The Masters by Research degree is a relatively new introduction to Higher Education. Developed in the 1990’s in response to the 1993 White Paper Realising Our Potential, the Masters by Research came about ‘as a result of pressure to provide research students with a broader based training in research before embarking on a PhD or industrial research career’  i.e., an interim qualification with the aim of preparing postgraduates for a higher research degree.
Originally aimed at scientists or researchers in the business sector, the Masters by Research has become a popular degree option, and has expanded into the Humanities, and, in 2003, in the case of the University of Luton (now University of Bedfordshire) into the field of Creative Writing. In Creative Writing, the process of research, both toward the Masters by Research and the PhD, is more widely known as ‘practice led research’, and, according to NAWE (National Association for Writers in Education) benchmarks (2008) this relates to creative writing thus:
‘Practice-led research in Creative Writing uses creative practice to explore, articulate and investigate. The range of explorations and articulations is as broad as the range of possible subjects, emotions and ideals prevalent in the world.’ 
This statement is built upon further, using the premise that: ‘the creative writer will undertake this research through the act of creating; that they will invest knowledge and understanding into this practice, and that they will develop their knowledge and understanding through their practice. The results of this practice-led research will demonstrate this knowledge and understanding.’ 
In other words, the act of writing itself becomes the research process. It accepts that there cannot be one single thesis question – as with a traditional science or humanities Masters or PhD – that begins with a pre-formulated question or hypothesis that the thesis sets out to answer/discuss. In Creative Writing – and in other forms of applied art – where research is practice led, the emphasis has to be on the act of creation and the processes that involves. It is to be expected that a large part of the process will almost certainly involve some deviation from plans that might have been laid down in the initial proposal, and that this deviation is in fact necessary and desirable, since being rigid and inflexible in writing a creative piece may well lead to a static and narrow-focused piece of work. When crafting a lengthy piece of creative writing, the writer should be prepared to accept that the process will be one of change and constant questioning, rather than a relatively smooth investigation taken down one specifically laid out path. The final product may well be not an answer to a question (unless it’s the question posed by speculative fiction: ‘What if?’), but rather an artefact that has gone through a long process of change in order to reach completion.
Of course, the creative element is only one part – and I would argue the major part – of the Masters by Research process. There is also the thesis to contend with. This shows the writer’s critical/critiquing understanding of the chosen topic/theme of their writing, and can be varied in its approach. For example, in the experience of the University of Bedfordshire Creative Writing team, theses have dealt with myth and its application into the writer’s creative piece; a thesis that talks about fan fiction and how the writer has fitted their work to apply to an already established franchise; and one that details the conventions of traditional fantasy, and shows how the writer has deviated from this in their own work. I shall later talk about my own work with regard to this. But, the point is, all the theoretical work produced is in some way a response to the created artefact. Without the artefact, the piece of creative writing, the thesis itself could not exist. It is in effect a by-product of the process, not the sum total of it.
Students who take on the Masters by Research in Creative Writing all have varying reasons for doing so, but in my experience as a lecturer in Creative Writing, and consequently a supervisor of post-graduate students who decide to continue their studies in this way, the main reason for taking it seems to be the sense of independence it affords them. They are no longer constrained by formal lectures, they can choose the topic of their choice (subject, of course, to staff availability and expertise), and they can approach it in their own way as writers. This, in essence, is the liberating effect of taking the Masters by Research, as mentioned in the title of this chapter.
In my own case the spur for my Masters by Research degree began in 2003 with the Erotica module in my third year of the Creative Writing undergraduate degree, a module that forced me to confront/explore issues of and surrounding sexuality. For me, a relatively experienced writer in my 40’s who had never written, or indeed read much, about sex before, let alone the works of transgressive sexuality I encountered during the duration of the module, this was both a frightening and liberating experience. Frightening because I come from a family that never talked about sex, and which saw it as something ‘dirty’ and ‘sinful’; and liberating because once I began writing out of my comfort zone, I realized that I could now write almost anything and no longer feel uncomfortable with it. This has been a cornerstone of my teaching and my writing ever since: think out of the box, out of the comfort zone, even it’s just a little bit: it’s surprising what can happen.
I decided that I wanted to take my new skills and attitudes further through undertaking the Masters by Research degree that the then University of Luton (now University of Bedfordshire) offered. I was the first person to undertake an a research degree in creative writing in the University, so the project was not only challenging for myself, but also for the team involved. It meant that new, specific guidelines had to be created. As mentioned above, the Masters by Research is entirely research based, run over a year (full time) or two years (part time), usually with a single assigned supervisor and weekly (or fortnightly) supervisory meetings. This meant that I was effectively given the freedom to work as I chose, with a subject I chose, rather than being restrained by the shorter projects that go with a taught Masters. I found this a huge benefit on two counts: firstly, I’d already taken a single honours degree in Creative Writing and didn’t feel the need to repeat information, which would almost inevitably happen if I took a taught Masters; secondly, having already written several novel-length pieces, I felt more than ready to tackle a much longer piece of work. My brief was to produce a ‘substantial piece of creative work’ – nowadays a 20,000 word creative piece is suggested as optimal, although often a work may sometimes longer than this – and an accompanying thesis of around 15000 words (around 10,000 now).
On this basis, I wanted to confront readers by creating a text that was challenging – possibly uncomfortable – to read. Initially, the project was conceived as a vampiric horror story with erotic undertones, since the horror genre has always been my first love, with vampires as my favourite type of horror monster. Its characters, Lex and Jez, were to be vampires within a blood-bonded relationship, which would include the elements of submission and domination as its working dynamic. In the end, I could not devise an original storyline for them, and since the vampire sub-genre – and still is – over-saturated with unoriginal stories, I decided not to pursue it. However, Jez and Lex stayed in my head, almost fully-formed in that I could see their physical appearances, the way they spoke and moved, and I knew their basic personalities, so I decided that I still wanted to use them as main characters. Jez was originally conceived as a manipulative narcissist, and Lex as being dependent on him for emotional sustenance (this aspect at least remained true to the original vampire concept). With regard to these issues, I knew that I had a chance to place these characters within a more realistic set-up in contemporary society, and continued to think about exploring their dynamic through a submission/domination relationship.
But I did not want to explore sado-masochism. Firstly, like vampire fiction, this has recently been over-done to the point of becoming if not mainstream (E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey for example), then certainly monotonous. Secondly, most of the works I had already read involving this particular transgression – even the more ‘literary’ Bataille (Story of the Eye) and Réage (The Story of O), both of which must naturally lose impact and nuance through their translation into English – seemed to be little more than pornography. I did not, I decided, want to write pornography, and at the time, I found it difficult to conceive of writing a piece involving the S&M culture/community without it becoming pornographic, although in retrospect, I’d say I have the scope of vision to do be able to achieve that now. However, as mentioned, I did want to write a piece that would confront the reader with something disturbing, something that would, hopefully, challenge them both intellectually and ethically.
The answer to this turned out to be surprisingly simple. As I had originally wanted Jez and Lex to be monsters in a monstrous situation, this was what I decided they should be, but instead of constructing them as supernatural monsters, I decided that their vampiric personalities would evolve as a result of a dysfunctional, abusive childhood. As it became increasingly clear to me that this was how Jez and Lex should be constructed, I decided to apply a universal sexual/social taboo, that of incest, to their relationship: this would be the transgression they were committing. Lex and Jez became half-brother and sister (same father, different mothers), perhaps diluting the incestuous element a little, but increasing the ambiguity of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ through complicated family dynamics. My next decision was: how did I want to approach the relationship? After much thought and consultation with my supervisor, I came to the decision that I wanted to present the taboo of incest through a (tragic) love story. This approach seemed both more challenging to me and to any potential readers than a text that says without equivocation that incest is wrong under any circumstances. Through the text I aimed to raise these questions: Why is incest wrong if it’s consensual, especially in these days when contraception is widely available and there is little risk of genetic abnormality? Why do we ‘fall in love’ with people who are ‘unsuitable’ – in society’s eyes there can be little more unsuitable than a sexual relationship between brother and sister. And why do we go back to these people even when we know they’re probably going to hurt us again (in this case, Lex returns to her brother, Jez the narcissistic manipulator, repeatedly)? Is this really ‘love’ or is it a desire/need for the safety of the familiar – and of course, what can be more familiar than the sibling someone is brought up with from infancy? I wasn’t sure I could, or even wanted, to answer these questions – after all, this was no Psychology paper – but raising and exploring the issues within the text, asking readers to think about them – might challenge perceptions.
Because I was working toward two formally assessed pieces – the creative work and the accompanying academic thesis – and because I was working alone between supervisory sessions, I had to be very clear from the beginning regarding the aims and objectives of both texts. This meant I had to focus on the initial questions I was asking, in order to produce coherent aims and objectives. Eventually, this what I decided I wanted: To create, via a fictional narrative, a morally ambiguous piece of work that explores, preferably without author judgment, various issues surrounding transgressive sexuality/taboo, in particular: consensual incest; child abuse; sexual obsession; and emotional domination/submission. Once these aims were clear in my mind, the writing process could properly begin.
Georges Bataille says in his book Eroticism (1962) that:
‘Pleasure is so close to ruinous waste that we refer to the moment of climax as a little death. Consequently, anything that suggests erotic excess always implies disorder… brutality and murder are steps in the same direction.’ 
The acts described within the works of de Sade (100 Days of Sodom); Bataille (Story of the Eye); and Pauline Reage (Story of O) – variously, flogging; becoming a sex-slave through force; having weights pierced through and hung from genitals; eroticism combined with violent death – are presented as ‘forbidden’ fantasies of sexual transgression. Representation of these fantasies, especially in The Story of the Eye, as opposed to 100 Days, which, while explicit, rapidly becomes monotonous, are often graphically and shockingly represented. These texts are not contemporary; 100 Days was written in 1784, although it was first published in 1905; Eye was published in 1928; and O was published in 1954; so what is that we mean by ‘sexual transgression’ in these days where anything goes and why are so many people, including myself for my Masters by Research degree, moved to write within, or read within, this genre? One answer could be that through reading this material, readers who would not play these possibly dangerous fantasies out in their daily lives can safely share them. Jeffrey Weeks, in his book Sexuality suggests that:
‘Transgressive sex is a way of breaking out of the tyranny of the existing order, of smashing the artificial boundaries between people and bodies, between sexualities, imposed by the sexual tradition.’ 
i.e., heterosexuality and heteronormality which, as indicated below, continues to be imposed upon us, despite an apparently more open society. Bataille himself suggests in the quote above from his book, Eroticism, that these works of transgression appear to communicate with some deep-seated instinct within the human psyche that links sexuality with pain – either physical, or in the emotional pain/pleasure associated within a sub/dom scenario – and/or death. This duality continues to interest me, both because these issues are constantly raised in horror literature, where the two extremes exist in a complementary juxtaposition to each other, yet still seem to be relatively unexplored in more mainstream work.
The definition of the verb ‘to transgress’ (Oxford Dictionary of English [second edition] 2005) runs thus: ‘1. Go beyond the limits of (what is morally, socially, or legally acceptable).’
What does it mean to go beyond the limits of the sexuality that is deemed to be ‘acceptable’ in our present society? Western society is becoming increasingly sexualized and apparently accepting of sexualities other than heterosexuality. There are, rightly, civil weddings for gay/lesbian couples; Gay Pride festivals take place in almost every country in the western world. There are numerous magazines read by young (often underage) teens giving out advice on such matters as ‘Should I have a Threesome?’ and ‘I Watch Lesbian Porn’ (Bliss magazine online – July 2009). Fashion trends, both designer and high street, have recently inclined toward bondage gear. Literary trends toward erotica have peaked in recent years, with the publication of books such as The Sexual Life of Catherine M (Catherine Millet – 2002), One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed (Melissa Parente – 2004), as well as regular publications by Black Lace Books (‘world-leading erotic fiction by women for women’ – Black Lace website) and the launch of the magazine Scarlet (tagline – ‘the new magazine for women who get it’) in November 2004. Sex is constantly used to sell products to both men and women, although it is women who are more targeted, and, it could be argued, more exploited. In women’s magazines, film, and music videos, skinny, scantily clad girl-women are shown to fawn over men, who despite the so-called advances of feminism, continue to wield the power. This reinforces the tradition of Western patriarchy, and women continue to be portrayed in the media as commodities – and they will only be ‘bought’ (by men) if they are young, thin, fashionable and seen to be sexually available. Although women are encouraged to have aspirations for independence, women are told they still ‘need’ to attract a man in order to complete their view of themselves. A recent edition of Cosmopolitan – that once staunch advocate of feminist values – ran an article on how women could get their man to marry them. Traditional mores – those of vanilla heterosexuality – are still in general expected to be adhered to. Real acts of ‘transgression’ however, like the actual practice of sado-masochism, and consensual incest, and those people who live their sexual lives outside the norm, are still regarded as ‘deviant’. Why should this be so?
With these issues in mind, I decided to present the relationships in Clutching Shadow from the incestuous lovers’ perspectives, with no external viewpoint, the aim of this to give a claustrophobic atmosphere to the piece that relates to their constrictive relationship, and to show how incest – according to some psychologists such as Estela V. Weldon (Mother, Madonna, Whore – The Idealization and Denigration of Motherhood) – rather than being something unfamiliar and alien, might in fact be seen as a ‘mirroring’, masturbatory act based on the familial bond, and, certainly in Jez’s case, a reflection of his own attractiveness bounced back at him through Lex’s adoration. Added to that, I wanted to show how Lex, the female protagonist, still suffers the effects of sexual abuse inflicted on her by her and Jez’s father during her childhood. Despite the fact that she is in love with her brother, she is partially aware that her feelings for him are not ‘normal’, but abuse is all she knows. Incest, abuse, submission and domination, make up her normality and she cannot – and perhaps more saliently – does not want to change this, certainly in the first two-thirds of novel, where Jez is the sole focus for her obsession.
Although, as previously stated, I didn’t want to write pornography, it was necessary that their relationship was a sexual one, and the relationship between Lex and Jez, is written as highly erotically charged, with growing sexual tension throughout. This was not written from any particular desire to titillate; the intention was to draw the reader into Lex and Jez’s claustrophobic world, and to hopefully induce the notion that they were a ‘real’ couple in a ‘real’ sexual relationship, and perhaps to question – if only for a short time – if what they were doing was really wrong.
During the course of my research, I explored published texts and compared their treatment of incestuous eroticism with my own. I found myself – perhaps naively – surprised by how many texts dealing with this theme. These included work by Angela Carter – ‘Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest’, ‘Peter and the Wolf’ – from Burning Your Boats (1996 collection); and her novel The Magic Toyshop (1982). Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden (1997), Anna Stothard’s Isabel and Rocco (2003), and Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter (1995) were also important sources. These writers show the incest within their texts as consensual, or at least, as apparently non-abusive. In most of these texts, however, the writers make it clear that they believe incest is wrong, adhere to the traditional ideas of taboo and secrecy, and punish, in various ways, those who break them. The exception to this is Angela Carter, whose portrayals of incest, especially those of the pubescent children in ‘Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest’, retain their innocence and seem to be free of ‘sin’.
Since Jez and Lex are essentially emotional vampires, I also found it impossible to resist looking at the idea of vampirism-as-incest (incest and vampirism commonly go together as literary themes) and found quite a few comparisons, most notably in the novels of Anne Rice, whose Vampire Chronicles series uses incestuous-type relationships as a focal point of her work, although Rice herself claims otherwise, just as she rejects the theme of homoeroticism in her novels, when in fact to many readers, including myself, the theme is so strong, it cannot be ignored or dismissed. In The Vampire Lestat, the second novel in the series, the act of incest is obviously alluded to when vampiric anti-hero Lestat de Lioncourt vampirises his dying mother in a highly erotically charged scene that could be seen as a metaphor for oral sex:
‘I lifted my right wrist to my mouth and slashed the vein and pushed it against her lips. She didn’t move as the blood spilled over her tongue. “Mother, drink,” I said frantically, and pushed it harder, but some change had already commenced. Her lips quivered, and her mouth locked to me and the pain whipped through me suddenly encircling my heart.’ 
Blood, I discovered, is used so much as a semen substitute in this kind of literature that it becomes almost clichéd.
Going back to the process of writing for Clutching Shadow: although I had intended to finish the novel before I attempted the thesis, I discovered that the research I was doing on the latter had an ongoing effect on the novel, and widened its scope thematically. In the end, I wrote the novel and the thesis concurrently – an organic process with each piece growing naturally from the other. The effect of research on the creative piece definitely didn’t happen on a conscious level, but the theories I read on child abuse, narcissism, and incest nonetheless filtered through to my writing. This worked less obviously the other way around, but that was probably to be expected, given that I already knew the themes I wanted to explore and did not deviate from them much. However, I believe that the research I was doing at the time of writing the novel benefited it, in that the work ‘felt’ more informed. On the other hand, those parts that I did write without being influenced by research were later vindicated by my research, especially Janet Liebman Jacobs’ Victimized Daughters, the main source used for researching child abuse on female children, along with Bataille’s Erotism for the taboo of incest, and Sam Vance’s website on narcissistic personality disorder. This evidence helped me to feel more secure about approaching the subject matter on a more instinctive level.
Did I successfully achieve my main aim – that of producing a creative piece that did not negatively judge the incestuous relationship between Lex and Jez? In some ways, yes, given that their relationship seems in many ways to be natural, something that was almost inevitable given their circumstances, and this was also borne out by my research. However, I am aware that their relationship as a whole is an unhealthy one, and that the characters of Lex and Jez are not necessarily sympathetic. In that, perhaps I have judged, but my opinion now is that complete non-judgment might be impossible on any writer’s part. Their unsympathetic portrayal seems to evolve more from their personality disorders, which have been shaped by their abusive past, than from their present relationship.
In general, I feel that as the novel went on, the theme of incest probably became less important and central than the themes of sexual obsession, domination and submission, and the cyclical nature of abuse. This was not a bad thing, since as the novel became more thematically diversified, the boundaries of what the novel is ‘about’ blurred. Rather than reading the text in a passive way, a reader would necessarily have to engage in it actively to be able fully to identify with these themes and the character interactions. In this way, it becomes a ‘writerly’ text, as described by Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text: ‘Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts… unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions…’ This I believe describes Clutching Shadow, in that the subject matter does disturb the reader’s ‘cultural (and) psychological assumptions’; it presents a set of circumstances that are by ‘normal’ moral standards unpalatable and disturbing to read. From a personal perspective, I feel that I was immensely challenged through the writing of this project, and this challenge has since proved beneficial for my writing as a whole.
In conclusion, working toward an Masters by Research allowed me the licence to explore these controversial subjects within the academic framework of the thesis. Rightly or wrongly, I felt it validated the creative project, and it also helped me to better understand the themes of my own writing. Working by research proved extremely satisfying to me, helping me to work more effectively and thoughtfully as an individual writer, teaching me how to source research more independently, and it helped me to develop my own critical thinking in more depth. These skills have carried themselves over to my present work, both fiction and, more recently, prose poetry. Although I had written several novels before undertaking the project, I was not as confident about methodology and how to apply research. Now, I find myself more systematic, more logical in my approach. Is this a good thing? Personally, I think it can be a double-edged sword, in that although logic and planning is almost always necessary in the creation of a longer work like a novel, too rigid a methodology can inhibit the spontaneity of the writing process. However, in the creation of prose poetry, which I create by using collage and cut-up techniques, spontaneity is often not an issue: thinking about methodology and fairly strict judgment here is essential for such a piece to work well, given the necessity for the creation of rhythm, imagery, and being able to judge the word placement necessary to make these elements work. Not only have the skills carried over into my own work, but into my teaching practice.
I began teaching Creative Writing at the University of Bedfordshire (then Luton) in September 2004 as a visiting lecturer. The skills I learned during my Masters degree were, I found then, essential, and continue to be. Being able to teach undergraduate students effective skills such as planning, research methods, and time management, all from own experiences, has been invaluable, and as my abilities as a lecturer and writer develop, I can share this expertise on a more confident level.
 From Green, Hammill, F; and Shaw, M’s ‘W(h)ither the MRes; in Quality Assurance in Education Vol 9, Number 4, pp178 – 183 (2001)  NAWE – creative writing research benchmarks p11. (2008)  NAWE – creative writing research benchmarks p11. (2008)  Georges Bataille, Eroticism, p170. London. Penguin Classics. 1962  Weeks, Jeffrey: Sexuality. Routledge. New York. Publication 2003. P107.  Anne Rice. The Vampire Lestat. Futura Books. London. 1985. P174.