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...