Tag Archive for University Days

Once upon a time, many years ago, Peter M. Ball worked as a creative writing lecturer/tutor and studied for a PhD he never got around to finishing. Posts associated with this phase of his career are gathered together under this heading.

Everything is Artifice

Years ago, when I first started my never-to-be-finished PhD, I had one simple belief: everything is artifice.

I suppose it’s a natural enough conclusion to come to when you’re twenty-two years old and reading Lyotard’s theories on the post-modern condition during the bulk of your waking hours, and it certainly seemed to explain an awful lot about the things I didn’t quite understand about the world. That any attempt at authenticity was but a carefully constructed stratagem to create the illusion of authenticity made sense to me. After all, I lived on the Gold Coast. Trying to deal with the concept of authenticity on the Gold Coast is fucking confusing, since the whole damn city embraces artifice as its default state.  You make sense of it as best you can, or you get the get the hell out.

These days I’m older and dumber and I have about thirteen years of additional experience to process, and I’m still not entirely sure that my twenty-two year old self was wrong. The performance I put on for the world is less involved than it used to be – there’s fewer feather boas and trenchcoats and nail polish, more writing and submitting and getting things done – but there’s a part of me that’s consistently aware that there’s a performance going on.

This is one of those things that dominates my decisions to embrace the kinds of art I embrace: I distrust any art that offers up authenticity or meaning as its primary virtue, unless it’s coupled with a self-awareness about the artificial nature of the work. Serious cinema – by which I mean big, Award-winning dramas about big and serious things that are primarily naturalistic in their approachsets me on edge. I’d much rather watch noir, with its obviously artificial camera angles designed entirely to evoke mood. I’d rather watch cartoons, which embrace their lack of realism with a fervor that few other mediums could match. Hell, I’d rather watch soap operas, ’cause at least they looked like they were having fun.

The moment a film takes itself seriously, it’s dead to me. What I want is a sense of fun. What I want, more than anything, is the ability to see the performer inside their performance, and get a sense that they’re both enjoying  themselves and they’re willing to let their audience in on the fun. In the argument between style and substance, I’ll go with the work that has a sense of style every time. At twenty-two I had serious, deathly art-crushes on David Bowie, Andy Warhol, and Oscar Wilde. On William Gibson and Kathy Acker and Poppy Z. Brite. At thirty-five I still have serious, deathly art-crushes on those same people, and more yet who have come along since.

Everything is artifice.

This has been on my mind a lot this weekend because I’ve been re-reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art after having a discussion with my friend Kevin about it’s relative flaws and merits as a guidebook for artists. I have enormous amounts of problems with Pressfield’s book – it’s a core of good advice wrapped up in a package that’s so “authentic” it makes my teeth hurt. Pressfield believes in things, and he believes in them strongly. He suggests that creating art can cure cancer. He suggests that teaching the world to avoid procrastination will result in a drop in crime, sickness, domestic abuse, and other unpleasant things. It’s the kind of po-faced, manipulative “authenticity” that appears in self-help books everywhere, and it fills me with rage.

Big, unpleasant, bone-gnawing rage.

The weird thing about all this is that I do believe there is magic in art. I didn’t for a long while; for about ten years I was firmly in the camp of those who wanted writing to be craft, something that can be taught and respected and disassociated from myths about muses and the magic of creativity. These days, though, I’m back in the camp that says there can be a space where art is transcendent. Where it can take you and reshape you and make the world a better place. Where it can make you feel and recontextualise the world in exactly the way you needed it recontextualised.

I just don’t believe the magic of art is a big magic anymore. It’s smaller and quieter and it affects each person differently. Ordinary, everyday magic. Ordinary, everyday miracles. Quiet moments where art makes your fingers tingle.

Everything is artifice, but that’s all magic has ever been anyway. Ritual. Mis-direction. The world given context by performance.

And so we keep writing, keep creating, keep doing the things we do. And we hope it finds the people who need it in the times when they need it most.

Two things, with a final statement (Actually, three things, I’m just forgetful)

Yesterday I went to the PO Box and discovered three copies of the latest One Book, Many Brisbanes anthologies waiting for me.

Naturally, my first response was sweet, free books, cause books that arrive in my PO Box are always free books by virtue of the fact that I’ve already paid for them and forgotten about it. It’s one of the more pleasant aspects of ordering books via the internet, especially if you have the same inclinations towards pre-ordering things that I do.

Except this time they actually were free books, I think, presumably because I was tangentially involved in the workshop put on for the finalists in the One Book, Many Brisbane’s competition, where, basically, I showed up and talked about writing for an hour or so with Cat Sparks and an editor for Overland whose name currently eludes me

Every now and then writers like to talk about how writing is a remarkably poor career choice, or at least a remarkably hard one, but the plus side is that every now and then someone will pay you to show up, talk about something you love, meet some new people who are generally interesting, and then hang-out with your friends for a bit afterwards.

And very occasionally you get sent free books, which is the sort of thing I’d hoped actually happened to writers back when I was ten and decided writing seemed like an interesting sort of job to spend the rest of my life pursuing.

#

Today is my last class out at UQ. Given that the assignments are all done and the class was remarkably small to begin with (7 people), I have a small bet with myself regarding how many people will actually show up for a Friday afternoon writing class on the last day of the semester.

I will be sad that the writing classes are done for the year. I rather miss teaching writing, for a variety of reasons, but the last few weeks have really brought home how useful it is to go back to basics. It’s no coincidence that we get to the tail end of the semester, with the marking and the what-do-you-do-when-this-story-is-done style questions, and there are suddenly stories being submitted again.

#

There is no third part to this entry.

Edit: Actually, no, just remembered, there is – Happy Birthday to JJ Irwin, who is one of the more talented writers I know who continues to not be published enough by virtue of the fact she goes off to do things like getting Master’s degrees. I recommend going back a few years and rereading her story, Still Living, over at Strange Horizons. Or checking out her story, Haniver, in the latest issue of Shimmer.

Lost at Uni & Sad News about Clarion South

Yesterday I taught my first tutorial at the University of Queensland. Quite fortunately, no-one threw things, and I started to remember all the things I actually quite like about teaching and talking to aspiring writers.

I’d never really been to UQ before this. I visited once or twice about fifteen years ago, back when I was trying to work out where I was going to go to university and UQ was my more-or-less second choice due to the lack of an actual undergraduate writing program and my parents informing me that I’d spend my first year living in an all-boys Christian college. I went back once again for a friend’s art show, but that only required me to find a building very close to the car park, right on the outskirts on the campus. Apart from that, it was unfamiliar territory.

Turns out it’s quite big, and they’re very fond of stonework. Also, when printed, the campus maps have very titchy numbers that are hard to read after dark.

I made it to the initial meeting okay, whereupon I met with the other tutors and lecturers, and I got to follow them to the lecture theater, and then I could more or less follow a cloud of students to the class. It wasn’t until after the first class, when I said man, I’ve only got an hour between the end of the dayjob and tomorrow’s tute, I should probably figure out where it is now to save time that things became a problem.

I checked my map. I figured out where I was. I traced the path with my finger, using those landmarks I knew to figure out where to turn. It all looked very simple, so I set out full of confidence and  energy.

An our later I was lost and taking wrong turns, keeping a wary eye out for roaming minotaurs, while the skies merrily opened up and dumped rain on the campus.

Eventually I found my way out, drove home, ate take-out food, and wrote five hundred words before crashing into a comatose slumber.

I have to find the same tutorial room again today. If you don’t hear from me over the weekend, assume I’m wandering the campus , subsisting on vending machine chocolate. Or that the minotaur finally caught up with me, ’cause I’m pretty sure they’ve got one.

#

Today the word went out that Clarion South was on indefinite hold, largely due to the loss of an affordable venue that could hold a motley crew of seventeen aspiring SF writers for six straight weeks. The full story has been posted on the Clarion South website and the vast majority of the Australian speculative fiction email lists, should you be interested in the details.

To say this is a loss to Australian SF is something of an understatement.

I count Clarion South as one of the single most useful things I ever did as a writer, largely because it’s relatively easy to find resources that will tell you how to write better, but significantly harder to find places that will give you good advice on how to be a writer.

Which is not to say that Clarion South won’t make you better at writing – it will – but for me the true value of the experience came from being exposed to six writers, all of them either neo-pro or pro, and finding out how they approached their careers.

And it came from being around seventeen other writers who were determined to move their career forwards, writing every day and cheering each other on, many of whom I’m still chatting with every week and cheering on as best I can in my own grumpy way.

For someone who’d been tucked away in the academic system up to that point, working in creative programs, it was the kind of revelation I needed to get me working and moving forwards.

Chris Lynch has recently posted a list of publications and other achievements my Clarion South year has achieved in the last four years, and it includes over 170 short stories, plays, poems, novellas, award nominations, and other entries. Which, when you consider that 3 of the seventeen attendees don’t have entries for various reasons, averages out at a whole bunch of work being put together and submitted.

Shadows

So there’s a  shortlist for the 2010 Australian Shadows horror awards available online, which includes Bleed in the Long Fiction category alongside such brilliant works as Angela Slatter’s The Girl With No Hands and Other Stories and Kirstyn McDermott’s Madigan Mine and a handful of books I haven’t yet come across but I’m sure are excellent ’cause, really, once you start with Madigan Mine and The Girl with No Hands I’m inclined to just trust the judges tastes – those books are freakin’ great.

So it’s a happy sort of day, even if it feels a bit odd to be on the short list because Bleed isn’t really a horror story.

The complete short-list looks something like this, and it’s full of names that I’m very happy to see on short-lists. Congratulations to all who made it.

LONG FICTION

  • Madigan Mine by Kirstyn McDermott (Picador Australia)
  • The Girl With No Hands by Angela Slatter (Ticonderoga Publications)
  • Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healy (Allen & Unwin)
  • Under Stones by Bob Franklin (Affirm Press)
  • Bleed by Peter M. Ball (Twelfth Planet Press)

EDITED PUBLICATION

  • Macabre: A Journey through Australia’s Darkest Fears, edited by Angela Challis & Marty Young (Brimstone Press)
  • Scenes From The Second Storey, edited by Amanda Pillar & Pete Kempshall (Morrigan Books)
  • Dark Pages 1, edited by Brenton Tomlinson (Blade Red Press)
  • Scary Kisses, edited by Liz Gryzb (Ticonderoga Publications)
  • Midnight Echo #4, edited by Lee Battersby (AHWA)

SHORT FICTION

  • “Bread and Circuses” by Felicity Dowker (Scary Kisses)
  • “Brisneyland by Night” by Angela Slatter (Sprawl)
  • “She Said” by Kirstyn McDermott (Scenes from the Second Storey)
  • “All The Clowns In Clowntown” by Andrew J. McKiernan (Macabre: A Journey through Australia’s Darkest Fears)
  • “Dream Machine” by David Conyers (Scenes from the Second Storey)

The winners of the Australian Shadows Award will be announced on 15 April 2011.

#

Next week I start tutoring for one of the University of Queensland’s writing subjects. It’ll be the first time I’ll have stepped into a university for about two years, and the nerves have already set in. I can tell because I keep having nightmares and waking up in the middle of the night, unsure of what’s going on but unable to get back to sleep.

This isn’t unusual. I always have nightmares the week before I start teaching. Occasionally they involve teaching Hamlet being performed by Gnolls, and being unable to explain exactly why this is brilliantly post-modern to a group of students. Thankfully, they  goes away once the classes actually start.

i guess that i could get crazy now baby

I’ve spent most of the afternoon rushing around the house, MC5’s Kick Out the Jams buzzing through my head. I imagine it’s going to be something of a theme song during April – it’s certainly what I plan on listening to every morning this week (although I’ll probably cheat and cycle through the innumerable cover versions out there for variety). I’ve been looking forward to April since the start of the year – one way or another, it’s been the month where I get to try and reclaim my groove as a writer of fiction rather than theory.

The current plan for the coming month:

Do a whole mess of rewrites that have been piling up, then get the stories submitted
The problem with coordinating thesis writing and everything else isn’t finding the time to get drafts done – it’s finding the time to do the polishes and redrafting that transform those first drafts into something worthwhile. Over the last five months I’ve stacked up about six stories in this state, just waiting for me to revise and submit them.

Finish Claw…
Because there’s lots of stuff happening on Horn at the moment, so it makes sense to try and finish the next Miriam Aster novella while I’m all excited. Besides, it’s talking cats, a hard-boiled detective, a burned out actress from an eighties SF cop drama, and a oozing puddle of cat foetii in embryonic fluid – every time I look at the notes I sit there thinking “My god, I want to write this now,” so it’ll be nice to actually, you know, be able to do that.

Finish the next chapter in the thesis
Because work needs to continue, even if I’ve got the space to do other writing now.

The things you forget

First real day of classes today, which basically meant I spent seven hours running around like a mad rabbit trying to explain things without a break. Am now thoroughly exhausted and good for nothing, but feeling that warm accomplished glow that comes from returning to work.

But, oh god, I forgot exactly how tiring first year classes are.

I shall do very little tonight that is not television, reading, and picking up a meal from Subway.

The Thesis March, an update

Yesterday was the last full day I’d get to spend on the thesis for over a week, and by the time I collapsed into my bed in the wee hours of morning I remember feeling upset by how little I’d achieved. Today I feel pretty good about it; frustrated, to be sure, but object enough to recognise that yesterday’s wordcount was actually pretty good by my standards.

The reason I stalled out around three AM is because I realised that while I could identify the function genre plays in the process of editing work, I wasn’t yet doing anything with the realisation except pointing out that it’s there – it’s an example in need of practical application and I’m not yet sure how to do so without actively editing a piece within the exegesis itself (and, I’ll be honest, I’ve already played that trick in the preface when addressing the genre of the exegesis). While I’m not quite at a loss on how to approach this, the idea I do have for addressing it largely involves discussing the active problems I’m having critting someone else’s work at present due to genre concerns; I could ask permission and stretch some friendships in order to do this, but it’s sufficiently awkward that I keep setting it aside and looking for something else.

In any case, the current state of the exegesis is: 12,000 words drafted; one and a half chapters close to being done; eighteen thousand words to go. I’ve got a window of about four hours in which to work on things this afternoon, which represents the longest stretch of continual time I have to work on it until Sunday morning. Tonight I have dinner with Chris Lynch and the inestimable Ben Francisco (in town from New York to wow us with his fabulousness), tomorrow I play tour guide for Ben while Chris is work, and Friday is errand day and work meetings and dinner with my Dad for his birthday. Admittedly the Saturday plans are kinda mutable – I can cancel, and may yet do so when the guilt at shirking off the thesis bears down on me – but I’m safely going to say that this will not be done by the end of February and that’s going to be cutting things very very fine with the overall completion deadline.  And even if cancelling on Ben and my Dad were things I need to do, I’m pretty sure I should be taking a break soon anyway: I’ve developing a pronounced hunch after spending too many continious hours bent over the keyboard without adequate back support (curse you, broken office chair) and my body is starting to protest the lack of sleep.

Still, for all that, I feel pretty good at the moment. Yes, the February deadline is as unmet as the January one was, but both are progress deadlines (as opposed to the May Deadline of Death). The project has limped into the zone where I’m actually excited by it, rather than daunted by, and that makes the deadline of death seem achievable rather than nightmarish.

Thesis Update

Just dropping in with the following reports:

  • The official wordcount (aka words actually in draft documents, rather than random notes) just topped 10k.
  • I have, for the first time since I started the damn thing, actually finished a chapter.
  • I have, for the first time since I started the damn thing, actually got a plan for proceeding that seems workable.

This, of course, just means I have to get 20,000 words written between now and Wednesday evening. That’s a far worse thing than it sounds, incidently; I could probably get 5000 words a day done in a pinch, but I’ll be utterly useless for anything else afterwards and that’s not a luxury I’m going to get anytime soon.

I suspect there will be some measure of begging for mercy in my near future.

Because this is all my brain is up for today…

The good thing about trying to hit a deadline and being behind: you start to figure out ways to fix stories and ideas that are broken, potentially unsaleable and not on deadline.

Yesterday I took an hour away from the books to write up a plan of what I could do to transform all my second-person-present-tense-vaguely-cyberpunk vignettes into a solid-ish mosiac novella. I just spent the last half-hour writing notes about the way to expand and fix the problems on the zombie novella I wrote as part of the AHWA mentorship in 2007. It’s all distraction to draw me away from the work that really needs doing, but at least the notes will be waiting for me once I get the thesis draft down.

The theory of relativity as it applies to writing

The difference between a good days work and a bad days work can depend entirely on how close you are to meeting a deadline.

Or, in other words, 1500 words of thesis draftage today. A month ago this would have been cause for celebration; today it is met with the soul-crushing knowledge  that I haven’t yet done enough to earn myself a few hours sleep 🙂