Tag Archives: PhD

Creative and Academic Writing: Animals of Different Stripes

I’m a writer and have been for decades. Over that time, I’ve written poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, non-fiction, a thesis, a dissertation, academic articles, book reviews, reports, case studies, etc. etc. I can switch gears as required, fulfilling the demands of each style and format, but I’m always aware that different types of writing impact me differently, have different working demands, and different after-tastes.

I started in poetry, and am closing in on finishing a new collection. For me, poetry was and always will be the purest, most visceral form of the drug. This is the writing that starts from pure inspiration; it’s a tickle in the back of my brain and I have to hold my breath and gently pull the thread for it to spill out on the page. This is writing that wakes me at three in the morning, that likes me to carry a notebook (the kind with pages, not electronic).  This is the form that brings me the biggest buzz, that unmasks me utterly, that leaves me feeling vulnerable and weak in the knees. But also fiercely able to stand by my words, and to take on the world. This is my tiger form (my Chinese year, by the way).

amazing-tiger-wallpaperIncreasingly, my fiction has a comic edge; I have one book nearly complete and another about a third written. I get in the flow and giddily write pages and pages, slowing only to research often really obscure facts, like what was the world population during Alexander the Great’s reign? This sort of minutiae fascinates me, but when I come up for air, when my critical brain kicks back in, it can seem somewhat ridiculous to be asking such questions and putting in hours to get answers. This is, it would seem, the way my mind works. I’m the curious sort. I get a huge kick from writing fiction, creating self-contained worlds, but somehow making them real by connecting them to reality. This is my young tapir form (kind of goofy, but cute).


In creative non-fiction, I have one book in process; it’s about my Dad’s death. Whenever I try working on it, I end up weeping full-bodied sobs. I set it aside for years at a time, in the hope that one day I’ll be able to finish it. Because it’s so raw, it’s impossible for me to get any critical distance, to tell whether it’ll be as powerful for a reader as it is for me. At some point, I’ll have to show it to an editor or six who will be able to tell me. Regardless, it is a book I will need to resolve for my own sake. Striped, yes, but more somber and regal, more endangered, like an okapi; or horned, like a bongo or a kudu.okapi






The academic and business writing fall into a similar category in terms of process. This is just work. Purely rational. Although I get very excited about ideas, it’s still somehow seen as inappropriate to express this through academic writing. The odd time when inspiration strikes, when I get into the flow, and become more creative in my word use, some other academic comes along and tells me to knock it off. I am hopeful, that as I gain my professional stripes in the academic world, I’ll be able to get away with more. But this style of writing, using only intellectual process and not creative, is purely black and white. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I don’t get quite the same invigoration from it as I do from the creative work. It takes a lot of time and energy, and doesn’t give as much back. The satisfaction derived is purely intellectual, not emotional.


When I started my PhD, I felt very schizoid, with my creative side effectively amputated, focussing purely on the academic. As I’ve progressed, I’ve begun to see these two halves reunite. I’m learning how the creative and the intellectual can coalesce quite nicely, how I can write academically appeasing work that also fulfills the creative urge, how I can bring a creative spark to my academic writing. I also think that academic rigour brings a greater depth and richness to the creative work, as well as a necessary sense of discipline. Between the creative and academic work, I have a lot of exciting ideas on the go. Now I just have to create the time to write them all!

Catherine Jenkins 2016 all rights reserved

All images public domain

Spring! And Conferences are popping up all over!

After a long and difficult winter, it’s finally spring: conference season. While academic conferences run year ‘round, there’s an overabundance of them when the winter term ends and before everyone takes off to wherever for research and/or down-time. I’d submitted abstracts for two, completely forgetting about a third conference that had been postponed from last year. So having done no conferences last year, I did three in three weeks—which is kind of nuts, but sort of fun too.DSC_0240

The Canadian Society for the Study of Comics held its third annual conference on May 9-10 in Toronto in conjunction with the Toronto Comics Arts Festival. I’d submitted a proposal on the medicalization of comic book superheroes, something I’m considering expanding towards post-doc research. I thought it might be a little off-side for them, but they went for it. I was hoping to get input from people who’ve read more comics than I have, and I wasn’t disappointed. Having taken lots of notes, however, I’ve set that work aside for now to focus on the dissertation. Can’t do a post-doc until I’ve finished the doc!

From May 20-22, I attended an independent conference held at Humber in Toronto. I’d never been to their campus and was really impressed with both its buildings and its green space. In November 2012, I’d attended a conference sponsored by the International Network for Alternative Academia in Montreal. Unfortunately, it was just days after Hurricane Sandy had decimated the north-eastern seaboard and wreaked havoc on air transportation in North America. About half the delegates weren’t able to come, and some of them spent the conference stranded in various airports. This time, in Toronto, with no major catastrophes, attendance was, surprisingly, almost as poor. A bit disappointing. What I really like about these conferences is that they’re interdisciplinary and international; we had scholars in English, philosophy, communication and linguistics, and professionals from psychiatry, writing, activism and acting (I’ve probably missed a few). People came from Ireland, Japan, Spain, the US and Canada (again, I’ve probably missed a few). The other thing I like is that although the papers presented are a jumping off point, the real event is the dialogue between attendees. There’s something exhilarating about a dozen or so intelligent people sitting around a table hashing out some thorny abstract debate. Supporting the conference’s theme of Creating Characters, Inventing Lives, I presented a paper called Embodying Story-Life examining narrative from the seemingly very different perspectives of patient narrative (drawing on work by Arthur Frank) and Native narrative (drawing on work by Thomas King). While there was some interesting discussion, this also brought me back closer to my dissertation.DSC_0239

Yesterday, I took a day-trip to Brock University in St Catharines which was this year’s host for Congress. With many of the major roads in and out of Toronto under repair and causing massive delays, I decided to take the train, which I prefer anyway. VIA proved an expensive option and had limited scheduling for this trip, so I took the GO train. I got out of the city without issue and had a smooth ride to Burlington, where I transferred to the GO bus, well beyond Toronto’s stagnant traffic. The problem is that the GO bus doesn’t arrive at the main terminal in downtown St Catharines, but stops at Fairview Mall. To get from there to Brock via transit requires two city buses and another 30-40 minutes. After two hours in transit already, I splurged on a cab; it’s a short but expensive ride. After arriving on campus, I discovered that I’d worn the wrong shoes. One doesn’t just arrive at Congress; one has to register… on the far side of campus. This was where the throng was gathered. Hot and cold running academics wandered the corridors and great hall, some, like me, looking lost, others hooking up with comrades they only see once a year.

I confess that when I first heard academics talk about Congress with breathy excitement, it sounded like an orgy—and in a way it is. Congress is a veritable smorgasbord of intellectual delights. Organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, aka SSHRC, Congress brings together 75 Canadian associations and over 8,000 delegates in an annual eight-day interdisciplinary intellectual feeding frenzy. Keynotes, meetings and panels make up the conference’s +2,500 events and +5,000 presentations. Clearly, it was a very different experience from the previous weeks’ more intimate conferences. Although it’s a Canadian academic mainstay, I confess that this is the first time I’ve attended. The numbers make it sound much more daunting than it is in practice, as each organization breaks off into its own area for panels and presentations.

The Canadian Communication Association conference I was part of offered six concurrent sessions, so we ended up with about a dozen people in the audience. What was really exciting was presenting with two of my colleagues from Communication and Culture, Sara Martel and Yukari Seko. It made sense, as we’re all working around imaging related to health, but in very different ways. As I think we’d all intuited when writing the panel abstract for Health Beyond the Visible Surface: Visuality, Technology, Power, our unique work fits together really well. Someone had suggested to me that co-presenting with colleagues would take the pressure off, but I actually felt the opposite. When I was writing Data Ghosts Haunt the Living: Medical Imaging’s “Productive Encounters with Corpses” I was conscious of a sense of responsibility towards the panel, not just myself. Although we had some idea of each others’ dissertation research, engaging with it in twenty-minute presentations clarified how much commonality and divergence our work has. I’m hopeful that we’ll find something more to do with this work together.

I didn’t give myself much opportunity to explore Congress—maybe next time. Someone suggested doing multiple presentations for different organizations at Congress to rack up professional development activities on burgeoning academic curriculum vitas, but that just sounds exhausting to me. I’d want to have everything prepared well in advance. We’ll see what next year brings.

So now I’m back home. Tired, fighting allergies, but enjoying the increased sun and heat. No more conferences on the books for the moment. I won’t be teaching again until late June, and even then it’s only one course. I’m looking forward to having time to focus on the dissertation. I feel much better when I’m actively working on it. Pushing to complete the writing this summer. We’ll see how that goes.DSC_0096

© Catherine Jenkins 2014 all rights reserved

Old Friends and New Transit

This is my update for Marpril (March and April), even if that does sound like an Agatha Christie heroine. It was an overly busy winter and between an out-of-town reading, researching and writing two articles for peer review, teaching five classes—oh, and trying to write my PhD dissertation—I kind of ran out of time to post anything in March. So this post, on the last day of April, will have to do double duty.

On March 10, I was in Ottawa. I was invited to read at the Carleton University Art Gallery for an event celebrating the work of Dennis Tourbin. I was flown in, put up at a hotel overnight, flown home, and paid a reading fee. Poets don’t usually get treated like that. I felt like a rock star.

The flight left from the Toronto island airport. Calculating transit and the half-hour buffer requested by the airline, I figured that leaving 90 minutes to travel the maybe 40 minutes to the airport, was ample. The subway, which had been closed for signal upgrades the previous weekend (I was travelling on a Monday morning) moved painfully slowly down the University line. I waited 20 minutes for the airport shuttle that runs every 15 minutes. I waited 15 minutes for the airport ferry. I arrived at the island airport as my flight was gunning down the runway. For the first time in my life, I actually missed a flight. They readily re-booked me, and another passenger, on the next flight to Ottawa. But seriously, there’s no way it should take 90 minutes to get from the Annex to the island. That’s longer than it takes me to get to Pearson International airport. It just shows how truly broken Toronto transit is.

My old friend Michael Dennis picked me up in Ottawa. When I hadn’t arrived as expected, he wondered if we’d missed each other, if we’d failed to recognize each other after so many years. But in fact, we recognized each other instantly. He drove me back to Kirsti and his house where we spent the afternoon talking. Their house is full of art. It made me realize that I need to get the art back up on my walls. I took it down to repaint a couple of years ago and still haven’t gotten around to putting most of it back up. I realize that this is part of why I feel somewhat dislocated these days. We picked up Kirsti from work and went for dinner, then on to the main event.

More than fifty people packed into a gallery full of Dennis’s work. I got to see folks I hadn’t seen in decades, folks from Ottawa and from Peterborough too. There was John and Terri and Billy the K, Grant and Rob, Gilles and Larry. I was only in Ottawa overnight, so wasn’t able to see Peter or Sandra or Stuart, but so happy to see the people I did see.

I hadn’t done a reading in a while, and it felt good. Mostly, I read Dennis’s work, adding a couple of my own poems about his death. Being there, reading that work, to a largely familiar audience, was incredibly moving. I was also humbled that Nadia, Dennis’s wife, enjoyed what I did and said that my reading of Dennis’s work gave her chills. That got me thinking about how we are, in sometimes unexpected ways, products of our mentors. I learned cadence and a lot more from Dennis, embodied it without realizing. I felt privileged to be part of this event. Thankful to Dennis for pulling us all together once again; he always did have that kind of magnetism, that light, that pulled people together, that ignited the room with joy. In addition to the artwork and the words, he also left behind a strong sense of community. Thank you.

Waiting to hear about the two articles I submitted. Just received proof pages for a peer-reviewed book chapter being published this fall. More on those happenings as news comes available. As of this morning, I’ve finished this term’s classes, grades are in, and I can relax about teaching for a while. I’m presenting at three conferences in May, two in Toronto and one a day-trip to St Catharines. Mostly, I’ll refocus on the dissertation over the next few months. Some events in the offing for late summer, but if I tell you now, it’ll spoil the fun.

© Catherine Jenkins 2014 all rights reserved

Recovery, Reflection and a Bright New Year

In mid-August, my head cleared. One morning I woke up feeling normal again. Just like that.

In September 2012, the car I was driving was T-boned by a cabdriver on his cell phone. In seconds, I had a complicated whiplash involving my neck, shoulder and pelvis, and I had a concussion. I didn’t hit my head; I wasn’t knocked out. I had what I have come to refer to as brain slosh. My brain, one of my favourite organs, had been bruised against the inside of my skull. The injury wasn’t immediately apparent. In retrospect, I used the language people use when they have a concussion; I said I was shaken up, dazed. I was able to function, but I wasn’t fully functional.

I kept hearing that it would be a year before I fully recovered. I kept not believing that. I kept kidding myself that I was fine, although I wasn’t. Recovery from the physical injuries took some time and work, with physiotherapy, daily exercises and massage. Of course, healing takes energy, so I was chronically exhausted.

I didn’t have time to be injured, so I carried on. Of course, trying to do something challenging, like a PhD dissertation, is that much more challenging with a brain injury. I did the best I could, but every time I sat down to work on this rich and complex document I’d started, what came out was at the level of a first-grade reader; Dick and Jane visit Vesalius for a lesson in medieval anatomy. Even though I was the only one who saw that work, it was embarrassing.

And there was the terrifying thought that this was it. That I wouldn’t recover, that I’d never be able to write again, that the books planned in my head would stay trapped there, unable to get out. After a few months, I was able to write more successfully, but it was much harder work than it had ever been.

I couldn’t think clearly. It was as if there was a cloudy veil over my brain. I could detect the thought, but had to tease it out of a haze. I was working through some kind of early film dream sequence gossamer fabric special effect. The work seemed to float. It never fully clarified. Even now, when I edit sections written through that haze, I can’t quite grasp them. They’re blurry and I’m still unsure if they work.

My memory was also affected. Routine information would suddenly evaporate. I spent three days trying to remember the name of someone I work with, someone I know. Bass lines I was relearning for the band reunion would quietly dissipate, even though I’d nailed them with practice. I said things that I couldn’t recall later. Someone would kindly follow up on some concern I’d expressed, and I would have no memory of verbalizing it or even thinking it.

But forty-nine weeks after the accident, three weeks shy of a year, I awoke one morning and my head was clear. By then, I’d come to accept the murkiness of my thoughts. I’d accepted this new normal. I’d accepted that I was never going to be fully functional again, that I would never function as well as I had. To wake up suddenly feeling normal again is a wondrous thing. But I couldn’t quite trust it at first. I didn’t know if it would last. To my relief, it has.

Last fall, it was as if my brain was re-checking its circuits, or maybe rewiring some connections. I experienced intense, lucid memories. Things I hadn’t recalled in decades would suddenly spring up with great clarity, sometimes with associated sensory cues. I recalled the taste of cocoa quickies from grade school home ec. I inhaled the scent of the bath beads I used to get in my Christmas stocking. I recalled, with great longing, the red mohair sweater my Mum knitted me that I practically lived in through high school. I felt the impact of reading the two column inches on a back page of the Examiner about Jim Croce’s death. These recollections didn’t have the faintness of normal memories; it was as if I was reliving them or verifying their veracity, checking that they were still intact.

The fatigue I’d been carrying had also become my new norm. I often felt too exhausted to work, like I was dragging myself around. I managed to stay on top of things, but not get ahead, and the bare minimum seemed an inordinate effort. I often felt swamped and overwhelmed, like I was barely managing my life. Again, I’d adjusted to this new reality. I rationalized that because I was getting older, I should expect to have less energy. I’d accepted this new state, telling myself that I just had to hang on a little longer, work a little harder, to get through the PhD.

It wasn’t until the Christmas holiday that I bounced back, again having assumed that I wouldn’t. I started the New Year with a renewed energy and vigour that I hadn’t felt in about fifteen months. And that’s exciting!

People often say that they have a good feeling about a New Year, but I’ve rarely felt this ecstatic in January. Although it had some wonderful moments, I’m very happy to put 2013 behind me. It was one of the tougher years I’ve lived. I felt like I was treading water, trying not to drown, rather than making progress. Now I feel fully recovered, as if I’m back on top of things, as if I can move forward in my life. And what an exciting life it is! I’m making good progress on the dissertation and expect to finish this year. Once that’s done, I can resume revising the new novel. I’m enjoying teaching university communication. I’m back into music and knitting (more on that in a future post), I’m using my time and energy efficiently, I’m sleeping well, I’m socializing more, etc. Life is good.

© Catherine Jenkins 2014

Tempus fugit (or not)

Humans represent a geological blink, yet in the last couple of centuries, we’ve stressed the planet by raping and pillaging that which geological time took millions of years to create. There seems a strange myopia in our notion of progress; we use growing amounts of energy from diminishing sources. Public discourse on pollution started when I was a child, and we discussed alternative energies in high school. Yet this awareness has led to little positive change in the ensuing decades. Sometimes it seems that human animals only progress when prodded by impending disaster.

And while some move slowly, others move with a sense of urgency, but time has a subjective fluidity about it. People with dementia embody subjective time more boldly than most of us, able to conflate days, and seasons, and decades into the same moment; the ultimate sense of flow, but not necessarily desirable. I prefer to get my flow from engaging with work, creative or otherwise. Amazed, as always, to discover that while I’ve been working, the sun has set, the cats want their dinner, and my body is begging for relief. My recent use of dollar-store kitchen timers is helping me break up the day, reminding me of the need for movement.

At some point, and probably for either religious or economic reasons, humans invented clocks, somewhat nullifying our sense of subjective time. Once beyond sundials and clepsydra, early clocks tended to be in church towers or central squares. Although declaring their mechanical sovereignty over each town, they were notoriously fickle. The San Giacomo di Rialto clock, installed in 1410, has never kept reliable time, but it has survived two fires. And of course, there was no consistency of time from town to town. Even if clocks challenged subjective time, each town still had its own temporal identity. But we’ve moved from clockwork clocks into the digital age. At what point will it no longer be viable to ask those being tested for dementia to draw a clock face? And really, who needs to keep time with digital accuracy on a daily basis?

This clock has been dysfunctional since it was installed in 1410.

San Giacomo di Rialto, Venice. This clock has been dysfunctional since it was installed in 1410.

I’ve been increasingly intrigued by Steampunk (more on that in a future post). I devoured H.G. Wells’ novels when I was younger, so Steampunk gives me a pleasant sense of reacquainting with the familiar. One supposition is that, by marrying contemporary with Victorian technologies, Steampunk opens the question of whether we took a wrong turn during the industrial revolution. While that may be so, as we generally conceive of it, time only runs in one direction.

Author-physicist Alan Lightman presented a series of alternative conceptions of time in Einstein’s Dreams, and I’m sure there’s one episode in which time does run backward. Italo Calvino tackled notions of time and forms of consciousness in his Cosmicomics. Author-historian Caleb Carr projected ever-so-slightly forward to create the future history of Killing Time, in which events are almost recognizable. Some authors, John Keats for example, had very little time to make their mark, and yet they succeeded. The list of authors who’ve played with time goes on almost ad infinitum, especially once the science fiction wormhole is opened.

As I write the dissertation, I occasionally reflect on how different my PhD research would have been if I’d tackled it earlier in life, as I’d intended. Sometimes life corkscrews and plans are put on hold until the right time. I didn’t want to start the PhD with the threat of parental illness and death still hanging over me like a dark cloud. A downside to people having children later in life is that the kids may have to deal with life-changing adjustments and care giving before they have fully inhabited their own lives. Those earlier years were used in other ways, but I’m glad that I’ve circled back to complete this academic episode; I always knew I would. I do, however, have some hope that time expended caring for others’ lives gets tacked onto the end of my own life, although I doubt that time, or biology, work that way.

October—when the world goes to sleep. Halloween—when the veil between worlds is thinnest, when time momentarily evaporates. Dreamtime allows the dead to cross timelines for nocturnal visits. This month, I had a dream of my Dad and Moon, my first and blackest cat, the three of us climbing across rooftops. I try to find significance in such dreams, but they are only visits. The awareness of loss remains on waking, even if it was lifted for a brief time, even if I am grateful for the dreamed remembrance. As my mental state quickens with work on the dissertation, I am waking too early, in the full darkness of night. Although I am truly diurnal, I find myself embracing some odd sense of being a night creature, of being up and active when the world is in full dark and quiet. In the fall, I become aware of the shortness of days and the coldness of nights. Even as I continue working, I am slipping into hibernation.

© Catherine Jenkins 2013