Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Learning, Pressure, and PhDs

The view from the bottom of Snowdon can be intimidating


Confession: I spent five years working on a Philosophy of Mind PhD, which I never finished. There are multiple stories I could tell about why, and none of them would tell the whole truth.

The negative ones might talk about losing my supervisor, depression, duty, fear of failure, approaching what looked like a mountain and not knowing that even to climb one of those you have to do it in lots of normal-sized steps, not impossibly long leaps.

The positive stories would tell you how much I learned, that the learning was enough without the piece of paper, that I had delayed turning to my true love – creative writing – for long enough, that I set myself free from the cage of expectations by quitting.

Basically, for whatever background reason, I could not get the work done. I did not turn all that reading and thinking and those ecstatic sparks of realisation that accompany them (and to which I was quite addicted) into words on paper.

I don’t mind confessing this because I feel quite cheerful about my unfinished PhD; it made me the argumentative pedant I am today and I wouldn’t change that.

However, fear did creep up as I began the first task of – yes – my second PhD, in late 2012. Would I sink back into permanent procrastination and the resultant self-loathing that came last time? How would I deal with that image of the mountain, especially since, fitting this PhD around a full time job, there would be a lot less time available for faffing about looking for the best path? Not to mention that I already felt in a hurry to get this one done before I’d even started, so that I could ditch that full-time job and, with a bit of luck, return to teaching.

Having just sent my supervisor my first piece of work – a fifteen thousand word survey of the creative and academic literature relevant to my PhD – there are now multiple stories I could tell about how on earth I managed to produce this in eight weeks, given my track record. It’s only a first draft, but frankly I’ve surprised myself.

The stories about this that I think are closest to the truth would have the following messages:
  • When you have three hours in a day, as opposed to sixteen, in which you can reasonably work, you use those hours far more effectively
  • The anxiety of not having done something is worse than the anxiety involved in doing it imperfectly
  • Doing a PhD for a specific reason (so that I can attempt to become a creative writing lecturer and spend all my time around writers and writing), not purely as an exercise in learning, helps to overcome fear. The process is important, but it is also a means to my most cherished end
  • Somewhere along the way I seem to have learned the small-steps-up-the-mountain lesson, possibly by climbing an actual mountain (Snowdon). Even when completely knackered, a 100 word summary of a short story is worth writing before collapsing in a heap.

I have not become some sort of hyper-motivated perfect student. Throughout the research and writing for this essay I still fell into old traps, the main outcome of which being that I have bought a lot of vintage shoes on Ebay. But I want to impress upon others who think it is not possible to undertake something like this that, actually, more pressure is better. And, possibly, starting such a project in your thirties (or later) rather than your twenties, when everything you do matters more, is a good thing. So my message of the day is: go forth and study!

Friday, 11 January 2013

Fairy tales, folk tales, and learning to understand each other

Are the travellers afraid, wary, cunning, or just tired?


I’m beginning research for my PhD in creative writing. This mostly involves the luxury of reading contemporary short stories that use elements of folk tales, fairy tales, the fantastic, the magical, or at the very least the absurd, but I am also looking at analyses of folk and fairy tales.

Before I started this research I had some of my own ideas about the nature of these tales. These had come from a combination of the philosophy of mind in which I once specialised, and from writing more and more stories that often seemed to come out rather like folk tales without my at first realising why.

Folk psychology

Is the name philosophers of mind give to whatever it is we do when we understand other people’s actions by imputing certain beliefs and desires. There’s plenty of philosophical ruckus over the idea – is it innate, learned, does it come in modules, can it be enhanced, is it universal or culturally varied, does it even exist actually?

Whether it’s a list of human traits inscribed inside your skull, or a clumsy way to summarise what we do when we interpret each other, folk psychology is important and useful. We use it to differentiate points of view from our own (children younger than four-ish can’t do this), and our interpretations or predictions of each other’s behaviour can grow to be complex, nuanced, empathetic.

Folk and Fairy tales

Little did I know as I tried to figure out what was folktale-like about my stories that the work had already been done for me. Kate Bernheimer writes beautifully about the key features of fairy tales, following in the footsteps of Max Luthi’s analysis of the form and nature of European folk tales. (Find Kate’s essay ‘Fairy tale is form, form is fairy tale’ on her website here). She picks out:

Flatness – of character. Folk tale characters are not ‘fleshed out’ with details or insight into inner life, in contrast with modernist fiction.

Abstraction – physical description is very limited, e.g. in terms of colours, elements. Things are no more fleshed out than characters are.

Intuitive Logic – causal relationships between events are not shown or explained; we are told that this happened, and then that happened, and we might intuit connections.

Normalised magic – the magic and the real sit happily side by side, and characters accept magical objects and happenings.

Putting together folk psychology and folk/fairy tales

As adults, folk psychological interpretation – understanding why somebody did what they did – comes naturally to most of us; it is automatic. When we read a folk tale, our minds work to fill in what is left out. The prince slayed the dragon because he believed it would eat the damsel and he desired to save her. The princess kissed the frog out of morbid curiosity. Or because the frog was very charismatic. Whatever! But there are always multiple possible interpretations.

Thus some philosophers of mind, including me, think that these kind of ‘diagrammatic’ stories are perfect for practising your folk psychology. Each time a child hears a fairy tale, she can try out different combinations of mental states – beliefs, desires, fears – on the ‘flat' characters, and can fill out the details of the world her own way to make it make sense. She can add traits and test them: does this sister running away with the best dress make more sense if she is selfish or if she is generous? She can also learn how to construct narrative – something we humans seem to be addicted to as a way of making sense of ourselves and the shape of our lives.

So much goes on in our heads when listening to folk and fairy tales that a PhD’s worth of exploration is justified. But next time you encounter one, have a look at just how much information is presented to you and how much you are filling in for yourself. Then ask someone else what they thought the story was about, and I guarantee, regardless of age, their version will be different from yours.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Why short stories are like dreams



Stories sometimes melt away even after impressing you


With a terrific new year’s day hangover, trying to describe to an equally drowsy person my recent experience of reading a lot of short stories, I could only manage, ‘it’s a bit like dreaming.’


I’ve only been reading short stories for a few years – until then it was novels, novels, all the way down. And with a novel you are enjoying, you take for granted immersion; you can wallow, looking forward to the hundreds more pages of a world. Even forgetting bits as you go, or forgetting the ending (as I often seem to), you’re engaged long enough to keep the world with you for a while, and sometimes – with a really good novel – forever.


I am currently in the lucky position of having to read contemporary short fiction in order to write a literature review as a precursor to my PhD in creative writing. But despite the huge amount of practice I am now getting, however much I read short stories and even love them, if I don’t reread or prĂ©cis them  soon after I forget. Like dreams, unless I write them down, or think hard about them while they are fresh, or talk about them, they slip away as the next one takes hold on my imagination.


I devour a collection or an anthology, believing that every tale is making its mark, only to find that, if I close the book, I can only recall a handful. Perhaps this is to do with my particular imagination, but it tends to be the ones where images are repeated, or certain scenes or motifs reinforced, that stick best. For me, character names are the first things to disappear from memory, followed by plots.


That plots melt away, leaving visual or atmospheric elements, is interesting to me, because one type of tale I am reading and reading about a lot is the folk tale, and its subset of fairy tales. We think of these, at least our childhood versions, as fixed, definite, oft repeated. Plot is everything – the characters are flat, or stereotypes, there to carry along the story and teach us something. But what does become of Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, Tom Thumb, Goldilocks? We know Cinderella marries a prince, but the rest of them I can only picture angrily stamping, dreamily hair-tossing, drinking from a thimble and tasting porridge (respectively – although mixing it up has some amusing mental results). Then I try to remember the moral of the story, or at least my interpretation of it, and work back from there to what the ending must have been. This is a useless method, as our interpretations of the meanings of stories change.


Like dreams, we need to ponder on a short story, reliving it and trying out interpretations for a time before moving on. Sometimes a short story is so dense that I feel full and have to stop anyway – especially with those by Angela Carter or Rikki Ducornet, for example. Now, instead of racing through a story collection like a novel, I try to pause after every story, because it is often the seemingly slight stories that deserve the most after-thought. Like a dream that is only a confusing moment, in which I am struggling to put on a too-small shoe, or staring at a cat morphing into a person (these are real dreams of mine, make of them what you will!), a baffling short story will produce the most fruit – rich and varied – if it is allowed to sit and grow in the mind for a while. And I should add that reading Rikki Ducornet’s short stories with a serious hangover can be a terrifying, bewildering experience that I would thoroughly recommend. Try it and you won’t forget them.