By Paul Taylor-McCartney
I’m now a third of my way into a six-year part-time PhD in Creative Writing with Leicester University, working on a 50,000-word dystopian novel, entitled The Recollector, with an accompanying reflective commentary of 20,000 words exploring the function of memory and identity in works from across the genre, including my own. Ask any part-time doctoral researcher about setting aside some dedicated time to study and they’ll tell you it’s a slow-burn process – a little and often should do it. Indeed, taking a measured approach to formulating, creating, revising and continually reviewing sections of material, whilst receiving objective but supportive tutelage from an expert supervisor, comes with its challenges, but also a wealth of opportunities to explore and ideate to the heart’s content.
For example, it’s taken the whole of my first year to get anywhere close to settling on an appropriate register for the creative piece. Third person - second person - then finally choosing first person and locating it entirely in the present tense. The course requires me to balance creative and critical interests, meaning I’m pursuing a range of digressionary journeys away from the core material, but each one actively deepening my appreciation of the processes and discipline required to achieve at this new level. A panel seminar at last year’s NAWE Conference has become an academic paper due to published later this summer. Last month, I returned to painting and the easel to create miniature canvasses to help define the sombre mood of my text’s dystopian setting - a setting in which the majority of the population suffer memory issues in one form or other, with a staggering rise in dementia cases. Elsewhere, drafting confessional poetry is helping sharpen the voice of the text, and I’m currently re-figuring the opening section of the novel as an installation piece for a small gallery in New York. This alone is asking me to re-engage with my previous performance work as both theatre director, actor and musician.
At another extreme, I’m planning on producing a paper version of The Recollector using an antique 1930s Olivetti typewriter, in line with my protagonist’s need to avoid committing his memories to electronic devices of any description.
Some may consider these various digressions unnecessary and even vain enterprises. For me, a PhD in Creative Writing is not simply about completing a full-length study suitable for publication across its creative and critical elements – although that is ultimately one criterion against which I’ll be measured. It is, more crucially, proving to be a fully-immersive exploration of the artistic process in its entirety, spiralling outwards from a central conceit – and the greatest expression of my writing career to date.