Tue 21 November 2017
Studying Writing
Studying Writing
Life after Graduation
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A Day in the Life of a PhD Student
James, Gill
Gill James writes about studying for a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Wales, Bangor, with tutor Graeme Harper.
The sun coming up from behind the mountains and shining on my face wakes me up each day. The seagulls guarantee that I stay awake.

I creep downstairs to make tea. In this house of grown up postgraduates, I am the only morning person.

I bring my tea upstairs and boot up the computer. While it whirrs and chugs to itself, I sit on the bed and read, drinking my tea. Over half of the books I read these days are for young adults. My PhD is a 80,000 word novel for Young Adults, with 25,000 to 50,000 more words of critical analysis of what I have written. I am currently reading Christine Nöstlinger's Stundenplan. It is twenty years old and beautifully written. I am envious.

The computer has stopped making noises. I have to get through that moment when you are about to start and think that you can't.

Today I am working on Peace Child. It is not going as well as other projects. I started writing it before I was accepted for the PhD. I put it on one side until I got here. Maybe I've lost touch with it a little. Sometimes, though, when I edit later, I find that the parts that were written easily are not as good as the ones where I struggled. Maybe the struggle makes the writing better.

I work until eight. Then I treat myself to a shower and breakfast. I have already completed 502 words. My daily target is 2,500. This has been my working habit since I completed my MA in Writing for Children (King Alfred's College, Winchester.) I have swapped the day job for freelance work now. I still earn more money from teaching than from writing.

After breakfast, the sun hits my computer screen. I pull down the blind. Just as well, really. I can see half of Snowdonia, the town and the sea from this window. It is very distracting. There is something about mountains and sea - there always seems to be some mystery behind them. I'm living here in a culture surprisingly different from my own, where local people converse in a different language. My main protagonist in Peace Child also lives in a mysterious place and has to learn other languages and cultures.

Well before eleven, I've completed my daily word count. Time for another reward. I sip my coffee as I flick through The Bookseller, marking the books I'd like to read. How can I possibly speak with authority about the Young Adult novel, if I don't read a substantial number of them? But am I selecting just those which appeal to me? One of the joys of this place is that nothing is more than twenty minutes' walk or five minutes' drive away. Even if it is very hilly. And I thought is was a strenuous walk from the main car park to the School of Cultural Studies at King Alfred's.

As I walk to the campus I gradually stop thinking about my characters in Peace Child and turn to the question of what is a novel for Young Adults? The more I try to define that, the more the concept disappears in front of me. The Postgraduate Reading Room in the Humanities section of the library is remarkable. One of the computers is always free. I log in and check my emails. There is one form Jochen, who organizes Intermind, our cross-discipline postgraduate group. We meet every Tuesday evening in a local pub. Jochen reminds us that last week we talked about logic and language. That, too, has an impact on the way I see Young Adult novels. I go to one of the reading desks. Now that the semester is well underway, the place is becoming covered with piles of books marked "please leave". One always has to push them aside to make a space. So far, I've always found a seat.

I re-read the articles we are going to discuss in this afternoon's seminar. This week's theme is Feminism. The issues are complex, and even the tap tap of someone working on a computer is distracting. I think I have understood the main points, and some of the extra reading has clarified matters even more.

At lunch, the portions are big, there is choice and the cost is fair. I nearly always see someone I know there. It has been blessedly easy to get to know people here. That was what I missed so much after I had completed my MA - the company of like-minded people. Yet it's also fine to sit alone and read. Today I go to the Postgraduate and Mature Students' common room. I speak with a group of MA Theologians. We share experiences of being mature postgraduates. They talk about their subject, which fascinates me. Miracles and prophecy come into Peace Child.

The two hours of our seminar pass quickly. The debate is hot. One of the men in fact defends Helene Cixou for being passionate about women's writing. She has not expressed her views in an academically approved format - designed by males? Is it that question again? Can women only be equal to men if they become like men? We look at feminists who have taken another stance. We talk about gender issues in general. Later in the week we're still talking about them. A few days later, something crystallizes for me and poses even more questions about the Young Adult novel.

I see my supervisor after the seminar. We talk about writing in general and my writing in particular. We seem to have the same understanding of how it all works. "I'm either writing less well than I used to," I say, "or I'm more critical than I used to be."

"You're probably being more critical," he says.

I hope he is right. We'll see. He now has a hard copy of the first 25,000 words of Peace Child.

I remember sharing a similar conversation with another delegate at the Great Writing conference held here last year. I'm looking forward to the next one in 2004, 10th and 11th July.

This evening our writing group meets. We are a mixture of those who study creative writing and those who happen to write. I am astonished at the lack of confidence in the younger people. Yet their writing is fresh and original, if slightly undisciplined. Maybe mine is a little jaded. I am also touched at how unageist they are. We oldies are totally accepted into the circle and in the pub afterwards.

Suddenly, though, after three pieces of prose, four poems, two halves of Guinness and a lot of chat, I want to be alone again. I rush home. It is after eleven. I complete another 1,000 words of Peace Child. It seems to be going quite well after all.


Biographical Note

Teaching languages has kept Gill in touch with young people world-wide. Published works include educational and language learning materials, and novels for eight-to-eleven-year-olds and young adults. She has contributed to the Lines in the Sand anthology, (Frances Lincoln, 2003). Her novel for teenagers, Nick's Gallery, will come out in 2004.

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