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Why Do I Write?

Agonising over your Creative Writing PhD proposal?

One of the things that happens, when you blog about Creative Writing PhDs, is that people ask  you for advice - including the whole business of applying for the thing in the first place. As you'll know if you've read that earlier piece, a CW PhD is at once delightfully broad and free-form, and - well - nightmarishly broad and free-form. And, as ever, what gets said about other kinds of PhD often doesn't apply, or only applies in a mutatis mutandis sort of way, which wouldn't matter except that it can be very difficult to know exactly which bits of the normal way of doing things you need to  mutate, and how.

So, for what it's worth, this is what I said to someone who asked me about their PhD proposal. I won't pretend that it's The Answer: all I know is that mine did get me onto my course, and, indeed, out the other end. But, as I was discussing in that earlier post, different universities have different regulations, and different departments have different interests, and that's before we've started worrying about how it works in Australia, or the US, or anywhere else. So do read what follows with that in mind. But I hope gives you an idea of what to think about.

When you're glaring at that blank paper or online form and panicking, I suggest that your first port of call is the coffee pot, your second any notes the form has about what you should cover, and your third the Creative Writing department you’re applying to. Ask to speak to your potential supervisor or someone else who supervises PhDs, because they’ll know what they want to see in a proposal, and should be willing to offer some guidelines. They do actually want good, coherent proposals, after all, so they can work out which of those are by good students who will finish the course. It’s in their interests to be helpful.

The next thing to do is to look at the regulations for the CW PhD itself, and think of them as a set of questions. How will you demonstrate the things they’re saying the PhD should have? It's a bit like when you apply for a job by reading what the spec is, and shape your CV  and interview so as to explain just why you fulfil each part of it so well. For anything you really don't, then say something about how you'll set about filling that gap. And don't forget that at least some of the people assessing your application won't be writers,: try to make sure that you explain what you plan in terms which make academic sense to - say - a historian and a German Literature specialist.

 So:

  • What will the creative piece be, and how will you set about writing it?
  • Will it need substantial research, and how might you set about that?
  • How will you reflect on your writing of it?
  • What other creative writing will you explore and why?
  • What other critical writing will you explore and why?
  • What theory might be useful to you, as a reflective creative practitioner (it's worth trying to get a few academic buzz-words in) and why?
  • For each of these three sources - creative, critical, theoretical - which will inform your creative piece, which your critical work, and which is relevant to your work on both?
  • What do you hope to end up with, in terms of a discussion and conclusion which hasn't been made before?

Then check that it's clear how your plans meet the criteria in the regs:  for example "the critical and theoretical field associated with your genre" or any other such phrase?

Also, I'd suggest that being reasonably (if provisionally) clear about what you'll read and research makes it clear, by implication, how you're going to keep things manageable. One of the things which makes PhD students flounder most often is when the initial idea was simply too big, and too amorphous. Those deciding about your application will be thinking, first and last, "Will s/he finish?" How you describe your project should imply where the boundaries of it are.

You also need a bibliography, and that's another important element: many academics get their first, quick sense of how good any student is by looking at the length of the bibliography and what kind of books are in it. Mine had about sixteen references for a 2,300 words statement, and it wasn't any too many.

You need to cover all those bases, but the CW PhD does have one thing in common with the others:  it should all take place under the arc of the question you hope to explore. By definition a PhD has to say something original but, luckily a creative piece is original by definition: it is something that didn't exist before. But you should also be setting yourself up to say something in the commentary or exegisis/essay-type-piece which presents genuinely new understanding. That might be writing about a writer or an issue which has never been written about coherently before, or it might be by providing a new insight into stuff which has been written about, but not in the way you're going to.

But you don't have to know the answer now - finding that is what writing the PhD is all about - and it doesn't have to be a Yes Or No. Your question may be the more open sort of "What's going on when...?" (mine was), but it still needs to be well-defined and specific. It can be helpful to think in terms of Richard Sennet's idea of Problem Finding: you need to have (provisionally) found your problem, but not answered it.

Don’t be too daunted, though. You aren’t locked into what you say you want to do – everyone knows PhDs evolve and change as you work on them. The right problem to base your PhD on may not be the one you first thought it would be at all. The only thing about my proposal that stayed the same was the novel – and I have friends whose creative piece changed hugely too. The first few meetings with your supervisor will be all about thrashing out what you're actually planning to do.

Just to pull it together: the main thing your proposal needs to demonstrate is that you DO have

  • a huge and thought-through enthusiasm for a project,
  • a clear plan of action which will mean you've a good chance of not getting too lost along the way, and
  • a goal of creating a coherent piece of critical as well as creative writing at the end.

GOOD LUCK!

Comments

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KW

You're amazing. My blood pressure has resettled to normal after coming across your posting--albeit a few years after it was written.

Thanks!

KW

Emma Darwin

You're welcome! Good to know This Itch of Writing is good for your health!

Shaista

Really super helpful Emma, thank you!
I have a lovely list to keep me focussed now - and just have to put the coffee on - although, might have to be tea… :)

Emma Darwin

You're welcome, Shaista! Best of luck with it, and enjoy the tea.

drop in

Oh gosh, mine has just shot up again. Shaping a question seems insurmountable. The creative project is doable - trying to figure what people want from an exegesis and just what purpose it serves is very difficult to get my head around. There needs to be a list of research proposal questions for creative writing, and examples. I'm sure they're around somewhere, but my google searches have not been very successful. Ideas connected to creativity are great. Ideas connected specifically to my creativity are more difficult to shape.

Rajib

It's genuine help indeed. Thanks for your effort. Now I'm more hopeful of the prospect of writing a CW proposal of sorts.

Lynn Bradshaw

I am applying for a PhD in Creative Writing and your advice is very helpful. Thank you.

Emma Darwin

Lynn, you're welcome! Best of luck with the application!

Emma Darwin

So glad it's a help, Rajib. Good luck with the proposal.

Philippa

I am currently putting my Creative Writing PhD proposal together and this, as well as all your other advice that you've so generously shared, is incredibly helpful, Emma. My deepest thanks!

Emma Darwin

Very best of luck with it, Philippa - so glad it's helpful, and you're very welcome.

Academic Blueprint

Thank you for the tips Emma.

Craig

Great article, thank you. I've just started work on my PhD proposal and this is very helpful. All the best to you.

Taryn

Hello Emma, could you provide some insight into the entries that should be included in the Bibliography for a Creative Writing PhD? I'm not sure quite where to start finding creative writing resources that would be considered academically sound!

Emma Darwin

Craig - terribly late to say You're Welcome, so sorry. I do hope that the proposal went well - and best of luck for the next stage.

Emma Darwin

Taryn, I'm so sorry, terribly late to this, so you may well have solved it, but in case not - or for others.

Things like Paris Review interviews with writers are sound: the key with academic referencing is to show that you have, as it were, interrogated your sources: that you understand their status. An author's statement about their work IS respectable - but also no more absolutely authoritative: it too, is subjective.

You can also use any CW text - How To books, etc. Again - they don't have to be by academics, and what you're chiefly doing is showing that you don't take any of them as the Word of God, as it were: that they say things worth saying, but are subject to critical analysis too.

Try the TLS and LRB archives for good, not strictly academic but certainly playing by adequately rigorous journalistic rules.

In a CW proposal you don't have a lot of space, but in academic writing generally the key is to show in how you write ABOUT the text you're quoting, that you are not taking it lying down, as it were: that you understand where its gaps and assumptions are or might be, given who's writing it, that you have sniffed out unacknowledged biases and understand the limitations of the discourse it's part of... In a PhD proposal you could try nodding to one or two texts' contexts, just to show you know that's how the game works, and let the rest stand because you're short of space.

e.g.:

"While I shall draw on primary material such as the Paris Review Interview with Intriguing Author, my critical engagement will start from Fascinating Post-Colonial Critic's analysis of Monster Book's "imperial" outlook, and proceed to analyse how this plays out across Author's oeuvre in the context of South American liberation theology...

"Writer-Teacher is, of course, writing for readers who she has no contact with, so her advice is necessarily quite general, although one might argue that is appropriate to the demands of established genre"

or whatever. And if your heart fails you, try the Arty Bollocks generator: https://www.artybollocks.com/

Emma Sachsse

Thank you for your very helpful article.
A potantial supervisor responded to my tentative early query with 'how about you send me a propsal'. Once I am sure I want to investigate this path further I have some excellent help form you(my previous degrees were not in creative writign so I have some catching up to do).

Emma Sachsse

Wow typos galore! That's embarrasing. My apologies.

Emma Darwin

Emma, you're very welcome! I think "how about you send me a proposal" is a good place to start, even if you're not sure when you want to do a PhD at all. There's nothing like trying to shape and write things down in actual sentences, for revealing what you think... Good luck if you go for it!

Heather Gibbons

Hi Emma,
Thank you for writing this. It has been so useful.

My proposal is due soon, and I am in the midst of writing my MA dissertation in lockdown with children. Life is busy and brain space is minimal. The big problem I am having is that I am constantly finding myself writing the actual critical thesis instead of the proposal and I can't seem to get out of doing it. How would you suggest tackling this problem?

Thanks in advance!
Heather Gibbons

Emma Darwin

Hi Heather

You're so welcome - and my goodness, what a complicated situation to be in. Boiling something down into a proposal form is hard, isn't it - even though it's a good thing, really, that you've already got the actual thesis bubbling away in your head!

Would it help to try to formulate the research question into a single sentence? (a bit like the intriguing, not summarising, kind of elevator pitch?) You could then have a think about what you would then need to set out on the form - which would be the things that a potential supervisor, reading it, would thing, "Well, she'll have to do X and consider Y, and take into account Z".

Does that make any kind of sense? (I have lockdown brain too, though I'm lucky in having big children who look after their own lockdown lives!)

Very best of luck with it, anyway!
Emma

melissa

Thank you so much for this! I am currently writing up my phd scholarship application and proposal with 10 days left until the deadline... let's go!

Best make a coffee first though ;)

Emma Darwin

Hi Melissa - and you're so welcome! Late to wich you best of luck with it, but I do hope all goes well!

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