As my colleague, Susanne, and I were designing a class on academic writing and discourse for graduate students at Antioch University McGregor, we had some great conversations about writing. I am new to this faculty job, and while I’ve been around academic writing as a writer and teacher in various contexts, I have a lot of anxiety and baggage about it. Talking with Susanne about where our perspectives (hers as a social scientist and mine as a creative writer) have common ground and where they diverge, I started to think about my anxiety in terms of Lynda Barry’s excellent book, One! Hundred! Demons! I began to refer to my baggage as demons. And since we’ve asked the students to share personal reflections throughout this course, I thought I’d share some of mine.
(This is a photo of Lynda Barry, working on a demon.)
(I know the word “demons” has heavy connotations, so I want to acknowledge that right away, and make clear that I’m taking the word not from a Judeo-Christian context, but from the rather jovial or at least somewhat irreverent context of Barry’s work, which she began after reading about a traditional Japanese painting exercise.)
Writing used to be fun!
When I was a child, my creativity flourished at school and at home. Dr. Seuss was a major inspiration in my work at school. We had little stapled story books that we made, with drawings of characters and sayings, or lines, many could have been Dr. Seuss castoffs, such as “the Fog sat on the Log and saw a Frog.” In this picture, there would be a fog sitting on a log, with a frog hopping by. Sometimes the fog would say “Hi frog” and the frog would say “Hi fog” and things like that. I was attending the Antioch School (an experimental elementary school that began as part of the education department at Antioch College). When I was there, it was called the Antioch Free School. I remember another assignment when I was a little older. We went outside with paper and pencils and we were told to imagine being at our own funerals, in the casket, observing who was there and what they were saying. (This was in the early 1970s.) I went to the Antioch Free School until I was nine years old. At home, my parents encouraged me to tell stories. I made up a story about a girl and her pet mouse, and my father mimeographed it and we sold copies at the local sidewalk sale. The book was called The Hole in the Shirt. So clearly, I was encouraged to do this writing stuff.
In middle school, my teacher, Ms. Mapes, played classical music on a tape recorder while we wrote stories. I wrote something inspired by the movie “Fantasia.” We had to keep a journal. The rules where that we could write whatever we wanted to, but we had to turn it in occasionally, and it would not be graded. In retrospect, I realize that she was trying to get us writing, and to make sure we actually did it. I enjoyed this a lot.
In high school, I took a writing class. The first part of the year was creative writing, and the second focused on “modern trends in literature.” We had to write PAPERS! This was not as fun as writing stories. The way we were taught to write papers was:
1. Decide on thesis.
2. Write an outline.
3. Write paragraphs following the order of the outline, to support the thesis, and so on.
Much later, I realized this was the wrong way to write anything. It was like making a cake from the icing inward.
Because I was “a good writer,” I survived writing papers in college, but I didn’t enjoy the backwards process that seemed to be the way people expected you to write papers. Then came the Malvolio paper.
I was a theatre major. During my last term at college, I was directing my senior project, a fully staged production of “Strange Snow” by Stephen Metcalf. I was also taking a very challenging seminar on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” for which I was writing a paper on Malvolio. To complicate things further, in the school’s production of Twelfth Night, my seminar instructor was playing the part of Malvolio.
So not only was I making the cake from the icing inward, I was baking it in the shape of the person who currently inhabited the cake.
I didn’t spend as much time as I should have on that paper. My focus was on the play I was directing, the culmination of my four years at college. Subsequently, I was awarded a C on my Malvolio paper, which was a pretty low grade for me.
Fast-forward now, twelve years into the future. I began graduate school in creative writing. I was not a literature major in college, so I hadn’t written as many ACADEMIC papers as others, plus I felt, compared to the literature majors, I wasn’t WELL READ enough. (This also added to my general intimidation in graduate school: others, especially the students who had majored in LITERATURE, seemed to know how to discuss books ACADEMICALLY much better than I did. I was just a lowly writer, after all, thinking about things like craft. I brought truckloads of baggage about this.)
As part of my MFA program, we had to write a thirty page critical paper about an aspect that was important to us as writers. We were free to chose our topics. Because I was writing a novel with a child protagonist, but intended for adult readers, I chose to write about Henry James’ novel, What Maisie Knew. It had been twelve years since the Malvolio paper. Approaching Maisie, I had certainly never been this invested in an academic paper before. I was finally feeling that I could write my creative work with more ease, though it has never been easy per se. But the idea of a critical paper (something that had to be “SCHOLARLY,” whatever that means) was supremely unnerving.
Research and reading was okay. I took plenty of notes, used index cards, notebooks, made sure to write my initials in the margin of my notes when I was recording one of my own thoughts or questions. I opened a word processing file and formatted my paper before beginning to write; I procrastinated productively. I finally had to brainwash myself and stop calling it a (capital “C” “P”) “Critical Paper.” I started calling it an “exercise.” This helped, sort of. I even wrote “work on exercise” in my datebook. I bought a set of Legos to play with as I worked on the paper. I rolled a big length of butcher paper on the table and, with colored markers, began mapping the connections, themes, and ideas that I wanted to thread together. I took over the kitchen table. I bought treats. Of particular help was a jar of Nutella. I did not keep the jar at the table, but in the cabinet. When I got up to stretch, which was frequently, I ate a spoonful of Nutella as a reward. The nutty chocolate goodness seemed to help. Candied ginger was a motivating treat, too.
Like many people, once I began the actual writing, it went pretty quickly. (And I didn’t have a deadline chasing me; it wasn’t an all-night writing session or anything.) I realized that, with academic writing, I need to ruminate awhile, and then I can write. The draft was okay. My mentor sent back loads of good suggestions and questions, which helped me to tighten, clarify, and say what I actually meant. I survived writing the Maisie paper, and the process, though at times painful, was very empowering.
Through all this, I learned and keep learning and thinking about a couple things:
o How to decrease the tendency of academic writing to kill the FUN in writing.
o The erroneous and IMMOBILIZING idea of having to know the answers BEFORE you start writing.
And I realized that it’s okay, even as a teacher, to admit that I still have a lot of anxiety approaching this kind of work.
I am still biased against dead, dry academic “scholarly” writing. As a writer and reader, I enjoy and value creative, freer writing much more than “academic” writing. But I have come to believe that writers don’t have to exile their creative and authentic selves from academic writing. In fact, it seems to me the most beautiful writing (in any genre or field) is lead by the human writing it, no matter the audience, subject, or genre.
I do tend to prefer “academic” writing, or any writing, when it is clear and un-jargoned. This does not mean it has to be overly simple. But I prefer writing that includes rather than excludes me, writing that doesn’t require me to know a secret set of words. Or if it does, writing that gives me enough context and friendly help to lead me inside the story of the prose.
All writing comes down to practice. Writers practice observing and thinking, practice translating thoughts and observations into words, practice editing, strengthen sentences and rebuild structures: no matter what you’re writing, these are some common elements. I want to believe that the creative practice can inform and sustain the practice of academic writing. If reading and writing is a car, yes, some parts of myself need to sit in the front and drive when I’m doing some types of reading and writing, but I want to bring the other parts of myself along for the ride.
I love sentences when they are “good.” To me, a “good” sentence usually has something to do with ECONOMY and GRACE. I love it when I begin reading something and realize that I’m in the hands of a good storyteller. When that happens, something inside my soul exhales and I relax and ease into the story, no matter what story it is…
It seems to me that, particularly with graduate level work, we should write on things about which we are passionate. Things that interest us in a deep way, keep us awake at night. Something we need to know more about. Otherwise, why bother? Academic writing might not be comfortable, but it might as well be enjoyable, ideally for the reader as well as the writer.