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Blogging out of the post-PhD hole

Note: parts of the following post are extracted from a talk I recently gave to arts and music postgraduates at Oxford Brookes University on the subject of 'What Now?: Creative futures in the arts'.

Photo by coljay 72, on Flickr

The hole

In my previous post I started to talk about my personal circumstances after finishing my PhD. If I made the transition from institutionalised student to real-life earner sound easy, it wasn't. I had to hit rock bottom first.

The winter of 2009 was my personal crunch: for 18 months since finishing my doctorate I'd been meandering, career-wise, and suddenly that lack of focus caught up on me. As I said before, I suddenly found myself with a new family, a new house, a bigger mortgage and no work as my sole copy-editing client suddenly dried up.

It was a dark time: on top of all of this I was suffering a crisis of confidence that must be common to many recent PhDs. I’d given up on an academic career by this stage: there simply weren’t any jobs going around, and family circumstances made it difficult to move far afield. And I was becoming less interested in the job itself. I felt like I’d wasted 5 years and thousands of pounds on a qualifying for a job that I didn’t even want any more. Things came to a head in the worst row I've ever had with my wife.

That was a Tuesday afternoon in mid-December and, since I genuinely had nothing else to do, I went out and bought the family Christmas tree. I remember dragging it home, its weight reminding me that I was spending money I didn't have on a celebration I didn't think I deserved.

Like I said, it was a pretty dark time.

One way out

I've never completely read any of his books (although I have been known to pull Kane and Abel off the shelves of the occasional guest house), but Jeffrey Archer is something of a folk hero in our household for the simple fact (his various crimes notwithstanding) that here was a man who, on the brink of bankruptcy, not only decided that becoming a first-time novelist was the way to go but also pulled it off, writing the bestseller Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less in just ten weeks.

That, ladies and gentleman, is a writer. Any author who doesn't admire that achievement, regardless of the quality of Archer's prose, is kidding themselves. 

In my own small way, I decided to follow in Archer's footsteps – his literary ones, at least. I could write, and I would sell my words.

Part of my income now comes from the editorial services that I offer here at Red Pen Blue Pen, but an increasing part of it comes from professional writing. The result of my postgraduate training and research is that I am a specialist in contemporary classical music (the 'squeaky door' stuff that you're supposed to believe no one listens to). It's certainly a niche, but when you're setting up a new business finding a niche is one of the hardest first things you need to do.

In that respect, the ultra-narrow expertise of a PhD is almost an advantage. All I had to do now was find a way to interest enough people in what I knew about to make some of them want to pay for it. And that's where The Rambler, my new music blog, comes in.

I'd actually been posting to The Rambler since 2003, slowly but haphazardly creating an identity and an audience. When the crunch came in 2009, I decided to make The Rambler a shop window for what my writing could do for contemporary composers and musicians. That is, show off some of my expertise and entice people to want more of it.

Strategic thinking plays a role in this. I found it useful to keep a clear eye both on what I’d like to write about (and for whom), and on how one project might feed into the next. One ensemble I’ve had a long and productive relationship with has been the ELISION ensemble of Australia.

Turning a research trail into a career path

ELISION are among the world’s elite new music performing groups, and specialists in some of the most difficult music ever committed to paper. As well the music they play there are many things that make them interesting to me as a research. One of which is their habit of working through long-term relationships between performers and composers, a model that I believe serves new music extremely well. The key example is the composer Liza Lim, who is married to ELISION’s artistic director Daryl Buckley, and has been writing for the group for more than 20 years. But they also have a long-standing association with the British composer Richard Barrett, and it is through his music that I started to write about the group seriously.

Below is a diagram of my working history with ELISION and the writing projects and work opportunities that it has generated for me. It's a bit rough and ready, but it echoes the serendipitous chaos that was part of the process. There wasn't an overriding plan, but there are certain governing principles that helped guide the overall development, in particular the attention to spotting and developing a creative opportunities.

Top to bottom is time, past to present. The columns categorise the four different sorts of writing that I do with a fifth column indicating projects that grew out of the ELISION relationship but aren't directly based upon it. Reading left to right, the general drift is from less to more financially rewarding and personally satisfying.

The red arrows represent knowledge transfer between projects, or the re-use of research. The blue arrows represent the use of contacts created through one project to facilitate another. 

The purple arrows are 'professional respect'. It's not always easy to separate this from 'contacts' and 'knowledge' – it comes about as a combination of the two (with the addition of projecting a professional image about your work), so I've coloured it purple. It's meant to indicate not just a contact, but a contact with someone who values what you do. 

1) The story begins at the top left in early 2009. I was already writing occasional reviews for the website Musical Pointers, and the editor there sent me a couple of recent ELISION CDs for review (see bottom of page). I wrote my reviews, and gained the attention of Daryl Buckley, who started inviting me to review ELISION’s London concerts. 

2) Daryl sends me the reissued CD of Richard Barrett’s Opening of the Mouth, as written for and performed by ELISION. As I write that review I decide it deserves to go into print. I send it to the journal Tempo

3) Opening of the Mouth is scheduled to receive its UK premiere in autumn 2009. This is at the time when I’m almost out of work, so I put hours into writing a preview article for a national newspaper. I research what a paper might want, I conduct email interviews with as many people involved in the original project as possible. And then I start callling newspapers. Eventually, I get an email from the Guardian who publish it, at half length, in that Friday’s Film and Music supplement

4) In the same month Barrett has another major UK premiere. I get in touch with Sound and Music’s INTO magazine and ask if they’d like a feature. Yes – if you can get it to us by the end of the week. Out of unused interview material from the Guardian article, I put something together and INTO publish it. I start to feel like a proper writer. 

5) Shortly after this, Daryl invites me to Paris to see ELISION perform Liza Lim’s opera The Navigator. The broadsheets aren't interested, but I use it as an opportunity to write for musicalcriticism.com for the first time. I also arrange a long interview with Liza on the morning after the performance with a view to making an article out of it. And I get a trip to Paris! 

6) Then comes a period of consolidation. I turn my attention to the blog and devise a way of using the contacts that I have in a way that both develops the blog and supplies me with material for future articles. These are a series of profiles of young composers that I call ’10 for ’10’, and an online conversation/interview hybrid that I call Rambler Roundtables

These latter become a way of getting composers and performers to talk with one another about what they do and how they relate, and throw up some really interesting results

7) That material joins a funnel for several writing projects that represent more or less the culmination of this process: two articles on Liza, two sets of liner notes for ELISION’s next CDs, some promotional material for Kings Place and an article on Aaron Cassidy, an American composer who has recently started working closely with the group. 

Strategic writing

There are some interesting things that emerge out of this diagram, some of which surprised even me as I was putting it together. First of all there is a general drift from left columns to right columns – in other words, a building on initial opportunities manufactured through reviewing or blogging into more creatively and financially rewarding projects. The second is the pattern of nodes: there are items that have a big impact outwards (such as the early reviews, top left) and others that are collection points for many assets created elsewhere (such as the CD sleevenotes, near bottom right). There are also two distinct phases, one centring around Richard Barrett, the other around Liza Lim. 

All of these features more or less consciously developed into a strategy as I worked. I love Barrett's music, but didn't want to write exclusively about him; Lim became an obvious next step by which to progress as a writer. What's interesting to me is how pivotal that trip to Paris for The Navigator turned out to be. The review that came out of that didn't amount to much (I found it a hard piece to write about), but the consequences for me as a writer were very large. 

Even clearer is the value of the pro bono blog-slog: all of this work stems from six months of plugging and reviewing concerts and CDs for no money (and several years of background audience creation before that), usually giving up evenings or weekends to get things done.

Blogging – particularly when you are able to offer people a plug, review or interview along the way – is a great way to earn the respect of your peers and create a position of value for yourself within the wider network of your particular niche. Within music, for example, there are plenty of people able to write competently and reasonably effectively about the subject, but it's also a field where the sort of insight that comes only from specialist higher education is prized. The Rambler became my way of showing people that I might be able to provide that sort of writing. What's more, it had become a doorway between research and publication that facilitated both pursuit of my private scholarly interests and the paying of my bills.

Finally: the PhD had become a help not a hindrance, and I was able to start climbing out of the hole.

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