This is a question that probably I thought of when I applied to do a PhD, but surprisingly haven’t given much thought to since.
Starting a thesis is like opening Pandora’s Box (childish giggle). I have done a lot of reading and writing based around my need to get a firm grasp on the science that informs the theoretical section of my thesis. One answer led to more questions, and then more questions, all leading me further away from my actual topic. While, it is lucky that I find all this stuff infinitely fascinating, as I will need to be reading and writing about it for the next few years, it has also been distracting.
Doing a half theoretical, half creative thesis can be problematic, because it can seem that the theoretical aspect is more academically important than the creative. It is not.
I have been writing creatively this year, but it has been haphazard. And I have not grasped the concept that: Writing a creative PhD is not the same as writing a novel that fulfills some personal need for self expression. I need to start thinking about this creative writing more as a thesis. It has a specific purpose. That is not to say that I can’t still have fun with it.
To help me work out how to do this, I found the examiners’ guide for creative doctorates, which has a checklist of what to expect from a creative thesis. The points that stood out for me were:
- “Does it offer an original contribution to knowledge in the field?”
- “Does the thesis as a whole satisfy external needs as well as personal outcomes (that is, advances knowledge and not just practice)?”
- “Is the work as a whole scholarly, coherent and rigorous?”
- “Does the artwork show innovation, a line of argument, technical expertise?”
Let’s start at the bottom, with point 4. I am writing a collection of short stories, and I think my stories are written fairly well, however they do not have a line of argument. The challenge here, for me, is to imbue them with a line of argument, but not to become preachy, or overly educational. I need to find ways to weave my theoretical ideas into the stories so they are naturally a part of them.
This links with point 3. Being scholarly is critically questioning what you are reading and also what you are writing. I think this also covers being rigorous. Creative writing can do this by offering a challenge to your reader, for example: a bit of ambiguity, or a twisting of perspective; something that avoids them reading passively and causes them to question what they are reading. Obviously, non-scholarly writing does this too but, with my non-scholarly stories, I just want to send them out into the world and let the reader make of them what they will. The scholarly creative writer, however, needs to acknowledge where their ideas are coming from and how they are challenging those ideas. I plan to do this by clearly discussing them in the theoretical section, and noting there how these ideas are expressed in the creative works. The creative works will then address them in a more subtle way. I hope this will make for a whole, coherent thesis.
Which leads to point 2. I am not doing this thesis just for me. I think that has been my major issue up to now and one I didn’t even realise was an issue until this week. A thesis is, in a large part, a personal journey, but it needs to be directed toward an externally quantifiable result. I knew this, but wasn’t doing this. I might feel I have came a long way this year, and I can show you a reading list to prove I have been working; but so far it is mainly internal. No one else can see it. I need to make my work more visible than I might otherwise do.
I dream of my perfect reader, who picks up that great story (which I haven’t yet written,
but no doubt one day will), and they get the significance, the resonance, of all my pop-culture references I have hidden in the deceptively simple story; they see the depth of my family in-jokes, how they have greater social and cultural implications. Etc, etc, etc. This is not a thesis reader. The thesis reader is an examiner. If this stuff does exist in my story, the examiner needs me to make this clear. Not boringly obvious, but visible. Again, a thesis is written for a specific purpose. It does not need to represent everything that I stand for. I need to focus on thoroughly tackling just this one hurdle, for now.
Which leads to point 1. The point I have the least confidence in addressing. At times I feel like I am restating what others have already said. Even after a year, I do not feel confident that what I am saying is actually new. I worry that I what I am saying has already been said, and I just haven’t found that article yet. Or that I am just accessorizing, rather than designing a new ideas.
I will need to get back to you on this one. But I hope the rest helps those thinking about their creative PhD.