Diary of a Creative Writing PhD
I'm about a month into my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Tennessee. I feel quite familiar with my new little city, Knoxville, I have made friends with my neighbours, and have been writing a lot. The weather is cooling fast, mornings and evenings too chilly for shorts.
I am taking three classes at the moment, teaching one, attending a departmental reading group, and, on my own time, finishing a novel.
I'm taking two literature classes, one on Victorian novels, the other on James Joyce. Both offer exactly the kind of education I wanted: a structured way to read a lot more literature. This means that I have to read close to two hundred pages of Anthony Trollope (pictured below), and close to three hundred pages of James Joyce (finishing Portrait and starting Ulysses) and his biography, this week. Plus, of course, outside scholarly reading on both.
Every Thursday afternoon, I attend a reading group on contemporary literary theory. I find the intellectual labyrinths of Theory captivating, but I have told myself to avoid any classes on it, as the purpose of these years is to study more literature, not its study. As a halfway measure, I attend the reading group organised by Professor Dunn. It is the most intellectual demanding, and often the most intellectually satisfying experience of the week. Five or six professors, and a few students, each week review a chapter from a recently published book of theory. These professors themselves want to understand these chapters better, and so the hour feels like a “real” learning experience: one is seeing them as scholars, not as teachers or administrators. While the table feels collegiate and supportive, if you say something that does not further everyone's understanding, you are not encouraged to expand your point. As I said, it feels real.
My third class is a fiction workshop with the highly respected writer and teacher Allen Wier. He is a deeply profound reader, and I like all my classmates. My own story got a great workshop, and there is some enviable work being handed in. However, if anyone has read my earlier comments on teaching fiction, you can perhaps imagine my mixed feelings. In many of the younger students' work, what I see is not a problem of talent or discipline—they are all extremely gifted and serious—but instead a lack of knowledge/practice of certain core fiction techniques, which their creative writing educations have thus far resolutely refused to teach them. Often I am convinced that just explaining a particular technical issue would help a young writer far more than offering story-specific feedback.
Everyone probably finds me extremely obnoxious.
The first work of each day, however, is my novel. I have spent the last month sketching it out by hand, taking on advice from my agent and my four readers, as well as attempting to finally fix the bits about it that have always bothered me. Over the last month, I filled a hundred or so sheets of unlined paper, inspecting chapters from various different angles, drawing lists and diagrams. Slowly, slowly, imaginative blocks have been coming down—seeing where, for no real reason, I was doing something that harmed the book, probably because of some unconscious nervousness or blockage. Slowly, slowly, I worked out how to make the vague more definite, the previously unmotivated felt. I've replanned the entire plot thread that takes place in London, and made many other small changes. I started typing chapter one yesterday: I expect to have a complete final draft ready by the end of October. It is a wonderful, wonderful feeling.
Clearly, all the above is a large amount of work. It is draining to keep track of it all, and the last couple of weekends I have had moments of fear where I felt far too behind my reading. Probably, were I not living in such a solitary way here in Tennessee, it would be impossible. But, for the moment, it is working out.
Best wishes to you all,