Saturday, 14 June 2014

Academic Writing

 (19/06/2012, 12:04 pm, B[ritish] L[ibrary])

‘Write for twenty minutes every day’

Found inside an old notebook, on an old piece of paper: my impressions after doing a ‘Creative Writing’ course, with a Guru from my old Graduate School, when the PhD was in full swing. I transcribe the wisdom, unedited (well, not much), for you below.

I love writing. Did I mention that? I really do love writing. I love pretty writing. I love a well-written email. I love a few well-placed, hilarious words. I love a bit of creative writing, like when a tutor on a creative writing course sets you the beginning and end of a short story, and you get to dream up the bit that goes in between.

Popping into my head right now is an odd memory: I see myself wandering in the woods, near where I grew up, one summer. [so one minute I’m writing about writing, the next I dream up this image of what it felt like to be walking through those woods as a teenager. Why?...] In the memory, I must be aged about sixteen, seventeen. I’m probably wearing a denim shirt (or am I?), and I’m probably with three of my friends, picking a chestnut here and there, and chatting.

It’s one of those times you remember wistfully, because that was one of those interludes where you didn’t have to do anything, be anywhere in particular, think about anything; you were just enjoying being there. Outside of that moment, other stuff did exist: family hassles, A levels, choosing futures, worrying about boys. But in my mind now, that moment is isolated in time and space, with nothing before it and nothing after, apart from the vaguest memories; beforehand, we probably met up at a friend’s house; afterwards, I probably made my way home via the town, on a warm summer’s evening, back to a warm house and to my nice family.

There’s something cool about writing, in that it suspends time, and preserves a particular moment. And maybe that’s why I find academic writing scary. It freezes your inadequate little ideas on the page. It fixes them. You have to commit. Is that what you mean? Tick yes or no. Is that the word you are going to use? Is this your final answer? And then the unpicking begins.

Free writing, and creative writing, is exciting because you watch your writing get better and better, if you do it a lot. You reread what you’ve written with pleasure. I think, if that’s what you’re used to, then academic writing is hard, because all of a sudden you’re not ‘free’ anymore; everything you want to write you have to back up with some sort of evidence. Everything you’d like to say has to be considered and logical. Every word has to be used carefully, and not just plonked in there because it sounds pretty, or because you want the sentence to have a nice iambic rhythmey bit on the end. Everything you write is going to have to stand up to scrutiny, and will have to be able to defend itself before a serious examination. This, if you’re a fledgling ‘artist’, one who likes creative writing and who likes putting words together for the sake of stories, or just for the words themselves, then this can feel incredibly daunting, so much so that one day you don’t want to write anything else, at all.

The trick, I am told, is to ‘make it up’, but whilst pretending to be playing by the rules. Learn the rules of academic writing, learn how to play by them. (Provide the evidence they want; learn to phrase your sentences so that you sound like they want you to sound. And then, with the rules at the back of your mind, write how you want to.) I’m not sure if I’ve got the hang of this yet; but it’s getting there…

The other thing is that writing is not a choice when you’re an academic. The whole point of research is sharing research; if you are not communicating what you’ve found, then you’ve failed in your ‘duty’ to the world. Maybe I should think of writing as teaching?... I love teaching, and I love telling my students how excited I am about sharing some little wisp of knowledge with them. Maybe writing a PhD is the same: just sharing knowledge with people, and inviting them to respond.

Once you’ve written your thesis, something happens. The landscape of knowledge out there has been modified. There is now something new out there for people to read and to know. That, in itself, is a pretty cool thought. Your thesis is an invitation to create, to contribute, to join in the discussion. (I don’t really know what I’m driving at here. I’m just repeating the useful and encouraging things that have been said to me by clever people who have tried to help.)

Anyway. ‘If you hate the writing, maybe you’re in the wrong job’, said the Guru (Creative Writing course ‘Guru’) when I told him carelessly that I ‘hate writing’. I don’t hate writing. I do, however, hate the sense of my own vulnerability and ignorance when faced with the need to use my nice writing to contribute to an already well-established academic debate. I guess that’s something that maybe gets better the longer you do this job, and the more you write.

Another thought: the Guru had us writing about our PhD projects for 5 minutes. He then made us count up the words. On average, we had written 130 words each (mine was more). He did the maths for us. Five minutes, 130 words. ‘In 40 hours, you could write a PhD’, he said. I liked this; although I know very well that it doesn’t work quite like that, all of a sudden the PhD didn’t sound quite so unmanageable.

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