Monday, 1 November 2010

Thoughts from a conference

Went to the QUT post-grad student conference, Ignite, held at the Kelvin Grove campus in Brisbane last Friday. It was a two-day conference but working full-time at the moment I could only fit in the one day.

I had a 10-minute paper to deliver first up in the morning, along with 4 other first year PhD students, which was interesting. I've spoken at conferences before for work-related stuff, but this was my first academic style conference. The audience was small and consisted of everyone's supervisors, family and friends but at least that meant it was a supportive group. Pretty much everyone used bigger words than me, though maybe my few mentions of neuroconstructivism put me up there. And the short reading I did from my creative work resulted in stunned silence (still not sure if this meant they were spellbound or shocked).

Over the rest of the day I attended a couple of sessions of PhD and Masters students delivering 20 minute papers. A couple of things I learnt from attending those:
  • you can talk the academic talk and be entertaining
  • interesting discussions can come out of the question and answer sessions
  • keep on track with your topic
  • be prepared and be professional
  • somewhere along the way doing your PhD, the chances are high you will lost the plot
One of the most interesting papers was by a candidate who had just submitted her thesis for examination. About two thirds of the way through her PhD, she realised that all the assumptions she'd made about her topic were wrong. All the data she had collected was telling her something that she didn't want to see. So she had to take a step back, pull all the data apart and look at it again from a fresh perspective. After having a minor (or possibly close to major) meltdown, she got through it all and came out the other side with a thesis that was much more original than her initial work. She had some great advice to give to new PhD students, including:
  • don't make assumptions about what you think your data is telling you
  • don't give up - take a step back and work through the issues
  • don't be afraid of letting your research taking you in unexpected directions
One of the worst papers was from a candidate who was clearly unprepared. She may have been a last minute replacement, which would explain why she was all over the place, but she made some major mistakes that could have been overcome with even a few hours preparation:
  • she sat on a table swinging her legs, instead of standing
  • she didn't use any visuals to help maintain audience interest and focus
  • she rambled, lost her place, and jumped from idea to idea with no coherent thread
  • despite getting several time warnings from the facilitator, she kept rambling on
I thought the facilitator was going to have to stand up and put her hand over her mouth to shut her up!

The final session of the day was a 'debate' about the relationship between student and supervisor during the PhD process. It was more entertaining than informative and ended up, as many discussions in Australia seem to do, deciding that what was needed was more alcohol. Sigh.

But all in all it was a good day. Met some interesting people, learnt some useful stuff and had a few laughs. It was a nice, laid-back intro to the academic conference.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

We are our own stories

Read a couple of interesting journal articles this week, both from Literature and Medicine Journal.

The first, The Narrative Shape of Traumatic Experience by Jane Robinett, looked at how two writers dealt with their traumatic experiences of war through their novels, and in particular, looking at the particular narrative structures they used to achieve this.

I picked up this article because Robinett starts it by writing about work by trauma theorists "...who insist on the fundamental 'inaccessiblity of trauma.'". These theorists are supported by neurobiolgists such as Bessel Van der Kolk, whom, Robinett writes, "...holds that because people who undergo psychological trauma suffer 'speechless terror...the experience cannot be organized on a linguistic level' and thus becomes not only inaccessible but also unrepresentable." Robinett's article challenges this view by analysing two novels about the experiences of war: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh. Both authors saw active service: Remarque served in the German army in WWI and Ninh served in the North Vietnamese army in the Vietnam war.

Through her analysis of each of the novels, Robinett finds similarities in the use of narrative structure and language that she believes illustrate an effective expression of trauma in linguistic form. Some of the techniques she describe as particularly effective in conveying the horror of war and the narrators' experiences of trauma include jarring shifts in tense and in point of view; plain and flat language; and silences. For example, she quotes sections from both authors' books and comments:

"...neither narrator comments or elaborates on the events. Instead, silence surrounds these fragmentary narratives, isolating them within the larger narrative...They occur almost casually, with the flatness that psychological trauma produces in its constrictive forms. The language and syntax are unvaryingly straightforward..."

Robinett describes several other instances of how each author uses narrative structure and technique to successfully portray the horror of war. This is of interest to me as a writer, in that I can look at the techniques used and see how I might modify them for my own writing. As a researcher, I found Robinett's article interesting both from the perspective of how the trauma theorists have used a neurobiologist's work to support their own theories and from the manner in which she challenges the trauma theorists' views through the analysis of the two war novels.

The second article I read was Evolution, Human Enhancement and the Narrative Self by Neil Scheurich. Scheurich writes about evolutionary psychology theory and the ethical concerns it raises for some; narrative as a way to cope with consciousness; medical and psychological enhancements as threats to human identity; and transhumanism. Which is a helluva lot for one article. Although there isn't one particular thing in the article that directly relates to my own research, I nevertheless found everything he wrote interesting. But if I had to pick one quote from the article that sums up what he is on about, I think this is it:

"Language and narrative are thus the means by which determined biology gives rise to ambiguity, uncertainty and the only kind of self-reflective freedom that could make sense to us."

Which he summed up in his conclusion by stating "...after all, narrative itself is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy."

Any link between Robinett's and Scheurich's articles is probably tenuous at best. But what I take away from both of them is that we are our own stories, and that they way we choose to tell them helps us to define who we are, and in finding some kind of definition or shape for ourselves, we find a way through life that helps us deal with whatever it is we've been given in this life: brain, genes, environments and experiences. And that this holds true for ourselves as humans, and, as writers, for the way we choose to tell our stories through characters. Which, in a roundabout way, comes back to neuroconstructivism in that it is all about context dependence: who we think we are shapes the stories we tell about ourselves; and the stories we tell about ourselves shapes who we think we are.

At least, I think so...

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Ideas are everywhere

Reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us gives a whole new perspective to my obsession with the brain and how it works. Reading that you’re likely to be replaced by a toothed worm is a bit confronting. But also reading possible different outcomes about how the plant and animal life is likely to regenerate itself also has you thinking that perhaps the Earth would be better off – more beautiful, more fascinating – without us.

Weisman lays out a range of scenarios of how nature would move in if humans suddenly disappeared, dealing with everything from architecture to toxic waste. He talks to experts in their fields and looks at case studies around the world, including the Korean demilitarised zone and the archaeological site of the ruins of the Mayan civilisation, to imagine a world without humans. What plant life would thrive? How would forests recover? How would animals adapt and evolve without the threat (or protection) of humans?

It may be a long way from neuroscience but in terms of my research, Weisman’s book is an invaluable resource for ideas about how to construct the physical world of my novel, which is set in an abandoned resort in remote far north Queensland, and to look at the science that might be re/misinterpreted by a group who hold the core belief that the Earth is better off without humans.

Weisman’s book is a useful companion to The Revenge of Gaia, where the author James Lovelock expands on his theory that the Earth works as a single living, breathing organism, one that we humans have made chronically (although not yet fatally) ill. The Revenge of Gaia is a little more hard going in terms of readability (and in terms of its hypothesis that we're pretty much all screwed) but again offers fascinating insights and facts that can be fed into my neurons and if the right bits fire up, hopefully come out with an interesting insight that will add detail to my manuscript.

Where do you get your ideas seems to be one of the most commonly asked questions of writers. And when you read some writers’ work you have to wonder how they came up with the amazing stuff they did. But it still seems to me to be a strange question to ask. Ideas are everywhere.

Shaun Tan, talking about his book The Arrival, said that the idea for his immigrants being set loose in their new homes in balloons came from seeing how coral spawn by releasing eggs that float off into the water like hot air balloons soaring up into the sky. I love the way he made that connection between watching how the coral release their eggs off to an unknown destination and how immigrants coming to a new land are often sent off to places they know nothing about. That's the beauty of ideas in action.

News stories, particularly science based news, teems with ideas just waiting for a writer to come along, pick them out and give them new life. But if science isn’t your thing then go for history, war, crime, sport, music or art (generally the weirder the better). Getting ideas shouldn’t be a problem. It’s choosing the right idea, and how to put it together with other, seemingly disparate ideas to come up with something unique (just as Tan did) that’s the hard part. But if you are a writer who’s stuck coming up with something, give Weisman’s book a go. Depending on how things go with us humans it might have enough ideas in there to last the rest of modern civilisation.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

The fruitless search for creativity in the brain

My supervisor has been gently hinting that perhaps I should stop talking about my non-existent manuscript so much and actually start writing it. So this week I took myself up to the beautiful Sunshine Coast hinterland village of Montville to get started. I was staying in accommodation a few kilometres out of town, situated at the end of a long and isolated driveway, surrounded by the bush and beautiful views and not much else. It was the perfect place to write - no internet connection meant no distractions. (Its isolation also made it a perfect place to set a horror/thriller, but that's for another story).

And guess what - it worked. I started to write a draft of the story that I will eventually submit as part of my Phd in a few years time. But it didn't come out at all like I thought it would.

I set myself up on the front deck, got comfortable with my views of the hinterland reaching out towards the ocean, and started with some writing exercises (I did number 11 & 12). In the writing exercises I used characters from the story I'm writing for my manuscript. Although up until this point I hadn't written very much of the manuscript (maybe 1000 words) I had done lots of writing about stuff that may or may not eventually end up in the manuscript, so I've got a pretty good handle on my main characters.

The writing exercises immediately jump started my brain. Whether this was because of my location, the exercises I chose, the fact that I had given myself this time just to write and do nothing else or a combination of these things, the words started to flow easily and I gained some new insights into my characters as well as some interesting stuff that may find its way into one of the manuscript drafts at some point.

The exercises took about 45 minutes. Then, it was time to start on the manuscript itself. The first thing I noticed was that the 'voice in my head that tells me what to write' (yes I have one but I'm pretty sure I'm not insane) was being harassed by my inner critic/editor. The 'voice' was telling me one thing; the critic/editor was trying to tell me something else. It took a bit of shutting up. But after I'd started writing what the 'voice' said the critic/editor started to fade.

One of the reasons it was a bit difficult to listen to this particular voice was that it wasn't the one I was expecting. But it was the one that showed up so I had to shut up, listen and write. It doesn't always happen this way. Sometimes there is no 'voice' at all and I have to stumble along and do the best I can. Sometimes I'll be writing for a while before it shows up. Sometimes it's hard to hear and sometimes it's as clear and strong. But up at Montville I got lucky and it hung around for pretty much the whole time I was there.

In her book The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady: a writer looks at creativity and neuroscience, Sue Woolf writes that there is " underlying assumption that all that's needed for creativity, or the study of creativity, is a knowledge of the brain's circuitry. That had always seemed to me too simplistic to reflect the enormous complexity of creating."

When I'm doing my research into neuroscience, I enjoy learning about how the brain works (or how neuroscientists are learning about what they think makes the brain work the way it does). The complexity of the brain's structure, the way it develops and grows, the factors that influence its development (both within the brain itself and stimuli external to the brain) are a source of endless fascination for me. I'm big on internal logic within a story and if a character behaves in a particular way I want to know why. Why is a character weak or good or a pushover or a bully or insensitive or blind to what is going on around them? What makes a character do what they do? For me, neuroscience and neuropscychology open up a whole world of possibilities in terms of character creation. But I never, ever think about this when I'm writing creatively. The purpose of creative writing, for me, is to just shut up and listen to the voice in my head that's telling the story. I let my neurons (or whatever) just do their thing.

When I came back from my short break and did a bit more work on my manuscript at home, the 'voice' was a lot weaker. This morning, although I wrote a fair bit, it didn't really turn up at all (but I kept writing anyway and not all of it was crap... I think). Writing was not as easy as it was up at Montville - I was back at home with the distractions of the internet and my daughter and the dog and the dishes and day to day 'life' and all of it quickly intruded in on my writing.

Montville was, in some ways, a 'false environment', as false as sticking a creative person into an fMRI and tracking their brain while they're being 'creative' to see what areas of the brain start firing. While there are no doubt some common elements in the creative process for artistic works, I believe a person's creative processes are as unique to them as their brains. Just as a human brain is a reflection of an individual's genes, body, environment and early experiences, so must our creativity be.  That is, the creative choices I make in my writing are in some ways already set because of who I am.

I think most writers can improve their creative processes by reflecting on them within a neuroscientificneuroscientists could stimulate a particular part of a brain and make a person instantly more creative.  But I think creativity is much more than the sum of our neurons, so I don't see it ever happening.

Besides, I'd rather holiday in Montville than have an electrode shoved in my brain.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Consciousness and Kevin Brooks' 'Being'

 The tv series Being Human looks at the struggles of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost to create meaningful human lives in spite of their non-humaness.
Being, a young adult novel by Kevin Brooks, tackles a similar theme.The teenaged male protagonist, Robert, enters hospital for a routine endoscopy. He wakes, his body paralysed by anaesthesia, to find doctors cutting him open. The endoscopy has revealed that in place of human organs, beneath Robert's skin and bones is concealed a hard plastic shell containing materials that are definitely non-human. A man dressed in a dark suit and armed with a gun is barking instructions at the surgeon, another armed man guards the door.

The anaesthetic wears off and Robert escapes the hospital with some surgical supplies, a weapon and the tape from his endoscopy. He takes refuge in a motel, cuts himself open again and looks at what is inside him. Repulsed and shocked by what he sees, he neither understands nor recognises the alien parts inside his body. Viewing the tape of his endoscopy over and over again doesn't give him any more information.

This is an action-suspense novel with a twist. While Robert faces off against armed secret service agents, joins forces with a counterfeiter and escapes to Spain, he tries to understand what he is. He was fostered from birth, has few memories of his childhood and knows only that he has always healed faster than most people. He eats, drinks and shits. He thinks and feels guilt, love, embarrassment, fear, shame and sadness (although he can't cry). Isn't that enough to make him human, he asks?

What was I?
What could I be?
Where did I come from?
Was I born? Was I created?
Was I flesh and blood?
Or not?
And, if not, so what?
If I couldn't tell the difference, what difference did it make? What's the difference between complicated meat and complicated metal? What is a life? What makes a life?
History? Time? Memories? Senses? How do you see things? What do you see? How do you hear things? How do you feel? How do you do anything? How do you breathe? How do you grow? How do you think?
I wondered if I was going mad.

These questions about what it is to be human are threaded throughout the narrative. Robert struggles with what he is and what he might be. He does not know why secret service agents want him; he has no clue whether they know what he is either. In exile with the counterfeiter who becomes his girlfriend, he struggles with the truth and honesty of their relationship as they build a life together in a small village in Spain. How can he honestly explain to her what he is when he doesn't understand it himself? Isn't his lived life proof enough that he is human, or do the mysteries of the technology concealed inside his body condemn him to always being 'other'.

It would be interesting if Brooks had approached this topic from another angle, and had the protagonist Robert undergo a brain scan rather than an endoscopy. But although Brooks doesn't directly tackle the brain and its role in making us human, he does raise interesting questions about the brain/mind/body split, and what it is that makes us who we are, through Robert's internal and external struggles.

Being is a great example of a young adult novel that threads some big questions through a well-plotted, action-packed narrative. It can be read on the surface level as an action/suspense novel or the reader can choose to reflect on the nature of consciousness and humanity, trying to work out some of the 'big questions' along with the protagonist. Although the ending is not as satisfying as the rest of the novel, it leaves the way open for more questions about the mysterious Robert (and, possibly, a sequel).

Sunday, 19 September 2010

What is a neuronovel anyway?

In late 2009, in a response to Jonah Lehrer's blogpost on the neuronovel, Marco Roth wrote:

"...contemporary novelists unnecessarily restrict themselves when they focus on questions of genetic or neurological causes for human behavior....I do think neuronovels and their authors have forsaken the world, too quickly, and the existing state of neuroscience does not help them to regain it." 

Roth and Lehrer were discussing the neuronovel in terms of adult fiction (including Saturday, Ian McEwans retelling of Mrs Dalloway). Lehrer had criticised Roth's view of the neuronovel, writing that the dialogue between contemporary science and contemporary art is part of an attempt to grapple with the implications of scientific theory. Roth, in response to Lehrer's criticism, wrote that he didn't have a problem with writers learning and borrowing from science to describe effects and generate metaphors, but he saw a problem "...when these borrowings are intended as both realism and metaphor at the same time."

Gary Johnson, in his article Consciousness as Content: Neuronarratives and the Redemption of Fiction defines the neuronarrative as "works of fiction that incorporate advances in cognitive studies as a prominent theme, that compel novelists to struggle with consciousness as “content” and to reassess the value of narrative fiction." The key point in Johnson's definition, for me, is the writer's struggle with "consciousness as 'content'". And in this he gives a definition that I think encompasses both Roth's and Lehrer's views: that the neuronovel draws on scientific theories but is not confined by the science, rather, it has the potential to amplify it.

For me, there is no doubt that a focus on the science at the expense of creativity is likely to make any piece of fiction bland reading. And although I've told my supervisor on several occasions that I won't be looking at consciousness in my thesis, it's a topic that seems to come up again and again in my research. I could be researching the wrong things, of course. But as much as I'm interested in the science of how the brain works - for a person who failed year 10 science I've developed an unlikely hankering for reading about the intricacies of neurons - I see the science as a starting point.

The things that science discovers about the brain fascinate me, but what fascinates me more is what my mind can do with these pieces of information. How can I twist them and turn them inside out? Stretch them and loop them and curve the facts inside and around themselves to become something other, something my own? The way my brain/mind/consciousness does this - the process it uses - are of little consequence to me right now. But in terms of neuroconstructivism - in which the person I have developed into is the result of context dependence; of my brain cells existing inside my brain, inside my body, in my particular environment and with my specific experiences - the choices I make as a writer are necessarily limited by who I have become, aren't they?

Why, for example, would I rather run naked through the middle of the city in peak hour than try to write (or read) romantic fiction or historical fiction or any of a dozen other genres that millions of others love but do absolutely nothing for me? Why are there other genres I enjoy reading but could never see myself writing? Can my preferences as a reader and writer be fully explained by one or more branches of neuroscience? Maybe. But would this knowledge improve my writing? Possibly, or possibly not.

I don't know what drives me to research neuroscience and neuropsychology. I just know that I want to. Having an understanding of the science won't make me a better writer. But it might open up new ideas that wouldn't be available to me without that knowledge. The struggle to incorporate those ideas into a successful young adult novel is sure to stretch my brain/mind in a myriad of different ways. But how those ideas develop from my own consciousness, and how I explore my characters' neural development and have them express that through their consciousness ...well that's a whole other story.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The upside of post-viral fatigue

The last few weeks I've been plagued with post-viral fatigue. It's frustrating and boring and it sucks. But if there's any advantage to being forced to do nothing it's that it gives you time to think. Lying in bed, not being able to read or use your laptop or watch tv gives your mind free time to enter a world of your own making. Before you know it, the ideas start forming. New ideas and old ones you've rejected that come back in new clothes with new solutions. A quiet time, a quiet space where nothing else is going on is exactly what my mind needs to not only allow ideas to come to the surface but to take notice of them, absorb them, let them sink in and swim around a little.

Not having enough time to just sit and think is a major problem when you're working full-time and studying part-time. It's an even bigger problem when you're meant to be writing a manuscript. And it's the major conflict of my life, one I run into over and over again. Some may describe it as my 'life lesson'. I'm not going to dwell here on the psychological implications of having to be sick so I can get some time to pay attention to my creative side - no therapist's couch is needed to work out something that bleedingly obvious. But it's a continual source of frustration for me, nonetheless.

In the absence of a rich and generous benefactor, the solution is to stop time wasting activities. But we seem so geared towards always having to be doing something. And even when we know it's madness, we continue to do it. Scanning facebook and twitter for the latest interesting link because we can't bear to miss out on something (btw, people who follow thousands of people - why?). Always being plugged into something. British neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield says our obsession with being online 24/7 is rewiring our brains, not necessarily in a good way. I'm not a huge Greenfield fan but for me there's no doubt that being obsessed with always wanting to know the latest and the newest and the most interesting is distracting and can be death to ideas and creativity. Of course there are the times when something I find online inspires a new idea (like the meat house) or generates a new line of thought or enquiry. But it takes vigilance and discipline to find that balance between exploring and discovering and just wasting time.

Maybe this time I've learnt my lesson. Maybe this time I will stick to my schedule and not try to squeeze in extra things here and there that not only exhaust me physically but take time away from thinking. After all, what is Phd study for, if not to allow myself the time to think. 

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Picking the pieces out of my brain

If I didn't know better, I'd think some bizarre being has visited me in the dead of night and performed a quick and nasty frontal lobotomy with a rusty ice pick. I know I've been doing research and reading for the past 2 weeks but when I try to summarise it, all the bits of information scuttle off and hide somewhere in the recesses of my sulci (or is that gyri?). But anyway, here goes.

In the last couple of weeks I've been ripping through some great YA fiction. First up was Cory Doctorow's latest For the Win. I really enjoyed it but it was an odd book, combining the gaming world with unionism, violence, communism, a touch of neuroscience and lectures on the basics of economics as it plays out in both the real and virtual worlds. It had a wide cast of characters placed across the globe, from hard core gangster bosses to rich nerds to a pirate radio host inciting factory girls to unite for the common cause of the worker. Not what you'd usually expect from YA fiction but, apart from the occasional lapse into didactism, this was a great story. Fast-paced, well plotted, lots of action, it's a story that keeps humming along. I haven't read many reviews of it so I'm not sure how it's faring yet with the target audience. It'll be interesting to see, as in some respects Doctorow has achieved something similar to what I'd like to do, in combining topics you wouldn't necessarily consider 'young adult' into a fast-paced narrative.

Suzanne Collin's Catching Fire, the second in her Hunger Games trilogy, is one that has no shortage of glowing reviews from fans. I haven't read book one yet but found no problem getting right into this second installment. Although the basic plot was one that's been done before in the sci-fi genre over the years, Collins' characters make the narrative vivid and exciting. The created world is believable, the plot reasonably simple while maintaining strong interest with some great twists and turns (I loved the big 'wedding dress' reveal) but it is the characters that really pull you in. The fear, dread and confusion the narrator, Katniss, feels is palpable all the way through. She is stuck in a no-win situation but pushes through each and every thing that is thrown at her. A real gutsy heroine (unlike some other wussy female protagonists around at the moment), and a character to inspire.

I've got through most of the first volume of Neuroconstructivism and think I have it pretty much under control. I've also skimmed through a few articles reveiwing Maraschel et al's work, most seem to be overall positive (though I did have a giggle at one that said he was annoyed that the authors hadn't cited other researchers in the field and then said he was one). So, it's accepted as a valid (if not perfect) framework and it'll do just fine by me. Next I'm tackling Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology. It covers everything I could ever possibly want or need to know on the subject, but, seeing as I'm a fiction writer and not a neuropsychologist, just a skim over the good bits will do. But I have enjoyed the first chapter which covers a bit of the history of the brain and how it's been perceived and studied over the centuries. One thing stood out - people have made huge mistakes and crazy assumptions about the workings of the human brain. And although technology such as fMRIs are making the study of the brain much easier in some ways, it seems the more that science uncovers, the more problems about the brain there are to solve.
No wonder so many find it so fascinating.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Violence in YA fiction: to hold back or not?

I'm currently reading Robert Cormier's classic The Chocolate War. It's a YA book that's stood the test of time. In a poll of most loved YA books held in March 2010, it came in at number 61 - not bad for a book first published in 1974. And according to Wikipedia, it also came 3rd on the American Library Association's (ALA) list of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books in 2000-2009.

The edition I'm reading includes an introduction by Cormier, where he talks about the reasons why it was rejected by 7 major publishers before being finally accepted in 1973: "Too complicated. Too many characters. A downbeat ending, which teenagers of the 1970s would find difficult to accept. Too violent." Considering its top 3 appearance on the ALA's recent banned/challenged list, clearly many adults are still challenged by the story: violence, sex and drug use are most cited as reasons why it should be banned or restricted. But its ongoing popularity proves that teens connect with the book. 

In her recent essay Narrative as Nourishment, literary theorist Ellen Spolsky discusses Paul Hernadi's argument that "...the creation and consumption of fictional narratives provide evolutionary advantages to a group, preparing them to anticipate challenges they may some day face by familiarizing their young with a range of hypothetical scenarios." Spolsky goes onto discuss how common themes in narratives can point to problems that artists and society are struggling with, however, while the narratives can't always provide answers or solutions they can nonetheless help us deal with them.

Cormier doesn't hold back on the violence in his book, which is one of the reasons it is challenged. But the honesty in Cormier's writing, which he held onto despite the many rejections received from publishers, is probably what appeals to his teen audience. By writing honestly about issues bullying and violence, Cormier both validates the experiences of teens and refuses to patronise them by taking the story through to its inevitable and confronting (unhappy) ending. And taking into account Hernadi's theory, Cormier's narrative may help teen readers work out how to deal with similar situations in their own lives; while Spolsky's views suggest that even if the narrative doesn't point to a solution it may help readers cope with experiences of bullying or violence.

I had a discussion with my supervisor earlier in the week about the depiction of violence in my own writing. She asked if I felt I was holding back, and I admitted that yes, probably I was. But now I know I have no excuse. As a writer one of my main responsibilities is to be true to the story and treat my future readers with respect by writing honestly. And if one day I can get my book simultaneously in the most popular and most banned lists, I'll know I've done really well.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Neuroconstructivism in 25 words or less

A friend on facebook asked me to explain neuroconstructivism in 25 words or less. Unfortunately I've never been good at the 25 words or less thing - if I was I'd have used my spare time more wisely and entered a heap of competitions and won awesome prizes like plasma TVs and overseas holidays. Instead, I'm doing a PhD.

But I will try explaining the neuroconstructivist framework in 100 or so words.

From a scientific perspective neuroconstructivism takes a multi-disciplinary approach - using neuroimaging techniques, computational modellng and cognitive studies - to understand how a human develops from conception through to adulthood. It uses the terms 'embrainment' and 'embodiment' to describe the idea that no part of us, not even a single brain cell, develops in isolation. Brain cells develop within a brain that develops within a body that develops within an environment. And at each point of development, the thing that is developing is affected by something else.

Or, as Maraschal et al* put it, "Units [brain cell, brain region or human individual] do not develop in isolation. They develop within a context of other developing units." In other words, they tell us, the underlying principle of neuroconsctructivism is "context dependence".

I see neuroconstructivism as a holistic way of looking at what makes us who we are as individuals - our talents and strengths, our weaknesses and foibles - and that's why, as a framework for my thesis, it appeals to me. As a fiction writer it's vital for me to understand what makes my characters who they are. And if I wanted to go crazily overboard I could use a neuroconstructivist approach to studying every single detail of their development to explain their behaviour, actions, choices and quirks (a warning to friends and family: if I casually suggest you might like to have a brain scan, back away slowly..then run away very fast).

Even further than that, I could use it to deconstruct the choices I make as a fiction writer. What was it about my development that attracted me to writing, and to choosing these specific characters to write this particular story (note to self: order fMRI next time I visit doctor).

Many writers will explain that their characters appear in their heads, out of thin air, and give them a story to write. My characters rarely come to me like that. I build them up bit by bit, adding pieces of information about their lives and experiences that guide the fictional choices they make. I may not go as far as ordering brain scans** to make my characters authentic, but I will use be looking to the neuroconstructivist framework, in part, to help me create authentic characters in my fiction.

*Neuroconstructivism volume 1: how the brain constructs cognition (Mareshcal et al)
** this is not a binding statement. I probably won't order brain scans, but then again I might.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Madness within the architecture

This week my supervisor asked me a question that got my brain churning so much I had a massive head spin. I was telling her about my fascination with abandoned lunatic asylums and she said, do you think the madness stays within the walls of the building, and that it affects the brains and behaviours of those who later inhabit the buildings. In other words, does madness linger within the architecture?

I think most buildings have a certain feel to them. The last time I went house hunting I looked at a place that I quite liked and so went back for another look. But on my second visit the downstairs section of the house gave me the absolute creeps. Perhaps it was because I was there with just my kids and the agent (the first visit had been during a crowded open house); perhaps it was because the downstairs area was partly excavated into the earth so that only the very top of the window was above the ground. Or perhaps it was the presence of the owners and their mean-looking dog in the back yard. But whatever it was, the house got crossed off my list of potential future homes. In contrast, the house I ended up buying had a really nice feel to it, despite the revolting, vivid green feature wall in the main bedroom and the smallest bedroom being roped off to house the owner's extensive Barbie and Ken collection (complete with Babie and Ken having a swim in the pool).

So I think that, over time, a building aborbs the energy of the humans living and working in it, both good and bad, and that this energy can remain present long after the occupants have gone. So abandonded lunatic asylums, with the madness of their inmates and the horrors they often endured within its walls, are perfect settings for bizarre events to unfold within fiction. What type of people would choose to make their home within an abandoned asylum? Are they there because they have nowhere else to go or because flaws in their psychological make-up mean that the place has a particular appeal to them? Does the madness embedded within the walls give them freedom to express their own brand of insanity, or even normalise it?

These are a few of the questions I'll be exploring during the process of writing my manuscript. 

Also this week I began reading volume 1 of Neuronstructivism by Mareschal et al. I've only read the introduction and chapter 1 but here are a couple of the ideas that appeal to me so far:

"The implication is that with regard to psychological traits, each individual defines their own unique environment, despite any attempt by the environment to treat individuals in the same way."

"...even very early development is not merely due to the unfolding of a genetically defined programme, but instead, involves complex interactive processes."

What I take from that (in my fiction-writer's mind) is that each individual reacts and responds to an environment in their own way, and that their reaction/response is a complex interplay of actions and reactions.

And in terms of an environment, the abandoned asylum offers a lot of scope for complexity.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Blame it on my brain

Jim Fallon, a neuroscientist from the University of California-Irvine, is fascinated with the brains of psychopaths and murderers - is it because he could have been one? This week I've watched a TED talk given by Dr Fallon and read a couple of articles about his work and discoveries. He'd been studying the minds of murderers for a while when he discovered he had a whole family tree full of them, including the infamous Lizzie Borden. Even worse, his brain scan showed patterns similar to a murderer's and he had the 'killer' gene MAO-A gene (monoamine oxidase A).

So what's the difference between Fallon and a natural-born killer? Most likely, it's that a killer is not born but made. In particular, witnessing some sort of violence or trauma in childhood is likely to spark the critical change from average person to sociopath. As Fallon explain in his TED talk, there are three ingredients involved in the shaping of a murderous personality: environment, experience and genes. This is, in (extremely) simple terms, the basis of neuroconstructivism: that we are not simply products of nature and nurture but that personal experience combines with the other two factors to shape who we become. Or that's how I understand it at the moment, anyway. In the next few months I will attempt to wade my way through the 2 volumes of Mareschal et al's Neuroconstructivism, which may well turn my brain to melted plastic.

But it's something I need to get my head around because neuroconstructivism is basically going to form the theoretical framework for my phd research. Hopefully neuroscientists like Jim Fallon will help me work through some of the concepts that my non-scientific brain is bound to struggle with. But essentially what I want to investigate is what makes us the way we are, what makes us who we are? Why do some people go down one path while others with seemingly the same opportunities and backgrounds go a completely different way? It's what our human stories are all about. And hopefully making the time over the next few years to get my head around the intricacies of what neuroscience can teach us will translate into a unique and compelling creative piece.

Anyway, here's hoping.

Looking into the Mind of a Murderer
A Neuroscientist Uncovers a Dark Secret

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Meat houses and old asylums

This is the week that I officially start my phd but as I don't yet have my library access I've just been tinkering around the edges looking at things that spark my interest. Many of these come from tweets posted from all in the mind's Natasha Mitchell (ABC science journo). This week she tweeted a link to a series of shows she did a couple of years ago about the 'lunatic asylum' at Goodna: Up the Line to Goodna: stories from inside the asylum. Mental health services are still delivered at what is now called The Park at Goodna, west of Brisbane, but Mitchell's series looked at the bad old days of shock therapy, overcrowding, abuse, cruelty and seclusion in dungeons. Her show had stories from former patients and workers as well as some women who, as children of staff, grew up in the grounds of the asylum.

Many of the stories were shocking but some memories, particularly from the women who grew up there, told of a different side. For my purposes, it might be worthwhile for me to drive out there one day and have a look around, get a feel for the buildings, for the scale of them and how they're laid out. I'll also have a look at Mark Finnane's history of the place, if I can get a hold of it, and the memoir of a former patient. In terms of a setting for part of my manuscript, an abandoned lunatic asylum is perfect atmospherically and practically. But I want to get right into the nuts and bolts of the place, make it palpable within the narrative - the horror and violence as well as the warped normality.
But if lunatic asylums have a lot to offer in terms of atmosphere, a house made of meat offers up a whole different range of possibilities. I can't remember who tweeted the link to Inhabit, a blog about the future of design that focuses on sustainability, but I'm forever indebted to them. The blog comments showed the idea of the meat house caused some controversy, but the image of the curved exterior of the pig skin house and the idea of the house being grown from animal flesh had immediate appeal for me. A building grown organically from animal flesh that has the possibility of using sphincter muscles to open and close windows and doors - brilliant!

Friday, 2 July 2010

The brain, behaviour and criminal responsibility in Klass' Dark Angel

Set in a small town in contemporary USA, David Klass' Dark Angel is a psychological thriller that explores notions of good and evil; responsibility and victimhood. It's the first YA novel I've read so far for my research that explicitly mentions recent findings in modern neuroscience and weaves these concepts successfully through the narrative.

Seventeen-year-old Jeff's life is pretty ordinary. He does okay at high school, has an attractive girlfriend and is a solid but not impressive soccer player. But all that changes when his older brother Troy is released from prison. Troy was convicted of manslaughter as a juvenile and, after serving five years, is released on parole into the care of his parents. Jeff knows the average, small-town-teen life he has constructed is about to implode but is unable to persuade his parents to cast Troy aside. And despite Troy's carefully constructed remorseful surface, Jeff's worst fears are realised when the high school soccer star goes missing.

The teen-novel standard school assignment plot device is put to good use in Dark Angel, when the science teacher Mr Tsuyuki sets the class the task of writing a report that explores notions of good versus evil:

"Where does our growing knowledge of the chemical nature of the brain leave us in terms of... the human soul? When we think, are we really making choices or just following chemical pathways? If our behaviour can be reduced to chemical reactions, can we hold people to blame for what they do or don't do?" [p74-75]

Throughout the novel, Klass skilfully allows the narrator Jeff to experience the concepts his teacher describes as the story's action unfolds. In doing so, Klass pulls off the difficult double-act of writing a fast-paced thriller with plenty of action that also offers readers plenty to think about. There's an ill-fated trip to Atlantic City, a school prank gone horribly wrong, arguments with mates, a run in with the ex-girlfriend's father and Troy himself, described in all his complex creepiness and vulnerability. Underscoring this action, Klass poses difficult questions about loyalty to family and friends, the impacts of family secrets and the broad grey area that lies between the extremes of good and evil.

In terms of my research purposes, Klass incorporates trauma and its impact on the brain from a neuroscientific perspective:

"There are psychiatrists and neurologists doing studies on violent lawbreakers, from juvenile delinquents to adult murderers, who are finding that these felons share amazingly similar patterns of abusive childhoods, brain injuries, and psychotic symptoms." [p118]

Although it is the character of Mr Tsuyuki who introduces these concepts in a literal sense into the text, the impact of the questions he poses underlie every piece of action and dialogue in the novel. This is what makes it work well on so many levels: Jeff's story is infused with the fallout of his brother and his violent past and present. And yet, in spite of Tsuyuki's proposal that criminals are created not born, there is no indication within the story that Troy had anything but a loving and supportive childhood; no hint of any trauma that could be seen as a 'cause' for his aberrant behaviour.

In posing more questions than it answers, Klass tests those of his readers that want to be challenged. However, his skillful pacing, authentic dialogue and writing about standard teen fare including sex, illicit drug use, jealousy and friendship, means that those who prefer to read books without digging below the surface action will be entertained while being subtly drawn into the book's darker and more serious side.

A great book, and definitely one to add to the thesis shortlist.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Goodman's The other side of the island: simple language and complex concepts

Allegra Goodman's The other side of the island tackles some big issues for a kid's book aimed at around the 10-13 year age group. Climate change, government control, the corporate co-opting of religion and the high cost of individual thinking are all explored within this novel's dystopian world. Honor, the protagonist, lives on Island 365 where the seemingly benevolent Earth Mother holds absolute rule, protecting the earth against 'old weather' by 'ceiling' the few islands left inhabitable after environmental disaster. Each family is allowed only one child, whose name is chosen from an approved list; neighbourhood watchers ensure that citizens abide by curfews; and 'orderlies', bald, blank-faced creatures who look and act the same, exist as a sub human species silently performing menial jobs. But to Honor, this world is 'safe' and 'secure'. She strives for approval at her strict school and is horrified by her parents unwillingness to conform. In an act of teenage defiance, she changes her name from Honor, which with its silent H marks her as different, to Heloise. Soon after, her parents disappear, Honor is relegated to the lowly status of orphan and she begins to discover that Earth Mother's world is not so safe and secure after all.

The other side of the island is a fast-paced, enthralling book that follows Honor's maturing from a confused child to courageous freedom fighter. It has a lot to offer in relation to my research, particularly in relation to successful world-building and combining complex concepts within a fast-paced narrative that uses deceptively simple language and sentence structure. It also indirectly addresses neuro-scientific concepts, particularly in relation to the orderlies who are kept in a zombie-like state through the mind-numbing drugs in their food.

I'd been playing with the idea of locating my creative work on an island split down the middle by difficult terrain and I picked up this book from the library based on its title to see how the author handled it. The isolation of an island lends itself well to a controlled environment while also allowing the possibility of wild, harsh and unpredictable terrain hiding secrets and mysteries, and Goodman deftly manages these aspects in building Honor's world. While she is frightened of the untamed nature of the other side of the island, Honor comes to appreciate its natural beauty and accept that being safe and secure in Earth Mother's world comes at a high price.

Goodman also excels at weaving complex concepts while using deceptively simple language. Her use of short, sharp sentences and key words such as 'safe', 'secure', 'untruths', 'ceiled', 'enclosed' and 'correct', (identified as important through the use of quotation marks) express the essence of the corporate-controlled world of Island 365. Goodman's ability to load simple words with layers of meaning through context is, for me, one of the most impressive aspects of her writing.

I'll be looking out for more of this author's work.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Self mutilation and brain plasticity: Westerfield's 'cutters'

Scott Westerfield's Specials, the third book in his Uglies series, follows the series heroine, Tally Youngblood, in her third incarnation: this time as a new breed of Special Circumstances agents known as 'cutters'.

On his website Westerfield says of the Uglies series, "I love a good action sequence, and this series is of full of hoverboard chases, escapes through ancient ruins, and leaps off tall buildings in bungee jackets. It's the sort of fast-paced book I couldn't get enough of when I was young."

I found Specials hard going: once you've read one hoverboard fight scene, you've read them all. And several times I put the book down because I was bored with it. On the surface the novel is dealing with several themes and topics that I'm interested in looking at throughout my Phd, including brain rewiring (or plasticity) and self mutilation as a form of self expression. However, Westerfield didn't explore these themes in any detail, rather using them to add a degree of surface tension and interest to the novel's action.

Unlike the protagonist in Bates' Crossing the Line, the Specials cutters cut themselves to feel 'icy', that is, to create a feeling of power and control, and the act of cutting is performed consciously, not in a dissociative state. The cutters wear their scars with pride like a tattoo or ritual scar, rather than hiding them in shame. By the novel's end, however, Tally realises that cutting herself is a form of denying her true feelings. But even though cutting isn't portrayed as a positive act, Tally's feelings about cutting - why she does it and why she stops - aren't covered in any depth.

Westerfield has made no claims about writing a psychological novel, although on his website he does lightly touch on some psychological issues when he answers questions about the US' obsession with surgically enhanced beauty. But his focus on action scenes means the novel's characters lack substance. For all their hoverboarding and bungee jumping, clambering on and off helicopters and breaking into high security buildings, they're a little boring. Of course, with a focus on action, it was probably wasn't Westerfield's intention to dig into the meat of the issues he covers. But I think if he had, it would have made for a more interesting series.

For my research needs, the Uglies series gives a general and cursory coverage of self mutilation and brain plasticity (in that the protagonist, Tally, is able to rewire her brain to overcome the 'lesions' added to her brain to make her first a Pretty then a Special Circumstances Agent). But it's probably too cursory in its treatment of these topics for my needs.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Self mutilation in YA fiction: Bates' Crossing the Line

This search for the plastic brain within YA fiction can be a pain, especially as I've been finding it a bit of a hard slog working my way through Scott Westerfield's Uglies series. But I'm trying to perservere because, although I haven't come across Westerfield using the term brain plasticity in the novels, when his characters are able to rewire their brains around the 'lesions' caused by the 'pretty operation' that's what's happening. So that's interesting to me because he's incorprating brain plasticity into the narrative of his YA novel. Unfortunately, his writing doesn't hold my interest, mainly because I simply don't care about his self-obsessed characters. Not one bit.

Luckily I've had Di Bates' Crossing the Line to keep my reading list chugging along. Bates isn't a particularly high profile name in young adult writing but she is a veteran author of more than 30 books and a skilled and empathetic storyteller. Crossing the Line deals with the difficult issue of self harm. Sophie, the narrator, is now 17 and has lived in foster homes since she was around 12. The Department has recently allowed her to try living in a share house with a couple of other young people, Amy and Matt, to try and transition into life post-foster care. But although Sophie enjoys living independently, she is too fragile to cope and deals with her pain the only way she knows how - by cutting herself.

On the surface of it, cutting as a form of self-harm would seem to be an ultimate act of self-absorption, particularly in a teenager. But Bates' skillful writing draws you into Sophie's world, allowing you as the reader to empathise with Sophie's pain while seeing how her cutting only takes her deeper into despair. Throughout her journey, which takes her into a psychiatric ward and to regular sessions with a psychologist, Sophie struggles with finding her place in a world where natural love is denied to her. In telling the story, Bates' writing is compelling and fast paced without being frantic and the climax and resolution are satisfying to the story's heart while offering hope for Sophie's future. I cared about this character and her story a lot, despite some quibbles with the long-suffering and possibly a little too-good-to-be-true Matt.

Of course, Crossing the Line and the Uglies series are two different genres. But they're both genres I enjoy, so I don't think that's the issue. For me, when examining these books as possible inclusions in my thesis, the Uglies series is on the surface more aligned with the type of manuscript I propose to write. However, it's Bates' writing I'll draw inspiration from when it comes to writing rounded characters with real heart.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

They told me I had to write this: brief review

On this week's reading list was They told me I had to write this by first time Australian author Kim Miller. I picked it because it's aimed at young adults and deals with memory and trauma. Narrated in the first person, it's an epistolary novel, is a format that I don't often warm to (I think I was put off it by Marsden's Dear Miffy, which was not one of his best).

The book is a series of letters written by Clem to his grandmother. Clem's age isn't specified but I'd guess it at around 14, and he's a boy with a troubled past who is attending a school for boys who have failed in the mainstream schooling system. Clem's voice is clear, honest and convincing and through the letters which basically operate as a diary, he works through the issues that have been plaguing him. I won't go into the plot too much to spoil it but rest assured Clem gets to the bottom of his problems and finds a way through them.

They told me I had to write this is published by Ford Street Publishing, (coincidentally they also published Crossing the Line, another 'trauma' book which I've just started). Miller's novel deals sensitively with a difficult topic and the honesty of the voice rings true throughout the novel so it both acknowledges and respects the intense pain that the character of Clem experiences. In turn, it provides a way through for any readers that may have experienced the same trauma.

It's a good little book that I believe achieves what it sets out to, that is, to give honest expression to a child's trauma and show that it is possible to heal the hurt. For my research purposes, however, it's probably aimed at a slightly younger age group and would have been better suited to my master's thesis than my upcoming work. But I'm glad I read it and congratulate Miller on writing a book that deals with a senstive topic with genuine respect, honesty, empathy and just the right amount of humour.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

How much world do you need to build?

As much as I enjoyed Dunn's Geek Love, there was one aspect that niggled: the fact that a seemingly 'normal' world accepted a circus of freaks, particularly one that displayed 'freak feotuses',without the parents being arrested & the kids being hauled off to foster care. True the outside world didn't intrude too often into the narrative but it was always there in the background, particularly when the children are attacked by a gunman and are taken to hospital. There was no reason in this normal world for the bizarre and illegal behaviour of the parents to be accepted, let alone not be prosecuted. The logic of this bugged me (although I could easily accept the crazy behaviour of the Arturian cultists in removing all their limbs one by one). And it started me thinking about world building - how much do you need, and how much should you expect a reader to accept when it comes to internal logic?

After finishing Geek Love I moved onto YA fiction with Scott Westerfield's Uglies series. (For the record, Westerfield's lifestyle as an author who splits his time between Australia & NYC has my jealousy bugs frothing at the mouth.) I'm currently about two thirds through the first book in the series, Uglies, where Westerfield has set up a future society that follows these basics: children are born & live with their parents until they're 12, they're then sent to the charmingly named Uglyville a boarding school type environment where they live until their 16th birthday and then have an operation to turn into 'pretties'; they then live in New Prettytown until they become 'middle pretties' and partner and become parents & the cycle continues. Nice and simple. Westerfield refers to the existence of other cities elsewhere in the world that operate on similar lines but the characters have little interest in these places. But of course there is an outside world that does come into conflict with the orderly existence of Uglies/Pretties, known as the smoke, an abandoned city once ruled by the Rusties whose environmental wastefulness destroyed their way of life some centuries ago.

I like Westerfield's world building. It's nice and neat and logical. You could dig deeper and nit pick if you wanted to but I think the world he's created works really well for the young adult audience and the fast-paced action distracts the reader from a desire to poke holes in the story's created world.

This is something I need to learn from. I need to build a simple yet solid world that has enough internal logic to hold it together without getting lost in a myriad of detail. I need to stop second guessing myself and trying to create a world that's bigger than Ben Hur with a lot of unnecessary detail that will only bog me down. Or even worse, stop me from writing anything at all.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Lovin' Geek Love

Bit of a slack week this week: no research whatsoever. My excuse is that this was just one of those weeks where stuff happens that takes you away from your usual routine and I just didn't get the time. Plus I was just really into reading Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, which I found out about through The Essential Posthuman Science Fiction Reading List

First published back in 1989 (after publishing some extracts in 1983 & '88), this is one helluva book. It makes absolutely no mention of neuroscience but it is chock full of weirdness and deliberately deformed bodies. It's adult fiction, but I reckon most teens would love it. Grotesque carnival; deformities; mutilations; sibling rivalry; bizarre and unecessary surgery; sex: what's not to love?

I'm only three-quarters of the way through but, despite a couple of confusing point-of-view changes, it just keeps reeling me right in. Will it make the final cut of my thesis? It's way too early to tell but it has given me plenty to think about in terms of loosening the logic of what I write. Dunn is a no-holds barred writer (in this book at least; I've yet to read her other work) and she just lets the ideas fling themselves around like cow dung from a slingshot; nothing is too bizarre or out there. Writing for an adult audience, she has a lot more freedom than I will have as I'm aiming my fiction at a teen audience (albeit older teens/crossover). But what I can learn from her is to push the boundaries of grotesque, of ugliness, of horror and let loose. 

For any writer out there who's feeling blocked, my prescription is to take a full dose of Geek Love, let its craziness sink into your brain and gurgle and squirm through your cells, then hit the keyboard and let fly.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The definitive, absolute, undeniable truth about creativity

More reading from Brophy's Creativity this week, which resulted in two decisions:

1. I probably will not read Lacan, Foucault or any literary theorist in any depth during my research, even though Brophy (along with some others) considers it necessary.

2. I'm going to look for Brophy's fiction and read it for pleasure, because the guy is a great storyteller.

I haven't read Creativity from cover to cover, but I've got through most of it and the main point I've taken from it is that I enjoy Brophy's creative writing (he's included a few of his short stories in the text) much more than his writing about critical theorists.

I read some paragraphs of Creativity and wonder what any of it means. I know I'm at a disadvantage because I've never read any of the theorists' work discussed; to me it's just a ten metre high brick wall of words with no way around. Shouldn't this mean I'm not 'Phd material'? No doubt some would think so. But then again this comes back to the main argument behind a creatively-based Phd and its tension between academia and 'creativity' (whatever that means).

Broohy's book is now more than 10 years old and many of the arguments around the place of the creative piece in post-graduate study have well and truly moved on. There is money in 'creative industries', which means that post-graduate study in the field, inlcuding formal study incorporating a major creative piece, is well-established in universities across Australia. I've been encouraged to apply for a Phd based on my Masters (by research) work, which included a 50,000 word creative piece and a 8,000 word thesis. Yet to a degree I feel that my Phd will be worth less than one that uses quantitive research, for example, or provides some sort or practical tool or answer to a problem facing the world, like a cure for a disease.

And yet fiction can be a legitimate tool for at least easing (if not curing) many ills. In an article I read this morning, author Lionel Shriver said something along the lines of fiction being the only place where the big issues of the world can be explored and discussed (and she's speaking as an author of her books that deal with 'taboo' topics).

So clearly the struggle about what I choose to research and the 'worth' of my research is largely an internal one. Of course, I'll eventually have to convince examiners that I am worthy of being awarded a Phd for my work. And along the way I'm sure my supervisors will keep me on track, because they want to see me succeed.

At the end of it all, maybe I'll be writing complex insights into Lacanian theory with the best of them. And maybe I won't. But I'm hoping the quality of my work won't be judged on its familiarity with critical theorists but on its creative piece and the insights into that piece examined in my thesis.

PS. The definitive, absolute, undeniable truth about creativity does not exist. Except maybe in a Sponge Bob episode.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Abandonded asylums and discovering the 'real' Foucault

Until my application is processed and I get full library access (at the moment I just have alumni membership) I'm just tinkering around the edges research-wise. But a couple of things caught my eye this week.

First up, the Christopher Payne asylum photography series, featured in the current Big Issue (awesome mag, if you've never bought it, you should). Opening up the page and seeing the abandoned ward, peeling blue-green paint, huge ceilings and red chair abandoned in the corner; the image was striking in its beauty, not normally the reaction you expect to have from a photograph of a place that would have seen its fair share of trauma. The rest of Payne's photo series shown in the mag were equally beautiful and quirky. His book, Asylum, is high on my to-buy list. I'm really intrigued by the idea of an abandoned asylum, or any abandoned buildings, as a setting, or even as a place that acts as a 'character' within fiction.

Also this week, I started reading a book my supervisor gave me: Creativity by Melbourne author Kevin Brophy. In his opening chapter he writes about 'What is a Foucault?' where he discusses the notion of authorship. When a Foucault lecture is transcribed and then translated and transformed into an essay, how much of the finished work is original Foucault and how much is the work of the editors and translators, he asks. In chapter 2 Brophy includes a short story of his own that explores the notion of creation and creativity through the character of a slightly psychotic art gallery attendant. Interesting stuff but not sure what it will add to my PhD research apart from convincing me not to read Foucault because I probably wouldn't be reading the real Foucault anyway (if only I'd kept studying French at school...).

So, asylums and Foucault. An interesting combination for the unofficial week 1, I think. I wonder what if I'll have anything to say about them by week 151.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Eating my elephant one bite at a time

It started as a bit of a joke to tease my oldest sister. "I'll get a Phd," I said, "then you'll have to call me 'Doctor Kimberley'." She laughed at me. So I took the next obvious step and auditioned for 'Are you smarter than a fifth grader?' so I could win a tidy sum and take three years off work to get a Phd.

Unfortunately, under the camera's focused glare I was like a possum in the headlights and I failed to make it onto the hallowed grounds of the 'fifth grader' set. Undettered, I took the next best option and got myself a job in public service. Now, with a steady income and more or less child free, I told everyone I was ready to embark on the Phd journey (part-time), including two academics who took my Phd-posturing seriously and informed me that they'd held a spot in their supervisory schedules especially for me.

I suppose I could have said I'd changed my mind. But just about everyone else at my workplace has at least one doctorate and my best friend's doing hers so I figured I might as well jump on board. Besides, I actually like study and research.

Now I've chosen a research question, submitted a proposal and created a blog with a catchy title. What's left to do? Oh yeah, an 80-100,000 word paper made up of a young adult fiction manuscript and thoroughly researched supporting thesis that'll take me between 4-6 years.

Hold on tight, here I go...