The irony of my never-beginning, never-ending quest to write prehistoric fiction

As quite a few people know, it has long been a dream of mine to write some prehistoric fiction that is great and interesting and great and lovely and nice and great.

Well, the trauma that was the Master’s course I graduated from a whole year ago has finally worn off and my little brain is not quite satisfied with the wonderful, challenging, fulfilling NHS job I’ve landed for myself. HAHAHA THANKS BRAIN. I lie in bed and say to my poor, long suffering partner ‘you know what I’m thinking about? My book I’m going to write…’

And then I talk rubbish at him until finally I manage to fall asleep, only to awake having forgotten all of my brilliant plot ideas.

And plot is the least of my problems. Cause, really, we all know how a standard plot-line goes… ordinary life, big call to adventure, meeting the mentor, enemies!enemies!obstables!, big ordeal, resolution of problem with probable reward, return to home, potential room for sequel if brain not died yet.

Anyway. Enough of that. The main problem for me is the very same problem that has made me completely and utterly (yet horribly half-arsedly) determined to write this book.

I STRUGGLE WITH THE LITERATURE. I REALLY DO. I mean, the ideas I’ve been reading are FABULOUS and so exciting and interesting. But the language is dry and the prose is convoluted. If there could just be a nice, bullet point list, separated into different aspects of the things I need to know about – environment, subsistence, material culture, settlement patterns… And maybe a lovely visual timeline. Maybe some illustrations? IS THAT SO MUCH TO ASK????

Okay, I know I’m basically just saying I want to be able to write a highly accurate piece of prehistoric fiction without having to do any real research or, indeed, work. But surely you get my point? This is why there needs to be more fiction about periods of time that are slippery and difficult to articulate for even the most learned of scholars! Cause the only-mildly-learned ones like me can’t be doing with all this poncy, exclusive language!

Enough of the numbers and citations and all that! We’re all about telling stories, right, fellow archaeologists? AMIRITE? So let’s tell a really good story that everyone can enjoy!

C’mon brain, you can do it!

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And ne’er the two shall meet: archaeological dissemination and the creative human mind.

Really, this is a ridiculous title because archaeologists are by their very nature creative people. We interpret the material record in order to make a connection with the past and, whilst the process of excavation is a very destructive one, when we interpret the data gained through the destruction of the archaeological record we are engaging in a fundamentally constructive activity. We construct pasts for ourselves. Note I use the word ‘construct’, not ‘reconstruct’. Excuse me whilst I digress into semantics for a moment.

I’ve always been wary of the word ‘reconstruction’. I’m sure that it has its place – reconstructions of objects and buildings are of course, completely legitimately named ‘reconstructions’ when we have an original to work from. I don’t like the idea of using the word ‘reconstruction’ in association with the past in general, however.  It suggests that the job of the archaeologist is to simply pick up pieces of the past and put them back together to make an original whole – a picture of the past; the past as a series of social, political, and economic entities. We can’t reconstruct something like that when we have very little idea of what it was like before its physical manifestations became a part of the archaeological record.

That’s really by the by, and whilst something deep within me longs to enter into the semantics of things, I don’t have the time. I can only sit in Starbucks without an Internet connection for so long before I completely lose my mind at the injustice of it all.  My point is that most archaeologists claim to ‘reconstruct’ and to ‘recreate’ the past, yet somehow manage to fundamentally refuse to be truly creative whilst doing it. I’ll return to this in a moment. First, some words on creativity, for it troubles me.

If you asked someone to say a few words on ‘creativity’ you might get responses like ‘creativity can’t be contained’ or ‘no art is truly original’ – these two contrasting ideas are utterly perplexing. Indeed they’re probably better off in a discussion on art history. My reason for bringing them up is that I wish to argue that whilst creativity is popularly seen as free and without confines, we surely must know that this cannot be true, because we all work within the parameters of our puny human minds. What we create is undoubtedly influenced by our own experiences, emotions and ethics.

So can the above be an excuse for archaeologists to sit back in their chairs, crack their knuckles, and heartily set upon writing up a piece of research in the same old fashion, following a set of rules and regulations and using the same old language? My argument is that it cannot, indeed it must not.

Whenever I have had conversations of this type with friends or my poor, long-suffering boyfriend, they have argued, ‘but that’s ridiculous! There must be some sort of peer-reviewing process or standardised practice. Otherwise any old idiot could write and publish any old drivel!’

It’s a very good point, but I just can’t get this pet peeve out of my head. I feel like there’s something wrong, that’s stopping us from moving forwards. I feel like I need to get to the root of the problem, because by finding out what it is that makes us do things the way we do them, and what is stopping us from changing, I can then make recommendations about how to move forward and make our methods of communication better*.

I haven’t yet said plainly what it is that peeves me about the way that archaeology is communicated, and that’s probably because I’m still trying to work it out. Every single heated, ever-so-slightly-tipsy conversation that I have in a higgledy-piggledy York pub brings me closer to it, but I’m not quite there yet. I know that a lot of it has to do with the way that archaeological narratives are approached, produced, and presented. Each and every time that I express my frustration on this matter, it comes out like an attack on proper academic conduct, which is not what I want to do. I am a self-confessed fancier of bibliographies, and I absolutely relish the writing of correctly structured and carefully argued essays, but it all feels far too practiced. I know that we follow an outline for academic writing for a damn good reason, and I am sure that I don’t need to explain it here, but it doesn’t feel like enough.

I’m not sure if this is as much of a problem in other branches of the humanities related to archaeology. The prime concern of archaeologists is the creation of narratives, whereas historians already have narratives with which to work. Similarly, anthropologists, ethnographers and sociologists are recounting anecdotal situations that they have experienced first-hand. Their narratives already exist. I think this makes it much easier for historians, anthropologists et al to write narratives rather than structured, analytical pieces of writing. This brings me back around to the topic of my first ever post on this blog: the distinct lack of prehistoric fiction.

Obviously ‘lack’ is not the correct word – that’s just my untamed, melodramatic side rearing her sequin-clad head – there certainly is good fiction set in prehistory out there (again, a topic for another post, or perhaps it’s time for me to construct a bibliography). But there is so much less of it than there are historic novels or novels on contemporary cultures. This has to have meaning somehow, and I wonder if prehistory just seems like too much of a challenge, or too much of a risk. Could being creative and taking leaps of the imagination just pose too much of a threat to the well-established academic? I’ve ranted and raved elsewhere about the inhibitions of archaeologists when it comes to imagination and creativity, but I can’t help repeating my earlier musings on whether it is a certain type of non-deliberate snobbery left over from processualist archaeology that is holding us back.

This post is already 1000 words and it’s been sat on my macbook, waiting to meet its fate for a good 6 hours, so I’m going to wrap it up here and treat it as an untied end to come back to. All I know is that as I think more and more about PhD applications for 2014, this is what I can’t get out of my mind.

Thesis writing: the most vicious of circles.

I haven’t blogged, or read the blogs of people I follow for so long, so I thought I’d just pootle by and drop a thought or two.

My time recently has been consumed by a big life change including house moving and the reconsideration of my employment prospects, but all of that has had to go on the back-burner now, because it’s time to really start to write my dissertation.

I find myself engaging in this ridiculous and rabid circle of events daily. This is the sort of psychological process that has accompanied almost every essay or piece of written work that I’ve ever composed, but because this is my Master’s thesis and it’s the first time I’ve ever done my own primary research and real life has got massively in my way and waylaid the writing process, it seems amplified tenfold.

So my days currently look something like this:

8am: Wake up feeling refreshed and ready for the day

9am: Around two hours of wonderful, optimistic productivity and a reasonable increase in word count.

11am: DISTRACTION! THE INTERNET! Something shiny! Facebook. TWITTER!

12pm: Guilt guilt guilt.

1pm: Lunch.

1.30pm: I KNOW! I’ll look for jobs so that I don’t end up having all my belongings repossessed when I fail to repay my ridiculous loan after graduation.

3pm: Utter despair and demotivation: there are no exciting jobs and I have no idea what I’m doing with my life.

3.30pm: BUGGER! Dissertation. Why aren’t I writing my dissertation?

4pm: Every word is agony…

5pm: Clearly it is time for dinner and the company of other human beings.

7pm+: Panic writing and low productivity.

At times this vicious circle amuses me and I recognise that this is the sort of battle that any academic engages in when grappling with their research, but at others I think this can’t be right, other people wouldn’t be stupid enough to put themselves through this – I must just not be cut out for this.

So I wonder, does anyone else have a similar vicious circle that they engage in when dealing with their own work? Any tips or advice? Just want to rant about your own writing process? I’m all ears!

Almost 12pm… time for a bit of guiltguiltguilt.

To PhD, or not to PhD. That is the question.

I’ve recently been encouraged by a colleague and friend to apply for a funded PhD at his department. 

This is extremely exciting news, and it’s truly an honour to even be thought of, but I can’t help but feel a bit of apprehension. There’s my old friend, the Impostor Syndrome, and I often wonder how I even got as far as doing a masters (I suspect many of my A level teachers would be shocked to learn that out of my entire group of friends, I’m the one who’s been head-hunted for a funded doctorate!). I also wonder if I’d be able to handle 3.5 years of in-depth, solitary research. Having said that, I think one of the main problems I’ve encountered during my masters is the sheer amount of juggling I have to do with my subjects, writing essays on completely different topics at the same time, and fitting a part-time job in around it all. I suppose with a PhD I’d be studying broadly, but following my own interests and setting my own deadlines which I imagine would suit my learning style far better.

I won’t even go into the issue of finance and funding, because those are the woes of practically any archaeologist, but this is a very large factor in my considerations.

So I suppose I’m calling on people who are doing/have done PhDs and feel they have any advice. Is there such a thing as over-qualification? Do you think that doing a PhD could ever be a bad thing? Does anyone regret their decision? What would you say to your pre-PhD self, if you could?

 

The student life

This blog entry is brought to you from underneath over five layers of clothing. News flash: York is COLD a lot of the time!

It’s been quite some time since I visited WordPress. I’ve been rather caught up in life. The past month has been filled with enrolment and socialising and attempting to find my academic legs once again. I’m currently suffering through the somewhat severe symptoms of Impostor Syndrome, but am trying to convince myself that I’m not as think as I dumb I am and that I just have to get out and get involved in and around the archaeology department.

Needless to say my ambitions for creative writing have to be put on hold (sorry, NaNoWriMo, not this year!) as I concentrate on my studies. I still plan to use this blog to write about my experiences as an archaeology postgraduate at the University of York.

You can also follow me @laternosrsly where I tweet about archaeology and my mundane life intermittently. Disclaimer: there will be swears.

Now I must begone, for this was merely a performance of procrastination; I have got 5500 words worth of assessment to write by Wednesday!

On the lack of good prehistoric fiction

This is the first entry I will make in my shiny new blog, created on an impulse because of the huge amount of stuff banging about in my skull, which I think might be useful (if only to myself) when put into some sort of coherent prose.

Originally – all of about 30 minutes ago – my intentions were entirely academic, but I have a feeling that it would make for tedious reading and prompt abandonment on both my part and the parts of any potential readers. So here I will talk about my ventures into the world of academia and my currently unarticulated convictions about interpretation and representation in archaeology.

Perhaps the main reason that I suddenly feel the need to jot down thoughts and feelings on the subject is that I’ve decided I must write a book. It all started because of my never-ending and futile search for good prehistoric fiction. I can’t let go of this interest in Prehistory and, for all that I’ve enjoyed the past three years of reading scholarly papers on the subject, I just wish I could relax into a good bit of well researched and well written fiction that caters to my most passionate interest. My searches, thus far confined to Google and sites like goodreads.com and fantasticfiction.com, have turned up English and mainly French works written in the first half of the 20th century, and the odd, rather flimsy attempt at an empowering feminist saga.  Of course Jean M. Auel’s best-selling Earth’s Children books have been a huge inspiration to me and no doubt numerous others who have delved into prehistoric fiction. As yet they are the only examples of prehistoric fiction that are, despite several  reservations that I may outline in future entries, truly worthy of academic merit as well as being engaging fictional works.

With the development of post-processual archaeology, it has (relatively) recently been suggested that academic pursuits of the past in the form of fictional writing may well have a significant amount of scholarly merit. The 1999 volume by Mark Edmonds concerned with Neolithic life-ways in Britain is a prime example of such tentative advances towards story-telling as a form of communicating archaeological theory.

So if I can’t find it, I’m going to have to write it myself. What I want to create is a work of fiction, accessible to anyone with an interest in our human past, which is also acceptable as a work of informed intellectual enquiry. Even the academic claiming he or she is carrying out their research in a strictly scientific manner, after all, must admit that the prehistoric cultures after which they chase are almost impossible to truly know. All prehistoric archaeology is theory; unavoidably socially constructed and, for a large percentage of the time, entirely speculative. As someone who has dealt with the data and theories relating to prehistoric Europe, but is not inherently academic, I can truly see the worth of fiction as a form of archaeological interpretation.

Another reason for the creation of the blog is that I fully intend to continue on my path into the world of academic archaeology. I’m currently applying for the Digital Heritage masters course at York University, and if I manage to get a place then I’ll try to write about my experiences and opinions of various encounters I may have with all things archaeology and perhaps some things not.