Melbourne University Creative Writing
Last year I was fortunate enough to have the creative component of my Ph D published as a novel.
Would I say my Ph D has taught me how to write novels? As Helen Garner has famously said, ‘we have to learn to write again for each new book’.
Which begs the question: what do we students (have the right to) ask for?
Everything costs someone something – whether it’s cash, in kind, personal time or academic workload allocation.
I have been awarded professional and personal insight into how I can now further my development alone. In ‘Why teaching (writing) matters: a full confession’, Jayne Anne Phillips argues that, more important than teaching writing, an MFA is a way ‘those engaged in the practice of an art can mentor apprentice artists, and apprentice artists, in community, can mentor one another.’ Our industry has long been aware of the value of mentoring: not only have established authors throughout history advised and edited emerging ones, but the trade itself is founded upon that all-important author–editor relationship (or author–publisher, depending on who takes on this developmental role).
And in every one of these paid positions I was apprenticed to a master (the word mistress will not do) – whether that was my manager, someone higher up, or an outside expert …such as an author whose manuscript I was project managing and collating changes on.At the same time that universities are increasingly under pressure to work as a business themselves (enrolling more students – who wouldn’t have made the grade thirty or forty years ago, as Tegan Bennet Daylight details in ‘The difficulty is the point’ – in ever-increasing class sizes, taught by sessional and frequently still-studying staff), core but not-cost-effective relationships have also been squeezed in the writing and publishing industries.Rather, I see the value of my Ph D in, above all else, the supervisory relationship.This unique experience, in all its complexity and intensity, is an introduction to – an induction into – how our writing and publishing industry works.To connect Stover and Brabazon’s perspectives, supervisors don’t only help students navigate the university system, they must chart a path themselves that protects both their time and that of their student meetings.In many institutions the preparatory experience for this one-on-one supervision, honours, is under threat.For context, I’d already had one novel published; for further context, that too had been developed through a higher education program – a masters.Clearly I’m in favour of formal learning, but coming to the end of our highest arts degree I’ve been reflecting on what, exactly, it’s taught me.In the case of my Ph D I received: close editing of my work (as one creative to another, but, importantly, from an author who’d had extensive experience working with a seasoned editor); guidance on my writing career; advice on becoming an academic; and even reflections upon becoming a mother – and balancing (or, more actually, juggling) all these things.It may be relevant to confess here that my degree took me a long time to complete – a very long time. This was clearly a factor in the life events that occurred over the course of my candidature, and probably also played a role in the relationship with my supervisor that evolved.