Dr Tom Phillips writes:
Doing a creative writing Ph.D. hadn’t crossed my mind. Then I went to Albania.
Standing outside a bank in the port-city of Durrës while three men in leather jackets aimed Kalashnikovs at my wife and children was the incident which probably set me on my way back to university. Once it was clear that we weren’t going to be gunned down on the pavement, I realised that this was the kind of unexpected encounter I’d write about one day. The journal stuffed in my rucksack ceased to be a record of what we did on our holidays. It became source material.
Writing a full-length travel narrative, however, wasn’t something I’d tried before. I hadn’t even read many travel books. Not unsurprisingly, my first effort petered out after only a few thousand words. When the opportunity to do a Ph.D. and be mentored through the whole process arose, it seemed like an obvious choice.
Initially, what I would need to produce over the course of four part-time years sounded fairly daunting: a 65,000-word narrative accompanied by a 25,000 critical commentary. One of the first things I learned, however, was that this could be broken down into manageable segments and that, even after a 25-year absence from university, it’s not impossible to reboot those parts of the brain for which ‘being’ is a philosophical term rather than just a present participle.
That said, the relationship between the two parts of the doctorate remained a matter of debate right up until – and during – my viva: how might they most usefully work together? The biggest potential problem seemed to be that, whether I chose to look at the process of writing or an issue related to other travel narratives, working on the critical element would make me dangerously self-conscious about my own writing – or result in my being hoist by own petard. Pointing out the flaws in other people’s travel books, after all, wasn’t a particularly sensible strategy.
As it turned out, these two areas of work dovetailed. The things I didn’t like about my own and other people’s travel writing helped to identify a research question for the critical essay, while researching anthropological and philosophical ideas about culture and encounter helped to turn what had been a smattering of instincts about what I was interested in writing about into something resembling a coherent approach.
Above all, though, what studying creative writing at Ph.D. level enabled me to do was spend time discussing questions which, when you’re engaged in the day-to-day business of writing, lurk – more or less unheeded – in the penumbra of consciousness: questions of ethics and responsibility, pronouns and presence, structure and detail. Having earned what passes for a living as a freelance writer for close on twenty-five years, the opportunity to talk about these questions and, as it were, bring them to light – most often on long walks with my supervisor, Peter Robinson, around the lake at Whiteknights – couldn’t help but seem a luxury.
The knock-on effects have been wide-ranging. Problems with that old chestnut of ‘finding a voice’ – or, more accurately, overcoming the journalistic habit of avoiding ‘I’ at all costs – led to writing up part of the story as a one-man theatre piece which, in turn, led to my meeting other Albanophiles, going back to – or, again more accurately, becoming embroiled in – SE Europe and, via a whole series of subsequent coincidences, beginning to turn what is, I suppose, still regarded as a niche interest (Patrick Leigh Fermor and Rebecca West notwithstanding, English-language travel writing on SE Europe remains a relatively modest sub-genre) into something which one day might come to resemble a career.