Practical parenting
About to Take Off

Being a snow-leopard

If you've clicked through to About, you'll know that I'm writing my current novel as part of a PhD in Creative Writing. When I did my first degree in Drama and Theatre Arts kind enquirers assumed that I sat in a library and read plays, whereas actually I spent my university years in a rehearsal room. That was very unusual, then: when my singer sister wanted to do a PhD musicologists across the land couldn't understand why part of her doctoral submission would be a recital. But now - at last, some might say - this idea that you should study how an art works by doing it is gaining ground, and Goldsmiths College, where I'm doing it, is in the vanguard.

Practice-based research, it's called, but the interface between the arts and academe isn't always comfortable. A writer friend found an audience of historians distinctly hostile to her discussion of how she uses historical material to make fiction. Ethical standards for research - that no one's experience should be used without their full understanding and consent, that the division between facts and interpretation should be clear - are hard to maintain when you're making a film. The word limit for a PhD thesis is less than my novel is long: do I really only submit half of it?

But people who give law lectures are fascinated by my worries about handling a writing workshop. A psychotherapist explained to me the different kinds of response a mentor might give: not only is it relevant to my helping writers, I can see that understanding creeping into my fiction. And above all it's very good for me that nothing I might say at Goldsmiths about writing goes unchallenged. The basic way of discussing research, as my mathematician sister put it once, is that one person proposes an idea that appears to be true, and everyone else tries to think of reasons why it might not be true. 'Truth' in fiction is a different animal, but what I say about how writers work - about storytelling, about fact and fiction, about why historical fiction is a special case - gets picked apart in the pub with relish, while the police sirens race round the New Cross one-way-system outside.

Yes, this is on the edges of my identity in the book trade: there are plenty of editors who wish the 'MA novel' didn't exist, and 'PhD' doesn't make you sound like the user-friendly teller of tales that booksellers need. And what I do is on the edges of the academic world too: a commercial publishing deal and a profile in Tatler seem rather vulgar in that company, and plenty of academics outside Goldsmiths don't think the likes of me should be cluttering up their universities at all.

But as any evolutionary biologist will tell you it's at the threshold - the liminal spaces - between two environments, where no one set of genes and behaviours will keep you alive, that animals adapt. Unlike a leopard evolving thick white fur as the ice-age creeps over the generations, I've chosen to inhabit a liminal space. I want to think about how story-telling works while I'm telling a story, and I want my own experience of telling stories to illuminate others'. But of that, more anon.

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