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Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Frequently Asked Questions (part 1 of ?)

How are you? / Where are you from? / What do you do? / Do you fancy a drink? ...

None of these questions really say what they mean, for different reasons. As multi-purpose tools of conversation, they all require context, an intake of breath, a questioning of motive or an automated reply.

I think I've tackled the where are you [really] from? question before as a micro-aggression; I don't wish to retrace that territory now. How are you? Well, usually it doesn't even require more than a perfunctory grunt in response. It's the what do you do? that gets me all the time. And it hasn't got any easier over the years as my freelancing antics have broadened out. Anyone who's mentored, written and performed poetry, run workshops, or got through a complicated-sounding PhD programme will be familiar with some of the nuances in answering that question. What I do isn't simple. Sometimes I like to be able to explain what I do. And sometimes I like to filter out those who ask what I do in the same way they ask how are you? It takes a lot of effort to condense all the elements of my life into something coherent.  

The thing is, I'm constantly reminding myself that things have changed. I'm now a full time doctoral student*. That's pretty much my job. I've got the funding and the student card to confirm that... Repeat after me. I'm a full-time doctoral student.

Let's run through some questions...

What do you do? I'm a full-time doctoral student
How are you? I'm a full-time doctoral student
Why do you have so many books? I'm a full-time doctoral student
Are you free now? I'm a full-time doctoral student
Why can't you go to the library tomorrow instead? I'm a full-time doctoral student
Do you fancy a drink? I'm a full-time doctoral student
Do you want to come to X poetry gig on Wednesday? I'm a full-time doctoral student
Do you want to come and decolonise academia and kill patriarchy tonight? I'm a full-time doctoral student

Let's practice in the mirror...

"I'm a full-time doctoral student"
So there you have it. You'd think that would be simple, but the problem is, I still have my poetry hat on, I still run workshops from time to time and I still need to explain to people what my area of research is. I'm a full time student in what? 

So I cheated. I went to a brainstorming session for creatives - something akin to group therapy but less triggering - which Paula Varjack organised one gloomy Wednesday evening. All of us in attendance got to ask questions and expect 8 responses to them**.

I asked not "how do I explain what I do?" but "how do I make people understand what I'm doing?"

Looking at the sheet of paper I got back, the make people understand bit sounds aggressive [cue Diana Ross: I'm gonna make you understand! / Oh yes I will, yes I wi-ill...]. The "making" may sound aggressive but sometimes desperation comes across that way. The amount of times I've faltered at such a question beggars belief. I love what I do. I love talking about what I do, when people are genuinely interested and I have time. I just find it hard to pin it down. I'm that rare breed of person who's managed to turn all of my hobbies into work and so what I do means something to me in a way that it didn't when I was an admin assistant.

The thing is... some of the advice I got is contradictory.

Reply #1: Condense it into 3 clear sentences... Reply #2: don't explain too much, it's good to be ambiguous!

Let's try...

I'm a full-time doctoral student undergoing an interdisciplinary project combining Creative Writing and research on London Jamaican culture through the lens of a particular doctrine within Pentecostalism. As well as a writer of fiction, I'm best known as a poet, predominantly working through live performance. I also conduct poetry and spoken word workshops with young people and adults, taking a holistic approach to writing and performance.  [Be even vaguer] I also work with young people and various adult groups. 

Sounds clunky to me... but a good start.

Reply #3: Don't write what you do but WHY!

Ok... how about this? 

I'm interested in identity. I'm particularly interested in the ways race, religion and sexuality interact with dominant, hegemonic narratives [lose the b/s] each other and how I can best use language to explore this. I'm interested in the flexibility of language and how it can be used to break conventions. Pretty much most of what I do revolves around this.   

Reply #4: don't try to fit. Reply #5: practice writing funding applications, which force you to explain what you do anyway Reply #6: ask other people to explain what you do.

All good but I particularly like #6. Although, for a laugh, I sent a text to mum at midnight: 'Mum, what do I do?' She wasn't impressed.

Reply #7: Just be you. Reply #8: Get a clear, short phrase

Good idea, and while I'm at it, I need to change my Twitter handle (it says 'Lover. Fighter. Reader. Writer.') Some people actually think I'm a fighter... I've never so much as even slapped a fly.

I could go for something alliterative or rhymey like 'Word Wrangler extraordinaire' [Noo! What are you on?] 'I read, research, write, repeat.' [Yeah, not really sure about that]. Or something generic and brand-like, if not a little sinister, like: 'I'm changing the world, one line at a time'. Or something even more generic: I'm an artist and a researcher. Or more generic still: I write [but prepare for the follow-up question: What do you write?]. Or I could just go to bed - I mean, the library - and forget the whole thing

Ok. Yes, I fancy a drink.

*I ought to flag - and this happens with any identity grouping - that there are issues with the term 'student', which some see as a downgrade in status. Technically, I'm a researcher... and if/when I pass my upgrade exam, I'll become a PhD 'candidate' but, whatever... Repeat after me: I'm a full-time... [ad infinitum]

**And, as a professional researcher, I ought to confirm that the respondents' data has been anonymised for ethical reasons.  

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