD was no different: I wrote my thesis to find out what I do in my fiction, exactly, and how.

I also write to change the world, one reader at a time. I don’t pretend to be all-wise and all-seeing, but I do have a perspective I want to share, which is that women and other aliens—queer people, people of colour, disabled people, poor people—are people. We are and expect to be treated as human beings.

Occasionally at readings and events, and by email, a reader approaches and tells me that a novel—Ammonite, Slow River, The Blue Place, Stay, Always (it has not yet happened with Hild)—kept them alive, either by giving them a reason to live or showing them how to survive a particular situation. They say: Your book saved my life. I’m a writer but I am not adequate to the task of explaining how that affects me. My work has saved lives, individual human lives; individual histories and futures—breaths and recipes and relationships—that continue to exist because of words I set down. To save a life is an enormous thing. I needed to understand how and why my work does that.

In addition to the enormity of saving lives, many more readers have told me my books have changed their lives. Still others have told me my work has changed their perspective. I needed to understand that, too.

I’ve always known that what makes my work different was related to the way I write women and other aliens, the way I exclude the kinds of pain and suffering often associated with belonging to a traditionally marginalised group. My main characters are all queer women, and none are raped, threatened with rape or homophobic violence, or discriminated for being women or queer. As friend and critic, writer, publisher and all-around perspicacious person Timmi Duchamp pointed out in an essay, I exclude certain challenges. Excluding particular oppressions and discourse associated with being a queer woman allows me to include women in the human race: I exclude to include.

Exclude to include was a good beginning but not nearly enough of an explanation. How did I do that exactly? How could I describe that to someone else? It had something to do with triggering mirror neurons to create empathy; it relied on my focus on my main character’s body in her landscape; but I could not quite articulate how everything tied together. I did not have the critical vocabulary.

Researching for a PhD was the opportunity to give myself permission to do nothing but think critically about fiction, particularly my fiction, and how it affects the reader; to gain the critical vocabulary I needed; and to then explore that critical thinking in written form. It was my chance to find out, once and for all, why and how my novels work.

◻︎

The major factor, then, the driving force behind my decision to embark on a PhD was the same as the impetus behind my fiction: to find out. I explore and experience the world first through my body, but I integrate that somatic knowledge, I contextualise and understand it, by writing. You could say this PhD was a meta-exploration: a chance to find out how my novels find out.

This meta-exploration was not the only factor that weighed in the decision, of course. Part of why I wanted to do this was because I could. I thought it might be seriously cool to be Doctor Griffith. (Spoiler: It is!) I also thought that having some kind of academic credential might make a difference in terms of the occasional teaching gig or grant. (I have not yet tested that.) But two other factors outweighed both.

The first was Hild and the twenty years (so far) of research I’ve undertaken on all things seventh-century. This began in the late 90s when I started idly (I thought) reading an early 20th-century History of Britain. I was puzzled by the Anglo-Saxons. I’d grown up with the Matter of Britain, the myth of the fading-of-civilised-light Romano-British culture overwhelmed by barbaric Anglo-Saxon ignorance. To an extent, this old history book mirrored that tone. But not entirely. I could sense a whole other story moving beneath the surface. Intrigued, I picked up some more recent histories, and read them with interest, and progressed to monographs on things like Anglo-Saxon jewellery, and sixth century mortuary practise. Then I started reading Old English poetry (bad translations at first), and Bede, and then better translations of poetry, and I was hooked. I began to read everything I could lay my hands on. Without academic access I resorted to Interlibrary Loan. Then I began to interact directly with scholars, in person and via social media, about their recent work. After about ten years I began keeping a record of that research in the form of a blog, Gemæcce (currently sadly neglected), and from there talking to scholars about their not-yet-published work. Writing with an academic audience at the back of my mind had a profound impact on how I approached argument. It taught me the value of evidence-based opinion, and the importance of data.

It was that new respect for data that led to my blog post about bias in publishing,
Books about women don’t win big awards: some data. That post, in addition to generating an insane amount of international press, had concrete impact. One direct result is a $50,000 international literary prize to honour women’s voices in prose and scripts. Another is the Toronto-based In Her Voice festival, a “platform to showcase excellence in female authorship.” I was amazed. All that from just one blog post… I couldn’t help wondering what might result from a bigger, more well-funded effort. I began to imagine a data-based research project on the gendered financial bias in publishing—the kind of project that would only be possible with a team of researchers who had the imprimatur of a respectably impartial institution. That’s when I realised that what I really needed was a grant, and a gaggle of graduate students. And, Oh, I thought. I need credentials. I need a PhD.

◻︎

I wanted a PhD, then, primarily to understand how my work affects readers but also because while researching Hild I fell in love with scholarship for its own sake, and that in turn led to me wanting to be able to undertake a research project on bias in publishing for which I needed credentials.

My primary goal is met. I now know exactly how my fiction does what it does. For the precise, academic explanation, download the PDF of my thesis, Norming the Other: Narrative Empathy Via Focalised Heterotopia. I encourage you to read it; I wrote it make sense to the smart general reader, and if you have questions I’m happy to answer them in the comments. If academic language daunts you, here’s a summary in general terms:

What my novels do is put the experience of the Other at the centre of the story and persuade the reader that being a queer woman is ordinary. I do this by activating certain neural mechanisms in the reader which encourages them to identify with my main characters. To make sure the reader is not popped out of the story but stays engaged, I’m careful to avoid creating an emotional response that might lead them to barrier-up, to distance themselves from people or events in the narrative. I do that by focusing on the main character’s physical experience, her body—how she feels, exactly; what she sees and smells and learns. Most of us have been cold or afraid, so if we read about those emotions described in such a way as to trigger an empathetic response, we can identify with the person feeling them—even if in real life we might not think we would have much in common. That identification changes, temporarily, how we see someone we might normally think of as Other; for a little while we’re all just the same underneath. Because joy is one of the things that opens readers wide to experience (and because I’m a much bigger fan of joy than misery) I make the queer female body a site more of delight than of suffering. And because delight is to me visceral, a thing of the body, and because natural landscape lies at the heart of my primary joy as a writer, my main characters spend a lot of time being physically active outdoors.

In the thesis I use narrative empathy to mean, essentially, persuading the reader to feel and think with the main character. And focalised character means, roughly, main character—the person through whom the reader experiences events. A heterotopia means ‘other place’ and in this context I mean it to indicate a different social ordering, a different cultural rather than geographic space. So far these were all terms I either already knew or encountered or re-encountered in my background reading. Then I took it a step further. My fictional heterotopias were representations of realism that differ from reality in one important respect: the focalised character doesn’t suffer the oppressive crap that we have been told is the lot of queer women the world over—though the characters might. In other words, in my work the heterotopia applies only to the focalised character. I came up with a new, portmanteau terms: focalised heterotopia. That is what I write.

◻︎

Over the years I’ve noticed that every reader who has told me my work saved their life, and most of those who say it changed their life, have been marginalised, Othered by the world. What I want my fiction to give these readers is what I want, too: a mirror. I want to see myself represented as a human being who is not oppressed, hunted, or singled out simply for being a woman, or queer, or disabled. I want to see how it might be to live in a world where it’s possible to unfurl and live to one’s full potential, to see who we might become. As a woman, as a queer woman, as a disabled queer woman, I get so tired both of not seeing myself, essentially being told I don’t exist, and of only seeing people like me traumatised, victimised, and afraid. Fuck that. No. In my fiction, the queer women might be in danger for a variety of reasons—politics, say, or money, or because they make some foolish choice—but the danger stems from their active decisions, their omissions or commissions, not from being a victim for no other reason than they are women or queer. When you read my fiction, it’s safe to revel in the body and mind of the main character because that body is never going to be targeted because of how it looks, or what other bodies it likes to look at.

Those who tell me my work has changed their perspective, on the other hand, tend to be those who belong to the groups that might be expected to do the Othering. These are the people who make the rules and police the culture. And because they have read one or more of my books they might do that differently.

I write to find out and I write to change the world. I needed to understand how and why my fiction could do that. Now I do.

Next: Choice: Who, how and when of choosing my supervisor/subject/university

Disabledwriters.com

Many in the disability community are tired of under-representation. And so s.e. smith, with co-partners Alice Wong and Vilissa Thompson, set up Disabledwriters.com:

Disabled Writers is a resource to help editors connect with disabled writers and journalists, and journalists connect with disabled sources. Our goal is specifically to promote paid opportunities for multiply marginalized members of the disability community, and to encourage editors and journalists to think of disabled people for stories that stretch beyond disability issues.

This resource is specifically designed to help editors connect with disabled people working in journalism, or trying to break into the field. It also includes disabled experts who are available to serve as sources, such as attorneys, physicians, social workers, artists, and others with professional experience or education that makes them expert sources in their fields.

The disability community has a saying: Nothing about us without us.

My profile lists me as Dr. Nicola Griffith. It’s the first time I’ve labelled myself this way and, frankly, I dithered. Then I was reminded how tiresome it is to always be underestimated because you’re disabled, and thought, Fuck it!

So if you’re disabled and a writer, or disabled and an expert source in  your field (the usual professions, of course, but perhaps also others: air traffic control? weaving? cultural anthropology? bridle-making?), go get yourself a profile. If editors/producers can find you, your voice can be heard. And we need all our voices. Nothing about us without us. Now editors and producers have no excuse.

The story of my PhD, Part 1: Opportunity

Picture of official document

This is Part One of the story of my doctorate—the who, why, when, how of it—based on questions from readers on this blog, Facebook, and Twitter. It is in five parts:

  1. Opportunity: how I became a PhD candidate even though I had no degree
  2. Decision: why I wanted a PhD
  3. Choice: how I chose my subject/university/supervisor
  4. Experience: solving the challenges of writing a PhD thesis while still writing novels, having a life, and managing MS
  5. Future: the impact a PhD may have on my writing

For context you might want to read the PhD thesis first, or at least the abstract. If you have more questions, use the comments.

Opportunity

I am a first-generation student. No one in my immediate family, including me, even has a Bachelor’s. Yet I have a doctorate, one I earned (as opposed to honorary). How did this happen?

When I was at Notre Dame Grammar School (UK-speak for a high school for people who passed an exam called the 11-plus) it became clear I was smart. Everyone, including me, began to assume I would be the family ground-breaker, that I would go to university. That belief began to evaporate when I was 13.

Notre Dame was a girls-only Catholic convent school. At 13 I knew I was a dyke, I knew that when I came out I would be expelled and my family would do something insane and horrendous like have me made a Ward of Court. I began to feel isolated. Not only was I a dyke in a precarious position I was also younger than everyone else, and not an art maven or science geek or jock, but all of the above. I did not fit. I started to drink. A lot. And completely check out of classes. I still mostly (not always) attended physically, but mentally and emotionally I was not there. Then at 15 I fell head over heels with my first girlfriend, Una, and by the time I turned 16 and was legally untouchable, I came out. The upshot of all this: my Catholic grammar school made it clear they did not want to enter me for Oxbridge admission; they did not want to be represented by a lesbian. Also, I did not want to leave Una. I was seventeen. I could have gone elsewhere, I could have studied anything, but I stayed in Leeds because Una and I were planning to move in together after school. I accepted a place at the University of Leeds to study Microbiology. I thought microbiology would be interesting—it wasn’t—and that it would guarantee me a job somewhere I would feel at home, a brewery (seriously). I had this confused teenage vision of studying Important Science during the day and coming home for a mix of riotous sex and domestic bliss every evening. I hadn’t given a moment’s thought to how we could afford to set up a household, I just had faith that it would somehow happen.

It didn’t happen. I’ve told this story at much great length in my memoir. But for a short version see the reading below.

Una left to marry a man just before term began, when it was too late to take a place anywhere else. I was living at home with disapproving (super Catholic) parents who frankly did not see the point of educating a lesbian because no one would give me a job. Everything went to hell. I felt utterly alone. I knew I’d made a horrible mistake—I should have gone to study something interesting somewhere else. I started to drink again, even more than before. I stayed out all night having sex with random women. I didn’t bother going to classes. I kept getting sick. I dropped out. I left home, left the city and went to a life of, well, I talk about that in the memoir too so if you’re interested go read it.

The next year when I was 18 and a bit more mentally and emotionally grown up—I’d lived on my own in another city for a year—I was accepted for a BSc in Psychology. But because I had those few weeks of Microbiology the year before I could not get a government grant for that first year. My parents would not support me because, y’know, lesbian-who-no-one-will-employ-and-anyway-going-to-hell, and this was before the UK had even heard of such things as student loans (which no one would have given me anyway because I had no visible means of support because my parents were right, no one in the north of England would give an out dyke a job). So I had no money. And I kept getting mysteriously sick. Poverty, fatigue, and sheer Othering led me to dropping out again.

Looking back it’s clear that being a first-generation student was partly to blame; it was culture shock plus a hostile environment. But no one talked about that then. I just knew I was failing; not at the academic work but at everything else. Whatever the reason—first-generation issues, homophobic bias, illness, and/or general lack of coping skills—the end result was the same: no degree of any kind.

The thing is, for a novelist that doesn’t matter. Readers don’t give a shit if you have a degree or not. Instead of getting a nice steady middle-class job I wrote books. I got invited to each here and there. I got invited to speak here and there. Everyone just assumed I was well-educated. It did make getting my first visa a bit dicey, though—I had to get the State Department to accept an evaluation that given my published short fiction and essays, my education was the equivalent of an English BA plus the first year of a Master’s.

But I kept publishing books, winning awards, and generally doing just fine without a degree. In autumn 2014 I was invited to King’s College London by Professor Clare Lees to give a talk to medievalists there about Hild. In the audience were Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James, colleagues (through SF and medieval history, respectively) who have become friends. We agreed to have dinner the following day. Over dinner, we chatted about this and that—their teaching, mainly; Farah had just taken a job as Head of Department, English and Media, Anglia Ruskin University. I mentioned how much I like to teach but that I never taught at university level, except for visiting writer gigs, because these days in the US you pretty much need an MFA. “Actually,” Farah said, “to teach HE in the UK these days you pretty much need a PhD.”

I snorted. That was never going to happen. And Farah said, “Well, if ever you’re interested in a PhD, talk to me.” I blinked and said, Imagine I am talking to you right now. She refilled her wine glass, sat back, and said, “Have you ever heard of a PhD by Published Work?” She thought that could be a route for me, and she could shepherd my application through the ARU bureaucracy.

It turned out that universities generally only do PhDs by Published Work (PhD PW) for well-published faculty members who already have a master’s and need the doctorate for promotion. Further, ARU had never done a PhD PW in the Humanities before, in its entire history, so it took a while to sort. I had to submit a prima facie case for my candidacy. But on May 27th 2016, thanks to seriously hard work by Farah and her colleagues, and a lot of help from academic friends (including Clare Lees) with things like references, I found myself with an ARU student ID card, an academic email address, and (joy!) library privileges at both ARU and the University of Washington.

Next: Decision: Why I wanted a PhD