Jillian Schedneck is the author of the travel memoir Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights, published by Pan Macmillan in 2012. She received her PhD in Gender Studies from the University of Adelaide in 2013, for which is won the University Doctoral Medal. Her first novel is called Hungry for the World and Its Glow. You can find out more about Jillian on her website.
Nonfiction writer Patricia Hampl once said that no matter what she studied or what kind of job she took, she would always be a writer. Whatever she learned in those other facets of her life would become fodder for her writing, the activity she believed to be at the core of her being. I hoped this was true for me when I began my PhD in Gender Studies. I was passionate about the subject, and already had a Masters in Creative Writing from a university in the United States. But I was anxious about switching from creative writing to an academic style in a discipline I wasn’t yet very familiar with. Beyond that, I worried I wouldn’t be able to return to creative writing in quite the same way after spending several years writing in an academic tone.
My first book was a travel memoir called Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights, which I completed just before starting my PhD. As part of my PhD, I returned to Dubai to interview young Emirati artists about their expressions of national identity. My research particularly focused on young local women, and how they felt about their government’s representation of them as ‘empowered’ recipients of equal treatment to men. In many ways, this work was an extension of my travel memoir, which focused on my relationships with the local women I taught and the differences between our cultures. During my interviews, I happily found that the same tools of observation and compassion applied to social science as it did to memoir writing. So far, so good. But would the pull of creative writing thwart my attempts at a timely completion of my PhD?
I would daydream about the three characters who would comprise my novel while in the shower or on the Dubai Metro, on my way to another interview with a young local artist.
For much of my year and a half of thesis writing, I did not permit myself to even read a novel. I feared the tug of storytelling would be too strong, too inspiring, and I wouldn’t return to my thesis. Despite these efforts to stay focused on my academic writing, I had an idea for a novel while I was in Dubai. I would daydream about the three characters who would comprise my novel while in the shower or on the Dubai Metro, on my way to another interview with a young local artist. When I got back to Adelaide, the glimmer of the story in my mind was the biggest motivating factor in finishing my PhD. Once I completed my thesis, I could start the novel I’d been dreaming about.
Yet, as all writers fear, what if the reality on the page wasn’t as good as in my mind? What if my creative writing style suddenly became irreversibly academic, analytical and obtuse?
While I waited for my PhD supervisors to read through the second draft of my thesis, I began my novel, two years after having the initial idea. It was May 2013, and in many ways this was one of the best months of my life. I didn’t care if my writing was any good at this stage; I was simply overjoyed at writing a story again.
In essence, I became inspired by the academia of feminism. Of course, my novel isn’t academic, but my fascination with this kind of thinking inspired my novel’s central themes centred on three female characters.
As I wrote, I realised that my PhD research and writing helped with several aspects of my novel. For one, I wouldn’t have had the idea for my novel without my thesis. Through my PhD, I learned all about different kinds of feminist theory. I attended and presented my work at conferences and learned how other scholars like me were applying those theories. In essence, I became inspired by the academia of feminism. Of course, my novel isn’t academic, but my fascination with this kind of thinking inspired my novel’s central themes centred on three female characters. They are all grappling with different kinds of feminist ideas in their personal lives and decisions. I also learned a great deal about how to go about doing research. My novel involved historical research into the Bluestocking women of eighteenth century England, scholarly research into the controversy over women’s roles within Buddhism in Thailand, and research into female adventurers and travellers throughout recent history. I believe my novel is much richer for these researched aspects, which I painstakingly weaved into the story of my three main characters. My PhD gave me the discipline to follow through on this research for my novel.
It took me two more years to finish the novel. In that time, I got married, got a full-time job, and had a baby. I wrote and rewrote during the weekends and my lunch hour, and I had great friends help me along the way by reading and giving feedback. Throughout those two years of novel writing, I found that academic and creative writing do indeed mix, and even complement each other.
The Secret Live of Writers is a series of blog posts from writers (published or unpublished) who dish the dirt on how they juggle life and art. You can read bout the whys and wherefores here.
The Secret Lives of Writers is now available as an ebook
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