Monday, 2nd January 2017
For the next 30 days, I’ll be living in Sam Rit in rural North-East Thailand at the Sam Rit Artist Residency. For the first two weeks, I’m joined by Jackie Moss, an Australian artist and illustrator. The following two weeks, I’ll be the sole artist at the residency.
That’s 30 days of writing, and exploring: a great way to ring in 2017.
This morning, I unpacked my things into my cabin, and unpacked my supplies into my studio space:
At Andrew’s recommendation, I brought a backpack instead of a suitcase (though it was still packed with the same volume of books. I said to Andrew: “Do you think I’d take less things with me if I had another discipline besides writing?” Andrew said: “No.” Which is unfair, because I’m getting much better at packing lightly and only taking with me what I can carry on my back).
My initial intention was to write the fiction book I’ve been dreaming about for 2 years (literally: it came to me in a dream, and I’ve been sketching out the rough skeleton of it without the direct opportunity to sit down and write it). This is the project I talk about my in Sam Rit Residency artist profile. But much of the work I’ve focused on recently has to do with the question of how we relate authentically to our work, to our careers, and to our jobs: how we align who we are with what we do.
On the flight, I read “The Crossroads of Should and Must” by Elle Luna (a fantastic Xmas present from Andrew Y). Even though I finished the book in one swift sitting, I’m not finished with it. It’s the kind of book everyone should return and come back to, and I want to investigate it, experiment with it, question it, and take it apart. And part of me thought: well, there’s that authentic-self-work book written: Elle’s already done it!
That sounds like a washing-of-hands. Let me clarify: I’m not swearing off the project of how we can meet work with our whole self. I know I have more to say on that topic. I know I have different, and potentially useful things to say on that topic. But I’ve decided not to make that the set goal for the residency while I’m in Sam Rit.
Instead, I’m going to write my anti-thesis.
Last week, Andrew and I were having a vigorous discussion about something, when he described something as the ‘antithesis’ of what we were talking about. The thing is: he pronounced it anti-thesis. I don’t know where this quote has emerged from on the internet, but I love it: “Never make fun of someone if they mispronounce a word — it means they learned it by reading.”
Not only do I subscribe to this guideline completely (I may help you correct grammar, but I will never judge for mistakes made through reading) — it also reminds me of Penelope Bloom in “The Brother’s Bloom” acquiring all of her hobbies through books:
Stephen: “What kind of stuff do you do?”
Penelope: “Nothing. Maybe you should go.”
S: “All right, I’ll just finish my…”
P: “I collect hobbies. I see someone doing something I like, and I get books and I learn how to do it.”
S: “You just learn this stuff here by yourself? How do you plan to use all these skills?”
P: “I don’t know. I’m not a planner. I just do stuff.
Like, look at this watermelon.
It’s a pinhole camera.”
(The book-learning becomes apparent when she first meets The Belgian:)
The Belgian: “Book-learned. You know your languages but not your accents, mademoiselle.”
Besides reminding me of our favourite movie, I loved Andrew’s new term because as soon as he said it I thought: oh my god, that’s exactly what I need. I don’t need a new project. I need an anti-thesis.
18 months ago, right before we moved to Sydney, I finished my PhD thesis, sat my viva, defended my work, and graduated. Last Christmas, one of my best gifts was when the mailman brought me my diploma. I’ve come a long way through the path of academia. It has become a home to me, and I am always — always — going to be grateful for that.
But I’ve written exactly one poem since I graduated out of the academic world. And I haven’t written any poetry in Australia (a fact that became horribly apparent to me right before my book launch last month). What I do have in spades, is the loud voice of an inner critic. I’ve strengthened the muscle of judgment and forgotten about discernment, forgotten the quieter voice of intuition and lateral thinking.
I told Simon about the anti-thesis a few days before I left and he asked, “What does that mean?”
“It means sometimes academia trains people to be too cognitive,” I explained,”Too rational and researched and deliberate. Too calculating. Too clinical.”
Simon said, “Surely that doesn’t happen as frequently with creative writing?”
We cut to a story I recounted from the previous night when — discussing magic eye pictures with Andrew (the optical illusions that shift as you view them from different angles) — I reached for my poetry book to read him a poem that references magic eye pictures. A line of elephants holding tails.
After reading Andrew the entire poem (“Peripheries”) I looked up and verbally recalled: “Oh, that’s right. Alan suggested I should take out that part.”
I sat there wondering: if I remember this poem most by the stars (which are still there) and the magic eye pictures (which didn’t make the cut), what other core sections of my poems have been left on the cutting room floor in order to make them stronger poems?
I’m not arguing that the poems are any less because of how they survived the editing process. But there is material still ready to be used. There are frameworks ready to be loosened. There are analytical responses that don’t need to fill my head as readily anymore. I’ve taken over 6 years to focus on little else but honing my writing craft. I like to think that enough of those muscles are ingrained enough to still produce good writing, even if I step back from the academic hat.
In any exercise, it is most beneficial to do a workout and its opposite. To stretch out the muscles you have just worked and developed.
The anti-thesis is my stretching out.
I’m writing an anti-thesis because I don’t want to argue a position anymore.
(“Today a doctoral thesis is both an idea and an account of a period of original research.”)
Because I am my own idea and I am my own original research.
(“It is an introduction to the world of independent research — a kind of intellectual masterpiece, created by an apprentice in close collaboration with a supervisor.”)
I am also my own student and my life is my supervisor.
Because I don’t need an introduction to the world of independent research: I need an reintroduction to the world.
Because in trying to become a master, I forgot the devotion of being the apprentice.
(“A thesis can be dozens of pages in mathematics, or many hundreds in history. As a result, newly minted PhDs can be as young as their early 20s or world-weary forty-somethings.”)
What are the requirements for my antithesis, my return to the world? There are none, formally. Informally, it is an unwinding. A retrospective. A mirror and reflection.
It is the heart beneath the theory, the life within the work.
(“Whining PhD students are nothing new, but there seem to be genuine problems with the system that produces research doctorates (the practical “professional doctorates” in fields such as law, business and medicine have a more obvious value).”)
I’m writing an anti-thesis because I do have value, but it has taken a lot of negotiation and reflection to realise that my value doesn’t correlate with whether I’m teaching in academia or even in my subject matter. My value is transitive and lateral and intuitive and no less significant. And also a place I may not have gotten to specifically without the PhD path.
To travel is to take a journey into yourself.
I invite you to join me on this journey while I’m away in Sam Rit. You can follow along with me here on the blog by subscribing (on this page, any blog post page, or the homepage). Photos will be shared. Stories and anecdotes. I’m also building a Sam Rit Spotify playlist of the music I’m listening to.
So: read along. Listen along. Come along.