Why hello there! It’s been a while!
2018 has been a busy year for me and in particular the last few months of it, when I was finishing up and handing in my PhD. Blogging, sadly, had to take a backseat during this incredibly jam-packed (somewhat frantic, let’s be honest) time. BUT, I wanted to start off this blog post, and the year itself, with a bit of exciting news: I did indeed submit my PhD and I passed my viva with minor corrections. AKA I’m NOW A DOCTOR.
It feels almost surreal to write these words. DOCTOR Carly Brown (Or perhaps Doc Brown? Like in Back to the Future?). After three years of working on the same project, for it to have finally come to a close feels strange but also fantastic. This was my major achievement in 2018 and I am really looking forward to the next form that I have to fill in when I get to put that I am not ‘Miss’ ‘Ms’ or ‘Mrs’ but rather ‘Dr.’
So what exactly was this PhD? For those who may not have read this blog before (hello!), my project was a Doctorate of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. It is titled, ‘A Matter of Loyalty: Engaging with America’s Revolutionary Past as a Creative Writer.’ Like many creative writing PhDs, there was a critical and a creative component. The creative component was a full-length historical fiction novel about three women in South Carolina during America’s Revolutionary War. Based on various journals and letters from the period, it aims to illuminate perspectives of the Revolution not often explored in historical fiction (in particular, the precarious lives of Loyalist wives and widows). I’ve been describing it to people as: ‘Hamilton from the Schuyler Sisters point of view’.
The critical element was a collection of personal essays exploring different ways that creative writers seek to access the 18th century past. Some of you may remember when I tried on the 18th century corset during a residential fellowship at Monticello? Well I wrote about that in one of the essays!
In addition to completing the PhD (which, let’s be honest, was the highlight of 2018 for me!), my year was also full of travels, conferences, performances, and publications, both in the UK and elsewhere. Here is a brief digest of the year that was and what is to come in 2019…
Snow was blanketing the ground in Edinburgh and I was editing the novel (the second draft). I was also invited to perform as the featured poet at the God Damn Debut Slam at the Scottish Poetry Library and it was great fun to break out of my editing cocoon and see some invigorating spoken word poetry.
In March I was delighted to be asked again to be In-House Blogger for StAnza Poetry Festival, a role I shared with the fabulous poet and author Katie Hale. I was also asked to judge the StAnza Poetry Slam! This meant a return to St Andrews, where I did my undergraduate degree, and I had the opportunity stop into the lovely bookshops, like Toppings and Co., while I was there to sign copies of my bestselling children’s picture book – I Love St Andrews.
I have no words for how happy I am that I Love St Andrews has resonated with so many people. We’ve sold thousands of copies at this point and I love knowing that people who – like me – don’t live in St Andrews anymore can still have a piece of it with them, through this book.
In March, I also found out that my poem ‘Nothing of Floods’ was commended in the British Army’s Poetry competition, Writing Armistice, and would be published in a pamphlet with the other winning entries.
My cousin, a medieval historian, also came to visit me and it was nice to play tourist a bit and explore some of my favorite Edinburgh sites like Calton Hill.
More good poetry needs came in April, when I found out that I was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize!
April was also a month of travel, when I went to colorful, cobblestoned, gorgeous Lisbon, Portugal for a close friend’s wedding. I ate plenty of fish, drank wine and enjoyed a much needed break from working on my PhD essays at the National Library.
May was full of performances and more travel. I was invited to perform at the St Andrews Alumni Ball down in London, which was held at a swanky hotel in Mayfair. It was a great opportunity not only to connect with other grads from various generations but also to catch up with uni friends based in London who I dearly miss.
I also performed at the Glasgow University Zine Fair, where I sold copies of my debut pamphlet, Grown Up Poetry Needs to Leave Me Alone.
June was a big month for me. I travelled back to the USA to see my family in Austin, Texas and for a conference in Williamsburg, Virginia. I was on a panel about Creative Writing and Early American History at the annual Omohundro Institute’s conference, where I got to join such literary and historical titans as John Demos (Yale University) and New York Times bestseller Deborah Harkness. My friend, the poet Chet’la Sebree (who held a fellowship at the International Centre for Jefferson Studies at the same time as me) was also on the panel. It was chaired by Jane Kamensky and we had a lively discussion (in front of around 200 people, mostly historians) about the intersections between creative writing and traditional academic history. I was so honored to be on a panel with such esteemed company and to have the chance to discuss two of my favorite topics: creative writing and early America!
June was also when I heard back the best news of my year (besides passing the PhD!). I learned that I had been awarded a special visa to live in the UK for the next five years, as an author and spoken word poet. Applying for this visa involved literally months of bureaucracy and it had been a long, stressful road, as any who have applied for visas will know. I will always be grateful to my partner, and my mom, who helped me through all of it. Receiving this visa, which means that I can continue living in the UK, was a huge, huge achievement.
You may recall that this is when I effectively dropped off the edge of the earth virtually (there were no more blog posts for the rest of the year!), but in my personal life too, I rarely went out and spent most of July and August in Edinburgh, finishing the thesis and trying to say cool in the heat wave. But I did find some joy in the peaceful moments when I was housesitting for a friend and tending to her garden, naming all of the plants, fending away bugs and making delicious summer salads with snap peas and sweet, crunchy lettuce.
In July, I also marched in protest against President Trump. My grandparents were huge advocates of social justice and both marched for Civil Rights in the 1960’s. Whenever I take part in things like this (which has been more frequent, of late), I think of them.
In September, I finally handed in the whole thesis, which was kind of surreal. It would be another few months before my defense, but I dove headfirst into teaching in the meantime. I was teaching once again at the University of Strathclyde on their undergraduate Creative Writing and Journalism program. I had two groups of bright and thoughtful students, who I already miss now that the course is over. I was also asked to teach a little on the University of Glasgow’s MLitt in Creative Writing program, when one of their staff fell ill. It was great to work with masters students and to discuss their work in depth, on the very program I graduated from a few years ago!
I was also invited to read at a symposium at the University of Glasgow, The Occult Turn, about magic and occult practice. I presented an original short story about 19th century spiritual mediums in the USA and discussed the research behind it.
To celebrate my 27th birthday, my partner and I also went to York, England – where we have been several times before. We love to visit all the old bookshops, coffeeshops and the fantastic museums. In particular, the National Railway Museum is a favorite of ours, as well as the Castle Museum, a social history museum with a recreated Victorian street!
These months both involved more teaching and more travel. In November, I hopped on a train to visit my cousin’s wife, who is doing a post-doc at Cambridge University, and spent a sunny weekend strolling around the campus and visiting with family. Then, it was straight back up to Scotland when I had my viva (or ‘defense’ for those in the US) in early December which thankfully went great. Both of my examiners, Dr. Carolyn Jess-Cooke and Dr. Allyson Stack, were so generous and helpful with their feedback and I passed with minor corrections (only typos!). So I’ll hand in the final version in late January and will be graduating in the spring. Yay!
In November, I was also invited to perform at the Radical Book Fair in Edinburgh. I read as the opening act before a fascinating discussion from two sex workers about their new (and gloriously titled) book exploring sex worker rights: Revolting Prostitutes. In December, I was also commissioned by the Scottish Poetry Library to write a poem in response to part of the classic holiday film: It’s a Wonderful Life. Myself and four other poets then all performed our poems together and it was a great evening of mince pies, mulled wine and hugely entertaining and varied poetry.
My partner and I then took a long awaited trip to Stockholm, Sweden (only about 2 hours by plane from Edinburgh!) to visit his brother who works there. It was an amazing week (even if I did have to grade papers while I was there) filled with gingerbread, Christmas markets, saffron buns, and seeing reindeer and moose for the first time (I grew up in Texas, remember, so these animals are like mythical creatures for me).
In particular, we enjoyed The Vasa Museum, where you can see an entire excavated 17th century ship (see picture below). For history nerds like me, this is a must. And we were also lucky enough to be in Stockholm for St. Lucia Day and we got to see a choir and procession.
So what is next? Well…somehow in the midst of all that I was doing towards the end of 2018, I managed (perhaps as a PhD avoidance strategy!) to write an entire draft of a DIFFERENT historical novel, also set during the American Revolution. Even though I vowed that the next thing I wrote would NOT be a novel and would CERTAINLY not be historical. I just find this period endlessly interesting and simply couldn’t help myself.
So I’ll be starting off this year researching and editing that manuscript, while sending the PhD novel and essays off to agents, contests and magazines. The manuscript has been requested by a few agents already, so please wish me luck while I embark on the exciting (yet somewhat daunting!) process of finally sending it off into the world. I’ll also be teaching, performing and working on a variety of other projects as well.
I’m wishing you a very happy start to the year. And, if you’re in the middle of a PhD (or any long project, for that matter), let me remind you that you CAN do this, even when it feels impossible. I am rooting for you! Happy 2019.