Heather shares valuable insights for those considering a freelance writing career, offering thoughtful questions to ponder. She takes us on her personal journey, delving into the challenges of pursuing a PhD as a dyslexic student. Heather reflects on the skills gained during the PhD process and extracurricular activities, highlighting how they paved the way for her non-academic career. She candidly discusses her decision to forgo an academic path and contemplates the initial expectations she had for her PhD’s trajectory. Heather recounts the post-PhD period, sharing the gradual evolution of her freelance writing career. In her reflection, she evaluates the significance of her PhD, delves into the overall experience, and revisits the motivations that led her to embark on this academic journey.
Explore Heather’s journey further by clicking the links below:
What was your background before PhD? Was it in English?
Well, my, my background was in, I went to art college after university and always wanted to be a visual artist. And then realized once I was at, art college that I was not ready to do that. I did not want to pursue my creative work through visual arts. I wanted to pursue it through, books and the written word and kind of developing my ideas, in, in a more intellectual way, so I went actually and did a history degree, which used a lot of literature as its source material.
And then I moved from history into an interdisciplinary course at Masters and Women's Studies, which used a lot of literature again. And then from there I moved into straight literature. So it was a very interdisciplinary experience, academically, and that is something I have retained. and the PhD was very interdisciplinary, even though it was within an English faculty.
How did you get onto the PhD program? Did you continue at the same institution where you did your Masters?
That is right, yes. So I continued at the same institution and had the same supervisor for my PhD as had supervised my masters thesis. So it was a continuation, it felt like a very much a continuation of previous work in the masters
Would you say that when you started the PhD that where you have ended up is, is where you are aiming at or that it, it, you have not, it did not quite work that way?
I think that I have ended up where I was aiming at definitely from, but it was not as clear as that at the time when I was going through it. It was a, it was very, it was not, it was not totally clear that things were going to go either way. I wanted to, I was not absolutely certain. Part of me did think that I could pursue my interests within the framework of a, an academic position.
And I, I wondered if I could do that. I was not totally sure. So at the time it was not, was not utterly explicit, to myself about where I was going, but I think actually it has always been there since I could not, since my way before my PhD from a very young age, I kind of knew where I was going, what I wanted to do. So it has kind of become explicit, but it was not, it was implicit during the, the years of the PhD, I think.
Did it ever create any ambivalence in your mind about the value of the PhD when there were others around you that did not value it? Or did it shape your, did it make you more determined or, or more defiant about it? The, the value of it?
Hmm. I think I always had some kind of deep-seated sense of its value that I knew it was a valuable thing to do, and it seemed like a purposeful thing to do in your life, no matter what you do next. It seemed like a way of developing my intellectual life of, of being able to write all these sort of skills that developed and just the inherent value of literature.
I, I felt very, very clear about. But I think it is probably true that my, some peoples around me, I do not feel that very strongly, but some people's sort of bafflement about what a PhD is and why one would do it, probably did raise certain questions in my mind on the surface of, of feeling perhaps a little bit uncertain and insecure about what I was doing.
But I, I do not remember that being particularly, strong as a feeling. But I think I did protect myself from that by make, by surrounding myself with other people who were doing PhDs and having very sort of close friendships with them and not really spending a lot of time with people who, who were not pursuing intellectual things. So I kind of padded, protected myself, you know, from that ambivalence slightly, I think.
'cause I think you need to, to keep motivated and to keep your sense of, you know, purpose and what you are doing and that, you know, in our culture, a lot of people can be very undermining about what you are supposed to be doing with your life and what, what is important. But I think it is important to stick to your intuitions and your instincts and your gut feelings about things. And mine was always very strong that this is the right thing to be doing at the moment.
Did you ever doubt the value of it?
I never doubted the value of it while I was doing it, but shortly after I finished it, I did, I had a period of doubt immediately after I finished it, before I had established myself separately and into my writing career and had sorted, had sort of set up the, you know, my direction. I was in this, in-between phase for finishing the doctorate and then, trying to, to change my writing style and changed my approach to writing to move in the direction I needed to go and towards creative writing.
And I think it was in that period that I had some ambivalence and thought, oh, well, maybe I should not have done it. Maybe I should have just stopped after the masters and then pursued my writing. But I sort of went through that and out the other side and now feel that it was really essential that I did it. for many reasons. I mean, one of the most sim the simplest reason is my agent said to me that as a young woman, you are taken a lot more seriously as a non-fiction writer if you have a PhD, that the kind of prejudices in the non-fiction mainstream publishing of are such that it is actually really beneficial.
So that was a, you know, I got the agent, I think partially through the fact of, doing the PhD. So it was a step in the direction I wanted to go, but I definitely had a feeling of ambivalence in, in the, in a for about a year after I finished it, maybe a year and a half of wondering whether it was the right thing or not.
So has It, has it shaped your identity having a PhD or achieving a PhD?
I think probably has in the sense of feeling. I think it does give you a sense of pride having that, the fact that it changes your name, that you have the kind of doctor thing, it sounds sort of silly and, a superficial, but I do not think it is really. I think it, it does, it did, it has given me a sense of intellectual achievement and status and a, and a sense of confidence about my, myself intellectually, and to it is a very demanding thing to do.
And to have got through it and to have done it is something I am very proud of, especially given that I was an undiagnosed dyslexic at school and often struggled in certain subjects and was not always treated as someone who was clever. That for me, it was a very, it was a sort of personal triumph to have done that.
And I think for me, it finally put to bed permanently certain difficult experiences that I had had earlier on at school where questions were raised about my intelligence because the teachers were ill-informed and ignorant about, dyslexia. So it has definitely changed my sense of identity, I think, in a very positive way. the benefit of the PhD for me into creative terms was that it developed my reading skills and my sort of intellectual, engagement with literature and how it works, but also that it, it gave me space and time.
I mean, I, I, I basically had four years of time to read, and to, to to think and to develop my ideas, which I think looking back now is incredibly useful, even though it was not as clear as that at the time of doing it. It was a space and a time to, to sort of develop intellectually in a very free sort of way. How did you, how did you see yourself when you had finished?
What, what what had changed and, Well, it is very, I think, you know, it was, it all happened very quickly. You suddenly, you have been working away for years and years, and then suddenly it is finished and it's seemed to examiners, and then suddenly you have your viva. and it is all quite terrifying, but it all, it was over quite quickly and painlessly, and it was fine.
And it just took me a while to absorb it. I think. I think, you know, I felt so happy when it was finished and, and that, when that had passed, that was brilliant feeling. but I think it, it took me a while to recover from the strain of it finishing. It was very demanding. but, and it's one of those things that I feel is sort of kept on giving to me once it's been finished.
Once I have recovered from it, it, it's kept on and it does keep on, sort of giving me things back. even when I, you know, now that I have realized it was the right thing for me to do and, you know, it did not, it was not a distraction from getting on with the writing.
I think it was just incredibly useful. Gave me an amazing range of skills, time to read and think, network of people I met through it.
What about your self-perception?
It took a long time for me to integrate into myself perception. The fact that I had done it and the whole sort of doctor thing. It did, it did take a while. It took my family a while.
It was all sort of treated a bit of a joke to start with, and I, I felt quite ambivalent about it. I was not sure if I really deserved it, and it felt quite strange, but it, so it did, took about a year to really absorb the fact that I had done it and that it, you know, that I did deserve it and I had, I had achieved something, you know, that it had worked.
So it, it, it was a very gradual thing of integrating this, you know, this achievement into my wider sense of myself. but I have sort of gone through that and out the other side in the way that now I do not, in my career as a, as a freelance writer, I do not use doctor and I do not sort of promote that side because I do not know that it's terribly useful if you are wanting to present yourself in certain ways that I, I can seem overly intellectual now.
It's a kind of irony that I spent years trying to prove to myself that I was a kind of intellectually, achiever, and now I am trying to kind of shed that a little bit and be, approach my writing and my thinking in a, in a, in a more intuitive, emotionally nuanced way.
So it's, it's a sort of funny identity that I use when it is useful and I drop when I do not need it.
Can you talk a bit about being a dyslexic PhD student?
Well, I found, I was, at the very first sort of years of the new system of the, local educational authorities providing the, DSAs for funding. So, but, but when I had the, there wasn't one-to-one tuition available. There was money for books and equipment. So I got a computer whiteboard, which really helped me, and sort of, you know, equipment, but I didn't have any support during the thesis, which I needed.
And I ended up having support from friends and my boyfriend in particular. but I feel that I was not sufficiently supported by my supervisor or by any facilities available for the dyslexia, which I know are now in place, which I have, you know, participated in. I, I think I did not have, I was not sufficiently supported, and I did not have enough self-knowledge.
And the thing that I think is vitally important, which I have now, and which enables my work to sort of be, you know, to, to, to happen is I have much more self-knowledge about how I need to work. and I did not have that so much at the early stages of my PhD, which hindered me in my organisational, in those areas and made it quite difficult for me to structure my thesis. so I think I always had a clear sense of the benefits of being dyslexic, that my imaginative skills, my creative lateral thinking skills were contributing to my thesis being very original.
So I was, I was happy about that, but I, but the, the downsides of being dyslexic I do not think were sufficiently supported or understood by me at the time, which made things much more difficult than they needed to be.
In terms of the attitudes you encountered about being both a very intelligent woman doing a, doing a PhD and someone who was presenting themselves as a dyslexic woman as well.
Mm-Hmm. I, I found, I gave my supervisor my educational psychologist report, and she was kind, and, you know, supportive as much as she could be, but she was clearly profoundly ignorant, and it was clear that she had never really encountered dyslexic, PhD researchers before, and that she did not really know what to do, and she was ill-equipped to support me or to understand what it meant in practice.
So, I had heard people sort of, not in talking in reference to me, but general comments made by academics in the English faculty that there are no dyslexics at this department or at this university. so I encountered some very old-fashioned attitudes, and basically kind of bafflement about certain of the problems that I was having.
My supervisor just could not really understand where the difficulties were or how to help me. and I think that is a problem generally as dyslexic student or graduate or researcher in humanities department, you are generally going to be faced with ignorance and well-meaning bafflement, and the only way to deal with that is to empower yourself with knowledge about what dyslexia is and then explain it to people and ask for help.
But I was not able to do that really, because I did not really know, what to ask for at the time. and I also felt quite intimidated by my supervisors. there is a power dynamic often between graduates and their supervisors, which I, I did not think is terribly helpful for dyslexic students or anybody with any kinds of disability issues. there is rarely a forum in which to raise these issues or, or in my experience, it may be different in certain departments, but I do not think it was particularly well thought through in mine.
I think I, the thing is, I, everyone else I know who did a PhD in English had a, had a equally difficult time as me. I do not feel that my experiences because of dyslexia were made it more difficult weirdly. I think it is just such a difficult thing to do. it just, it is an incredibly demanding and rigorous apprenticeship, and you really, really are required to face all your self-doubts about your yourself intellectually and stare them head on in the face.
And that is the kind of amazing thing about it is if you get through it and you do it, you have really had to do those things. It is almost like a kind of, some kind of, shall in monk kind of training. It is like a kind of martial, intellectual martial art and having you, you, I felt like my brain was sort of disassembled during the process and then reassembled again. And it is quite an extraordinary and very painful experience for everyone.
But if you do it and, you, you know, it is, it really does give you an enormous range of skills and abilities, that you will not have unless you have done it. So I do not feel, I think perhaps I know, I think everyone, everyone I know had it very, very difficult and demanding, and you are forced to look at your own mind, very, very, very sort of profound way.
Why did you decide to do a PhD?
Good question. I thought about that for a while. I think because I wanted to do it, simply as that, and I did not know I wanted to do it until halfway through my master's, which I knew I wanted to do Towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I knew I wanted to continue with my academic work, I was enjoying it, felt I was not sort of finished with it.
It felt very creative, very stimulating, just felt right. but I did not envisage doing a PhD during the Master's really until about halfway through when I felt, when, you know, things were going very well with the masters. I was really enjoying it again and felt incredibly stimulated and thought that, if, if I could get a place to do the PhD and if I could get funding, I would do it. But at that stage, I was not envisaging an academic career necessarily either.
It was not something that I, you know, started out assuming would I would do with a PhD. So, I very much pursued it as a creative thing. It was a, a PhD in English literature on, started off being on, three 20th century, early 20th-century writers, and it, it felt essentially, it felt like a creative thing rather than an academic thing, if is what I mean.
I think that I have always wanted to write creative, do creative writing, which is now what I am doing. and doing a PhD felt like part of a, what is the word? apprenticeship towards that process. So I never wanted to, to be a literary critic. I never wanted to do that. but the PhD in studying literature and this very, what felt like a very privileged environment, of a university where you get to really think about things and read incredibly widely, seemed to me a much better way of moving to, now I am looking back on it.
I think what I was doing is moving towards my creative writing, through doing a PhD rather than as some people do, having a day job and then, you know, working on their creative writing the weekends or whatever. So for me, I did sort of toy with the idea of going into academic work and then perhaps doing creative writing on the side.
But eventually I realized by the end of the thesis that I could not do both literary criticism and creative writing, and I had to kind of choose.
Can we talk now a bit about your experience of, of being a PhD student?
Well, I think I found the first year very liberating because you feel like you have got all this time ahead of you. and it is a kind of free-roaming year, that first year where you can explore lots of different ideas. And I pursued lots of different kinds of tangents, and it was very exciting and liberating. I was not given, you know, in, in taught courses always you are given reading lists and things that you are directed to look at, whereas suddenly you were left to do what you wanted.
And I took real advantage of that and read a very wide variety of quite strange things in that first year. And I really enjoyed that. it was very, very liberating. and as the, but as the, as the process, went on, I found it increasingly frustrating, and found myself with quite developing quite unwieldy chapters and a lack of structure.
And this was partly to do with the fact that I had not quite fully understood how the fact that I dyslexic affected my ability to manage very large documents, very large, kind of arguments. and I did not feel that I was given the appropriate support by my supervisor. I did not really understand the difficulties. So I found the, the, the process increasingly frustrating.
And it just got harder and harder basically, as, as time went on, and the last sort of six months were not particularly enjoyable. They were just writing up and trying to get something down that was, you know, going to work as a linear argument. And it was very, very difficult. I, I also found the department that I was in, a bit too conservative for me in the long run. The kinds of ideas that I was working on in the first half of the thesis, which excited me a great deal and were very interesting to me.
Whilst they worked very well as seminar presentations, and I very much enjoyed giving graduate talks with other graduates and presenting ideas and exploring ideas together. But I found that in fact, when it came to the crunch, the thesis was required to be more conservative than I felt was suitable for me. So I felt ultimately that I was not quite in the right department and I would have benefited from being in a slightly more flexible literature department.
So there was a certain level of disappointment with my final product of my thesis, bits of it. I was very, very pleased with bits of it. I really, I thought were quite kind of pedestrian, and functioned simply to sort of get the thesis done. So it was a mixed, a mixture, very mixed experience, I would say.
So in the beginning you felt quite liberated, But by the end you felt quite constrained?
Yes, I think that is exactly right. Yeah. I, I think that was partly, a learning, a very part of me feels that that was a useful thing in learning how ideas cannot always materialise, you know, and, and that that gap between fantastic, exciting ideas and the, your ability to realize them in practice, was something I had to learn. That the, the thesis, the thesis taught me, and I think I was perhaps a bit too ambitious when I started out, doing the thesis.
I had very sort of grand ambitions about it that I could not, I did not quite have the skills to realise. So it was sort of, it was a learning experience about that. and I feel that perhaps I was not given enough guidance by my supervisor earlier on as to what was realistic. But, but in a way, you know, I had great fun exploring ideas. Yeah, so I learned lots of things, some of which, all of which was helpful, but not always enjoyable, I would say.
What did you not find enjoyable?
I did not enjoy, I think I just ended up with, I, I, I was, I struggled to make the realities of the thesis meet my ambitions, and that was, that was very frustrating. I did, so I did not enjoy that.
I did not enjoy the last stages of writing up. It was just intensely stressful. and I think the viva and the whole experience of passing the PhD was highly mythologised in my department, in my university, and overly sort of, treated by it, by all sort of PhD researchers, graduates as a kind of impossible, herculean task. And it was, it, and no supervisors or academics were really offering sufficient advice about what it was in practice, and they just, it just, they just fostered this atmosphere of fear amongst graduates, about the viva and about passing, which I think was very unhelpful and intensely stressful.
Well, I found that the thing that I enjoyed most about doing the PhD was the, fellow graduates that I met working, you know, in, in English on humanities. and the intellectual friendships that I developed I found incredibly stimulating and I value highly, and it is one of the best things I have taken from the PhD experiences, a group of really interesting friends, who really shared that experience sort of ups and downs.
And I think my friends who were doing, their own PhDs helped me more than my supervisor in the end actually. And, particularly my partner who is also I, I met during the process of doing the PhD who also did a PhD in English. We really helped each other and our intellectual sort of endeavours are very central to our relationship, and that was a really exciting and wonderful thing.
So that was very supportive. I think friends who are not doing, who were not doing PhDs did not always understand, what I was doing. And it is something that is quite difficult to explain to other people who are not doing it, what it is actually like. So friends who, you know, were pursuing other kinds of careers, found it a bit baffling. Similarly family who had not done, you know, I do not come from a sort of university background family, and they found it very baffling and did not really understand why it took so long.
They kept thinking it would be a finished, you know, and they just did not really grasp how difficult it was or how long it takes. Although they were supportive in many respects, they, they really were, but they, they could not really grasp it, but they certainly were not, I did not feel that they were detrimental to the process.
I just think they did not fully understand it.
Did you ever doubt that you would get to the end?
Yes, I really did. About two-thirds through, I went through a stage and everyone seems to go through it of feeling like it is never going to be finished. You cannot actually see the end at all, and you get totally stuck inside it, and you cannot see the wood for the trees. So that definitely happened, and it is a real heave to get it finished. but everyone seemed to experience that seemed to be quite common, but I have, I definitely remember quite an overwhelming sense that this was never gonna end, but it did. You know.
Can you talk me through the final year of the PhD and into, the world beyond it?
So, well, the final year of my PhD, I was writing up frantically, a very intensive year of writing. I wrote about 2000 words a day for, nip, really nine months to a year, so I was incredibly focused, very, it was really hard work, but I just was determined to get it done. And all I can remember about it is just writing and writing and writing and writing really. And then very sort of structured process supervisor reading it, editing.
Were you thinking about what you were going to do afterwards?
No, I do not think I was, I think during the, the last sort of, oh no, hang on. It is so difficult to think back. No, I actually had a postdoc already. That was it. I had in the first early months of my, sorry, for the latter few months of my PhD when I was editing it, when the draft had been finished, when I was editing it, I had already started a postdoctoral fellowship. It was one year.
How did you get that?
Which I had, which I applied for during the final year of my PhD with a view to doing a project, after my PhD, which I never did, but I had this year, and I thought I would do it. And I actually, because my PhD took a lot longer than I thought it would, as I think lots of peoples do. I, well, when I started the postdoctoral fellowship year, I still had not finished my PhD. So the, the beginning of that year was spent editing and finishing the PhD and submitting it to my supervisor, waiting for her to read it. And then, it was, it was finally finished submitting it, and then the months of waiting. So while I was waiting, I had this postdoctoral fellowship.
I continued to teach as I had done during my final years, of doctoral work. So I was teaching undergraduates, and working on, I put a proposal in for, to edit a collection of writing by the author I had studied for my PhD. and that was, going through the process.
So during that postdoctoral year, in fact, I edited a, a book of writing by my author who I, who I had studied.
How did you get the opportunity to do that?
So I did that by contacting, the same time that I applied for the postal. I think I, contacted by email, the editor of a series of similar works by, by writers from the same period, and, sent a proposal to the editor, who got back to me and wanted to publish the work.
So, so during the period when I was waiting for, to hear about my thesis, it was the very early stages of this very small book, that I was, putting together as part of the postdoctoral fellowship. But, I was also, looking into, going freelance during the, no, I think soon after, once, once I had my viva, once my viva was over, and I got the PhD, I was pretty clear that I wanted to start going in a different direction, but I was not quite sure how it would work out or exactly what I wanted to do.
It was a very sort of, open period and, and very frightening and stressful in lots of ways, but also very necessary because I was thinking of applying for academic jobs and, and looking into what I could publish, but I was not really feeling that it was the right thing, and it already was obvious to me that I needed to go in a different direction.
So I started to, look into other writing ideas that I had. I started reviewing, for the national press and started doing the odd bits of journalism. In the final year of my PhD, I started writing for websites for free, which is a good place to start as a freelance writer.
And I started reviewing, for websites. and that provided me with some, with, sample writing to send to editors of newspapers and magazines. And I contacted editors. And in the final year of my PhD, I began publishing reviews in the national press and started reviewing for the independent, particularly in the TLS. And then, so I had some experience of writing outside academia once my PhD had finished. And I, was in this one year postdoc position, putting together this book of writing by the person I had done my PhD on. And then I had started having ideas about other kinds of writing I wanted to do. So I, really started doing research on new projects, looking into different ideas and just, getting my head around the idea of leaving academia really, because lots of friends were moving into academic jobs, or JRF’s junior research fellowships, and applying for academic positions and publishing their thesis in academic journals or as books, but it, it was not the right thing for me.
So it took me quite a long time to get my head around that. and in the meantime, while I was really making this sort of psychological shift, I started, working with, I am looking in, I looked at a lot of research into dyslexia in higher education, contacted a lot of people I went to talk to about, what kind of, support was provided, that I had not received myself.
'cause there's the support that is now currently available wasn't in place when I was a graduate. and it came, became clear that there were openings and a need for people to support, dyslexic undergraduate and graduates.
And so I started working with, with them. and that was very helpful, financially. And in terms of thinking about my own relationship with dyslexia and my own strategies that sort of confirmed my own thoughts about it. I did a lot of reading about dyslexia and in fact wrote some articles on the dissect my own experiences, for the Times Higher Education Supplement, so that was a very important strand of shifting into freelance writing, was really looking carefully at what my own experience of the doctoral process had been.
and alongside that, I started having ideas for books and contacted literary agents, and, got the support of a literary agent who advised me on how to develop my ideas into a proposal that could be shown to editors and commissioned, which is what I did in the year after the postdoc had finished, I continued teaching and writing bits of journalism, and, I, was developing a proposal to try and sell. I also was fortunate to get a research, a book proposal, a book proposal with advice by of an agent. And I also had, I applied for, a research, fellowship with the women's library in London, which was open to freelancers specifically for freelancers, people not in higher education.
So I started looking into the kind of funding positions that were available, outside academia for freelance people. And there is a, you know, there are all kinds of things out there.
How do you find them?
Just looking on the web, Society of Authors has, advice, but slightly, just luck. You just come across things and applied them.
How did you get an agent?
I just contacted an agent, they are all listed in a writer and artist yearbook.
How did you know which one to contact?
I was actually advised by a friend who to contact, as a, 'cause he was a nonfiction editor in the book that I was wanting to do as a nonfiction book. So I contacted him during my postdoc year, and he, wanted to meet me. So we met and discussed various ideas and he gave me advice on, on how to write a proposal, what a proposal involved. And I went away and then spent the rest of my postdoc year.
And then I had this fellowship at the women's library after that year, which was, basically just an opportunity to do some research and to give public lectures on my research. so it was similarly a kind of transitional year as well as after the, the postdoc. and during that year I wrote the proposal and the editor gave me feedback and advice and, I edited it and rewrote it.
And it was a lot, it was a lot of work involved.
The editor or the agent?
The agent, sorry. And then that was finally ready for sale and the agent sold it and I was commissioned to, to write the book. And then that's enabled me financially to, write pretty much full time with a little bit of teaching. and from my experiences at the Women's Library where they host creative writing workshops, I started to my own experiences. I, I attended a creative writing workshop myself, which helped my writing shift from academic to creative writing, called the Paris Writers Workshop.
It is this week long summer school, run by established writers. So I attended that, and that was a significant turning point in my writing style, I think helped me to get the book deal.
What was that like, that workshop?
It was very helpful because it was an opportunity to meet other aspiring writers, and to talk to established creative writing, practitioners, about how they'd worked.
And so it was very helpful, gave me sort of some advice about how to change my writing style and was very sort of, quite ruthless in, we had to submit written work and the, our tutor was quite ruthless with us, and it was quite, it was quite difficult 'cause he really said what didn't work and what did, and made you kind of face up to what your own writing style was and where you wanted to take it.
So it was very kind of, it was a really important week. It was really useful.
What kind of things were you having to write?
We did not have to write very much while we were on the course. We only, we only had one bit of writing that we did, where we had to write about our, did we have to write about a house? I think we had to write about our house from our childhood. Mainly what he did, what we did was look at passages of writing and we submitted write written work to him before the week and he'd read it and then did work, tutorials with us.
So we had feedback on work we'd written previously.
So coming from academic writing, how did that feel?
It felt, quite difficult and I was quite resistant to him and his comments, but I knew he was right. And actually it was a breakthrough, kind of happened during that week with my writing. I felt that it just sort of turned and went in the direction that it needed to go in.
So it was, it was very, very helpful. and, shortly after that, the proposal was finished and the, the book deal went through. So, and I, from my experiences going to Creative Writing Workshop, and seeing the creative writing workshops at the Women's Library, I was keen to start teaching creative writing. I kind of intuitively knew that that's the kind of teaching I would like to do, and that I felt unsatisfied.
I felt similarly unsatisfied with teaching, criticism during my doctoral work as I had with writing criticism. So I, started teaching creative writing workshops at the women's libraries. Those went really, really well, became very naturally to me, and I've started to, to develop that in other areas now. And I teach Creative Writing workshops, regularly now. So, there was a similar shift in my teaching as there was in my writing, I think over to creative writing away from criticism.
Can you unpack a bit more about how you made that transition then to teaching creative writing?
Well, I think it'd been sort of growing for a long time. I think by the time I actually attended the writing workshop, my writing was sort of nearly there. It just needed to be tipped over the edge, really into what I really wanted to do. and sometimes you do just have to leap in.
You just need to start doing something. You just need to do it. And there's no, you know, you just have to make a decision. And I just leapt into the dark, you know, and said, I am gonna teach Creative Writing workshop. I read lots of books about teaching creative writing, and I drew on my own experiences and it just, you just had to do it. You just did it and it worked, you know, and it just was natural. It was like someone, it was just like a baby knows how to swim or something, and you just do it and it's right.
So it confirmed my instincts that this is what I needed to do.
How did you find out about the opportunities to teach these Workshops?
Just from being at the women's library, having the, the residency there, they have lots of, they run lots of workshops, so, you know, I, I, it kind of opened my mind to the, to the possibility and I, and looked into it. And I kind of just thought about what I'd find useful, and I think that's another way you can find out what you need to do in terms of, of teaching. And I thought, what would help me and what would I enjoy doing?
And then I thought, well, if I enjoy it and I find this useful, that means other people probably would as well. 'cause I'm not different to other people. So that was the kind of quite organic way in which I, moved towards it. So I think I, I drew on teaching experience I'd had previously knowing how to, to help people to read their own work critically, read other work critically.
So the, the work that I did for my PhD certainly feeds into the creative writing, teaching, absolutely in the same way that it feeds into my own writing. but it's just slightly differently focused. So, it was about building on previous skills and then adapting them to slightly different purposes. I think.
You say you have always had an agenda and a sense of purpose. How did you bring that into play whilst you, whilst you were doing a PhD?
Well, I think that was the frustrating thing is that I started out, as I said, with a PhD. It, it, it started out being much more imaginative and, and kind of creative, and drawing on those skills that I have. but in the end, it ended up being more, sort of less, less creative and imaginative than I would have hoped.
Some of it did manage to be in that, that work well, but other bits of it I did not feel were, lived up to my, you know, creative hopes. And I just do not think academic writing can often, I do not think, I think lots of academic writing in English is not particularly creative at the best of it is. but it is not an, it just, it is too left hemisphere for me, and I am a right hemisphere person. I think that is putting it very bluntly and psycho pop way.
But, but I think that that is what it was. It ended up being a very left hemisphere skill, which has been really useful for me to develop. 'cause I always used to be overly developed in the right hemisphere, I think. and it has really helped me to develop very useful skills of discipline and structure and argument and research skills and managing large amounts of material. So it has been incredibly useful. but it did not use right hemisphere skills enough.
And beyond the thesis, like outside of the thesis during your PhD, did you have opportunities to submerge yourself in that sort of, in creative world?
I do not, I feel like I did in, in other ways in, I had sort of extracurricular things I did making stuff, and be very interested in film. but I did not do much creative writing during the PhD.
I just did not have any space to develop it really. I think it was sort of going on subconsciously. And it was really after the thesis, the thesis was finished about a week after my vive. I just sort of erupted into creative thinking. and it was just all quite suppressed during the PhD, I think, but quite usefully, I think it was all sort of building and, you know, what's the word? Distilling underneath the thesis.
So it, I do not think nothing was happening, even though I was not explicitly writing, you know? So no, it just took all my energy to do the thesis. It took absolutely every ounce of energy to be able to do it. I think that is true of everyone I know. So it does not leave you with much time or energy to do anything else.
Can you remember what you were anticipating about finishing and, and, and, and afterwards? Did you have a sense of what the future would be like?
No. I remember feeling like just because of the last sort of year of the thesis, I could not think about anything except getting it finished. So I did not have any sense of the future. All I had a sense of was I wanted this to be done. I wanted it to pass and I wanted to be finished with it. And it only, it took so much energy that I did not have any left to think about the future. And it was only once it was done that I could then turn my attention to the future, really. I mean, I vaguely sort of thought about careers and I kind of did some, you know, exercises to think about what careers I wanted, but I, I turned my attention to that, when I finished, and could only really think about the future once it was done.
So you did not really engage in any skills training or kind of career Activities?
No, I went to the the British Academy. It was then, career weekend or week. Yeah, yeah. Which they, I dunno what it's called now. And I found it totally useless.
And in fact, the only thing it gave me was a sense that I never want to be put through something as ludicrous and patronising as this ever again. And in that way, it was useful. So I, it was ridiculous. It was totally designed around science students, graduates, and they just kind of grafted a few humanities people on the top. and it was just ludicrous. The, it was utterly pointless and it made a, it made a mockery of what I was doing, in fact, because it, it did not address anything to do with the values or the concerns or the interests that I was actually dealing with in my PhD.
And it was a total waste of money and I was very angry about it at the time and felt like it was a total waste of taxpayer's money, a waste of my time. And it, it made me very cross actually. And it put me off pursuing other kinds of structured ways of, of thinking about careers, career services I found utterly useless. So I ended up reading books and I particularly found, “What Colour is Your Parachute?” really helpful, which I think is a, you know, book that lots of people read about careers.
And I went through those structured exercises very carefully and I found that incredibly helpful, and talking to other people once I'd finished and working through in mind maps and brainstorms and thinking about underlying interests and values, helped me. So I, I absolutely addressed career issues, but only after the thesis was done, except for this week during the thesis research when I went to this hopeless British Academy Week, which was counterproductive.
Can you remember any, courses, workshops, put on by the faculty or the career service that you, noticed and ignored or got involved in?
I think I was probably one of those students that is a bit bad at reading bumph that comes through about career services. I have just never been particularly good at that. So I probably did ignore things that might have been useful provided by the career service of my university. but I, I did not pursue them.
I have always wanted to be self-employed and quite self-directed, and I do not feel that career service is often very good at providing information about that. And I felt that I needed to develop my own sense of future and career quite organically through my interests and my things that I really care about. And that is what I have done. And I do not think career services have been able to, can provide you with that. You know, it is more of a case of take a good look at yourself and ask yourself what you want out of life, which is what the, “What Colours Your Parachute?” book does very successfully is ask not does not talk about careers, but talks about values and, interests and kinds of environments you need to be in.
And what sort of, you know, broad, much broader questions, which I think are more useful way of thinking about careers. So I was, I found there were some useful workshops run by the department about how to become an academic. They were very good at that.
They provided kind of workshops on how to write reviews for journals and how to approach journals with journal articles and, and how to publish. So they, they were, they were very helpful on that. but the department did not really acknowledge or countenance the idea that people might be doing a PhD who did not want to become academics. So there was not really a, a venue or avenue institutionally for me to pursue my future. I had to kind of do it by myself once I left, really.
What sort of value did you place on networking socially?
Very, that was the most useful thing that came out of it. I feel that I met really interesting range of people who, who were doing PhDs and who have gone on to do a range of really interesting things inside academia and outside that have developed into a very useful network. I met lots of other people who have become writers since, who have become academics, who have become agents and edit editors and publishers, and artists.
So it is definitely a, the sort of circle of people that I met through it have been the most useful and, and, and brilliant part of it really.
Can you tell me now a little bit more about what you do now?
So now I am a freelance writer, and I have an agent, and I do a bit of journalism on the side and a bit of creative writing teaching. And I do work with dyslexic adults, a little bit as well. But my main thing is, is I am writing a book at the moment, my first major book, and then I am, I, I am hoping that that will lead to, you know, a book every couple of years. So, I am basically freelance and I am outside any institution.
And I am very much sort of self-guided, self-motivated, and self-disciplined. And that is something the PhD really enabled me to develop the ability to do. I think it is brilliant, it gave me an incredible opportunity to develop my ability to work on my own, to direct my own projects, to see them through, to write substantial amounts of texts and to manage large documents, large kind of, you know, projects. So it is actually really useful skills that I got from that, which I have definitely taken into what I am doing now.
Can you tell me on a sort of day-to-day basis, what your life is like? Kind of give me some taste of the variety in your life.
Mm-Hmm. So the book was commissioned, and I had two years to submit the manuscript.
And did they pay you some of that commission upfront?
Yes, I had an advance upfront, on the signature of the contract, and then I had another chunk of money from the, from the, contract on the submission of three chapters.
And was it enough money to mean that you did not have to earn any other kind of income anywhere else?
No, it was not enough. No, it was nearly enough, but not quite enough. So I applied for grants as well to pay for the research. 'cause the first year of the, of the, work on the book was research. Yeah. So, I applied for lots of funding, and also worked part-time, doing creative writing workshops and some dyslexia support for graduates mainly in higher education, but, mainly researching the book. I had not started writing it till a year or in, so, I got, I received, I got a grant to go, to do lots of the research abroad, which involved lots of travel. So, most of the, most of my time I spent researching in different libraries.
I had to do a lot of reading. and then after the year of writing, year of research, then writing could begin, mixture of research and writing. But then mainly now I am in the process of writing up my research. And How do you tend to structure your days? it depends if I am writing or researching. If I am researching, I tend to work a kind of full, you know, eight-hour day variety of research at home or in different libraries in, in London or where I live.
And, if I am writing, I tend to write in the mornings and tend to have a, a page limit a day. So daily, daily goal of five pages a day. So I tend to alternate between research weeks and writing weeks, and then some weeks of editing. So it, every day is different really. I do not really have a particular routine.
Do you write at home?
I write a mixture of at home, and I like to travel, so I quite often go abroad, to, to write.
I quite like writing in the library. I will go to London sometimes the British Library. So varied. I like to kind of vary it really.
What are the best things about being a freelance writer?
Well, the best thing for me is being able to, explore my imagination. And that is what I really enjoy about my writing is it is very imaginative and it involves research and, and kind of engaging with history, but in a really imaginative way and a kind of, almost a sort of all the five senses kind of physical way.
I am trying to reimagine history, reimagine the past, and write about it in a very sort of visceral way. so that is the thing I really enjoy about it. The particular project I am working on at the moment, I really love, and I feel that my writing is just getting improving all the time and I am becoming sort of increasingly confident and it, it, it is a very, unpredictable process as well.
I can never predict quite where things are going to take me. And that is what I like about it. And what is very different about it to, the PhD work is it is the creative writing that I am doing now, although it is, it is research and it is, it is about the past. It is very, flexible and it can go in all kinds of different directions that I do not really know sometimes. So I really enjoy that. I am very much interested in working with visual artists.
I have done a few little projects on the side with visual artists and I am, I am, I like doing collaborative work and something I am kind of moving towards with. I have done a project with a filmmaker. I am a project with a sculptor, and I am, I am definitely interested in pursuing that in the future. And I have started teaching creative writing and then fine art college, with teaching art students. So that is a direction I am very excited about. this, obviously, you are very self-directed, you know, you are very, it is very flexible.
My days are completely my own, so that is, that is a really wonderful thing. Of course, that is sometimes very difficult. And the downside of being freelancers is the insecurity, financial insecurity, the fact that, you know, you have really got to shape your own time and be very self-disciplined. And I am learning how to do that and it is difficult sometimes, and I need variety and I need to get out of the house. And, you know, making all those things work, I think are the hardest aspect of being a freelance writer. but I feel like I am kind of getting there with it.
I really like what I am doing now. It is the right thing for me and it is, you know, it is the right thing. And I am, I am thinking of going back into universities, maybe at some point in the future as a creative writing tutor, and I am now doing some part-time creative writing work at, in universities. And I am really enjoying that. So I feel like maybe I am going to end up back in an English faculty at some point in the creative writing department, which is a growing field in Britain now.
Very much sort of growth area. So you never know. I might actually sort of, and the great thing is that I think having the PhD in English will really help me to get a job, a position as a creative writing tutor, a lecturer if, if I wanted at some point. I think again, it will resurface as an incredibly useful thing. It gives me that option. Obviously, you know, lots of tutors and creative writing at universities do not have PhDs. It is not necessary, but I think it will be helpful. So, I think it is going to serve, use, be useful for forever.
But if I do not, you know, it depends on how my writing goes, really, what kind of levels of, of advances I am getting, what kind of sales I like will, will shape the future and, and where whether I need to do it, whether I want to. And I do not particularly like writing full time. I have discovered, I was fortunate to be able to do that with this book, but I, I would rather have some teaching and some other kinds of things that I do. So, so the PhD has, has really kept my options open.
It is interesting that you, you did not want to pursue an academic career.
And you are pursuing your creative interests, but that you are mapping a future for yourself that has an academic context.
Yes, exactly. I think potentially it will not necessarily, but it is there potentially. so it is nice to have that option. and so yeah, I have kept it, as an, well, it is reemerged more recently when I when I, you know, the first finished the thesis and I was wanting to pursue my creative writing, it was absolutely no way.
I did not want to be back in any kind of academic institution. So it is also more sort of resurfacing now as a, as an option for the future, not the immediate future, but the longer-term future. So yeah, it is definitely a, a possibility now I think in a way that it was not when I first finished the PhD.
If you could advise somebody who is coming towards the end of their thesis, and they are pretty sure they do not want an academic career and they would like to explore possibilities of writing in another context, maybe becoming a freelance writer. What would you say to them?
I would be very wary of doing it 'cause it is a very difficult thing to do and it is financially very precarious and I was just sort of lucky in some ways. I would say they need to look themselves in the mirror and ask themselves what they want to write and be brutally honest about it.
And if they want to write things other than academic work, then they should, give themselves permission to do it and to try to experiment and to, let themselves go a bit in their writing and, and maybe even handwrite, move from, if you write, if they write their thesis on the computer, try handwriting instead. and it, you know, if they have got interest in writing things outside their, their academic work, then just give it a go and see where it leads.
But do it in a really authentic way where they really find out what they want to write rather than having some external vision of, oh, I want to be a novelist, or something like that. Just does not work like that. You have got to really find in yourself what kind of language and words you want to use and what kind of voice you have. I think the problem with academic, some academic writing is that it does not encourage people enough to develop a unique writing voice.
And I think everyone can do that. but if you want to write creatively, you have really got to do that. And that you need to find, before you can sort of think about publishing. but I do not really have much advice to people who want to be freelance writers. I just have my own experience that I make up every day as I go along. There is not really an established route for it.
So I would be very wary of giving any advice, in fact.